Meditation in Action
Recently I went running with another person which is unusual for me, as I don't run well with others. How did this happen, I asked myself the day before the morning of this run? Playing back the event on my inner screen, my mind, I was at a dinner, a foursome made up of my partner, a close work colleague and his wife and me and after a few glasses of champagne my partner suggested we, the wives, run together. Two things I have realised after a few drinks, firstly we are more prone to make unwelcome plans and secondly no-one ever says no there and then. So now here I was working myself up to a frenzy full of self-doubt, even though we were running from my apartment around the river Alster in Hamburg and back, a distance of 11 km that I have completed many times before. The distance itself was not a worry as most runners know that even when you have not been running consistently, you can still pull out your 'everyday' distance from the bag when needed most, especially since muscles have memory. Helga, (names have been changed to protect the identity of those involved), my tall, skinny, blonde german nemesis had already mentioned she usually runs with two girlfriends at a conversational speed, covering 8 km, three times a week plus she is around my age, so again nothing to worry about on paper and yet I must have asked my partner, Steve (his real name) a million times 'do you think I can do it' as I searched for external validation. Strange question in one way as he has never been running with me but not so strange when you factor in that for most of us, our default setting is to seek for external validation when the answer is usually right there inside us. Even stranger still since I have sometimes fantasized about running with friends when I have enviously glanced at groups of girlfriends, including new mums with babies and strollers in tow, running around the Alster, talking, laughing and making it look very easy.
So what was I so worried about?
Well deep down and vainly, I didn't want to embarrass myself or rather my ego didn't want to be embarrassed. After all, I didn't know if I could run and talk.
But there was another reason, one I didn't realise until I saw Helga, well the back of Helga and as she elegantly turned around with the sun in her long blonde hair, it hit me like a bag of enlightenment thrown in my face. She was one of these women who looked great, even when exercising. Tall long legs, skinny, great hair, great complexion and the latest outfit, all colour co-ordinated and there I was, half her size, feeling short in my old tired running kit complete with holes which was, truth be told, a little tight. I was left wishing I had gone out and brought a whole new running outfit. Well at least I had the foresight to wear my contact lenses plus a touch of light make up, not quite Katherine Jenkins' level at last year's marathon (2013) but I suddenly had a kinship with her!
Anyway to the run itself, the moment of truth, we ran and chatted for 11 km. The pace itself was slower than my usual pace. When we were not talking, I was thinking about either what to say or hoping I could keep this up for 11 km. I discovered in one of our chats that Helga, in her fifteen years of running, mind-blowingly, does not warm up or stretch down, she luckily does not experience any pain due to running although very recently she has started to experience lower back pain and hip pain. We stopped twice at the water fountains as Helga needed water. The first time we stopped I unexpectedly got cramp in my legs so we had to walk a bit and even before we stopped the second time I was praying I didn't get cramp again but to no avail. So again we walked and talked, all whilst I was secretively annoyed at myself as I felt my body had let me down, especially since it's very rare I suffer from cramp in my legs when I run.
In short that was the run, all over and done with.
However, for days after this run, I suffered intense pain in my calf muscles. In this period I did not have any motivation to practice any yoga or go for a run, I just felt miserable as I realised I had sacrificed years of developed running technique just so I could 'run and talk' and simultaneously keep my ego well nourished.
As I waited for the screaming in my calf muscles to die down, I decided to analyse my running technique and the first thing to say is, it is a technique that I have mastered over a period that has covered more than twenty years, it is still a learning curve as I collate continual feedback from each run and as my body changes over time and therefore, it is a technique that is organic, just like my yoga practice and just like my life. Along the way I have picked up information from running magazines and from the yoga world as my knowledge has increased about the body both mentally and physically. The second thing to say is that my running technique is just that, my running technique which works for me. I am no way a running expert and I offer the rest of this writing in that same humble spirit (that's the legal disclaimer 'bit' out of the way!).
And so to the technique. Quite late into my running life, I read somewhere 'running is just an extension of walking'. Wow such an obvious statement and yet a huge 'AHA' moment for me! This just makes absolute sense to me and fortunately for me this is already the basis of my technique.
As with yoga, relationships and most things, I believe everything starts from the foundation, in this case the feet. The centre of my heel lands first and I move through the whole foot evenly to the ball, neither pronating or supinating and lift off. The heel of my lifted foot kicks backwards, not to the side, and towards it's respective buttock (knee flexes) with both my knees, retaining their 'spongey' quality and facing the direction of the middle toes. My landing foot comes down with a certain amount of force so that the rebound energy can propel me efficiently forward. My hip points face forward like the headlights of a car. If you were to look at me you would not be able to tell but I lean slightly forward so there is minimum or no impact vibrating in my lower back. My arms swing back and forth equally with my elbows close to the sides of my body. I am not holding a set of house keys in one hand and a bottle of water in the other. My left shoulder is level to my right shoulder. There is no tension in my shoulders and my head regally sits in the middle of my body, not forward, backwards or leaning to one side allowing my neck to relax. When I run my whole body is still in alignment and it is still in balance. In particular, the weight in my feet is balanced, my pelvis or in other words my 'basin' or as is more commonly referenced in a yoga class 'the pot out of which the spine grows' is balanced, the weight in my hands is balanced and therefore the tension in my shoulders is balanced. In fact, I am running in a modified version of Tadasana (Mountain pose). Proprioception, in simple terms, the awareness of the position of one's body, informs me that I need to adjust this version of Tadasana to cater for downhill as I lean further forward running with gravity rather than braking, holding my body back or tensing sending the full force directly into the knees (ouch!) and for uphill I slightly 'crunch' as if to begin a sit up so that my core is activated.
Breaking the technique down even further, I run with AWARENESS. This means that I continually scan my body from the feet up to the crown of the head, bringing my attention to the area concerned. I start by noticing how I am landing and going through the foot. Earlier this year in January, I started to pronate on the left foot, which resulted in my left knee being misaligned, all of which coincided with new trainers. So taking the easy way out I initially blamed the new trainers. However, as I could not afford to splash out on new swanky state of the art trainers I had no choice but to stick it out, even though this new pronation was dangerously close to becoming a new habit. I began to feel occasional niggles, in the left foot and in the left hamstring especially in forward bends. Again mind blowing but another observation, most runners run with niggles here and there, apparently it's part of the course of running. They rudely ignore their body politely talking to them until the politeness has turned to screaming. Well running with awareness means standing to attention even when the body whispers. Hence, after months of investigation I came to the conclusion my left gluteus maximus was firmly asleep when running. So now as I run, I particularly observe my left foot landing and lifting off correctly as I work on correcting this 'new' habit, I check the direction of my left knee and I squeeze my butt muscles together. It's a bit more of a challenge to get the glutes engaged when running so I use an analogy similar to one I use when teaching the transition from adho mukha svanasana (plank) to chaturanga dandasana (four-limbed staff pose), holding coins in your armpits so they do not fall as you move from plank to four-limbed staff pose. I will leave it up to your imagination where the coins are kept! Lastly when I am not running I include yoga poses into my practice that work on strengthening my left gluteus maximus to the same level as the right side. More on this later. From here my scan continues to move upwards to the pelvis, the shoulders which frequently need to be reminded to relax and to the head.
As a practicing yogi, one of the biggest challenges is to take the practice of yoga 'off the mat and into everyday life' situations. So one of the best things about running with awareness is that my running is transformed from a form of exercise into a meditation. A MEDITATION IN ACTION, giving me a sense of freedom and clarity which is the very definition of yoga. It's a meditation observing the sky, river, trees, flowers, colours, the people and the sounds around me. It's a meditation in nature that can be done anywhere outdoors.
And no meditation would be complete without the breath. So I continuously bring my attention to my breath. When I run, I inhale through the nose filling up with prana defined as vital energy or life force which is more than breath, air or oxygen. And as I exhale out of my mouth, I draw in my navel towards the spine which engages my core effortlessly.
One small confession, even with all the above going on, I run listening to music. Sometimes it is a distant noise in the background and sometimes especially when I am struggling I need to be empowered by Kelly Clarkson singing 'What does not kill you makes you stronger' or Nsync singing 'Bye Bye Bye' as I visualise running past an old boyfriend or two as I silently say 'eat my dust'.
Finally and hopefully my last mind blowing observation, one that I spend a lot of time trying to understand, is why runners keep running even when they are in pain or are so tight they can hardly move their legs. You know the runners I mean! So to stop becoming one of these runners I balance my running with yoga.
In my yoga practice, as with running I start with the feet. Three points here. Firstly in a lot of cases walking incorrectly is a learned habit from childhood, one that can be broken with consistent effort and practice. Secondly I have often wondered about the need of 'state of the art' trainers that stop you pronating or supinating verses re-learning to use the feet correctly. In fact, some of the best long distance runners come from countries like Kenya and Ethiopia such as Haile Gebrselassie and I romantically assume that one reason they are so good is because they have a sense of connectedness to the earth and their feet. Thirdly, not a scientific fact but more of a felt sense, but I firmly believe if you treat your body with respect your body will look after you for your lifetime, regardless of how many miles you run.
Hence, I start in Tadasana (mountain pose) picking up and spreading all the toes to get the arches of the feet working and simultaneously grounding down through the four corners of the feet evenly. I practice walking mindfully, neither pronating or supinating. I throw in standing poses that include balances such as Vrksasana (tree) and Ardha Chandrasana (half moon), where the foot on the standing leg is grounding through the four corners of the foot whilst simultaneously strengthening the glutes and opening the hips. There are lunges and twists and of course, there are lots and lots of variations of warriors thrown in that work on lengthening and strengthening the muscles that support the feet, the ankles, the knees, the hips. Even though it's not yoga I include jumping up and down on the spot to keep the feet and ankles healthy and I read somewhere that Mo Farah (or another famous runner...) includes heel kicks in his training so I tried these and liked them. So now if I am running I practice heel kicks when I am standing at the traffic lights waiting for the green man (this happens a lot on my way down to and back from the Alster).
I spend time lengthening my hamstrings with lots of forward bends. One of my favourite poses for this is Parsvottanasana (intense side stretch) which also gives you a sense of keeping your hips level. Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward facing dog) is great for many things but after a run I find it particular useful for stretching the calves, followed by lifting one leg so I can work the glutes or further transforming downward dog into a hip opener. And from downward facing dog I can easily transition into Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (pigeon) which is a great pose for tight hips as it stretches the hip rotators and the hip flexors.
On the floor, one of the series of poses that has benefited my running is Supta Padangusthasana (reclining big toe pose) with a belt, with my leg straight up towards the sky or closer to my heart space or out to the side or in a twist. One of my new favourites, especially as my running has increased, is Supta Gomukhasana (lying down cow face pose) where the sensations in the outer hip are amazing and I cannot fail to mention Sucirandhrasana (Eye of the Needle pose) which is an excellent way to open the hips and a mainstay in my practice.
Although there are many more poses the last one I want to mention is Ardha Matsyendrasana (Half Lord of the Fishes Pose). This is a beautiful pose that I could spend hours sitting in. A stretch for the hips and great way to release any tension in the spine from running as you twist.
So for me running in a healthy way is only possible because of my yoga practice. Recently I read in a yoga magazine a concept that I use in my own practice and in my teaching but much more elegantly phrased 'Move in harmony with your body, not in argument'. Wow what a beautiful statement. Next time you go running, listen to the conversation your body is trying to have with you and notice if you move in harmony. From here, don't change everything to fit my running technique, especially since at first read there seems to be a lot going on. It's like that feeling when you sit in the driver's seat of a car for the first time, the car is huge even though it is a Fiat 500, there are hundreds of buttons, you have to think about the gear box, the speedometer, you need to be aware of three mirrors and what's on the road, in front of you, behind you and to the sides but after awhile everything falls into place. Hence, if necessary, play around and experiment by making small changes, that enhances your running technique and listen to the sensations that arise. This might mean spending more time on the yoga mat stretching overused muscles and activating underused muscles before you make safe adjustments to your running technique.