Soulful Strides: Running as a Spiritual PracticeJun 30, 2021 ● By Marlaina Donato
Lacing up sneakers and going out for a run helps to manage weight, high blood pressure, depression and addictions, but pressing our feet upon the Earth can be much more than a form of health-promoting exercise. Runners often refer to the “runner’s high”—attaining a profound sense of well-being after a good jog. According to David Linden, a professor of neuroscience at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, this boost in mood is due to endocannabinoids, the body’s natural chemicals that are similar to the molecules in marijuana that promote relaxation.
Running can be introspective, and over time, a spiritual practice. “Something seems to unite the physical and spiritual when pounding the pavement,” says Michael Fitzgerald, a seasoned runner and multi-genre author in Santaquin, Utah. “The discipline of running is a gift I give to myself. It gives me time away from the expectations of daily life and allows me to enter a world all its own.”
For many, running is competitive and involves the pursuit of excellence, but directing attention to inner emotional terrain and bodily sensations can foster a practice that transcends personal goals. “Once we see that we can be with the discomfort, the joy, the pain, the thrill of running, we realize that we can be present in every moment of our lives, no matter what it brings,” says Vanessa Zuisei Goddard, author of Still Running: The Art of Meditation in Motion. Goddard, a teacher of Zen in New York City, underscores intention. “We can practice running not just as exercise, but as a form of moving meditation—what I call ‘still running’. It’s a way of saying to ourselves, ‘Every moment of my life matters. I want to be present for all of it. I want to be awake.’”
Julia Chi Taylor, a London-based life coach and avid runner, highlights the breath as a guide, the option of using a mantra and “being mindful of any dynamic of pushing too hard or internal criticism, and instead practicing quietening the mind as you run.” The 20-year veteran of international races sees no division between the mundane and the divine. “Running has been a spiritual practice for me since I was a teenager, as I have always been on a spiritual path. Running seemed to me to be my soul expression.” Taylor’s challenge during her competitive years was to slow down inside. “I was often getting caught up with my ego’s desire for approval and recognition. It was always evident when I was caught up in pushing and losing the presence of the step; I always became ill or injured,” she relates.
Breath as Guide
Inhaling and exhaling with mindfulness during running, much like yoga, helps to foster the unity of body, mind and spirit. “The breath is the most common object of meditation. I pair my breath with my stride, and this both keeps me connected to my body and it quiets my mind,” explains Goddard.
Taylor concurs, noting, “Running asks that we breathe more deeply, and the more we are in touch with the breath, the mind stills, or at least starts to work in a freer way, and we realize we are not the mind. When we run with no purpose but to run, after a while we become the run, and each step takes care of itself.”
For Fitzgerald, running has helped him to overcome negativity and find a sense of freedom. On the practical level, nixing earbuds for silence helps him to pave the way for a deeper experience. “I find my thoughts are clearer when I am running. Self-discipline for me is a spiritual endeavor. Overcoming internal, trite objections to exercise such as running always feels like a spiritual triumph. Such triumphs give me hope and motivate me to reach higher, again and again.”
Moving the body invites transformation and a broader, deeper perspective. Taylor shares, “As our body gets fitter and develops endurance, it becomes easier to recognize the body as a temple of the soul. The skills we learn to master the art of running can then become skills to help us master the art of living.”
Marlaina Donato is an author and recording artist.
Spiritual Practices on the Run
Michael Fitzgerald: Occasionally, run just for the sake of running. Don’t wear a watch or carry your phone. Take a break from the slavery of electronics. Then pay attention to nature and the weather. Don’t judge it or wish it away. Just behold and honor it. You will find that your mind will quiet and you will feel more at peace.
Julia Chi Taylor: It can help to practice a short, five-minute breathing meditation before running. Simply sit and watch your breath, without changing the rhythm. You can become connected to the silence within you and it becomes easier to stay more present to each step and to watch your breathing as you run. It also helps to stay at a relaxed pace with no effort of pushing. Listen to your footfall and run without any feelings of self-criticism.