I had a very inspiring chat with the fabulous team at Running for the Win(e) about finding your zen and yoga for runners on their recent podcast. You can find ‘Running for the Win(e)’ up on all podcast platforms or ....
Have a listen to the podcast episode ‘Finding our Zen’ on their website here:
I really recommend subscribing to their podcast for weekly bites of inspiration and a delicious dose of zen. Since life is all about balance, you’ll also find some wonderful tips about wine- Rebecca Lawrence, one of the co-hosts, is an absolute wine goddess, as well as being a dear friend, my dedicated yoga student and a runner.
I was quite dedicated to running some years ago, before finding my true love in yoga. While I still run for fun, this has become more of an occasional top-up, with my daily asana practice being my real bread and butter. However, I have to say that Rebecca and Morg, from Running for the Win(e), had me seriously inspired with all their zen talk, to get my shoes back on more regularly! So, running and yoga- what gives? For all those runners out there thinking you’re too stiff for yoga- I’ve been there and I feel you! I started running at school, when I was merely 6-years old and this quickly led to competitive running, which lasted into my late teen years. As a result, when I first found yoga 18-years ago, I felt super, super stiff and everything felt hard! The many ‘instagram yogis’ who did gymnastics throughout their youth, who populate Instagram with feats of astounding contortionism and super human flexibility … are not the yoga norm!
So yes, I am that inflexible yogi that has worked seriously hard, with much patience and determination to slowly work on my flexibility…and it is still very much a work in progress. I came to yoga with super short and tight hamstrings and stubbornly inflexible hip flexors… the splits seemed like a ridiculous pipe dream until more recently. Strength always came much easier to me than flexibility. As a result, I admit to having had quite an unbalanced practice in the beginning- seeking out the yoga postures that came with more ease. However, luckily I quickly learned that:
“Yoga is not about touching your toes. It is what you learn on the way down.” - Jigar Gor
This sense of letting the destination ‘of touching the toes’ go and embracing the process and the practice, has also helped me to try not always gravitate to what feels easier and rather approach my practice with honesty. To feed my body and mind with what it needs, even if its not always what I find more fun or what makes me feel more rad about myself ;) The benefits of a more balanced practice is amazing when you take that leap!
I have always been attracted to all kinds of movement and sports: running, climbing, hiking, swimming, cycling, netball, hockey… you name it! So my chat with Rebecca and Morg, got me thinking- what it is that has us human’s so fascinated and often addicted to movement? Of course there is the obvious level of physical health and that amazing endorphin release, which keeps us coming back for more. However, it is also about finding your zen! Many of us also seek out those moments of stillness, where you are completely consumed in the present activity and freed from the persistent chatter of the analytical mind… Ah, serenity!
Although I have had a meditation practice since I was a teenager, personally I find that sometimes one really needs the medicine of movement to find mental liberation… or rather, liberation from your mind! That said, if you seek to find serenity and to train the mind for stillness, any activity you undertake can become a tool to help you do so… including running. Each moment of your life can become an opportunity to be absorbed entirely in that blissful state of yoga and overcome the disturbances of the mind, ‘vrittis’, that prevent us from being in union with our true selves.
So, how can a yoga practice help you with your running? There are millions of articles, blogs and videos out there to draw on, but here is my two cents worth! Let’s break it down into body, breath and mind.
1. Body: Think stretch but also strengthen! Think muscles but also fascia!
Runner’s tend to get very tight muscles, not only the well known culprits- hamstrings, quads and calves but also the hip flexors and Ilio-Tibial Band (IT band). Over time, if running is not properly balanced with stretching, this can cause misalignment and pain in the hips and back. A tight IT band is also often the culprit of knee pain for runners. Basically don’t just focus on the obvious muscle groups - your whole body is connected and all of it needs love and attention!
Stretch but avoid over-stretching! I would caution to avoid over-stretching, this is particularly the case for runners because tight and strong muscles and connective tissue don’t necessarily translate to being ‘resilient’. On the contrary, there is risk for injury if you go too far too quickly and it is advisable to approach the practice slowly, especially if you are new to yoga. Think of your yoga practice as medicinal and not a time to push your limits or compete with yourself or others, as you might do on the track. Modify the asanas as needed and use plenty of props: blocks and straps are conducive to a healthy and healing practice, not a sign of weakness, as many students seem to think.
Strengthen! Yoga asana are also amazing in strengthening the entire body. It is well known that having a strong core can providing integration to all of our movements and protect our backs from injury. As much as we want to stretch our hamstrings in forward folds, we also need to focus on strengthening them in dynamic leg raises. This can be done, for example, on your hand and knees in table-top position or in asanas like 3-legged dog or Warrior III with your leg actively outstretched behind you in a balancing posture. In Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana ( Extended Hand-to-Big-Toe Pose), for example, you are balancing on one leg and grabbing the other foot with your hand or a strap. This can be a wonderful stretch and an opportunity to work on hip mobility. However, it is important to also practice the version, (many students want to skip!) where we keep the leg actively raised for five breaths, outstretched in front of us. This is so beneficial to strengthen your quads and hip flexors! Balancing postures are also amazing for strengthening and stabilizing the ankles, which is absolutely crucial for runners, and yoga is full of them!
What style should I choose? There is a huge variety of yoga asana ‘styles’, so there is the question of which one is best for runners? Well, I don’t think there is a single answer to that, it would be a personal choice based on what resonates with you. However, what ever style you choose, I would suggest focusing on both Yang and Yin yoga practices. Yang asana practices focus primarily on activating and stretching muscles, stimulating blood flow and building strength, stamina and flexibility. This can be found in styles like Vinyasa Flow, Hatha, Hatha Flow or Ashtanga.
Muscles but also fascia! Yin Yoga targets our joints and connective tissue (especially fascia) and stimulates the subtle body (meridians). In Yin yoga you passively hold your asana shapes for 3-5 minutes, this gives you the discipline to sit quietly with yourself and to find your stillness, with amazing flexibility benefits and also strengthens your connective tissue. Yin provides a gentle application of “stress” or “stimulation” in the form of tension and compression which induces a healthy phase change in our connective tissue and encourages myofascial release. Since many people can find it hard to sit still, there are also styles that bring together the two approaches, Yin Yang yoga, where a gentle Yang flow helps us to release physical and mental energy and tension, while still getting the benefits of holding position in Yin Yoga.
2. Breath: Fuel your body, nurture your mind & take back control of your nervous system!
There is a whole limb of yoga dedicated to the breath- Pranayama, our fourth limb of the eight limbed path of yoga. ‘Prana’ means ‘life force’ and ‘ayama’ means expansion, so pranayama is the expansion of life force through the control of the breath. Although breathing is an utterly natural thing to do, our very survival depends on it, many of us do not breathe properly and this affects our physical and mental health. The techniques and different pranayama tools teach us how to harness the power of our breath to improve our physical vitality, take control of our nervous system and calm our mind for focus and meditation.
Simple techniques like deep belly breathing/ abdominal breathing, helps us to lengthen and deepen our breath and teaches us how to use the breath to calm our nervous system. Many people, including runners, may be breathing very shallowly into the chest. Breathing into the full capacity of the lungs will really assist in increasing oxygen intake and avoid cramps and stitches when you run. The practice of retention of breath or Kumbhaka is incredible for improving the capacity of our lungs. This practice also subdues mind distractions; brining us into moments of deep inner stillness. It would obviously not be recommended to retain the breath during running- you may pass out! Runner’s will, however, benefits from the increased lung capacity.
One of the most amazing tools yoga provides is assisting us to regulate our nervous system. The nervous system is intrinsically linked to our breath. When our sympathetic nervous system is targeted and our fight, flight, freeze instinct kicks in, our breath tends to become shallow, short and fast. When you are relaxed and at peace, your parasympathetic nervous system is engaged, allowing the body to rest, restore, heal and digest. In this state, the breath tends to be deeper and slower. So in pranayama, you are simply reversing the logic and taking back control of the nervous system, rather than being subjected to it. Yoga recognizes that you can choose when to engage your parasympathetic nervous system, by simply controlling your breath. The simple power of a deep exhale, in a moment of crisis, helps you to regroup and relax enough to focus your mind back into calm and prevents the body from shutting down in crisis mode. It is from this state of calm that we are more equipped to think clearly, rather than allowing chronic anxiety and stress to cloud our thinking and drain our vitality. These techniques would clearly benefit runners, learning how to harness the breath to remain calm, focused and find your inner strength.
3. Mind: Find your Zen!
Yoga is defined in sutra 1.2 as ‘yoga cittavrtti nirodhah’: Yoga is the cessation of disturbances in consciousness. The greatest benefit of this practice is the zen it brings on and off the mat. Instead of feeling like you are controlled by the fluctuations of your emotions and your mind, yoga gives you the tools to be back in the cosmic driver’s seat! What may begin as a physical practice of shapes and breath, soon transforms into something deeper and intangible; a healthier and more loving relationship with yourself and others. You may find that this transforms your motive for everything you do, including running. If there are any parts of your fitness regimen that are not healthy or assertive of your personal worth and practice of self-love, (exercise shouldn’t be a punishment! ) yoga can definitely be a space to help you nurture and love every part of you and do some internal house-keeping to make sure your running is serving you.
Yoga asana are not just ‘stretches’, there is a deep awareness and mindful curiosity that accompanies the practice and this is an amazing opportunity to really get to grips with what is going on in your body and your mind, you become acutely aware of what is going on in every inch of your body. With practice you get to pinpoint exactly the parts that may be giving you trouble or pain, which parts require strengthening and how you can modify your practice to begin to heal your body and mind.
Offerings: Yoga for Runners!
So in the spirit of finding our zen, I created two videos for runners on my Patreon platform, where I share my growing library of 50+ yoga videos. You can sign up here to begin your journey:
I have made these two videos freely available on my YouTube and Vimeo channels for the month of March (Yoga with BrittanyB)
Youtube Channel : https://youtu.be/An24BOV9tzM
Vimeo Channel: https://vimeo.com/user133572415
Yoga for Runners: Short Flow- This is a short and sweet practice 25 minute practice, targeting hamstrings, hips, quads, IT band and core- the parts that need some extra love to keep you finding your zen on the running track.
Yoga for Runners: Yin Yang Flow- This is a longer 70 minute class, seeking to balance the Yin and Yang aspects of ourselves to help you find your zen ☯️ It gives special attention to both stretching and strengthening key muscle groups, along with myofascial release. Yin Yang classes bring together the benefits of passively holding yoga poses in Yin Yoga with more dynamic sequences of Vinyasa Flow.
I strongly believe that integrating some yin yoga into your practice could really help to improve flexibility and strengthen connective tissue. And don’t forget the importance of the mental game involved in running; Yin Yoga will help you find that determination to persevere even when things get a bit uncomfortable and to find your Zen in those spaces of personal growth.
Enjoy lovelies- Let's find our Zen! 🙏🧘♀️🏃♀️