wikimedia, used with permission
Source: wikimedia, used with permission

British psychotherapist William Pullen develops “mindful running” in a new user-friendly book Run For Your Life: Mindful Running for a Happy Life. Pullen’s “Dynamic Running Therapy” (DRT) combines talk therapy with bodily movement for heightened self-awareness and relief of symptoms such as anxiety and depression.

“Knowledge is only a rumor until it lives in the muscle,” the author quotes from the Asaro tribe of Papua New Guinea. DTR is adaptable to a variety of levels of physical fitness. It involves running or walking and can be solitary or done with a friend. The most important thing is a gentle relation to self. “Make friends with your inner critic,” Pullen urges.

This technique of exercise and mental health is informed by the ideas of American psychologist Carl Rogers who conceived of one’s relationship to oneself as one of acceptance and empathic understanding, what he calls “unconditional positive regard.” Rogers was among the founders of person- or client-centered psychotherapy. This approach to well-being promotes a client's self-actualizing tendencies, his or her innate “proclivity toward growth and fulfillment." As Pullen puts it, believe in your ability to grow toward the light.

DRT is a three-step process that warms up with “grounding”: mentally scanning your body, your environment, and then your emotions. Secondly, one chooses the question or emotional conflict to address during the day’s exercise. You then run with this problem in mind. Lastly, records your running. Pullen's book provides good questions and lined pages for journaling after each session that reflects on the run, new ideas, and chains of associations that one recalls from the period of exercise.

For those running with a partner, Pullen defines two roles: a sharing and listening role. The listening partner guides the grounding process that opens each session. The listener is emotionally present and suspends judgment. This is a caring companion who holds his or her own personal needs in check. The listener just runs and listens, without trying to "fix" the issue or provide solutions. “Just acknowledge the moment with your presence,” advises Pullen. Both partners need to have a genuine heart. As Australian songwriter Nick Cave puts it, “You've got to have soul in the hole.”

The sharing partner expresses the question the couple is running with, which can be carried over from an earlier session. “Sometimes you’ll just want to get going and see what comes up,” adds the author. Refrain from feeling obliged to talk and wait for the natural impulse to speak. There is no pre-determined outcome for a session or demand for an answer before completion of the session.

The repetition of physical movements and breathing that comes with DRT facilitates a “metronomic” sense of in the body. The physical activity, along with mental engagement with the question that is the subject of the day’s run, aims to generate the experience of “flow.”

Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi elaborates "flow" as a highly focused mental state in which one is completely involved in an activity. In Csikszentmihalyi’s description, “every action, movement, and thought follow inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."

Flow experiences happen in myriad ways as part of everyday living. For runners and athletes, it’s sometimes described as being “in the zone.” The experience is characterized by a clear goal that reasonably stretches one's limits. The task is challenging while also being attainable. So a balance is struck between ability and the undertaking; one is slightly stretched.

DRT was developed by Pullen, who alludes to his own emotional travails and previous smoking habit while running around the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park. As he describes it, the park was “a refuge from the noisy city around me and the madness in my mind. It’s leafy nooks and crannies, its quiet corners and hidden hillocks.” His method of therapy also draws on the nurturing power of the natural environment. In our industrialized world of consumerism, this running meditation shares healing properties with the Japanese Shinrin-yoku, begun in the 1990s, also called “forest bathing,” which immerses the individual in nature for the purpose of reducing stress, boosting the immune system, and enhancing mood.

A writing ritual marks the end of one DRT treatment: “the final synopsis.” (In some sense, this is as much a writing therapy as a running one.)  After reviewing the series of session notes, one summarizes their emotional journey. Is there a narrative or theme? Can you identify repetitive patterns of thought? Does anything in your notes jog a childhood memory that may be informing the present? What feelings arise as you look back through your sessions notes? Include these musings and responses in your "final synopsis" and write it in whatever form feels intuitively appropriate. It can be a monologue, short story, a poem, or a simple free-writing task.

DRT is a valuable technique for reducing stress, strengthening self-awareness, and sparking curiosity about the workings of one's own internal life. Pullen also includes a rich section on decision-making and some of its most common obstacles. The book reads easily, though I wanted footnotes for the multiple studies referenced.

This is holistic running. One page cites Buddha’s adage that every time something happens in someone’s life, two arrows impale that person. First, there is the event itself, and then there is what that person makes of the event. DRT addresses the impact of the second arrow, the meaning we give to the events in our lives and how it affects our emotional stride.

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References

Pullen, William. Run For Your Life; Mindful Running for A Happy Life. Penguin, London: 2017.

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