Use yoga to get the mental edge
Just as strength and flexibility are intimately connected to running performance, mental focus is inextricably woven throughout the physical practice, and a focused runner is more competitive, especially in tough races. Here, we’ll look at yoga’s mental benefits and learn how to sharpen your focus through eight steps, from breath exercises to meditation to training.
These are four tenets that detail behaviors to avoid, reducing the causes of suffering both on ourselves and the people around us.
Each of the restraints has a direct application to runners’ behavior. The first restraint, not harming, seems an easy one to abide by in your running life, until you consider how often runners ignore the symptoms of overuse injuries and continue training until the injury becomes severe. Denying shin pain, for example, can lead to a tibial stress fracture.
The second restraint is being honest about what is happening in your body. In combination with not harming, being honest can save you from the injuries that plague many runners. Practicing honesty also helps you set reasonable running goals. Knowing the true state of your current fitness helps you pace yourself correctly, which is especially important in longer races. A dishonest sense of your abilities, on the other hand, can encourage you to start off too fast in a race or to deny yourself a peak performance by starting too slowly.
Practice honesty about what you feel in your body, remembering that you should avoid harming yourself and others. When you do pull back when you might have pushed, be pleased and have faith that it is the right decision.
The third restraint is not stealing and not grasping. Don’t steal from yourself by underestimating your talent, but don’t overreach and cause yourself suffering you might have avoided. In your relationship with other runners as well, you should not indulge in envy or jealousy.
Notice the internal dialogue that arises when you compare yourself to others. Does it reveal a sense of scarcity or lack? Can you instead consider your strengths?
The fourth restraint teaches you to use your energy appropriately. For runners, it directs us to consider the best use of our physical energy, to direct it to the appropriate pathways and to relax everywhere else we can. This practice directly enhances your endurance, efficiency and self-control.
As you run, try to use only the energy you need to complete what you are doing. Look for places to relax, both in your body and in your mind. Observe whether freeing up your resources in this way improves your overall running experience.
The next step toward achieving harmony between our mind and body is to practice observances that increase our sense of happiness. To that end, you should remain pure in your focus: physical cleanliness in the form of a healthy diet and a well-organized living space and life will support your disciplined work toward your goals. When our running gear is organized and our training plans are neatly laid out, we are more likely to direct our energy toward our goals in appropriate ways. You should also choose the foods, training partners and friends that support your clear pursuit of your goals instead of muddying your path.
Neatly arrange your running gear and see how that affects your attitude. Organize your training plan and your log. Having an orderly approach to running can free up energy for better effort in your workouts.
The right attitude can make or break your yoga practice session, workout, race and season. Practicing contentment will allow you to reduce the suffering and increase the happiness in your daily life. Shifting your attitude, of course, is tougher than simply telling yourself, “Buck up!” Start small by practicing contentment with positive elements of your day. The more you can cultivate a relaxed sense of happiness with the mundane elements of your life, the more you’ll be able to develop equanimity. Equanimity gives you the balance to stay centered whether your running is going well or not.
During a run or meditation, reflect on a favorite running moment. Next, contemplate a positive experience from the last week of running. Finally, choose a moment from your last workout when you found joy: watching the sunrise, hitting your split times or simply feeling good enough to head out the door.
Most runners are familiar with the discipline and zeal that push them to create change. This is the drive that pulls us through yet another interval repeat, that pushes us through the rough spots of a marathon, that keeps us going when the urge to stop is almost overwhelming.
In order to know what we can change, we need self-knowledge. This comes through continued inquiry, in running, on the mat, in our daily lives. We watch how we react when things get intense. We learn tools to increase our focus. We begin to discover what we are made of by putting ourselves into situations that challenge us, be it mile repeats, balance poses or public speaking. Along the way, we gain awareness of the elements of our nature and the world around us that we can control and how to marshal our energies to deploy them where they can create change. And when we cannot change them, the best choice is to surrender to them.
As you prepare for your next race, notice the thoughts that arise concerning the race. Are your concerns inside or outside your control? If you can control them, note how; if you cannot, choose a mantra (for example, “Oh, well”) to repeat if the issues manifest on race day
3. YOGA POSES
These should be steady and easy, reflecting strength and flexibility. The goal of the physical practice is to build the strength and flexibility for a steady seat so that the practitioner can focus without an aching back and tight hips as a distraction.
As a runner, your goal is to develop a strong spine and flexible hips so you can move with more freedom in your run, focusing on the connection running fosters between body, breath and mind.
Your breath and the life force it embodies is prana. I think of pranayama as using the correct breath for the task at hand.
Depending on your goals, that breath could look very different. If you’re running at an easy pace, a different breath will be in order, one that’s free, organic and allows you to carry on a conversation with your training partners. If you’re running a tempo pace, you’ll need a different, more rhythmic breath, and if you’re running a quarter-mile race, the right breath to feed that effort will be different still.
Choose a moment in your day to notice how your breath is moving. Is it appropriate for what you are doing?
Ask yourself this question through the day: in traffic, during warm-up, in hard intervals, at dinner, at rest. See where you can relax more.
5. BEING AWARE
The skill of listening to your body and drowning out external distractions is especially valuable for pacing your run, and thus for endurance. A useful tool for engaging is to notice the data coming in through your senses, then to soften your awareness. For example, notice the sights around you and then soften your awareness of them, using only as much as you need to maintain what you’re doing. If you’re running, for example, you’ll need to watch your step. Do the same with the sense of hearing, listening for sounds, then listening to sounds closer and closer to your body. Tune out the crowd around you in a race; tune in to the sound of your footfalls. Tune in to your own breath.
As you learn to pay attention to the sensations of intensity brought by your running and asana and meditation practices, you’ll be able to explore them and to watch them shift. Comfort with the discomfort of intensity is key to success in running, in yoga and in life.
Over the course of your day and your workout, take time out to consider what is going on inside. Tune out sights and sounds and tune in to the internal experience. What is happening within this moment?
Once you’ve learned to draw your attention away from the outside world and into interior space, you’ll be able to focus all your awareness on one thing. That thing could be a visual point, the focus called a gazing point. You’ll find this useful in running when you look at a competitor just in front of you, at the space in front of your feet, at the horizon or at the finish-line banner.
Verbally, a mantra will help you by providing you with a singular item on which to focus. This mantra could be as short as a syllable or as long as a phrase or chain of words. As you internally repeat the mantra, the meaning of the words grows less important and yields to the state of single focus created through the repetition.
Choose a word on this page and give it your sole focus for the next 10 breaths. Next time you are in line at the grocery store, choose an item and give it your full attention for 10 breaths. On each run, choose a mantra to focus on for 10 or more breaths at a time.
Once you have developed the capacity to concentrate on one thing, you’ll be able to hold your consciousness on many things at once. This meditative state is called flow. When a skilled practitioner is working at a difficult task, he can slip into the sense of flow, where perception of time and space shifts and performance of the task reaches a level of ease disproportionate to its challenge.
You probably know this state as a runner. It’s what keeps us involved in the sport year to year: those runs and races where everything clicks and even stretch goal paces are manageable or, better yet, easy to achieve. Regular practice of the preceding limbs of yoga will help you reach this state: Avoid actions that cause suffering, commit to actions that increase happiness, be stable and easy in your physical pursuits, use the right breath for the moment, keep your attention on the internal experience and practice singular focus. When you’re good at these, you’ll be able to find the flow state more and more often
Achieving flow is less about making it happen and more about creating the situation where it can arise. When you find yourself in the flow state, don’t over think things. Appreciate the moment without attachment—the more you cling to the experience, the more fleeting it becomes.
The goal of the practices of the first seven steps is blissful connection. When we are in this state, we rest in our true nature, and the perceived barriers that separate us from each other and from the universal energy that permeates everything fall away. If you’re lucky, you’ve had tastes of this bliss in your running. Bliss can be easier to come by during periods of physical exertion like trail running, especially in picturesque natural settings with sympathetic training partners or new friends. The more we can access it in controlled settings, the more we can remember and find it again under duress in less glorious circumstances such as a long race.
Just as joining your mental and physical selfs is the ultimate goal of yoga, it is also the goal of running: to be able to stay present and witness the inherent beauty in our interconnectedness, to learn the truth about who and what we are. Even with, or especially because of, the demands we put on our physical bodies, we recognize there is something more to us than mere flesh and bones.
Excerpted with permission of VeloPress from The Runner’s Guide to Yoga, by Sage Rountree. For more information, please visit velopress.com/yoga.