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Yoga And Running: Tips To Make You A More Joyful Runner, From My Weekend At Kripalu

After our 4-minute meditation, Sarajean led us on 6 point-to-point runs, adding tools to our toolbox to keep us present and aware. In total we covered about 2.5 miles.
07/20/2016 01:09pm ET | Updated December 6, 2017
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You know how great you feel at the end of your run, especially if you've crossed a finish line.

But what about at the start? Or in the middle?

When we were kids we ran everywhere. Please can we get back to running for fun?

"You want to start your run with a flow," yogi and fitness specialist Sarajean Rudman said after leading us through a 4-minute meditation.

"Not a story."

We were a group of 10 men and women at Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, a nonprofit educational organization near the grounds of Tanglewood in Stockbridge, Mass.

On an inhale, Sarajean, a certified Ayurveda health counselor, prompted us to ask ourselves, "How do I feel?" And on the exhale, "What do I need in the physical body?"

We closed our eyes.

Let the answers come slowly, she said. Embrace whatever comes to mind.

I had just finished lunch and my stomach was fuller than was probably a good idea. I would need to go slowly.

We repeated the exercise asking ourselves on the inhale, "How do I feel?" and on the exhale, "What do I need in the psychological body?" and then "How do I feel?" on the inhale and "What do I need in the emotional body," noticing the landscape of emotions and feelings, on the exhale.

I was registered for stand up paddle boarding on Lake Mahkeenac immediately following our run. This would be my first time.

Inhale. I'm nervous, unprepared.

Exhale. I need to YouTube stand up paddle boarding in my room after my run.

Sarajean prompted us to determine what we would need to fully support ourselves in our run.

After scanning my physical body, my psychological body, my emotional body, I opened my eyes and looked around as we stood among 300 acres of gardens, woodlands, and paved trails.

Ok, yeah, I'm good. I can run.

"Four minutes," Sarajean said. "If you add this - what I call harvesting awareness - to every work out, you're adding 4 minutes."

That weekend Kripalu had up to 650 guests participating in at least eight workshops ranging from "Summer Deep Clean" to "Overcoming Your Patterns of Self-Sabotage" to "Bringing the Path of Mindfulness to Your Real-World Relationships" to "I Love Myself When I Am Laughing: A Yoga Retreat for Women of Color."

Kripalu had invited me to participate in its general R&R weekend program that included a yoga for runners session. Sprinkled throughout the richly packed schedule from early Friday to late Sunday were yoga classes and other workshops open to all guests.

At check in, we received name tags with an "In loving silence" option so other guests could respect our desire, if we had one, to be quiet. In the dining room, breakfast is a designated silent meal, but since you're free to take your tray and eat anywhere on the grounds, how much talking and listening you do is up to you.

"I want to be a better runner," one woman said as we introduced ourselves at the beginning of Sarajean's "Running Meditation."

"But no matter what I do, it always seems impossible."

Her boyfriend nodded.

Sitting next to them was a ripped Pilates trainer. She said she'd been pushing herself to run because she wanted to focus on cardiovascular exercise for her overall health.

"But I have the hardest time running," she said.

Earlier in the morning, during my conversation with Sarajean about the connection between yoga and running and other forms of exercise, she told me she pictures herself as a 360-degree kind of orb.

"I start at my toes and go to the top of my head and think, does everything feel like it's flowing?"

She was talking about the idea of prana, or energy, moving through the body.

"When my foot hits the ground, am I focusing just on my foot? No."

One little movement affects everything else in the body, she said.

Roger that as I know firsthand how my left knee feels when my upper body begins to slump around the 6-mile mark.

It takes practice gaining focused awareness around the self, Sarajean said.

That evening, I attended a lecture by best-selling author and meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, who's often credited with bringing meditation from India to the United States in the 1970s. Sharon's comments did not touch on exercise but she reinforced how Sarajean connected mindfulness to running.

"It's not about what's happening," Sharon said. "It's about how we are with what's happening." Then Sharon mentioned a study that I looked up later that compared how meditators versus non-meditators responded when researchers stopped inflicting them with pain.

When the scientists removed the pain source, the non-meditators experienced increased stress and anxiety as they continued to anticipate more pain to come. The meditators? They were at peace once the pain stopped.

The idea is that how it is and how you are with how it is can change. Being in the moment also means you begin to notice that change.

So, yes, running is hard, but it may not be hard every moment.

"People gravitate toward a type of exercise because it's enjoyable," commented physical therapist Kevin McGuinness. "And it's their enjoyment of that modality that drives them to improve it."

I was talking with Kevin, a Sports Certified Specialist and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist at Washington Orthopedics and Sports Medicine, about Kripalu's mindfulness program for runners when I returned to Washington. He's a member of an Olympic weightlifting team that incorporates a yoga practice into its workouts.

"Running is the opposite in that it can be hard and unpleasant until you are good at it."

The goal, then, is to find a way to enjoy running as you improve and not just after you've crossed a finish line.

The benefits of yoga for athletes are widely known, particularly in terms of increasing flexibility, strength, and balance. But you can also use yoga as a tactic to help you find the joy in running.

In vinyasa or power yoga you're moving the body through the full range of motion, using your own body weight to provide the resistance, Sarajean said, and that can be work. In a restorative or yin practice you're either doing a stretch where the body is propped and supported or you're doing a longer hold.

Even more important than the physical side of restorative yoga is the psychological and emotional side that offers you permission to relax, which is a form of non-doing or non-work that some high-performance individuals might equate with being unproductive, said Sarajean, who came to Kripalu in 2009 with a background in power yoga and fitness. She was drawn to Kripalu because of its focus on incorporating many types of yoga into a person's practice and exercise regimen.

This I where the retreat setting comes in, according to Sarajean, for both yogis and runners. Even if you find a restorative yoga practice in your city that you attend maybe once a week, after 60 or 90 minutes you're blown back out into the real world. But if you can experience a retreat setting, Sarajean said, you are sending that message of permission to the brain over and over again until you've put a kink in the reactivity chain. Recovery, or deloading, is a critical component of any exercise regimen or yoga practice, Sarajean said.

If attending a retreat such as Kripalu, which is the largest yoga retreat center in North America hosting more than 50,000 visitors every year, is not an option for you, you can consider incorporating a restorative practice into your regimen on a regular basis. Two women I connected with at Kripalu initially met at Wanderlust, which hosts weekend yoga festivals and events around the country.

Sarajean's days are full. She's got her yoga practice and teaching at Kripalu and private personal training and Ayurveda clients and motivational speaking engagements.

Yet in the mornings she's out on the trail or on the streets of Lenox, Mass., with her dogs for the pure joy of running, even when she's training for a race. In addition to the R&R weekends that often feature running meditation workshops, she's designed Kripalu's weeklong programs for runners.

After our 4-minute meditation, Sarajean led us on 6 point-to-point runs, adding tools to our toolbox to keep us present and aware. In total we covered about 2.5 miles.

Sarajean Rudman's 6 tips to becoming a more joyful, and better, runner

1. Notice the mind

Concentrate on noticing your thoughts and consciously remove yourself from them. For example:

  • How long will I have to run?
  • What should I eat when I'm done?
  • I can't believe he/she/they said that at work yesterday...

Notice the thoughts, honor their existence, and just as quickly let them drop away. If they return, repeat: notice, honor, and then leave the thoughts behind. This practice helps us remember that we are not our thoughts, that our thoughts are not real, because the only reality is "this moment," happening now.

After this exercise, everyone agreed it was a great way to start any run. We hardly noticed how much distance we covered or how much time passed.

2. What's your mantra?

For this point-to-point, which was straight up a steep hill, Sarajean asked us to offer ourselves words of encouragement. Something you would tell a person you care about who's about to run up a hill, literally or figuratively, or any words that are easy to repeat that motivate and resonate with you. As you run up the hill, she said, repeat the words over and over. They could be something like: "yes I can," or "I am strong," or "be here right now, do this right now." As other thoughts and language that do not support your mission try to sneak in, come back to your mantra.

My favorite mantra is from a spectator's sign at the D.C. Rock n Roll Half Marathon this spring: "It's a hill, get over it!"

As many of us already had our own mantras, it was fun to hear everyone else's preferred self-talk. "I am strong" was the most popular.

3. Nostril breathing

Breathing through the nostrils, or ujjayi breath or ocean breathing, encourages us to take in more complete and full breaths, filling our lungs to their capacity, Sarajean said. A deeper breath encourages a relaxation response in the body.

"When we can create a relaxation response in the body during a run that is challenging for us, we are sending the mind a message that there is peace within the chaos, and that we can be graceful, dancing in the eye of the storm."

Sarajean advised that when you first begin to breathe through the nose, you may have to slow down your normal pace, or avoid hills and challenging courses. She suggested starting with half a mile. Another way to begin to incorporate ujjayi breathing into your running is to challenge yourself with a regular vinyasa practice.

She pointed out that nasal breathing may keep you from hyperventilating and over-breathing during running, increasing the efficiency of your respiratory system, and improving your run over time.

4. Counting

Choose any number: 4, 8, 12, 20... whatever feels right. As you run, consistently count up to that number and when you reach it, start over.

Counting gives the mind something to focus on that is not distracting, such as worrying about the past or the future and draws us into a rhythmic state of mind, she said.

"In yogic philosophy there are three rhythms in the body: the breath, the heart, and the mind. When one speeds up the others do as well. Counting is naturally relaxing, and the rhythmic movement along with the rhythmic counting pacifies a busy mind and brings you into the present moment. This is a great replacement for headphones, which can tempt the mind with many distractions while we are on the trails."

I set my intention after the workshop: "I will run unplugged at least once and use counting to keep me present." I did, and it was A-OK.

5. I am aware

Start a sentence with "I notice" or "I am aware of" and choose a sense to focus on. As you run, complete the same sentence over and over. For sight: "I am aware of the green leaves." For sound: "I am aware of the birdsong." Or for touch, "I am aware of the breeze on my skin."

You could also use the "I notice/I am aware of" meditation without the anchor of the senses and just let whatever you notice complete the sentence. For example, "I notice my footfalls on the ground," "I notice the sweat on my brow," "I notice the taste in my mouth," "I notice my thoughts about dinner," "I notice that other person over there."

We loved this one, which we did on a real trail with lots of stones and roots, so many of us were focused on: "I am aware of big, fat, roots." I ran in front of the Pilates trainer and when we caught up with each other, we enjoyed a few minutes of conversation, which is also ok.

6. Choreographing the breath: 1,2,3,4 inhale... 1,2,3,4 exhale

This was my favorite, and I've tried to incorporate it into at least a portion of every run.

The idea is to choreograph your footfalls, counting, and breaths. For example, inhale for 4 steps and exhale for 4 steps, concentrating on that the whole time.

Then add in counting.

At the start of a run you may be inhaling for a count of 4, but as you exert effort the count may switch to 3, or as you run downhill and relax a bit the count may change to 6. Using the breath, the footfalls, and the counting all together creates an anchor for the mind to free itself of the shifting around it will normally do while we run. This is another way to use the breath as a bridge between the mind and the body and the focus as a bridge between the body and the present moment.

Watch Sarajean's TEDx Talk.

You can also watch Sarajean Rudman's conversation with Carolee Belkin Walker on YouTube.

Read Sharon Salzberg's column on Huffington Post.