Running Mantras and the Mantram

Running mantras are common motivational tools used during races or difficult training runs. I’ve used “Drop the hammer!” if I’ve got enough in the tank to finish strong. (I also love but have never used “Release the Kraken!”) If I know it’s a hilly course, I may say to myself something like “I eat hills for breakfast!” When I feel my pace is a little too peppy at the start of a race and will only lead to a horrible crash, I’ll repeat “Smart and Steady.” And on particularly difficult training runs, I’ll pull out the old Muhammad Ali “Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.”

Whatever gets you through, right?

Last week, however, I started saying my spiritual mantram during my training runs. I have done this intermittently during my pool workouts when I couldn’t use an iPod, switching between chanting my mantram and reciting a poem (Invictus), but since I don’t have to do kickboard work very much, this practice has not been done on any consistent basis.

I follow a spiritual practice that, in addition to meditation and a handful of other practical applications, includes the recitation of a mantram. This can be done whenever, the more the better. I will usually write three lines of my mantra when I wake up before I meditate, and I try to remember it throughout the day if I start to get worked up about something. It gets my mind straight in the morning and serves to calm me down in moments of stress. I love the explanation that the mind is like an elephant walking in a festival procession. As it walks past fruit stalls, the elephant’s trunk goes here and there, up and down, throwing back any fruit it can reach. So that the poor people who own these stalls don’t lose their inventory, the elephant’s keeper will give the elephant a bamboo shaft to grasp in its trunk. A well-trained elephant does so, and now that it has something to hold onto, it has no need for its trunk to wander and eat anything it can grab. Well, the mantram serves the same purpose for our restless brain – it gives it something to grab onto. I have found it be an invaluable tool in keeping me centered and balanced. Sorta. It’s relative. Definitely more than if I didn’t say it.

It didn’t take long to choose my mantra, and I use one that is time-tested. It has a message that resonates with me, and when I say the long form, as I do when I run, it is chanted in a beautiful sing-songy sound. It can also sound like a heartbeat. One yoga practitioner said it’s like when you’re in the mall and there’s a cacophony of noise, but your mantram is like a steady drumbeat that gets louder as you focus on it, and soon it drowns out all the other sounds. Awesome, right?

Anyway, my tailor is Hindu, and we started talking about the mantram, and he mentioned that if I said it 108 times a day, I’d have a good day. “Why 108, Kenny?” Well, turns out there are 108 beads on a mala, a set of mantra counting beads. Well, I want to have a good day! I want to have several good days! But when do you have enough time to actually say a mantra 108 times? Oh, duh, I run. So, I started last week, and, well, it was awesome. I’ve now done it on three runs. A mile or two in, I turn off my iPod (what?!?) and just start chanting silently the long form of my mantram. Mostly it’s cool to just not have my iPod on for a change, but I also found myself really feeling the rhythm of my footsteps this morning. It seemed to follow the drumbeat that the yoga practitioner told me about. And then I had the Moment. It was fleeting but impactful. For just a beat, my heart swelled up and opened, and I felt what I can only describe as Joy. It closed back up real fast, but it was a pretty cool moment nonetheless.

Of course I’ll keep using the more sporty and motivational running mantras, but I hope I’ll also continue this practice of reciting my spiritual mantra on at least some of my runs. I didn’t mean to find spirituality in running, but it’s pretty awesome it found me.

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