All right my Yoga Challenge participants, I’ve got an amazing guest post for you today that I hope will encourage you to keep going or start incorporating more yoga.
The truth is, I never thought I’d be “a runner.” While I myself have been actively involved in fitness and sports for many, many years, I always admired individuals who carried that “runner” title, logging dozens and dozens of miles week after week and truly enjoying it. Although I briefly ran track in high school, I always gravitated toward sprinting events as distance running was never my forte- I think I always just assumed I wasn’t good at it, and never would be. Little did I know though that my consistent yoga practice would play a key role in kicking off (and later maintaining) my love for running.
Upon moving to Southern California almost 7 years ago, I became friends with several individuals who were big into running- everything from 5Ks to marathons to hash runs, fun runs and trail runs, and everything in between! Since fitness is such a huge part of my life (both personally and professionally) I thought this could be a great opportunity to actually give running a try, as I’m always looking for new ways to be active, especially if they include having fun and spending quality time with friends and loved ones. As I started to hit the pavement (and the trails..and the beach…and the hills) in time I incredibly began to log more and more miles, and I realized one day that there was one key component to my newfound success- my breathing.
As a yoga teacher and a yoga student the breath is always at the forefront of my mind, as a key element to any yoga practice is the work done on breath control (what we in yoga refer to as pranayama), in which the focus is to deepen, lengthen and extend the breath, which is then paired with movement (the linking between breath and movement is typically how a vinyasa style yoga class is defined, as the connection between these two elements creates flow and continuity). As I would set out each day to run, I would find myself tapping into my Ujjayi breath- a full, rich, yet smooth diaphragmatic breath in which the inhalations and exhalations are completed through the nose and are done so in equal length. With practice, this style of breathing can help one to extend the breath for a longer duration, allowing for improved endurance due to the greater amount of oxygen, and because of its rhythmic and calming nature, it also helps to reduce stress and provide almost a meditative like quality, which for me only helped to enhance the running experience. Since this is the breath most commonly practiced in vinyasa-style yoga due to the fact that it is the breath best suited for the practice of asanas (or poses), it felt very natural, almost instinctual, for me to utilize this breathing technique while out on long runs, which in time increased from 2 miles, to 6 miles and on to 10 miles at a time.
Just as it took time for me to gradually build up the pace and duration of my runs, so too did it take me time and great practice to master the technique of Ujjayi breathing, but the benefits from doing so have been tremendous. In addition to yoga allowing me to become more aware of such a critical element of life and movement (the breath), it has also physically helped me with strengthening and also lengthening key areas of the body that allow for greater ease not only in running and other fitness and athletic pursuits, but also in everyday movements. Specifically, I can personal attest to the many benefits of hip opening postures, like eka pada rajakapotasana (one-legged pigeon pose), agnistambhasana (fire log pose) and ananda balasana (happy baby pose), which allow for greater focus on the hip joint and on stretching the muscles in that area of the body which is not only important for runners (who often have misalignment in this region), but also for just about every person who spends the majority of their day in a seated position, such as at a desk or when driving a car (which causes the hip flexors to tighten and shorten). In addition to greater flexibility and improved range of motion, yoga has also helped me to develop greater core strength and awareness (which serves as the foundation for quality movement), as well to focus more greatly on balance, both on the mat (in physical balancing postures) as well as off the mat (in how I approach everyday life).
One of the greatest things I’ve learned through my yoga journey is to be open-minded and to embrace every opportunity, concepts which I regularly impart upon my students and others. Taking the first step (literally) and giving running a try is just one example of how I put into practice what I teach, and without that leap of faith I never would have had the opportunity to experience first-hand just how well yoga and running beautifully balance one another.
Jessica Matthews, MS, E-RYT, is an exercise physiologist, yoga teacher, group fitness instructor, personal trainer, adjunct professor, blogger and fitness personality. As a spokesperson and presenter for the American Council on Exercise (ACE®), Jessica strives to open minds, ignite passion and inspire the world to health and fitness through purposeful movement, quality nutrition and kind words. Jessica has been featured as a fitness expert on CNN and has been quoted in numerous publications including Shape, Self, Oxygen, Health, Oprah.com and USA Today. www.twitter.com/fitexpertjess
I am grateful for this yoga challenge which has allowed me to begin to catch my own breathe and tap in to my true spirit regardless of circumstances.