If we are to truly visit yoga and plumb its depths, and if, as runners, we hope to benefit from a practice that can help us become healthy and fit in mind and body, then we must become aware of bodily sensation, the subtle but tangible quality that is the language of our body. Sensation speaks to those with a quiet mind and a patient ear, revealing the body’s secret intrigues and loud complaints. Being guided by sensation in running and in yoga means we have accepted that sensation is a phenomenon worthy of our trust and full attention.
Our willingness to listen to our body’s voice begins a dialogue between mind and body, and is the first step in creating a deep and enduring quality of embodiment. But this path is littered with obstacles that will test our resolve, and the ideal state of complete embodiment may seem at times to be beyond our reach. But ultimately our striving to be grounded and whole will be realized, and the universe of the body offered to us.
To understand and appreciate the importance of connecting more deeply to the body, and to understand the barriers to that connection, let’s consider this statement from yoga teacher Richard Freeman: “yoga begins with listening.” At the start of most yoga classes, the participants, their minds a plague of thoughts and anxieties, are perhaps anticipating how their recalcitrant bodies will respond to the raw intensity of the postures. Their attention is typically directed outward to the instructor or their neighbor, not inward to the body. So the suggestion that students listen to the body may be perplexing or disappointing, perhaps enticing, or even novel, but it’s not what some of us might typically associate with yoga.
As runners, we’re first attracted to yoga not just for how it can benefit our running, but for the sheer physicality and challenge of the postures. For many their requirements seem daunting, if not impossible, but runners seem innately drawn to formidable obstacles. So we bring that goal-oriented mindset with us as we set out on the path of yoga. But as we begin our journey, Freeman asks us to adjust our natural inclination toward the manifestly physical nature of the practice, and instead of proceeding with the focus and vigor typical of runners, he asks us first to “listen.” True listening requires patience, concentration, and openness, and is decidedly un-physical, but with listening as the guide, the physical practice blossoms. It is then that the body’s story is told to us in its own language, sensation, to which we listen attentively and with enthusiasm as the narrative plays out.
Sensation is a purely present moment experience; it is neither past nor future. But connecting to sensation requires empathy for the body and for ourselves, and implies a willingness to experience our own suffering. So we tune in to the endless stream of sensation flowing past our field of awareness, and follow it from moment to moment. Because the creation of a “present mind” is one of the desired outcomes of yoga, focusing the mind on sensation (and the breath) helps to ensure that the mind is anchored firmly not only in a place (the body), but in time (the present moment). When we connect to sensation we climb inside our body and experience it with total commitment.
Sports psychologist Stan Beecham talks about the significance of this for runners: “Overuse injuries have a lot to do with not paying attention to your body, not being in tune with your body, not being able to trust what your body is telling you. Injury is not a physical event. It’s the mind-body complex working together.”
When Beecham says our lack of attention to the body contributes significantly to injuries, he’s articulating one of the key messages of runner’s yoga, and at the same time shifts much of the responsibility for injuries squarely onto the runner. Rather than being at the mercy of barely understood forces that act indiscriminately on our bodies, Beecham (and Freeman) want us to pay attention to and recognize the significance of what the body is telling us every second, whether we are runners or not. In other words, embrace the body with the mind.
Mark Johnson offers this summation:
“We can think and imagine only through our bodies.”
Photo credit: Greg Herringer photo