As both a long-time runner and practitioner of Bikram yoga, I know first-hand how much Bikram feeds into and supports my running. Running and yoga have an amazing synergy. There are the physical benefits that any runner will experience – loosening up your hamstrings is an obvious example – but for me personally, and for many others, the main benefit is mental.
Lots of runners first come to Bikram yoga to build strength and stamina and improve stretching. But they continue to practise it when they realise it offers so much more. It’s the perfect mediator in the battle between the mental and the physical challenges that characterise long-distance running.
Yoga helps teach you to take your mind to a place where it can tap into the endurance you need. But, whereas the physical benefits reveal themselves pretty quickly, the mental ones take longer. You need patience. If you persevere though, you’ll find that your yoga practice really does become ‘a moving meditation’.
I’ve reached the stage that when I run, my breathing naturally matches my pace. And every runner knows the importance of finding that rhythm. It takes you out of yourself. Instead of focusing on your body, or which bit hurts, or how many miles you have left to run, you’re in a more peaceful place. Utterly focused on the task at hand.
This tallies with Csíkszentmihályi’s concept of flow in psychology: being fully focused on the activity and successfully removing yourself and your emotions from the equation. It’s often referred to as being ‘in the zone’.
Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as ‘being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost.’
His description of flow strikes a chord with me as I’m starting to think about next year’s London Marathon and am regularly running 10Ks up to half-marathons. By concentrating on my breathing, I find that my mind quietens and before I know it several kilometres have gone by. I can use my breath to connect my mind to my body. It’s a sort of meditation: focusing on my breathing quietens my mind and empties it of ego. It leads to a fusion of mind and body where my body performs at its optimal level.
Regular practice of Bikram yoga is a proven way to increase lung capacity, which is why it’s so good for people with respiratory problems. Each session starts with standing deep breathing and ends with breathing rapidly in and out. They’re exercises that teach you how to open your lungs and to use your diaphragm to breathe more deeply. In our day-to-day life most of us breathe too shallowly, but 90 minutes of deep, slow breathing brings your heart rate down to normal, and helps you keep calm and focused under pressure. It’s why top-level athletes like Andy Murray find Bikram yoga so useful.
Many of us fail to notice that we breathe more shallowly when we’re nervous or anxious. Faced with a stressful situation, the flight or fight response kicks in: adrenaline is released, your heart rate increases and your blood pressure rises. Breathing more slowly and deeply activates the hypothalamus to send out neuro-hormones that inhibit this. The result: you relax and perform at your best.
You’ve probably also read - or noticed - that there’s a link between stress and digestive problems. It’s because the enteric nervous system, which sends messages between your brain and your digestive system, is affected by stress. It means that from ulcers through to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), or even just butterflies before an important presentation, learning to breathe properly can help.
Learning to control your breathing gives you the confidence to realise you can control your reactions and your focus. Plus it floods your body with the oxygen it needs, giving you more energy and a clear mind. Once you’ve learned to breathe properly through your practice of Bikram, it’s something that becomes instinctive. You can apply it to help with your running, or any area of your life.
Olga Allon is the Director of Hot Bikram Yoga and has three studios based in Fulham, Balham and London Bridge. For more information visit: www.hotbikramyoga.co.uk, facebook/hotbikramyoga, twitter: @hotbikramyoga
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