Do you ever go for a nice morning run to clear your mind, enjoy a cold swim, or voluntarily sweat bullets on a long bike ride in the heat of the summer? If your yoga teacher knew, she’d probably tell you that these kinds of sports won’t help your asana practice.
I beg to differ. Take Ultimate Frisbee, for example. Anyone who plays it knows that it promotes ekagraha (one-pointedness) right? So how exactly do you reconcile your two passions—sports and asana practice?
For starters, read Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche’s Running with the Mind of Meditation. The Sakyong, the lineage holder of Shambhala Buddhism, doesn’t claim that you can or should meditate while running. And he doesn’t even offer you a step-by-step guide to making it to race day.
But what he does do, to the delight of Buddhist meditators and yoga teachers everywhere, is help you recognize how close your goals as a runner are to your intentions as a meditator or spiritual seeker. One big similarity? The attitude (and respect) you bring to both.
Another observation will be awfully familiar to anyone who’s studied bhakti yoga:
“Running is not simply slogging through the miles, trying to sweat out last night’s good times, or burning off excess weight,” he says. It can also be, like any activity practiced with one-pointed focus and an open heart, “a way to celebrate life.”
So how do you manage to keep running and have an established asana practice?
Consider shifting your priorities for asana, says Portland-based yoga teacher Tiffany Cruikshank. She sees it in the personal practice of many seasoned yoga practitioners who are now runners: “their goal isn’t really to be Gumby anymore,” she says, with a laugh.
What does that mean, exactly? “Sometimes it means if my legs are burning I’ll fall out of a posture early,” says marathon runner and yoga teacher Marni Renison. “And that’s a big thing—can you hold this posture? Can you hold this inversion?”
But intensity is no longer why she practices asana. “It’s not my space of competition,” she says, “It’s my space of recovery.”
Bringing Yoga to your Running
Yoga practitioners have a leg up, so to speak, on other runners because they’ve learned to pay deep attention to their bodies. To get the most out of running, take these tips from yoga teacher and ultra marathon runner Josh Schrei.
Try to stay keenly aware of your physical alignment. “You can have really good posture in your yoga practice” he says, “then start running, and it’s a whole new thing—those good habits we have go out the window.”
Instead of leaning forward as you run, he notes, keep the spine long, the navel slightly drawn in, and the heart lifted—just like you would in Tadasana (mountain pose). The benefit? As in yoga, this can prevent injury, and also make every run become “tremendous core exercise.”
Focus on your breath and pay attention to physical cues so that when your body tells you to slow down or take a break you can hear that.
You can also use running as a way to practice the yogic concept of self-surrender, says Schrei. Start by letting go of expectations about how fast or how far you should run. Over time, that open and trusting attitude can actually open the doors to longer and more intense runs than you ever previously imagined.
Bonus: Consider incorporating the bandhas. “You can work with uddiyana bandha directly while running” Schrei says. In addition to its energetic effect on the vayus, practicing uddiyana bandha will benefit your run by stabilizing the neutral alignment of the lumbar spine—preventing it from overarching or collapsing.