I’ve been a pretty active person my whole life. I was on my first swim team at five years old and I played on team sports up and into college. After college, and I guess missing some of that excitement and drive to be active, I started signing up for little road races. A few 5k’s here and there. I liked running but it was a constant struggle. It hurt, I gasped for air and I was slow. Although it was not my strong suit (to say the least), I still kept at it – even in the middle of a 3 mile loop when I felt like I was going to die, something about it kept me going. Maybe it was the buzz after the run, or the sense of accomplishment. In any event, I kept at it and in my first few years of running these little road races I began to realize that a huge chunk of my happiness was centered around being physically active. If I had a issue that I was battling with emotionally after a nice long run, I’d normally have it ironed out in my head and be a little more at peace. It had become my meditative movement and I began to need it not only for the physical benefits but, more importantly, for the emotional benefits as well.
All went well for a few years of this little running ritual. 6 days a week, I’d lace up my sneaks, load up the ipod and hit the pavement. It had become my drug in some ways. If I missed a day, I’d get antsy and feel nervous. I’d come to believe that if I didn’t run, I didn’t have a chance to unload emotionally. It began to become something I thought I needed rather than something I truly enjoyed to do. I had come to depend on the rhythm of my breath and the pace of my movement as my emotional dumping ground. I was getting away from the true beauty of my surroundings and really, why I liked running in the first place. Around that time, life decided to toss me a curve ball- in the form of a hip injury. The biggest joint in my body was in a pain I’ve never felt before. It was a pain that radiated from the left hip down my butt and into my hamstring. I continued to run. Limping, slow and in pain. The fear of letting go of my emotional release outweighed the agony on my left side. There was even a time when I had to stop in the middle of a run and call my brother to pick me up. My body was screaming at me to stop. I had no choice but to listen. Finally, I reluctantly went to our doctor, who is a dear family friend. After an MRI and a lot of questions, the verdict came in- no running for six weeks. Six weeks. The years of pounding the pavement had jarred my bone into the hip socket and had begun to cause damage. I had to let it heal. I felt like someone had taken my best friend away. I cried.
Two weeks went by and I was pretty miserable. I came to convince myself that there was no substitute for my meditative movement so I gave up. Around that time a good friend was going to the local yoga room for a beginners workshop. She called me one Sunday afternoon and asked me if I wanted to go. Yoga? Really? Please. I needed to sweat and breathe hard and work out some energy. Yoga? Yeah, right. She, at that moment pointed out that I, in all honesty, ‘had nothing better to do’, so she convinced me to ‘turn off The Lifetime movie I was watching, stop feeling sorry for myself and get up and go with her.’ I got up (in my sweat pants I might add) and met her at the yoga room, close minded and annoyed.
We settled into the little space on our mats and the instructor introduced himself. His name was Paul Bruno and he’s been teaching yoga for “blah, blah, blah….” boring. I tried not to roll my eyes. He began to explain how a typical yoga class works and what to expect. All I was thinking was when is this guy going to stop talking and when are we going to get to move? After a few more minutes of information, Paul walks over and dims the lights. The room is silent. He sits on his own mat at the front of the room and closes his eyes. I watch him. He looks almost regal and I can see his chest rising and falling rhythmically. I’m desperately trying to figure out what this guy is getting out of this, but his energy is hard to brush off. It’s immediately calming and despite my best efforts to shrug this off, I’m feeling something. He then instructs us to simply tune into our own breathing. To notice the micro adjustments the body makes with each inhale and exhale, the length of the spine and our posture. I begin to notice that just tuning into my breath, instantly gives me this sense of well being. Odd. I breathe all day long. Big deal…but this feels different. I start to give into to the process a little and follow Paul’s instruction. We just sat there with our eyes closed, and lengthened our inhales and exhales. I have no idea for how long. Then after a time he asks us to slowly open our eyes. He then tells us that the base of a yoga practice is simply built around the breath, and that vinyasa yoga is simply breath with movement. He goes through a laundry list of the benefits of yogic breath and calls it pranayama.
Hmmm…kinda weird but…okay. I’m listening. We then stand up and he begins to walk us through some basic yoga postures and again, the breathing. I begin to focus on my foot placement and the way my abdomen feels and the way my breath aids in aligning my posture. I forget all about my hip and work through a simple series of postures focusing on nothing but my breath, how the pose feels and micro adjustments that deepen the posture. This guy is onto something here. Before I know it two hours has passed and he tells us to lay on our mats. What?? Lay down? Once again the cynic in my athlete brain starts to laugh- what kind of class makes you lay down after ward? This is weird. He calls it ‘savasana’ or the ‘corpse pose’ and explains that it’s the posture of ultimate surrender. It’s when you release the breath work and allow the body to just rest. He turns off the lights and we settle in. I close my eyes and realize how tired my body is, but at the same time how energized I feel. I’m awake but in a state of true relaxation. I never felt anything like that before. After a time Paul gently instructs us to deepen our breath. To begin to comeback to the movements of the body. I slowly come back to a seated position. He tells us that we’ve done everything we needed to do. That we did it with grace. I believe him. We end with the chant of ‘Om’ together as a group and even that feels energizing. I leave the room in a daze. I felt like my pipes had been cleaned out or something.
I kept going back, sometimes three days a week. I couldn’t believe it. The time healing my hip injury went by fast and I felt better. I felt calmer, less anxious and more connected to my own body. When I got the green light from my doctor to hit the pavement again, I felt trepidation. I was almost afraid that I would lose the connection to yoga and get right back into the mechanical aspect of running. I went for my first post-injury run. It was slow. But it didn’t hurt for the first time that I could remember. At that point I came to realize something really important. Somehow, this injury was a huge gift and yes, starting a yoga practice was part of it, but more than that- it lent me a clue to one of the keys of taking care of my body, the greatest vehicle I’ll ever own. Sometimes you’ve got to let your body drive.
So often in our physical life, the brain dictates what the body does. The brain can be harsh on the body and the brain often ignores what the body is trying to say. Yoga gives your body a voice. It allows it to take the drivers seat and the brain must sit in the back seat and for once take in the scenery. Giving the brain, which barks orders at the body all day, permission to take a ride, in my belief, adds to whole body wellness and longevity. I’ve come to learn as a Personal Trainer and a Yoga Teacher (two things which are in many ways diametrically opposed) that yoga works in concert with fitness and in fact, prevents and eliminates injury. A life without yoga is like driving a Mercedes and never bothering to change the oil.
So in a nutshell… When I run, I tell my body I love it. When I practice yoga, I listen to my body tell me it loves me back.