The Yoga of Trail Running

I recently looked at my yearly schedule and saw a vast stretch of perseverance ahead of me. Between aiming to complete my masters degree in November, continuing to facilitate workshops and courses in various locations, teaching on yoga teacher trainings, and maintaining some degree of connection with my partner, family and friends, I found myself wondering how on earth I would manage it all and still remain centred. It's not that I don't feel passionate about each of these things. Rather, I saw an overflow of passion and enthusiasm in my commitments, and I wondered how I would match it with the physical energy needed to do justice to all that I care about. With so many important priorities on my mind, It took me a while to see that there was something vital that I was not placing in it's usual up-front position in my life: moving my body.

Since my motto for 2017 is the metaphorical 'one foot in front of the other' (highly original I know), I decided to match this with literal on-the-ground action of my feet. I decided to sign up for my first-ever trail running event. In April I will run a 12km trail through a national park in Sydney in celebration of bringing my body with me for the ride of perseverance ahead of me this year.

What I didn't anticipate is that through the process of running regularly in the bush as part of my trainings, that I would find so many parallels between running on trails, and practicing yoga on my mat.

Here's what I've noticed so far about the yoga of trail running:

1. For the joy of it. Despite what high school running drills or gym-inspired training sessions (which often feel more like torture than pleasure) may have taught us about running, the act of running freely in nature is inherently joyful - and begets yet more joy through the post-run elation of endorphins. As anyone who has read the astonishingly inspiring book Born To Run can attest, running is inherently pleasurable for humans when we do it with a spirit of curiosity, adventure, and play. The same is true of yoga. Many of us associate yoga with pretzel postures, injury and overwhelm if we've been approaching it with a typical 'exercise mentality'. When we get on the mat in the spirit of play however, we find that the simple art of moving and breathing and unwinding the daily impressions from our limbs can feel surprisingly delicious, and even joyful. This, of course, is what motivates us to return to the trail or the yoga mat, and ultimately creates a positive feedback loop in our lives.

2. Listening. Running on trails - with this constant hills and dips and puddles - requires focus. This entails listening to both the internal body and to the environment around. Just as we step onto the yoga mat in order to tune-in rather than zone-out, so too does the trail demand an attunement to what's happening moment-by moment. When we practice yoga, the process asks of us that we respond with care to what we hear within. We learn to balance effort and ease (Sthira and Sukha) in order to experience the greatest stability in our capacity to remain equanimous and present. Applying this principle of effort and ease to the trail means that whatever is revealed through the process of listening, there is a willingness to respond with what is necessary, whether it matches ego expectations and ideals or not. Sometimes this means walking when I wish I could run a certain hill, or running further than I had planned because my body teaches me that it has more stamina than I had anticipated. This process of inner listening on the trail, as on the mat, allows me to be ready to experiment with endurance and self-care in new ways (and, crucially, to know when a trail bike or mountain bike is about to whizz past me...not such a common experience on the yoga mat).

3. The breath is the key. I used to run and jog with a focus on having a long stride, or achieving a certain speed, or distance. What I am learning (surprise surprise) is that finding a rhythm with your breath is the key to both enjoying your run and experiencing maximum power and resilience in the body. When the breath strains it's a sign to back-off, and when the breath has space for expansion, then a gentle adjustment to increase pace can be explored. Finding your rhythm through the breath is precisely what the practice of yoga is all about, as the breath is the unifying element between body and mind, and the barometer of what is happening for us internally in every aspect of the practice. Once I realised that finding a rhythm of breath would allow me to settle into a pace and distance that is much more comfortable and vast than I had attempted before, I knew I could begin to feel at home in the practice of running just as I have come to feel at home in my breath on the yoga mat.

4. What I look like is beside the point. I run in my daggiest threads. My beetroot-red face is seen only by the trees, the birds, and an occasional bushwalker. I walk as often as I run at this stage, and none of it matters a jot. I run for the pleasure of the wind in my hair and the chance to see the sun peeping through the trees for the first time at dawn, or slip behind the hill at dusk. Not to achieve a certain dress size or number on a scale. The same is true of yoga. I love daggy yoga. Yoga in my PJs. Yoga that doesn't look anything like anyone I've ever seen in a yoga magazine. The process is internal, playful, liberating and frankly quite hilarious. This reverent humour is what I love, not what running or yoga make my body look like.

....Who knows, maybe I'll try a half-marathon by the end of the year. Now that would be a spin-out. My self-perception has stretched and expanded over the years of practising yoga, but has never yet come even close to encompassing the idea of running marathons. Perhaps I'm getting a little ahead of myself though. Back to my motto: one foot in front of the other.

Keen to practice yoga with me? I regularly teach an 8-week Yoga for Anxiety and Depression course in the Illawarra, NSW. I also travel around Australia facilitating Body Love Yoga, a 1-day workshop for learning to love the skin you're in.

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