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Mindful June 2017

mind–body Alan Green

mind–body Alan Green is a veteran investigative reporter in Washington, DC, whose books include Animal Underworld: Inside America's Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species. He ran his first marathon in 1987. mental notes to check in on how my body and brain are feeling. And as I pass the halfway point of the 6.5-mile run, I finally manage to breathe nasally for a stretch and, perhaps as a result, relax into the flow. But following my cool-down I bump into my training partner, who blindsides me with a suggestion that we run an early-spring half-marathon, six weeks before our usual first long race. I fear I won’t be prepared, given my knee problems, but the idea of not being able to keep up with him is so unsettling I all but agree. And because he’ll see my just-completed The Experts Say “Mindful running is the practice of fully immersing yourself in the present-moment experience of running and its immediate effects on your mind and body, free from judgment, selfconsciousness, or self-doubt.” ELINOR FISH workout when I post it online, I sheepishly make excuses for my absurdly slow time. Later that day, I begin to feel foolish for having offered apologies for my performance. But I have been instructed, just as in meditation classes, to be kind to myself and to not judge my results. So I let those feelings go and remind myself that a thousand miles begins with a single step, or even with a misstep. In addition to keeping the body relaxed and tall (imagine your head being pulled gently aloft by a sky-high rope), and letting deep, controlled nasal breaths dictate the pace, the mechanics of mindful running are largely indistinguishable from running as we know it. What’s different is that this approach to navigating the trails and the tracks is done in a way that both approximates and complements seated meditation. Mindful running educator Elinor Fish, whose Colorado-based company, Run Wild Retreats + Wellness, leads women’s trail-running expeditions around the globe, puts it this way: “Mindful running is the practice of fully immersing yourself in the present-moment experience of running and its immediate effects on your mind and body, free from judgment, self-consciousness, or self-doubt.” Fish, an accomplished distance runner who now instructs everyone from back-of-the-pack novices to ultra-distance warhorses, says that intense competition was what motivated her early in life, but the stress that came with the loss of a loved one, the birth of a child, and a painful autoimmune disease took such profound physical and psychological tolls that mindful running became a necessity. “I can only run if I listen to my body,” she says, “and running mindfully is the method by which I tune in to my body’s signals and run my best given how I feel any given day.” Although Fish also practiced meditation, it took a back seat to running until she suffered a bout of extreme exhaustion. Even then, however, she found sitting on the cushion to be challenging. “But then I discovered how running actually creates the ideal circumstances in which to practice meditation,” she says. “Synching movement with breath, focusing the mind on a single point (such as the trail ahead), and aligning the spine to allow flow of energy are just some of the ways running creates the coherence in the body that supports present-moment awareness. “Making this my practice dramatically reduced my stress and made running sustainable given my health challenges, so I’m extremely thankful. I do now have a seated meditation practice, too, but this was easier to adopt after only doing mindful running for a while first.” Other runners, she adds, have told her that running mindfully has also been their “gateway drug” to seated meditation. Conversely, veteran meditators are particularly open to mindful running, as they find it easier to focus on the experience of running than on the quest for faster times, awards, recognition, and the like. But like meditation, learning to run mindfully can prove frustrating for some. Michael Sandler, who coaches people in both, suggests that beginners start with mindful walking, taking gentle, easy breaths as they go. “If it does turn into a jog,” he says, “there should be no judgment or competition. Just move and have fun.” “I have a saying with my runners: 'Kind, gentle, easy, good,'” he adds. “I advise them to be 48 mindful June 2017

more present, to listen to their breath, to be kind to themselves, and not beat themselves up. I tell them to forget about pace and just start running.” Learning to run mindfully, particularly for less-experienced runners, is probably better done individually than as part of a group. That’s because one key to success is finding a rhythm that harmonizes your breath—deep, controlled belly breathing, as in yoga or meditation—with the cadence of your feet, and in a group there’s always the temptation to keep pace with the leaders. Moreover, some group members may want to chatter as they go, potentially distracting others from tuning in to bodily sensations, taking stock of emotions, checking in on form, and otherwise cultivating the focus and sense of presence that this routine can produce. On the other hand, many find that group runs can instill a sense of community, camaraderie, and motivation to keep at it, even when no words are exchanged. In that way, these sessions can be very much like group meditation. Given such potential upside, some runners have hatched efforts to expand Mindful Mondays to include group efforts. Among them is Diana Gorham, who’s general manager of Two Rivers Treads, a popular running store in the panhandle of West Virginia. Gorham ran her first marathon in the fall of 2006 and earned an impressive age-group 5th place. After that, she says, running became more about the racing than the training, as she doggedly pushed herself to the limit in hopes of recording better times. In 2011 she graduated to “ultras” (i.e., races greater than the traditional 26.2-mile marathon), her longest a 100-mile trail race in August of 2014 that had her on the rain-soaked course for more than 27 hours. But something changed, she says, on the heels of that effort: She realized that there’s more to running than logging endless miles in pursuit of racing acclaim, and as a result her punishing training schedule gave way to a yoga practice, guided meditation, and exploration of her spiritual side. Her new routine includes about three short runs a week, all done with a greater appreciation of her environment and the rest of the running experience. Last February, Gorham launched her Mindful Mondays running (and walking) group in hopes of fostering a like-minded community. She says she may someday race again, as she once relished all the trappings of joining friends in preparing for competition. But more important to her is a → The Right Route One of the great joys of running is the time and space it gives you to just be with yourself. There’s nothing else to do, or really, to even think about. Of course, you can load running, like anything else, with all sorts of goals and other busyness. But to truly experience mindfulness while running, the most important thing is to let running itself be the goal without any other needs attached to it. There are two fun ways to practice this. Just…Run! Truly give yourself over to the experience of running just for running’s sake, with no other agenda. This will mean going whichever way your desire tells you to go, listening to your body to determine your speed and the distance you travel, and remaining alert and curious to all that’s going on within and outside of you. TRY THIS See if you can take note of things as you run that perhaps you haven’t noticed before. How many different kinds of trees are there? What about birdsong? Is the sidewalk more even in some spots and more cracked in others? TIP Make sure you have plenty of water, an extra layer of clothing, and maybe a $10 bill tucked into your running shorts, just in case. Oh, and you might want a map or cell phone if you think you might wander beyond your ability to find your way home. Plan Your Run Set up some basic parameters—a preplanned route, a set amount of time—and within those, fully embrace the experience without the worry of having to make any other decisions. You won’t need to wonder if you should turn left or right at the end of the road, for example, because your route is already decided. Instead, tune inward, to your breath, the warmth spreading through your muscles, how the energy travels up through your legs, hips, and back with each step. Let your inner experience of running come alive in Technicolor. TRY THIS Notice your predominate footstrike pattern. Do you lead with your right foot or your left? Follow this for a while with your awareness, then, do the opposite. Intentionally lead with the other foot, and see what happens. TIP Just like in seated meditation, try keeping your focus on one thing at a time. Use the footstrike method mentioned above, or the sound and feel of your breathing. Let the rhythm still any other noise in your mind. June 2017 mindful 49

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