Men cannot see their reflection in running water, but only in still water.
—Chuang Tzu, philosopher (c. 4th century BCE)
It seems like those who are really into yoga sometimes think that a yoga practice must be done at the exclusion of all other physical exercise. While it’s true that there are only so many hours in the day into which a person can cram a yoga routine around work, family, social life, eating, etc., I’ve found that a balance of yoga and other physical exercise seems to help my mind and body feel its best. Although some of us may wish we lived in Himalayan caves, practicing yoga night and day, for the overwhelming majority of us, that dream is simply not reality.
While there are undeniable benefits that come from regularly finding time to step on the yoga mat, there are many other pathways for developing the mind-body connection. Almost any physical activity, whether it’s tennis or running or swimming, when approached with the same yogic mindset can be used as an opportunity for contemplation, meditation, and breath-awareness.
Zen Habits has a great article on The Zen of Running, describing how running can be used to develop present-mindedness and concentration. Lately, I’ve been totally into running. Even though I can’t say that I always get the same peaceful, relaxing feeling of yoga when I run, I often leave the iPod at home and use the repetitive nature of running to enter a meditation-like state, concentrating mainly on my breathing patterns. All I can say is it works for me. Everyone’s different, so it may or may not work for you. But, you never know until you try.
One suggestion to bring more thoughtful awareness to exercise is to keep a journal for recording thoughts and impressions that come up. Since I like running, I’ve long used various websites to track my running progress. In addition to tracking miles, times, and routes, any number of sites (I currently use Strava) provides a convenient way to journal any ideas or thoughts that come to mind while out running. It’s nice to look back sometimes at the journal entries and remember those days I was in the zone. It’s also very motivating.
The principles of yoga can be applied to almost any activity. For me, both running and yoga get me into that “stillness” that Chuang Tzu says must be discovered before human beings are able to see their true reflection, before they find out who they really are. For ancient yogis, it took A LOT of experimentation before they started systematizing the limbs of yoga and creating a system of movement that almost magically led to inner stillness. In fact, that experimentation has never stopped and continues still today. As John Parker said in Once a Runner, “If the furnace is hot enough, it will burn anything.” That is what yoga does for me; that is what running does for me. If that’s not yogic, then I don’t know what is.
Bottom-line: Be like the ancient yogis and try something new; you might find enlightenment along the way.