By Sara Stover
Apr 15, 2019
Originally Featured on http://www.runnerclick.com
Let it Flow
“Uncertainty is uncomfortable,” my yoga instructor’s words were well-timed, as I was trying to hold a less than comfortable variation of a side angle pose, which involved hugging my bent, front leg with both my arms. Not only was I uncertain that my arms could even bend that way, but I was also not comfortable with this bind I was in.
“Being uncomfortable is not bad,” she almost whispered.
“Oh good, I’m doing it right,” I assured myself, trying to focus on my breath and prove that I could conquer this challenge.
A few minutes later, as we unwound our arms and moved into child’s pose, my yoga instructor challenged my perspective of “challenge” itself when she said “Don’t force a pose. Let it flow out of you. You have nothing to prove.”
After 18 years of approaching running as a proving ground, I had unconsciously dragged this approach into my yoga practice. By doing so, it wasn’t a yoga “practice” for me as much as it was a yoga “competition.”
Competition can definitely be healthy! The athletes that we deem our competition are often the very people that empower us to dig a little deeper, as their accomplishments remind us that if they can do it, we can too! My whole intention behind taking these yoga classes was to find a compliment to my running that made me a stronger, more flexible athlete so that I could accomplish my own goals. And yoga definitely has that potential!
“Yoga teaches us patience and perseverance,” says runner, yoga instructor, and aerialist Amy Johnson of Kailua Kona, HI. “It offers the strength and flexibility we runners so badly need. But it takes time. It also requires consistent daily practice to see progress and growth.” Yoga also has the potential to cultivate a mindset that is contrary to the way many of us approach running. It is the mindset of a “soul runner.”
Just as running without a watch has taught me that a soul runner is mindful of the people and places they interact with when running, so yoga is teaching me that a soul runner treats running as a practice, not a proving ground. Am I suggesting that we all turn our backs on racing or training for a specific race goal? Not quite. I’m simply proposing that this is another side of running, and the benefits of soul running are worth exploring!
Challenge Yourself to Accept Where You Are
Challenge and practice are not mutually exclusive. In fact, practicing yoga presents me with the biggest challenge a goal-consumed runner may face: It challenges me to silence the driven voice in my head that says “Everything is a competition! Push harder, every day, every run!”
On my yoga mat, this is the difference between forcing my left arm to grab my right just because the flexible woman next to me can, and challenging myself to accept where I’m at in my practice at that moment… even if my arms are an entire foot apart in that yoga pose.
In running, it is the difference between forcing a pace because we were able to maintain it in the past, or because our nemesis in the local 10k can sustain it, and accepting where we are at in our training at that moment. Maybe you used to be able to run a 6-minute mile when you were 17, and everyone commended you for being faster than others… Be proud of that, but stop striving to always prove to the world that you are fast. Celebrate instead that whether you run a 6-minute mile or a 12-minute mile, or you don’t run at all because you’re going to yoga for a change, you’re still able to get outside your comfort zone, explore your surroundings, and explore your own potential!
This ability to stop comparing ourselves to other runners, and even ourselves, and accept where our bodies and minds are at in the present is what truly separates a proving ground from a practice. Accept the challenge to approach just one training run this week as a practice, rather than another aspect of your life that demands you prove yourself to anyone, including you!
In retrospect, I was surprisingly grateful for that side angle variation that had me wishing my yoga mat was a magic carpet so I could just ride the heck out of there before my yoga instructor led us through another not-so-basic pose. I hadn’t realized how tight my shoulders were until I slept through the night later, without a stiff shoulder waking me up at 2am.
If yoga has taught me anything, it’s that there are always variations to every pose (some less comfortable than others)! Often, we don’t give ourselves this same freedom to explore variations in our workouts, however. If the training plan says to run 7 x 400s at 5K pace, then how dare we deviate from that?
No matter what you’re training for, I dare you to make a variation to a workout or two. Working hard is not the same as pushing through pain or forcing your body to move at a pace or in a way that it’s not ready for. If you’re feeling fatigued, unmotivated, or fighting an injury, accept your body where it’s at rather than beat yourself up over not hitting your 5k pace on that last 400. Or skip that last 400 entirely, for the sake of experimenting with this idea of variation!
Yoga differs from a movement that is considered a sport because it is treated first as a mental exercise, and then as a physical one. It is a variation on how many of us with a background in competitive sports have been conditioned to perceive movement. Explore this variation, occasionally treating running like a yogi treats their practice: Emphasize the discipline of your mind above your body. By doing so, you give your mind AND your body a chance to press reset, and may find that your next run is less forced and more flow!
Despite the side angle pose with a side of pretzel-twisting, I returned to yoga the following Monday morning. And this time, I was actually able to hug my bent leg with both my arms! The competitive runner in me would have returned to yoga just to prove that I was flexible enough to do so. That’s what makes this experience such a victory for me: Nailing that pose was NOT my motivation for attending class. It didn’t even occur to me that I could or could not accomplish it! I was simply there to practice yoga, and I had nothing to prove.
“Clear space in your mind to find clarity,” was my yoga instructor’s inspirational thought on this particular day. “Stay put until you do!”
Have you ever set off on a run with a mind that is spinning from some dilemma or other, only to return an hour later with a clear solution? Or at the very least, your workout transformed what was seemingly a mountain of problems into a small nuisance or two? This concept of clarity really resonated with me, because I have had those runs! But I have been so busy for so long trying to take on the actual and imagined competition that I’ve forgotten that running seems to make sense of the rest of my life if I allow it to. Running can be that space where you find clarity, and running can be that place where you can just be yourself!
I wouldn’t exactly call myself a yogi, but admittedly, there are a wealth of lessons that I’m extracting from practicing yoga. Yoga has taught me to treat movement as more than just a contest. Movement is slowly becoming a practice for my mind and heart, as well as for my body, whether I’m in downward dog or on a 10-mile tempo run on a trail.
Explore the difference between working hard and forcing a workout, and avoid the latter. And regardless of what you’re training for, remember that a soul runner lets running flow out of them, and by doing so, runs free of the pressure of proving themselves to anyone.
For me, yoga is becoming bigger than it’s original purpose of making me a stronger, more flexible runner (which it certainly is). Yoga is growing into a place where I can escape that pressure, and in turn, this is spilling over into my running.
Whether you ever set foot in a yoga class is not the point (although there are so many reasons why you should)! The point is to challenge yourself to change your perspective on “challenge” itself. In a culture where it’s tempting to get caught up in where you are heading, the real challenge is to take a moment to be grateful for where you are, and appreciate what it took to get there!