Yoga for Runners: 5 Secrets to the Mind-Body Connection

It’s no secret that yoga for runners provides numerous benefits to performance and injury prevention.

Most of us know that yoga is a mind-body practice, connecting the physical with the mental.
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But did you know that following the path of yoga can also guide us toward moral and ethical principles as they relate to the world around us? 
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That’s right: yoga isn’t just about the me, my and I of our own bodies and mind. 

  • It’s also about relationships and community. 

And as runners, we are very familiar with how meaningful our running relationships and running community are. 

Now, let’s take a closer look at how yoga for runners can help you find deeper meaning and purpose on the road or trail.

Yoga for runners: The philosophy

Yoga is constructed as a specific, systematic, eight-limbed path as described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

  • The first limb is known as the yamas, translated as moral disciplines or vows, which is what we’ll examine in this article. 
  • The yamas are actions and serve as the foundation, some even say the prerequisite for the rest of the limbs of yoga. 
  • They are a set of five moral and ethical principles that provide an internal and external framework from which to live.

The FIVE yamas:

  1. Ahimsa (non-harming)
  2. Satya (truthfulness)
  3. Asteya (non-stealing)
  4. Brahmacharya (moderation of the senses/ right use of energy)
  5. Aparigraha (non-attachment) 

Because the yamas call for action, they are productive, while providing guidance for healthy social functioning and serving the greater good. 
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Ultimately, the yamas create boundaries for us so that we are not living wildly, unrestrained, selfishly, creating a path of destruction wherever we go.
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Best of all, the yamas are basic, universal concepts. 
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So let’s dive deeper and discover how the five yamas pertain to yoga for runners.
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🧘‍♀️The 5 Yoga Yamas and How to Apply Them to Running

Compassion is a common theme in a yoga class and is a transferable concept to running. (Photo/ Unit4Media)

🧘‍♀️1. Ahimsa (non-harming)

Ahimsa, or non-harming, means:

  • Not physically, mentally or emotionally harming others, oneself or the environment. It is often regarded as the most important yama, taking priority above all else. 

“Strictly speaking, no activity and no industry is possible without a certain amount of violence, no matter how little. Even the very process of living is impossible without a certain amount of violence. What we have to do is to minimize it to the greatest extent possible.”

—- Mahatma Gandhi

We can apply the concept of non-harming to our:

  • Thoughts 
  • Words
  • Actions 

In our day-to-day lives, we can ground our thinking, speaking and behaving in:

  • Kindness
  • Love
  • Compassion
  • Humility
  • Reverence for all people and things
  • Basically, all things opposite of harm

According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2.35:

  • “In the presence of one whose thoughts and actions are harmless, all living things become peaceful and harmless.” 

Examples of ahimsa, or harm and violence, in running:

  • Disordered eating
  • Doping
  • Over-training
  • Running with an injury
  • Poor sportsmanship and trash talking 
  • Trying to be the fastest in an easy group run
  • Ignoring someone who needs help in a race just to get ahead 
  • Gossiping about fellow runners 
  • Negative self-talk 
  • Non-constructive criticism 
  • Lack of self-acceptance
  • Body shaming
  • Ignoring the principles of Leave No Trace and harming the environment 

Examples of practicing non-harming in running:

  • Fueling well and constantly 
  • Avoiding restrictive diets
  • Taking rest days each week
  • Incorporating self-care practices, such as a hot bath or meditation, into training 
  • Respecting injuries 
  • Positive self-talk
  • Checking on fellow runners during group runs
  • Uplifting fellow runners
  • Self-acceptance with where you are on your running journey 
  • Thanking race directors and volunteers
  • Implementing ecological awareness into your runs such as picking up litter on the trails or along the road
  • Making choices that support the planet - find inspiration in  Becoming a Sustainable Runner: A Guide to Running for Life, Community, and Planet by Tina Muir and Zoe Rom
Authenticity is a theme taught in yoga classes and can be applied to running as well. (Photo/ Unit4Media)

🧘‍♀️2. Satya (truthfulness)

Satya translates as:

  • ‘True essence’ or ‘unchangeable,’ and is interpreted in English to mean truthfulness or being honest with oneself and others.

Just like ahimsa, satya seems obvious. Clearly, we don’t tell lies.
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But a closer look at truthfulness reveals that it’s not so cut and dry.
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Satya is concerned with:

  • Authenticity
  • That quiet inner voice known as a gut feeling or intuition 

Being true to oneself means making changes that may be difficult and requires:

  • Trust
  • Faith 
  • Fearlessness

Ahimsa (non-harming) is present within and underlies the characteristics of each yama.
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In other words, truthfulness and non-harming go hand-in-hand. You can’t have one without the other.
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Examples of untruthfulness in running: 

  • Denying an injury 
  • Telling a coach or partner that all is well when in fact an injury is present or a run is dangerously painful 
  • Downplaying the severity of a niggle or injury 
  • Making goals that do not align with one’s true ability
  • Starting out too fast in a race 
  • Starting out too slowly in a race out of fear even though training and past results prove that a faster pace is doable
  • Exaggerating one’s abilities or the difficulty of a race to fellow runners
  • Cheating on race courses 

Examples of practicing truthfulness in running:

  • Listening to one’s body and energy levels 
  • Having full disclosure with how a run or workout felt 
  • Setting reasonable running goals while allowing oneself to dream big - learn how here
  • Pacing oneself honestly while not being afraid to take risks 
  • Cultivating one’s own running journey and not copying anyone else’s 
  • Finding one’s voice in the running community and expressing what is important for the greater good 

Read more about Satya

In yoga classes, we set intentions for finding abundance within, which can also be an intention in our running practice. (Photo/ Unit4Media)

🧘‍♀️3. Asteya (non-stealing)

Asteya translates as:

  • ‘Non-stealing’ and concerns itself with giving rather than taking, generosity versus greed. 

Abundance is a key concept

  • Do we think we are enough?
  • Or do we think we are lacking, never fit, fast or strong enough? 

An imbalance in asteya is when one lives under the feeling that more is always needed, and contentment is associated with external things.

  • When we achieve more, happiness is fleeting, and the “more” mentality perpetuates itself. 
  • In essence, more begets more, which can be a vicious cycle. 
  • Instead, the true source of abundance comes from within. 
  • By sharing time, energy and money, we are practicing the positive side of non-stealing. 

Examples of stealing/ greed in running:

  • Hoarding running shoes
  • Always buying the latest and greatest gear and apparel when one’s closet is overflowing
  • Stealing time from running friends by consistently being late for group runs or not showing up at all
  • Coveting what running friends (real or online!) are wearing or doing 
  • Saying things like “I’m jealous!” rather than “I’m happy for you!” when a friend displays their new watch or talks about their destination race  
  • Making verbal comparisons of oneself to fellow runners by saying things such as, “I’m not skinny/ fast/ strong like you.” By making negative self-talk and comparisons commonplace, it steals peace from others and creates an uncomfortable, awkward scenario and dynamic within groups and relationships. 
  • Focusing on others’ strengths and striving to be just like them out of envy 
  • Holding oneself back from trying new or challenging things out of fear of failure because the consequences of failing may compound feelings of lack
  • Selling oneself short by ignoring and not honing personal talents
  • Have we borrowed something without returning it? 
  • Do we give back to our running community? 

✅Examples of practicing non-stealing/ giving/receiving in running:

  • Punctuality
  • Keeping commitments 
  • Giving oneself permission to experience and process the full spectrum of emotions. By only focusing on the good, happy times and denying any “negative” feelings, such as the disappointment surrounding an injury or poor race, a full life is obstructed. 
  • Reducing the pairs of shoes and gear purchased 
  • Donating excess running gear. We can send used gear to sites such as:
    • GearTrade
    • REI Re/Supply
    • Patagonia Worn Wear 
    • ThredUp
    • Other options are to donate gear and shoes to running groups, local cross country or track and field teams, thrift stores or shelters. Doing so can make quality running gear more affordable to those who might not be able to afford the full price.
  • Focusing on and honing one’s own strengths 
  • “Comparison is the thief of joy,” said Theodore Roosevelt, so instead of comparing paces and splits to someone else’s, try to be happy for them, keeping ourselves out of it.
  • Dreaming big, accepting failure as part of the journey and shamelessly owning all the ups and downs of running
  • Giving out compliments to and sharing gratitude for fellow runners and everyone in one’s life

Read more about Asteya

Conserving energy or pacing oneself on and off the mat is a universal concept. (Photo/ Unit4Media)

🧘‍♀️4. Brahmacharya (moderation of the senses/ right use of energy)

Brahmacharya is directly translated as

  • ‘Celibacy.’ A more modern understanding is that brahmacharya is the conservation of energy. 

Imbalance in this yama can be seen as: 

  • Excessive talking
  • Worrying
  • Meaningless activity (doom scrolling) 
  • Over-committing 
  • Constant multitasking 

“When all thoughts and actions are fully conformed to one’s aspiration to be self-realized, physical, mental and spiritual strength is acquired.”

—-Patanji’s Yoga Sutras

Examples of not using our energy in a healthy way in running:

  • Over-exercising
  • Over-training
  • Over-racing
  • Over-scheduling 
  • Running hard all the time 
  • Never taking rest days 
  • Making every race an A-race
  • Volunteering at every race local event for fear of missing out (FOMO)
  • Never saying no when asked to run with someone, crew for someone, volunteer at a race, collaborate on a running project, etc.
  • Overdoing it in all aspects of life, such as working late most nights, running a race every weekend and going straight to kid’s activities with little downtime
  • Excessive talking during group runs or races 

Examples of practicing conservation of energy in running: 

  • Following the 80 percent easy 20 percent hard rule or running 
  • Planning races well to coincide with the rest of life
  • Practicing silence 
  • Saying no to invitations to run or other activities if experiencing over-scheduling 
  • Living in harmony with one’s deepest values so that a free flow of energy circulates through the mental field
  • Rest
  • Balancing time spent in quiet, peaceful environments such as outside in nature with time spent in over-stimulating environments such as a brightly lit gym with loud, fast music and lots of people wanting to chat
  • Practice meditation techniques while running 
  • Observe one’s relationship to work and adjust as needed for time for mindfulness, reflection, meditation and relaxation 
Releasing attachment to outcomes, expectations or material things in yoga or running is one way to live a fulfilling life. (Photo/ Unit4Media)

🧘‍♀️5. Aparigraha (non-attachment)

Aparigraha translates as:

  •  ‘Non-attachment.’ 

We can understand it as: 

  • Letting go of what doesn’t serve us 
  • Being engrossed in the action or journey rather than the results or destination. 

“Attachment is the root of all suffering” is a key principle in Buddhism.
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Examples of attachment in running:

  • Always focusing on numerical outcomes such as paces, splits and times
  • Constantly checking the watch during a run to ensure (or force) a certain pace 
  • Experiencing anxiety around performance even on easy runs 
  • Losing sight of the joy of the journey
  • Trying to constantly fulfill external or internal expectations 

Examples of practicing non-attachment in running:

  • Running for the pure love and joy of being in the moment, one footstep at a time
  • Running with the watchface out of sight. Notice I don’t recommend not bringing a watch at all, because most of us are fitting in runs around other, if not many, time constraints and commitments. I, for one, rarely run with limitless hours or freedom to roam for as long as I feel with nowhere to be afterward. Instead, I stash the watch in a pocket or pack and check it only to make sure the run isn’t bumping up too closely to life’s next thing. 
  • Reducing or eliminating Strava use if it holds power over the way most runs unfold, especially if easy days turn into hard or moderate days for fear of looking slow.
  • Releasing worry and anxiety about races and performance by practicing meditation or breathing exercises. 
  • Letting go of the desire to match past results
  • Formulating a “why” or intention for running beyond personal bests and placements 
  • Reflecting upon ways to simplify life

Yoga for runners: Final thoughts

No matter who we are, we can use the yoga yamas as a check-in for our running lives. 
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And what it comes down to is this: To run happy for as long as we shall live, we must ask ourselves:

What do we nourish more: 

  • Our body, mind and relationships
  • or our ego? 

The body and mind will respond to self-compassion and self-acceptance and ultimately feel peace and contentment.
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Putting the ego first will lead to destruction of the mind-body-soul connection and balance.

Interested in the rest of the eight limbs, beyond the yamas?

The eight limbs of yoga, according to the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali
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  1. Yamas - Five restraints, also known as moral disciplines or vows
  2. Niyamas - Five positive duties or observances
  3. Asana - Posture, or the physical poses and exercises that make up a yoga class, and what most modern-day people think of as yoga
  4. Pranayama - Breathing techniques
  5. Pratyahara - Sense withdrawal
  6. Dharana - Focused concentration
  7. Dhyana - Meditative absorption 
  8. Samadhi - Bliss or enlightenment

2 running books that bring it all into perspective

Running and Being: The Total Experience by George Sheehan (1978)
Run Forever: Your Complete Guide to Healthy Lifetime Running by Amby Burfoot

Do you have examples of any of the yamas in running?

Let us know in the comments.

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Brynn Cunningham
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Trail runner, ultrarunner, white water boater, cyclist (mostly MTB), swimmer, triathlete, cross country and backcountry skier...

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