On one especially long winter run, I was overcome by a deep, felt sense that I could trust myself, others, and life in a way that I had never known.
Most weekday mornings I slide on trail-running shoes and direct my gait toward the desert mountain canyon near my home in Tucson. I am hunting a trail to contain this ancient, intimate rhythm of breath and movement, to hold my fleshly spirit for just under an hour before I enter into the day’s work. This moving ritual is an awakening of energy, a meditation and prayer, a renewal of inner power and peace, and a remembrance. It is spiritual practice.
When I began running nearly 15 years ago, I was seeking a nonpharmaceutical way to cope with the overwhelming anxiety that permeated my body and mind most days. I was seeking to outrun the depression that had chased me for nearly a decade. Running became my body strengthener, confidence builder, coping mechanism, tranquilizer, and antidepressant. In time, I got all the physical and psychological benefits out of it that researchers report a regular runner might. Then, on one especially long winter run, I was overcome by a deep, felt sense that I could trust myself, others, and life in a way that I had never known. While this experience did not fit my preconceived definitions of faith acquired through years of formal theological education, I could only name it faith. To name it any other way felt diminishing, though I could not explain why I named it so.
In the weeks following this experience, I felt changed on a cellular level and the change rippled through my life, creating the conditions within me for the transformation of traumas I’d long embodied.
A Doctorate in Spiritual Running
When I reached the dissertation phase of a doctoral program in transpersonal psychology, I made a conscious decision to research women’s transformative experiences while distance running in nature. I wanted to more fully understand the most powerful, healing, freeing, and ultimately transformative experiences of my life, and, I imagined, other women’s lives.
Women from around the country shared their running experiences and lives with me in writing. I guided them through a process of reflecting upon and making meaning of those experiences within the context of their lives, which often included painful histories of disrupted relationships and trauma. Together we gained insight into how distance running in nature potentiates both transformative experiences and the unfolding of a deeper transformational process necessary for healing. We explored barriers women face in evolving psychologically and spiritually and how distance running in nature might serve as a catalyst for transforming and transcending those barriers in order to grow.
Hearing both the traumatic and transformative experiences of my research participants, I was spiraled back to the frozen fear and horror of a childhood experience of my own. My 40-year-old aunt was raped and murdered on a Saturday morning while running alone on a quiet treelined road near her home. Her death just after my 11th birthday confirmed that the world was unsafe for females, that being alone outdoors was dangerous for a woman.
I wanted to more fully understand the most powerful, healing, freeing, and ultimately transformative experiences of my life, and, I imagined, other women’s lives.
Opening to the Paradox
As I researched, directed a life-changing program called Girls on the Run in my community, and saw my 40th year on the horizon, I ran, desperately trying to grasp a paradox that my body, mind, heart, and spirit could not hold. What brought freedom for me and other girls and women had made my aunt vulnerable to violent desecration and death.
The beauty of taking a feminist approach to spirituality research is that women’s narratives and meaning making about our lives become a source for spiritual truth. The research process creates sacred connections between us. Through witnessing the traumas and transformations of other women and listening for how they moved from fragmentation to wholeness, I, too, became more whole. As I learned that immersion in her own natural rhythm while running in nature allows a woman to become more fully herself and self-heal, I embraced my own natural rhythm without apology. As I learned that the spiritual self of a woman may become present while running in nature, filling her with faith, gratitude, grace, and love for herself and others, I opened myself wider.
I gradually realized that when a woman peels back the layers of social and cultural conditioning in order to remember and reclaim her own instinctual nature, she moves herself, her community, and the planet toward wellness. What may begin as an unconscious or conscious need to run from—traumatic memories, intolerable emotions, a demanding job, an unsatisfying or abusive home life—may become an arduous journey of undergoing a transformation of self that invites her into becoming more fully alive despite the risks.
Transform Your Run into a Spiritual Practice
- Set an intention to run for the purpose of connecting more deeply to yourself, to nature, and to that which transcends you, however you name that reality. If you decide to run with another, you might intend to connect with that individual as well through your shared rhythmic breathing and movement.
- Bring your full attention to the rhythm of running. Allow your breath to flow in and out through your nose. Synchronize your footsteps with your breath as you run.
- Become fully aware of the sensations and feelings that accompany rhythmic movement and move at your own pace. Listen for how your body wants to move, rather than pushing your body to achieve a particular pace, or time, or distance goal.
- Mindfully notice the sensations, feelings, and thoughts that are present within you. Mindfully notice sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touch sensations. Become aware of both your inner landscape and the outer landscape—and their interconnectedness—as you run.
- Bring faith into your awareness, letting a felt sense of trust move through you as you run.
- Bring gratitude into your awareness. Express thanksgiving for the capacity of your body to move, the circumstances of your life that allow this opportunity for movement, and the natural beauty that you are moving through.
- Bring compassion and love into your awareness and allow yourself to feel and receive it from yourself, from nature, from the divine source. Offer any aches, pains, or tiredness the kindness and gentleness of compassion.
- Be open to grace as you run. With an open heart, be willing to receive whatever gifts the run has to offer you. Remember—you are worthy of these gifts.
- At the conclusion of your run take a few minutes to write in a journal about what you experienced on the run, both within and without. Over time, you will begin to see the unfolding of a spiritual practice.