Meditating Through the Miles
(Photo cred: Jack Jeffries)
When I first decided the time had come for me to get my yoga teacher training certification, a question I had never really given much thought to entered my mind, "What, exactly, is yoga?" I've been practicing yoga on and off for years, but I never really questioned what it was I was doing. So, like the sophisticated researcher I am, I asked Google. "Yoga is a moving meditation," G-money replied. Bells and whistles and sirens went off in my brain. Yes! Of course. How could I have never realized this? The breathing, the connection to ones body and the present moment, the deep sense of relaxation and strength I felt after each session. Yes, it became abundantly clear to me in that moment that yoga is in fact, an active meditation. Simultaneously to this grand revelation, I also realized that what I had always had a hunch about was also true: running can also be a meditation.
I've been running, on and off (but mostly on) for about eleven years now. I began what I now realize is a lifelong venture in a very unlikely setting; I went for my first run on a cruise ship. As a college graduation gift, my parents took me on a cruise to Alaska. At the age of twenty-two, this interested me far less than it would now. I had just graduated college and was going on a cruise? To Alaska? With my parents? How was I supposed to drink like I wanted to, or meet boys with my parents in tow? (The twenty-two year old version of myself was quite the party animal, and truth be told, a little emotionally immature). Anyways, the first two days of the cruise were pretty miserable. I'd never been on a boat of that size, nor for that length of time, and I became horribly seasick. After two days spent largely in the ship's infirmary, and later confined to the minute cabin, the Benadryl began to kick in and I got my sea-legs. By the fourth day, I had grown tired of the onboard entertainment and was getting antsy. I had also taken a good hard look at myself in the cabin's full length mirror and noticed, much to my horror, that I had put on (and never really lost) the freshman 20. Feeling isolated on a cruise ship and being forced to really take a look at how my lifestyle choices had affected my physicality turned out to be a huge turning point in my life. There was a running track on the top deck of this particular ship, and on a whim, I decided to go up and take a few laps. Aside from struggling through the mile during high school physical fitness tests, I had never ever run before. In fact, based on those dreadful tests, I had often times declared, "I hate running." But there was something about being trapped on a boat that made me, quite simply, in many senses of the word, want to run.
That first run went surprisingly well. I discovered that without the pressure of being timed, I could go at whatever pace felt somewhat comfortable. I knew absolutely nothing about pacing at that point, but I knew that not being able to breathe felt bad. So I ran at a pace that was challenging but not so much that I was gasping for air. I was shocked when I finished a mile and felt energized rather than pained. More importantly, I loved how I felt mentally after the run. I felt like I could conquer things. I felt strong. I felt proud. I ended up running around that track for the remaining six days. I found that running also made me more aware of what I was putting in my body, and I became more inclined to feed it healthy things rather than to wreck myself on the cruise ship's buffet. By the end of the cruise, I was feeling way better than I had when the trip began, and I vowed to keep up my newfound habit once I returned to New York City. I was delighted to find that this transition came quite easily, and before I knew it, I was running almost every day in Central Park, which was just a few blocks away from my apartment.
Fast forward to now, and I suppose you could say I'm a seasoned runner. Running helped me shed those extra pounds I had gained during college, but that's not the main reason I run. I run because it clears my mind and gets me "back to baseline." Running has gotten me through so many ups and downs in life. I ran in the days leading up to my first wedding, taking those same six mile loops I had run hundreds of times in Central Park. I ran around the same reservoir where Jackie Kennedy used to log miles through tears as that marriage was dissolving. I've run along the Thames in London, and the Seine in Paris. I've run on beaches in Costa Rica, The Virgin Islands, southern Spain, Santa Monica, and Florida. Running helped me figure out solutions to problems with my research proposals in grad school. It helped me through the grieving process when my grandparents died. I ran through the early days of my sobriety when I really wanted to drink, but knew that I could no longer rely on that manner of escapism. And I run now, nearly four years into recovery, and a year into my new marriage with the man I know I'm supposed to be with. I run when I'm happy and when I'm sad, and I run on the days in between, too.
In the past few years, I've deepened my meditation practice a lot. And I now recognize that running provides me the same sort of unattached introspection. When I run, much like when I take to my mat to meditate in the traditional sense of the word, or do yoga, I am in observation mode. I am observing the present. When I meditate on the mat, I observe my breath. Thoughts come and go, but I do my best to "watch them" and then allow them to pass. Similarly, when I do yoga, I observe the sensation of the lengthening of my muscles; of the relief from tension and ache. When I run, I do a combination of both breath observation, bodily sensation observation, and general observation of the objects I pass. During all three versions, I am very much "alive" and present. I am of the moment- that particular moment, and as a result I am often able to "zoom out" and see my feelings and the things that are currently going on in my life for what they are. I gain perspective, and usually end up feeling cleansed and refreshed.
I've always believed that yoga and running complement each other quite nicely. Running has the tendency to create tight muscles, and yoga is the best way to re-lengthen them and work out any aches and pains. But mentally, the result is very similar; endorphins and other feel-good chemicals are released and my perspective becomes more encompassing and frequently more compassionate, both towards myself and others. And it is because of these positive results that I continue "moving through my meditations" regardless of what life brings.