I had already logged nearly a lifetime of running fairly long distances and more than two decades of yoga practice when I ran my first marathon at the age of 42. Running was a coping skill I adopted as a young girl to quiet my mind. When I entered young adulthood, I discovered the same benefits of mind-quieting through yoga asana and meditation. As my children were born, I quickly learned that the time I spent on my yoga mat and the time I spent running were the only times I had alone. Thus, my runs extended from five miles to eight then 10, and then, why not keep going?
Over the years, I have come to realize that while running and yoga are demanding physical practices, both are also deeply spiritual, requiring steadiness, mindfulness, and an integrity with how I place my body in space. Today, I cannot imagine one without the other.
When it comes to running, yoga, or both—whether you are a weekend warrior, a consistent practitioner, or if you considering delving more deeply into the practices–try out some of the following ideas to see if they speed up your footwork or slow down your mind.
See Tadasana Run
The principles of tadasana (mountain pose) are as applicable to running as they are on the yoga mat. After all, yoga teaches us how to stand and move in the world—not just on the confines of a rectangular mat.
As an almost daily runner down the beach paths of Santa Monica and Venice, I often see runners with their shoulders hunched, brows furrowed, and gaze down. This stance is far from tadasana. The yoga teacher in me wants to adjust their shoulders, encourage a lifted drishti (focused gaze). I fantasize yelling instructions to them across the bike path, “Broaden across your collarbones! Lift your sternum! Soften your trapezius away from your neck!”
The reality is that the posture of tadasana aligns our bones and muscles to create length in our spine and comfort in our bodies. While tadasana is indeed the blueprint for all of the other standing poses of yoga, it is also a blueprint for how we stand in the world.
In that first marathon I ran, I innately found tadasana. The principles of working the pose from the ground up, while I was running, gave me so much space and ease in my body, not to mention a greater pathway for the breath to flow. It is essential to place the feet mindfully as we run: neither landing too heavily in the heels nor favoring leaning too far forward on the toes is sustainable in the long term.
While every body is structurally different (especially in the feet!), it is essential to notice what is structural (flat feet, high arches, or pronation) and what is functional (heavy in the heels or toes and/or collapsing in the ankles). We can bring intention to and make changes to functional differences, while some structural ones can be addressed through sole support or different shoes. For example, the topic of running shoes versus barefoot running versus a lighter shoe and so on has been a debate in the running world for years. It is up to each of us to make a choice as to what feels and works best. If this is a topic that interests you, I strongly encourage you to read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run, for not only this subject but for so many other reasons.
Once you make a strong connection with your feet, you want to feel the energy lift up through your legs, as compared to feeling the energy move down, which can encourage lethargy or heaviness. Some of this awareness is subtle and energetic, but this is the essence of tadasana.
Stand in tadasana, rooting into your feet with the energetic feel of being heavily weighted down. Then truly work your tadasana. Root down into your feet, and from that strong root, rebound energetically all the way up the legs, up the torso, ascending through the crown of the head. Totally different, right? Aligned. Regal. Light.
Taking this energetic dynamic into running, whether it is a slow jog or whether you are out for speed, find the alignment of tadasana in the legs, even when they are moving. The inner thighs softly spin back to encourage length in the low back, and never running with either a tucked or arched low back, which could, over time, create injury or compression in the SI joint.
Have you ever watched the leaders of the pack of a marathon? You can see the beauty and essence of tadasana in their upper body. Shoulders back. A lift of the sternum. Broad across the collarbones. A subtle softening of the front ribs down, so as not to puff the chest. Not hunched. Not rounded. But open. And you can feel the difference. Without debate, one stance is better than the other. There is something so beautiful about seeing someone stand in tadasana; even more beautiful is when she or he takes it off the mat and into the other areas of life.
Last but not least, the gaze is lifted, the face soft, purposeful and focused, but at peace.
A Mindful Moving Meditation
Whether you want to work up to a two-mile run or are already an ultra marathoner, the running experience takes on a meditative quality. It becomes transformative. Just as we methodically and mindfully step our foot forward and align it for a standing pose like warrior 1, the same theory applies for how, step-by-step, we place our feet while running. One leg lifts, the foot steps forward, the other leg lifts, the other foot steps forward, and so on. The breath and the mindful placing of the body in space become a moving meditation. And, just as we focus in a seated meditation, we can use our senses and the input we receive when running to reinforce staying in the moment. The feel of our feet as they hit the ground, the feel of the wind on our skin or through our hair, the warmth of the sun or the rain drops on our skin as we glide through space, the sounds around us. All of this can be used to land us right here, right now.
Ideally, we could all sit down in meditation with comfort and ease; but our daily lives are not necessarily set up to go straight into meditation. Just as yoga asana can be beneficial to quiet the mind, the same holds true for running. The second of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is Yogas citta vrtti nirodhah. One translation of this is: Yoga is the calming of the fluctuations of the mind. In our culture of overstimulation, more than ever our minds require stilling. Even if some people who practice yoga may be unaware that asana only reflects one of eight limbs of yoga, they no doubt are reaping the intended benefit of the calming and stilling of the mind-stuff that prepares us for meditation. A mindful running practice can have the same benefits of calming and stilling the mind.
One step, one breath, one bead of sweat at a time, the mind can quiet and clear. Many of us need meditation that only comes through the heat of movement, or what is called tapas, to burn through the habitual whirling thoughts. We need to be able to stretch our muscles and align our bones because we are too often slouched in front of computers, bent over the phone, hunched over the steering wheel of a car. Once we have quieted the mind and allowed the physical body to sit comfortably, we can develop the ease required for a meditation practice.
“I’m too tight to do yoga.” You are exactly who needs yoga!
4 Essential Yoga Poses for Runners
One of the realities of running is that it tightens muscles. One of the realities of yoga asana is that it encourages flexibility in tighter-bodied people. Here are a few of my very favorite poses, essential to cross-training those tight and tired running legs.
1. Low runner’s lunge, with the back knee down. This is a tried-and-true favorite as it serves to stretch the psoas muscle (which is one of the hip flexors) of the back leg. It is imperative that runners and yogis keep their knees stabilized and aligned when running or in any pose. So never, ever, take your knee beyond your ankle in your low lunge or crescent pose. Always align the knee directly above the ankle and track it in the direction of your second of third toe to prevent buckling. This pose can be done with arms overhead, resting on your bent leg, or interlaced behind the back to encourage open shoulders. If your body allows over time, you can eventually reach back for the top of the foot of the back leg to pull it in for a deeper stretch.
2. Ardha Hanumanasana. Half split. This is perfect for runners to stretch the back of the legs that become so tight from running and the ideal compliment to the above hip flexor stretch. Depending on your mobility, place two blocks under your hands on either side of the front leg. Hold for eight breaths or more to allow the release of the muscle.
3. Janu Sirsasana. This pose has it all! Hips, hamstrings, and well as the introspective benefits of a forward fold. Carefully place the bent leg’s foot to the inner thigh of the opposing leg, allowing the hip to externally rotate, while maintaining an engaged dandasana or staff pose stance (which means that you lengthen the spine and activate the muscles on the extended leg).
4. Prasarita Padottanasana C. This is a standing wide-legged forward fold, with arms interlaced behind the back. While straddling your legs, maintain the engagement found in tadasana (standing mountain pose): inner and outer thighs wrapping back while the quadriceps remain strongly engaged. Maintain the tadasana placement of the feet, with the weight evenly dispersed through all four corners of the foot to prevent getting overly heavy in the heels (which can compromise the back of the knees). Interlaced hands behind the back will encourage rotation in the shoulders and counteract the habitual hunching of the chest that can happen while running.
The Ahhhhhh Factor
At some point during a yoga practice or a run, there is often the ahhhhhhhh moment. This is the moment many of us strive for and what we crave between sessions. This is an intangible feeling of connectedness, wholeness, or oneness. The feeling can be found in the beautiful, simple repetition of sun salutations, during a powerful hold of a favorite pose, or on mile three of a five-mile run. This is the feeling beyond that proverbial wall. If you are lucky enough to be able to run outside in nature, the feeling of connectedness is often palpable, your heart beating in time with your stride as your gaze is set on the Pacific, the woods, or a bird circling above. Nature is so good at reminding us that we are part of something so much bigger. Some would purport that God or the universe resides in those moments.
As I reminisce on that first marathon, I remember feeling fatigue in my knees around mile 18. I watched my thoughts began to whirl into all the ways this run could go wrong, all the ways I may be able to talk myself out of it. I remember feeling that same sensation, that same sense of internal bargaining that can ensue during a powerful, long hold in a challenging yoga posture. “Maybe I’ll back off.” Or, ”Maybe I’ll just walk.” And then I remembered the tools of my practice. I watched the thoughts and let them go. Step by step. Vinyasa. Linking breath and movement. On the mat. On the running path. In life.
I remembered why I run, why I do yoga—to feel connected—to the community in the yoga room, to the other runners in the race of all shapes and colors and ages, to the landscape around me, and ultimately to everything. Yoga gives me the flexibility of mind and body to guide me through my long runs. Running reminds me of the endurance and strength I need to sit in meditation or move through a series of postures. To me, they are one in the same. Mindful movement on the breath. I crossed the finish line at 26.2 miles with a sense of serenity and the utter joy akin to a post-savasana release.