11/18/2012 10:39 am ET Updated Jan 18, 2013

Yoga for Runners

I have been a yoga teacher for 19 years, and a runner for 25. I started running as a teenager, but it did not come easy to me. My parents did not encourage physical activity; we were a lower income family with a diet of Burger King, Chinese food, instant mashed potatoes, and the like, coupled with lots of TV watching. As a slightly chubby kid, I took matters into my own hands, and I bought the book Fit for Life, started eating fruits and vegetables, and took up running. Like I said though, I was not a natural. Two miles was my big goal for a long time. When I went off to college at NYU, my running was put on hold, and I was introduced to yoga. As a fledgling yoga student at the original Jivamukti Yoga Center, complete with bright purple walls and chanting, incense, and talk about God, my love affair with yoga began.

It was not until post-college, when I moved to Bridgehampton, N.Y. and got a dog, that I started running again. Running, along with my yoga practice, became an integral part of my days, and of my life.

Anybody can run, and anybody can practice yoga. I think that is why these two activities hold so much appeal to me, and to so many people. They don't require expensive gear, they can be done anywhere, and they can be with us throughout our lives, if we are mindful about how we run and the types of yoga we practice. When one combines yoga and running, bliss indeed is possible!

For me, as I increased my training, my body -- while getting stronger and faster -- was also more susceptible to overuse and injury. I turned to my yoga practice and began to use it in a very specific way to stretch and "correct" the body after many miles pounding the pavement (or the sand, or the trails, as the case may be). There are many ideas about how much stretching or "warming up" one should do before running, but all experts agree that stretching is absolutely necessary post-run.

Below is a short five- to 10-minute post-run yoga sequence that I have developed. For best results, practice this sequence immediately post-run, preferably outside, and consider taking off your sneakers to allow your feet to move and stretch and breathe along with the rest of your body!

Post-Running Yoga Sequence:

  • Downward-facing dog: Begin in an all-fours position, hands under shoulders and knees under hips, tuck your toes under, lift your knees off the floor, and press yourself back, straightening your legs, simultaneously lifting your buttock bones up while reaching your heels down.
  • From downward-facing dog, step the right foot forward into a long lunge, keeping the back leg straight and the back heel up (so the leg is parallel in the hip socket). Front knee is over front foot, holding for five to 10 breaths. Feel the stretch through the left calf as well as through the front of the left thigh (hip flexor, psoas, quads).
  • Step back to downward dog
  • Step the left foot forward into lunge (see above!)
  • Step back to downward dog
  • Take the right leg back and up to a down dog split (three-legged dog),
  • Step knee Forward to pigeon pose and walk hands forward, folding forward, staying for at least one minute. Make sure that your front knee is angled slightly to the side of the hip, and then square your hips off for greatest stretch and benefit.
  • Press your palms into the floor and press back to downward dog. Repeat from three-legged dog on the second side.
  • From downward dog, walk your feet to your hands and fold forward into a standing forward bend. You can do this with your legs about hips-distance apart, and, if need be, your knees slightly bent. Hold about one minute.
  • Separate your feet as wide apart as your yoga mat (if you have one), or a bit wider than your hips, bend your knees, and come to a squat. If your heels do not touch the floor, simply use your hands on the floor in front of you for support. (This squeezes the leg muscles and also feels amazing on lower back post-run.)
  • Lie on your back. hug knees to chest. Keep hugging in your right knee and extend your left leg straight down on to the ground. Inhale, and then exhale and guide the bent leg across the body into a twist to stretch your iliotibial band. Inhale back to center and switch your legs. Inhale back to center and pause.
  • From there lie on your back, with your knees bent and feet flat on the floor. Feel the back of the body on the ground. Rest your hands on your belly and feel the rise and fall of breath. Neutralize the body through the ease of your breath. Have gratitude for your body and its amazing ability.

I shared my childhood diet and lack of athleticism to illustrate that we all come from varied backgrounds. For me, yoga, running, and later in life, triathlons, paddleboarding and surfing, are my joys. As a yoga teacher foremost though, I always come from a place of compassion. I understand that taking up running can be super challenging. The very wise and inspiring female Buddhist nun Pema Chodron advises, "Start where you are." This applies to our spiritual practice, as well as our yoga practice, our running practice, our life practice.

Start where you are. Replace a can of Diet Coke with a piece of fruit. Replace a cup of coffee with a downward-facing dog. Run instead of walk, even for just a few steps. Blame your parents, and then forgive them! Take responsibility for your actions. Choose to not be a victim. Spread love everywhere you go. Move your body as often as you can, but rest when you need to rest. Practice compassion, practice yoga, enjoy life.

For more by Jessica Bellofatto, click here.

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