My kids and I love to play this game where you’re presented with two things you love and you have to make a choice as to which you love the most. Peanut butter vs. bacon (bacon, always), cupcakes vs. chicken wings (most days cupcakes win), tacos vs. my cat (no contest), but when they ask me to choose between running and yoga I never can make up my mind. I love them both and the activities complement each other so well, I can’t imagine doing one without the other.
I found yoga about 14 years ago and it turned out to be the perfect counter exercise to my running. To be clear, I’m not a super fast runner; I don’t run multiple marathons each year or 15 miles a day. But it’s something I do almost every day of the week, whether it’s three miles or eight or thirteen. I believe the reason I’ve been able to stay injury free these years is because I’ve committed to a regular yoga practice that has transformed my body and muscles into malleable shock absorbers.
Runners often complain of sore backs, tight hamstrings and knees that talk to them. Most of these injuries are due to the pounding, tightening and shortening of their muscles. If only there was a counter-exercise that was fun, where you could hang out with some great people and learn something new every time you went. Oh wait!!!! How about yoga?! Through yoga, muscles find length and become more supple as you move through the asanas and flow on the mat, bringing more “give” to your body. Down dogs, hip openers like pigeon and a simple forward fold feel like a dream after a long run. Plus, yoga and poses like airplane and tree help with balance – and any runner knows that if you’re off balance every step forces compromise and makes your muscles work harder.
Another aspect I love about running is that when I’m out pounding the pavement I’m able to organize my thoughts, make my lists in my head and contemplate whatever it is I’m contemplating. Yoga provides for me the exact opposite experience. When I started practicing so long ago yoga class was the only place I could shut off my head. I was building my career in a new city, going through infertility and had just lost my mom to cancer. I couldn’t shut my head off if I tried at any other time of day – unless I was on my rectangular rubber mat. Running helped me work through those stresses and emotions and yoga just let me be. I still find that I’ll be in class, whether I’m teaching or taking it, and an hour can go by and I’ve thought of absolutely nothing else but the movements and motions taking place. It’s such a great gift to give yourself, just being where you are. Not having to get to someplace or beat some time determined to be the “time to beat” for the day.
The body and breath awareness that one learns through the practice of yoga is invaluable as a runner. I’ve learned to really listen to my body and get in tune with what it’s telling me. Some runs I find myself placing a hand at my low back and one at my belly to make sure I’m keeping my pelvis neutral (and avoiding lower back compression). On days I don’t feel like completing my run or my head is telling me to stop and “give up” I’m able to take a scan of my physical body and decipher if my mind is telling me to stop or if my body needs me to. Most days it’s my head and I can run through those feelings healthfully. From a breath perspective, the consistent practice of ujjayi breathing has overtime increased my oxygen capacity, allowing for more ease in my runs and more endurance.
Will I be able to run forever? I hope so, but I know it’s not likely. My knees already creek and crack (without pain so far) but I’ll keep going as long as I can. I know yoga will prolong my running life, and when I can’t do that any more, there’s always handstands.