Running Yoga
Ryan DeMatteo, Yoga Instructor

I would not call myself a runner, though like many I have participated in the act before.  Running is of a universal language for many species living on our planet.  The banana slug may not speak it, but it may be that running (like everything) is relative.  Maybe that slug is running? Maybe not.  From my observations any individual that runs needs feet, legs, hips, heads and most importantly a reason.  Be it the child for play, me for the phone, the morning for exercise or the training for marathon; there is motivation behind those body parts. There is motivation behind all movement, for every living thing.

Yoga is a household word that has also come to represent many things.  It is widely defined as stretching, contortion, gymnastics, physical therapeutics and meditation.  To some these definitions are true, though yoga is as relative to the individual as running.  The word yoga is a Sanskrit term that goes back five thousand years in ancient India.  The root of the word is ‘yuj’ meaning to ‘bind’, ‘join’, ‘yoke’ or simply ‘union’.  Yoga was originally (and in some cases still is) an investigation of the mind and spirit.  It’s practices can include but are not limited to the chanting of ancient verses, bodily austerities, intricate breath control, and investigation of the subtlest parts of the mind.  These techniques have been designed and refined to reveal the the highest states of existence. And to seek the motivation behind it.

Now we may ask, how did such an esoteric word become a household term? Because Yoga can be applied to and seen in anything.  The entire universe can be split into subjects and objects, qualities and quantities, runners and ran.  And when we begin the practice of yoga, it first asks us to define these distinctions in our own lives.  What am I doing and why? Yoga then aims to actually do Yoga by showing us the meeting place of these two forces.  So the next question behind our drive for knowledge is… HOW?

You can say, I run for exercise or I run just for the love of it..but these are only statements of opinion, even if they are true. When you are running, actually in run, then you have the opportunity to experience why you are running. The whole body is being joined in run and there is nothing else… Well yes traffic, dogs, wet grass, and the rest of it.  But at some point the mind goes completely quiet… and there is only running.  This is the practice of Yoga.  I’m sure all of you have felt it at some point in time even if it was for half a city block. And in those moments (or shall I say between moments) there was no runner and no body being ran, there was only (if I may put it this way) ‘runningness’.  The forces had joined so the mind didn’t need to speak at all, for once it had nothing to do!

Often when the experience of the mindless state is realized, we want more of it.  So a striving for a more yogic life or more ‘runningness’- becomes extremely important and difficult to recreate.  And here arises the question of WHAT is the best way to do this?

We can push ourselves to the physical limits of possibility, but it is hard to sustain that drive. It is rare to experience that “mindless” state of yoga if the mind is constantly yelling at the body- faster, harder, higher!!  The body will tire and then retire.  The mind will get upset or angry.  This is not a productive way of working.  And as you marathoners know it is true balance (yoga) that defines the line of endurance.  As nature reveals- working in balance is the only sustainable way.

Now okay, by now you may be saying ‘I just thought yoga could get my steel cable hamstrings a little looser..?’  It can, but not just by using another steel cable to wrench the first one open.  So, lets now look at the physical side of yoga practice for another example and maybe it’ll also help those hammy’s.  Lets take forward bends.  I often see runners in the park or waiting for the light, bending forward to touch their toes.  Now bending forward to just stretch the backside of the legs and torso is not a balanced stretch.  Part of the body is being stretched, part of it is over working to hold the stretch and other parts we don’t even know exist.  To over simplify, in a forward bend, the front of the torso and legs also need to be engaged.

Try this (on an empty stomach please):  stand up, forget about what you just read, and simply bend forward to touch your toes.  Observe the length of the front torso.  The stomach is short and the chest is most likely caved in towards the diaphragm.  Now try it again like this: while standing, lift the top of the chest towards the sky- lengthening from the abdomen all the way up.  This is a backwards bending action of the torso.  Now keeping that length to the front body slowly bend forward at the hips (on an exhalation).  If it helps- bring the hands to a wall or chair and push down for leverage to keep the front body long.

You may have noticed a vast difference in your poseor it may only seem slight.   But the point is that the second set of directions is helping to bring more balance in the body during your forward bend (which are actually called forward extensions in yoga).  This allows the breath to better fill the lungs as they become more open. It allows the organs more room to continue working and allows the energy in the body to more readily move.  If the body were a machine (thankfully it is not) the more well oiled the parts- the more productive the machine.  The better we know all the parts of the machine- the more easily we can keep them oiled!  So in Yoga practice we do postures (called asana’s in Sanskrit) to seek the body’s most organic alignment and reveal it’s restrictions.  If we reveal our restrictions, we can then finely tune our motivation to address our weak areas.

To sum it up, there is motivation behind all actions of the body be they aggressive, lazy, natural, or unknown.  The more we become aware of these actions, the more we become aware of the motivation. And the more we become aware, period.   And when there is yoga, the whole organism is in it’s peak performance, it’s own organic purpose.  And if that state wouldn’t improve your marathon this year, then we better go ask a banana slug for some help.

Run well.

For a more in depth look at the details of yoga practice for runner’s, see Jean Couch’s “The Runner’s Yoga Book”.
My blessings to Francis  for the opportunity to write and teach.