The first yoga class I ever attended began in savasana. It was my first year of university, it was exam time and the very wise teacher thought we needed to begin with a little connection. We were instructed to breathe deeply, listen to our breath, focus on it and, rather than letting our minds run away with our thoughts, to tune into to our bodies, our sensations – the right here and now.
I didn't know it yet, but I was getting my first lesson on being mindful. It took all of 15 seconds for me realize that I sucked at it. Rather than finding a sense of peace and connection, my type A brain raced around in circles, worrying, ruminating. I’ve heard yoga teachers refer to the persistent churn of thoughts that seems to take over my brain as the “monkey mind.” It’s an apt metaphor, only my monkey mind is more like a tree of monkeys, screeching cacophonously, racing across branches, fighting, throwing fruit.
(Learn how to Get Your 'Monkey Mind' to Unwind Using These 4 Methods.)
In the many yoga classes I've taken since that first one, I've found more peace on my yoga mat – and off it as well, particularly while running. I’m a regular runner and, while some people might call running a meditative form of exercise, it never was for me, at least not for many years. I was competitive and driven and, therefore, always driving myself to run faster, do better, try harder. When I was flying fast, my mind was racing ahead, thinking of faster times and bigger achievements. When I performed below my expectations, my mind skipped backwards, comparing, and then criticizing. In other words, I spent very little time inside the moment I was actually experiencing, the one unfolding right in front of me.
That is, at least, until I started a regular yoga practice. As I practiced mindfulness on the mat, it began to creep into other parts of my life, including my running. I learned to settle in to my body, to the trail in front of me, to the trees around me and to the wind blowing my hair behind me. By becoming aware of my thought patterns, I was able to understand them better, be kinder to myself, and let some of them go. And, most of all, I was able to learn to connect with my body, rather than driving it onward as if it wasn't, ultimately, me. Running became an exercise in awakening rather than attainment, connection rather than competition. That shift in mindset changed the experience from one that was hard and stressful and, ultimately, emotionally unsatisfying, to one that is nourishing and that awakens my senses on every level.
Recently, I got the opportunity to chat with William Pullen, the author of a new book called "Running With Mindfulness: Dynamic Running Therapy (DRT) to Improve Low-mood, Anxiety, Stress, and Depression." Pullen is a psychotherapist who helps people dealing with anxiety, lack of motivation and other emotional issues. And he does it through an approach he pioneered called Dynamic Running Therapy (DRT), a set of mental routines you can practice and cultivate to make running and walking a meditative, restorative and, ultimately, healing exercise.
It Can Be Practiced Anywhere
We often meditate and practice mindfulness on our yoga mats, and then are instructed to bring those skills and lessons into the rest of our lives. By extension, we can also practice and cultivate mindfulness skills anywhere, anytime. And those skills can serve to deepen, enrich and inform our yoga practice as well.
“I define mindfulness as an awareness of the present moment. In other words, putting one's focus onto the here and now – gently acknowledging whatever may be present, from thoughts to sensations to feelings,” Pullen said. “When we go out and about in nature we feel a sense of engagement and satisfaction that resonates through us, beginning on a cellular level. Mindfulness is about engaging with the living world that's around and inside of us. That world is always in motion, so it makes sense that it should feel intrinsically right for us to be in motion, too.”
Mindfulness Is Hard
I struggled and practiced for many years to become more mindful. I’m no guru – it’s a work in progress! The key thing to understand, though, is that mindfulness is a skill, and it isn’t one that comes easily for many people.
“The peace and connection people tend to feel in meditation often comes after they’ve engaged with the struggle to get going,” Pullen said. “I reassure [people] that they will experience a similar sense of peace and connection with running, but it may not happen immediately. Mindfulness teaches us to acknowledge pain and struggle, rather than trying to avoid it or fix it.”
(More on the practice of Accepting Discomfort here.)
Mindfulness and Movement Have Similar Benefits
There is plenty of research that points to the power of meditation and mindfulness to improve our health by improving blood pressure, reducing stress and boosting energy. What’s interesting is that exercise boasts many of the very same benefits. According to Pullen, there’s a powerful synergy between mindfulness and motion.
“When you put them together, you have a practice that feels healing and nourishing,” Pullen said. “The reason I think running is particularly healing is that it gives us a tangible way in which to invest in and measure our progress. It helps us with the sense of feeling disempowered that so often accompanies low mood and depression, making us feel more powerful, more capable and more confident that we have both the means and ability to address our situation.”
It Isn’t a Magic Pill
When you read about the benefits of mindfulness and regular movement, it’s easy to get stuck on those. But the truth is that while tuning in to yourself and the world around you can be healing, it isn’t an easy road – it can even be a painful one. For me, once I started listening to what my mind was saying, I had to deal with that. And it wasn’t pretty.
“It isn’t all roses,” Pullen says. "Things like grief take time. Depression can make it hard to move, and anxiety can make some prefer not to be outside. Obviously DRT is only suitable for those people who are in a position to confront the challenge of getting out and getting going. It’s okay to have a day or week when you just can't get out, so long as you use the experience to practice a little self-acceptance.”
It Isn’t About How You Connect – It’s That You Do It at All
Sometimes my yoga practice involves more, well, yoga, and sometimes I just run. But yoga has taught me to live in my body in a way that I hadn’t before, and to connect with the present moment in a way I had never considered. Plus, while mindfulness out on the running trails has its perks, yoga isn’t exactly sedentary. That, of course, is by design. As the ancient practice that it is, yoga carries much wisdom, including the fact that movement is as good for our bodies as it is for our minds, and that mindfulness is a piece of the puzzle that brings all parts – our bodies, minds and spirits – into alignment.
“Movement in general is good for the spirit and body,” Pullen said. “Whether it’s yoga or running, meditation is a great way to stop thinking about the bills and instead connect with the universe around us. It matters more that you have that connection than how you get it.”
(Read on about The Art of Mindfulness.)