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The influence of sports on meditation

by Amy Chavez

“Running meditation.” It’s almost a cliché. Many people describe their running activity as a form of meditation. There are even articles that will teach you “how to meditate while running.”

The Tendai-shu monks of Mount Hiei in Kyoto do a walking meditation, called jogyozanmai in Japanese. So if you are someone who views running as a natural progression from walking, it surely follows that if there is walking meditation, there must be running meditation too.

People run for many reasons but one of them is to help clear the mind. This is usually a case of leaving behind work, family and the stresses of life to go out and move with the wind, worry-free. For this reason, running is a great way to relieve stress. For many of us, running also helps keep us mentally balanced, by giving us time to be mindful of body movement, breath, posture, etc. It helps us focus.

Whether running is a form of meditation or not, I believe, has more to do with the definition of meditation rather than a fusion of the two concepts. In English, the word meditation can mean merely to think deeply about something as in reflection or contemplation. In yoga, meditation might take on a deeper meaning. In Buddhism, it may delve yet deeper. In true meditation one is supposed to empty the mind of any reflections and contemplations.

So while running may be similar to meditation, is it really meditation?

Let’s look at the similarities between the two.

Meditation is a way of quieting the mind and bringing us back to the center of our selves. It’s a form of training. So is running.

When running, you’ll experience extreme mindfulness. You’ll be aware of your breathing because it is getting laborious. You’ll know you are running uphill because of lactic acid build up in your legs, along with short screaming bouts from your legs, which are trying to convince you to stop so they can rest. You won’t be able to escape such extreme mindfulness!

I think about my breathing all the time when I run. When the endorphins kick in (the same ones released in meditation or with any deep breathing exercises), I am in the present moment, aware of everything around me.

But I’m not meditating. To me, they are two separate things that share some similarities.

Let’s look at some differences between running and meditation:

1. Meditation is safer. The statistics for running injuries is not good. It is said that 80 percent of runners will experience an injury at some point in their running lives. I’d hope the percentage wouldn’t be nearly as high in meditation. During meditation, there is no likelihood of pulling your Achilles tendon, overworking your quads or developing plantar fasciitis.

2. Meditation lacks the physical exertion of running. This is why in walking meditation, one can continue to concentrate on meditation itself rather than external factors. Walking meditation usually involves a very small, controlled area, where one doesn’t have to worry about stumbling, dodging traffic, or which is the best rehydration system to carry with them. If you are deep in meditation while running, on the other hand, you’re more likely to preempt your entry into Nirvana by wandering into traffic, or treading upon a poisonous snake on the trail.

3. Heavy breathing, sweating and exhaustion are not tenets of meditation. (If they were, fewer people would meditate!)

4. While both running and meditation may produce a very satisfying feeling of accomplishment, very few people finish a meditation session with a towel soaked in sweat, an empty water bottle, and then head off to the showers. Nor do they say, “That was an amazing meditation session: I stayed within my target heart-rate and I love my new shoes!” Or “Dude, are you going to enter the meditation marathon next month? Forty-two km of meditation, I’m psyched!” or “I’ve increased my meditation speed over the past month. You should see my splits.” Nor is there (yet) televised meditations, with meditators wearing numbers and competing against one another. And I have yet to hear of someone who has said they’re going to attempt an ultra marathon meditation — 100 miles in 21 hours!

5. There is no need for a meditation cushion, incense or candles. And you’d never want to close your eyes while running!

Can meditation techniques help your running? Absolutely. Many of the same techniques are used to improve running or to help people enjoy running.

But if the joy of running is innate, you will likely find that you have applied these techniques naturally, without even realizing they were also meditation tactics. Visualization, mindfulness, mental toughness, calm mind and spirit — these are things that come naturally when you are doing something you really love. Most professional athletes use these techniques, even if they have never heard of meditation. These are the tools they use to succeed in their sport, whether it be running, tennis, golf, skiing, etc. Especially at the professional level, sports is as much a mental game as a physical one.

Perhaps the question isn’t really “Is running meditation?” but “Where does one draw the line between sports and meditation?” While meditation has always been associated with Eastern religion and thought, the Western world has always had sports, going back to at least the first Olympic Games in ancient Greece in 776 BC.

Maybe it’s not meditation that has influenced sport, but sport that has influenced meditation.