The application of compassion to running is not as simple as avoiding mentally beating yourself up. If it were that easy, you probably would be doing it already! Compassion by definition is to have sympathy or concern for those who are suffering, and thus self-compassion is applying this gentleness to ourselves. For many high achieving goal-setters, there is commonly an existing constant inner dialogue that can be a huge asset when functioning well. But oftentimes when we become too rigid or feel mounting external pressures, what was once a mental narrative of motivation can morph our inner voice into our biggest critic. Rather than encouraging ourselves to train harder or gracefully accepting less than desirable outcomes, we berate ourselves for our faults and ruminate on what could have been done better. Developing self-compassion is just like any other muscle; we can practice and condition ourselves to access compassion automatically.
In yoga and psychotherapy alike, the use of breath is an integral part of calming the mind, emotions and body. Thoughts, feelings and behavior function in a cohesive partnership. Therefore, when we are looking at changing a behavior (in this case, gaining compassion while running), we must also note the interplay of thoughts and emotions. If our thoughts are filled with negative, critical dialogue, we intuitively know we will feel a response such as disappointment, anger, guilt, etc. And so too will our behavior reflect the thought by manifesting as resentment, lessened motivation to train, or just straight up panic during a run.
Within the autonomic nervous system, your breath is the only visceral function which is both automatic and that can be regulated voluntarily. This is a critical component when decreasing anxiety and developing compassion as it is necessary to begin to override our fight, flight or freeze responses. In order to keep the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems able to regulate when we need to be energized (such as in race time) or relaxed (as in recovery time), we can use our breath to soothe our nerves and quiet our mind. Physically, breath promotes better circulation of oxygen through our blood and muscles, improves lunch capacity and hearting strength, detoxifies within the lymph system and increases performance in exercise and training. Practicing breath work within meditation also addresses our runaway thoughts, giving us control over what we emotionally respond to in order to increase mental clarity, attunement within our bodies, and how to speak to ourselves with compassion - all necessary on race day!
The following guided meditation will teach you two foundational pranayama (Sanskrit for control of energy – aka breath) practices. The first is the Dirga, or 3-part, breath. Here you will learn to increase your awareness on the muscles and organs involved in breathing and feel what it is like to take a proper full cycle of breath. The second is the Ujjayi breath. This breath is especially helpful in moments of physical or mental stress to focus the mind and allow intake of the necessary amount of breath for the moment.
Practice these breath techniques daily to begin to quiet your mind and connect to your body. When you feel you have begun to develop mastery, see if you can access them during a training session. When you begin to notice thoughts that are less than compassionate, return your focus to your breath.
~~Sound quality best when listened to with headphones.~~
Mantras can also be used to build compassion during pranayama. I would recommend matching a mantra first to your meditation practice, then pacing it to your strides while running. For example, a mantra would be a simple statement such as “I am compassion.” Use any statement you find motivating, loving or positive in nature. While practicing your ten rounds of breathing, bring your awareness to your heart and state your mantra on the inhale. Your heart space is the center of your compassion and is a good focal point any time you need support. On the exhale, use a statement that affirms and locks in your mantra, such as “So it is.” To implement this with movement, you can pace each syllable of your mantra with a stride, or continue to utilize it on the inhale/exhale no matter the speed in which you are moving. Or, you can simply increase your focus by counting the breath as you did with the Ujjayi breath.
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