The Yoga of (Ultra)running

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Why don’t more ultrarunners practice yoga? And why do we sometimes have a total aversion to yoga? I’ve been thinking about this for the past month and especially after having heard a number of disparaging remarks made about yoga practice by runners. I myself stepped away from the yoga scene a number of years ago. After taking up ultrarunning I all but rejected the idea of the physical practice of yoga and for that matter stretching all together. Recently though I’ve started to think about how much yoga and running have in common and have decided to reassess my opinions. The following is a few thoughts about yoga and running.

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For years I had a dedicated Ashtanga Yoga practice that began shortly after I read Paramahansa Yogananda’s fantastical epic The Autobiography of a Yogi. Until reading that book I thought of yoga as an exercise for physical health and flexibility with some nice side benefits of stress reduction and weight loss. My views changed when I started to explore classic understandings of yoga practice and eventually went off to study yoga in the Berkshires.

It turns out a single passage of text was my formal introduction to yoga. It was May and I was sitting in the dining room of Kripalu Yoga Center in Lenox Massachusetts during part of a three month work study intensive. Brett, a close friend in the program, sat down across from me. He stared at me with a grin for a second and then leaned forward and said, “Yogash-citta-vritti-nirodhah.” Then he sat back, crossed his arms and waited for a response. “What?”

The passage is from Patanjali’s Sutras on Yoga. Roughly translated: “Yoga is the means to restrain the discursive processes of the mind.” Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, the founder of Ashtanga yoga, quotes this very passage as expressing the essential nature of Yoga. And in various translations of the Yoga Sutras this passage is considered to be the foundational thought about which the remaining sutras are simply an exposition. There are layers upon layers of metaphysical thought that could be teased out from this verse but put simply it defines yoga as a process that settles discursive thought and turns one’s focus inward. That’s it. That is yoga. A physical exercise exhaustively designed to help release blockages in the body and quiet the mind.

To my way of thinking running serves the same purpose. Running calms the mind and moves our focus inward, away from the externalities of day-to-day life. And if that is true for running generally, when it comes to ultrarunning, working with our thoughts can be the difference between success and failure out on the trails. I hear many ultrarunners speak about how running provides them clarity, grounds them, gives them an outlet. A good number even wax philosophical about the transcendent power of running. They will say it takes them out of their daily drudgery and how being on the trails gives them a sense of fulfillment and yes, even peace. Many more talk about how running taps into our innate connection to our bodies and the earth. Why then are some runners so turned off by yoga? It’s probably largely a cultural difference and not by any means exclusive to the running community. Running does not come with its own liturgy, as many types of classical yoga do. You won’t see many runners making offerings to the gods and goddess. But running, especially ultrarunning can become a form of meditation. And while we may not consider running as a method for discovering our “higher self” it certainly provides the opportunity for some serious internal reflection. It is necessary for each and every runner to work with the mind and I think that anyone who has successfully run a distance farther than 70 miles has been forced to still quite of few discursive thoughts.

Hare Krishna!
Hare Krishna!

That said there are a few things that probably drive some of us away from yoga. There’s a sort of pseudo spirituality that surrounds eastern traditions when they explode into the mainstream. They often are dumbed down. Suddenly we think that if we start chanting a few Hare Krishnas we will be enlightened (I used to think that). From what I’ve experienced of Hindu culture I don’t think it would matter very much if you were out there chanting the name of Krishna or Jesus Christ. God is god. Yet something tells me most of those folks at chanting circles at the local yoga studio might not be so keen to cry out Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! to the drone of a harmonium. So there is a definite fad quality to the way devotional yoga is approached in the west. Yoga in India is messy. It’s mixed with poverty and despair it has many beautiful colors, complex smells and flavors but they all mingle near the burning gnats and charnel grounds. Think about your next 100 miler. You may look and smell like roses at the beginning but by the end every one in that pack with smell like shit. None-the-less, at the end we’ll all have a bit more grit and maybe even a bit more understanding. Traditional yoga works with the mind and the human mind is rarely a pretty place to work. No wonder it’s more attractive to go do some power yoga at the gym or go chant to some foreign god with a nifty name. Both approaches are safe.

Getting back to the point, what about yoga and the runner’s toolbox? Just about every runner out there has a mantra they have used and it has to be said that the Indian religious systems from which yoga sprang took the concept of the mantra to its zenith. Hindus and Yogis use mantras to draw closer to god and overcome worldly self-interest. We use mantras to draw closer to the finish line. No judgments on the more virtuous motivation. There is a more pragmatic application of the mantra in yoga and that is to focus the mind, in that we share commonality. Mantras are tools in the tool bag. The yogis used them when they could not remain single pointed with their awareness. In some senses it’s a crutch for when your mind is weak, like at mile 80 in a hundred mile event when you have to cross two more damned mountains and your mind is pulling out all the stops to make you stop. What do most of us do, we turn to our mantras. Thank you yoga.

So is yoga a practice for the “hippies” among us? While my yoga asana practice has suffered over the past years I have never put Patanjali’s verse far out of mind. And it has actually informed my entire approach to ultrarunning. To my way of thinking, whatever practices of devotion or asana you may build up,  restraining the discursive processes of the mind, is what yoga is all about. I have eaten my share of granola and have done a bit of chanting and a bit more meditation but a hippy I am not. Our game is 90% mental (at least). My own religious/spiritual orientation aside, I want all the tools at my disposal to do my best out in the mountains. And yoga offers some compelling tools. If more ultrarunners start exploring yoga, the yoga of Patanjali that transgresses the established boundaries of body and mind, then I think they will find a world that is highly complementary to the one out on the trails. A complicated place that is full of rage, tranquility, fear, joy, filth and beauty.

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