The Yoga of Running, Part One

Getting our yoga on at the Women's Running and Yoga Retreat. Photo by  Hannah Dewey Photography . 

Getting our yoga on at the Women's Running and Yoga Retreat. Photo by Hannah Dewey Photography

There's a Sunday yoga class at 8 Limbs Yoga that I love. I came to it somewhat accidentally, when I decided I needed more length in my life. My friend Dawn lives in Laurelhurst and our babysitter is in Wedgwood, so it was perfect to drop Fiona off at the sitter's, go on a run with Dawn, then hit up the class. I already knew I liked some of their classes, but this one is different. Focused on using stability through the legs, it's perfect for inflexible me. The teacher explains anatomy unlike other teachers I've had, and his style is precise yet playful at just the right time. I came down with a cold last week so instead of pacing through the night at Bigfoot 120, I was left in Seattle with a run-free morning. I hadn't been to the class in months and I left with my usual responses: I need to do more yoga, and yoga really is the same as running. 

Yogis talk about their practice, and while we don't often refer to running in the same way, the more I think about it as such, the easier it becomes. It's still difficult for me to prioritize running every day, but when I think of it as a practice, all of the sudden even 15 minutes seems doable and valuable. I used to practice basketball, volleyball, tennis, and violin growing up, and if I could put the amount of time now toward running the way I did back then, I would be set (but that's another blog topic in itself). Now I practice massage and think of coaching as a practice. "You get good at what you do," a physical therapist I used to work with would tell his patients. I think of that so much now, in terms of running and everything, really. If you sit a lot, your body will get good at sitting (and not so good at moving or maintaining good posture). If you practice being nice and optimistic, you'll get good at those things (something I mention for myself as the darkness of fall descends). Frequency and duration are important for building fitness, strength, and proper running technique. So what is that but a running practice? 

Morning yoga at the Ski and Yoga Retreat. Photo by  Hannah Dewey Photography

Morning yoga at the Ski and Yoga Retreat. Photo by Hannah Dewey Photography

Technically, yoga means "to yolk". There are so many ways to go with that, but the one I come back to most is breath and movement. When the movement becomes such that breathing is difficult, it's time to back off. Bringing the practice back to the breath, and even thinking of the entire class as a breathing practice is so similar to what I play around with on long runs. My athletes know that I am big on breathing through one's nose as a way to determine whether you are in an aerobic zone. Like yoga, if you find yourself gasping for air, you've gone beyond your capacity. Finding ease in the movement and breath allows improved focus and function, as well as an ability to increase your frequency and duration of practice.

I was listening to Kelly Starett's interview on Endurance Planet again last night, and he spends several minutes describing the huge performance benefits of maximizing our breath (essentially being able to fully use our lungs and therefore be able to use more of our lung capacity and VO2max). I've been acutely aware of that since massage school when we learned how to work on the diaphragm and breathing muscles. At the risk of sounding dramatic, finding more breath can be profound, and any way to do that should be a part of our daily life, even for a few minutes. 

Starett discusses this in terms of lifting, but how can we find more breath while we run? And really, isn't the question how can we find more breath (and thereby expansion) in everything we do? Increasing mobility is one way, but before we can do that, body awareness comes first. It's virtually impossible to improve something that you can't feel. A movement practice, whether it's yoga, running, lifting, or anything else, really, can be transformative if you look at is as a exercise in breathing. The ultimate goal of yoga is liberation, from what, there are many interpretations. Isn't that what we're seeking while running for hours, sometimes days, on end through the mountains?