By Shayna Zema
As a yoga teacher, I’m always reminding people in class to set an intention for their practice, tie each movement to a breath, and unite mind and body; however, as someone who likes to run—I don’t think I’ll ever feel quite comfortable classifying myself as a runner—my own advice seemed to have been stomped away with each strike of my foot on the ground. Intense cardiovascular exercise left me panting for breath, that is, during the times I would actually engage in it after building up the mental courage to lace up my shoes and leave my house. But after years of struggle, one day everything changed.
After developing a consistent daily yoga practice this past fall in Puerto Rico, I decided to give running a try once again. I started with a co-worker who resembled an Olympic athlete in terms of stamina and physique, which probably wasn’t the best idea for my self-esteem. I avoided the route along the lagoon for a while after, but the strong running culture of San Juan began to entice me once more. When I was out running one evening, I began to talk to myself—we all do it at some point. My mind grew weak and weary, commonly known as “freaking-out.” Thoughts of stopping, taking a quick walking break, and why I was running in the first place raced through my mind. As the sweat poured down my face, I silenced my thoughts, deepened my inhales and exhales, and closed out my vision. While I always instruct and personally try to practice yoga ideology on and off the mat, I never once thought to incorporate it into my running practice.
I began a process of what I have termed the “mind-body check-in.” This practice has profoundly changed my life in everything from running to studying to managing conflicts. It begins with a dialogue between you and your mind. You initiate the conversation by saying to yourself, “Hey mind, how do you feel?” Your mind might respond, “tired,” “weak,” “strong,” “eager,” “totally ready,” etc. Then you conduct another dialogue, this time with your body. You ask the same question: “Hey body, how do you feel?” Your body can respond with similar or different answers to that of the mind, such as “weak, with a pain in my right ankle” or “strong with plenty of energy to continue onward.” These dialogues provide you with information that allows you to understand how in-sync or out-of-sync your body and mind are at that point in time. The goal, like in yoga, is to have these two aspects of ourselves be in harmony, which is why the final step is crucial. When I practice this part, I imagine an energy transfer emanating from the power of the breath. If my body feels weak and my mind strong, I channel some of my mind’s energy to my body so that the two have an equal amount. If my right ankle begins to lose strength, I focus my attention on that part of my body and imagine sending all my breath there until I no longer feel any discomfort. If my body feels like it has unlimited energy but my mind’s resources begin dwindling, I perform a similar energy transfer. Mind-body check-ins can be done as often as you like—from every minute to every twenty minutes.
As I ran through parks or on cobblestone streets and incorporated this practice into my exercise, I would become so in tune with my body that it was as if my eyes were closed and I couldn’t see in front of me or remember what I had just seen. And
I was not filled with the terror of momentary blindness; rather, I felt a euphoric sense of looking-in, opposed to looking-out. Mind-body check-ins allowed me to trust in myself and my body and know that I had an abundance of mental vigor some days and a lack of bodily stamina on others and vice versa. I was able to truly know myself with all my frailties and dynamism and, as a result, embrace my runs and the beautiful scenery around me.
So often we get entrenched in arguments with friends or family, feel overwhelmed by the stress and workload at the office, or even get psyched-out by our fitness regime so that we forget about the one incredibly powerful thing that sustains us with life over twenty-thousand times per day: our breath. Re-focusing our attention on this vital life force and creating a relationship or dialogue between ourselves, our minds, and our bodies will allow for inner peace, harmony, and the strength to persevere to blossom along our daily paths.