Barefoot Running's Inherent Connection with Yoga
By Vincent Gerbino
Stretch before a big workout. It’s the oldest advice in the athletic world. So it shouldn’t be a secret that the science of Yoga, an ancient discipline that’s all about stretching would have a connection with running. But why?
It’s true that running is the only traditional sport in today’s world that rivals Yoga in terms of age. Competitive running is as old as the Olympics, which date back to pre-700 BC. Yoga as we know it today has been practiced for just as long. To find the connection, we have to ask a question: Just how did people run back in the days of ancient Greece, where competitive running was born?
The answer: They ran barefoot. There were numerous running events and different types of races, just as there are many types and disciplines of Yoga, with its 900. But no matter what Yoga pose or Yoga discipline is practiced, it is always practiced barefoot, just as every race in ancient Greece was run barefoot.
When I started doing Yoga, I started to really enjoy being shoeless, and the more I did, the more I thought about running that way. I'd been teaching customized Yoga programs for different, physically-active students and gotten lots of positive feedback. And my own practice had enhanced my own condition with every sport I pursued, but I was still avoiding running since my feet and knees hurt. So when I decided to "put a little Yoga" into my running and took my first run without shoes, it was the beginning of a beautiful connection between the two disciplines.
I quickly found that the Yoga mat and the runner's course could be one and the same. When running, everything I said to myself on the Yoga mat fit right in with the rhythm of my bare feet hitting the ground.
"Feel it. Be connected with the ground beneath your feet" is a phrase Yogis all know well. It adds significance to the idea of simply being there on the ground. It wasn’t just that my feet were touching the ground; what happened was that I really, truly felt grounded in the most positive way, which is what Yoga aims for. That’s how, for me, barefoot running became mobile yoga.
On my first run, I was quite amazed by the way that touching the ground with bare feet heightened ALL of senses. Simply by feeling every pebble and every grain of sand with my feet, I become able to recognize things I never noticed before. I soon read of mutual experiences from other barefooters. With every run I’ve taken since then, that same heightened sense of being is there within me, as powerful as the best runner’s high but with calmness felt only during deep Yoga meditation on my mat. Knowing I am barefoot on the path makes me feel like a well-heeled Indian scout or hunter. That first ran barefoot run was on a course I still run several days a week before sunrise.
Like any system of sidewalks, my chosen path includes the occasional broken glass. On my first run I was surprised at how easily my eyes found those caltrops glistening in the dim street light ahead, and how successfully I avoided them. Many parts of the course are perpetually peppered with stones from the gardens that line it. Each day those stones get kicked to new places by passing pedestrians, yet no matter where they are I seem to dance right through them. But this primal awareness isn’t limited to the eyes or even the feet.
Yoga tells us to be present in our bodies, aware of how every muscle feels. As an experienced Yogi who just started barefoot running this year, I found out that the same principle applied to my new obsession.
One uses many new muscles once the feet are freed from shoes; that’s when true plantar flexion finally begins. It’s when you find out how important the small muscles that surround your ankles are to your success. Shoes restrict the ankles from moving just like they restrict the foot.
The simplest, most classic Yoga poses help prepare this runner’s ankles for their new-found freedom of movement. The downward dog and triangle stance are two typical postures I had done for years which helped me build strength in my ankles. Classic, one-legged balancing poses like the Tree and the Eagle both can help build ankle stability and shear leg strength. **** The well-known plank pose (the "up" in a regular push-up position can help build strength in the lower leg while the foot is in flexed position, like it will be when one is running barefoot.
By ditching my shoes and putting some Yoga into my running, I made running a far better and healthier activity. As far as barefoot running goes, I’m still a rookie. But as an experienced Yogi, I’ve already learned that barefoot running brought me much of the awareness that Yoga makes me look for-and even when my bare feet are just on my Yoga mat.