• Jenna Hollenstein
  • You have to run before you can sit (or How running prepared me for meditation)
You have to run before you can sit (or How running prepared me for meditation)

I was a born power walker. With long legs and an East Coast sense of urgency, walking fast came naturally. It was my exercise of choice, preferred mode of transportation, and an early foray into meditation.

The year I moved to Boston, I must have logged 1000 miles walking around what I came to know as the Charles River treadmill. The wind in my hair, the chop of the water, the intersection of Boston and Cambridge, and the energy of the other people – walking was exhilarating. Yet something was missing. I longed to run.

I ran in high school but never well. On the track team, there were two options: long, slow distance or short, fast sprints. I had neither the lithe physique that lends itself to mile after mile nor the thick muscular set that could set the school record for the 100-yard dash. The category in which I would have excelled – slow, short distance – did not exist.

Since my inglorious high school track days, I gave running a try once or twice but it never stuck. I always started off way too fast and burned out before I’d gotten far. This was discouraging and physically painful and inevitably cut short any long-term change.

My memory of running was one of discomfort and inadequacy. I couldn’t run fast or far so I wondered ‘why bother?’ Yet, as runners passed me on my daily walks, I yearned to follow them…to break free of what had become a predictable stride and risk falling, failing, or simply looking stupid.

About 2 years ago (during my second year of not drinking), I decided to give running another chance. At first, I could barely run a mile, and that was on a treadmill, notoriously easier than pounding the pavement.

It was the middle of July and Boston was sweltering (in retrospect, starting to run at that time of year seems analogous to quitting drinking right before the December holidays, but you have to start somewhere, right?). When I tried running around my beloved Charles River loop, I was dripping with sweat and wheezing like an asthmatic before reaching the Arthur Fiedler head, not more than half a mile out. Once I couldn’t run any further, I stopped to walk and catch my breath. After a few minutes, I began to run again and tried to make it to the next milestone.

This went on for months. Run, walk, run, walk, run, walk. In time, I could run to more distant milestones before needing to stop and walk – the boathouse, then the softball fields, then the Museum of Science.

Sometimes I got cocky or elated and ran so fast so I had to stop after just a few minutes. Other times my legs felt so wooden and heavy, I walked more than I ran. Occasionally, running felt effortless, poignant, and meaningful.

Running this time around was different than previous attempts. Whereas in the past I was acutely aware of being the slowest, this time I focused on the fact that I was running at all. I developed a curiosity about the experience, what emotions it brought up and how I felt before, during, and after a run. I realized that slowing down allowed me to go further, continuously, and to gradually work up to a faster pace and longer distance. By focusing inward, I began to view each step as a choice.

This is how running prepared me for meditation. Choosing to do something that is inherently uncomfortable and at the same time challenging and rewarding is intriguing. Practicing such discipline, even when it isn’t convenient, particularly good, or fun requires staying in the moment.

Much like I choose to put one foot in front of the other while running, in meditation I choose to focus on one breath and then another. The pleasure of hitting my stride and feeling like I could go forever is very similar to how I feel when meditating (at least sometimes).

I’m still a very (read: VERY) slow runner. For every 300 runners who pass me along the Charles, I might pass 1 person, but he’s usually tying his shoelaces…or he’s a statue. The first mile is almost always uncomfortable. But once it’s behind me, something shifts and some space opens up. My breathing settles down, my legs remember what they’re supposed to do, and I loosen up physically and mentally.

The running journey, like the meditation journey, continues to be a choice – one step (and breath) at a time.

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  • Jenna Hollenstein

    Agreed, Colleen. And it has a wonderful way of forcing us to be in the moment. Thanks for your comment!

  • Colleen Green

    Exercising is a great way to relieve stress. when I go to zumba or weight lifting class I have to concentrate on using my muscles to lift or doing the dance steps right. It allows my mind to focus on something that has nothing to do with daily problems. Exercising is a way of life for me and I can not image a life without working out!!!

  • Jenna Hollenstein

    Thank you, Lourdes, Claudine, and Amalia, for your wonderful comments.

    @Amalia: I loved your post. I promise to keep practicing if you will

    @Claudine: If I knew the answer to that question, I'd be rich and famous; the only way I know to come close to an answer is to keep writing...and meditating...and running

    @Lourdes: I (healthfully) envy your dancing. I think "whatever works" is the way to go.

    Thank you again! xo

  • Thank you, Jenna! I don't know if there's such a thing as healthy envy, but that's what I felt in reading your post. I tried running a long time ago, but concluded it was not for me. Dancing and yoga seem more fitting for my body and spirit. But in all activities, like in meditation, one step and one breath at a time seems the perfect attitude.

  • Walking and freewriting are meditative to me, too. They clear my head, set my vision straight and nourish the spirit. (But why the heck are we so stressed out in the first place, anyway? Good grief ...)

  • I loved this post. I just wrote a blog post about meditation, something I'm still new (two months of practice...) to, and how I see it being similar to writing.


    Check it out if you like and good meditations to you all!


  • Jenna Hollenstein

    Thanks, all, for these wonderful comments.

    @Kerina: "Good enough" itself has become my practice!

    @Muriel: I will run with you (slowly) in spirit!

    @Isabelle: Completely agree with your short-term goals approach; I use it daily, in running and elsewhere. And I adore the reservoir and run there whenever I can.

  • Lovely to take this run with you around the Charles. You've written it well. I wish I were there.

  • Isabelle Gregson

    One step at a time indeed. Good for you. And thanks for sharing with such honesty and wisdom. When I run, if I start to feel a bit tired I give myself tiny goals: run to the next lamppost, run across the bridge, run till you pass that other runner coming towards you, etc... and before I know it, I've done it! I like Boston very much but my favourite place to run other than on a Californian beach is around the Jackie O reservoir in Central Park in Manhattan. That, in the summer, is glorious! xxx, isabelle

  • Muriel Jacques

    I like your post. It is a shame that you are on the other side of the pond, because you could be my running mate ( I am slow too!)...

    Running is so much more than running. It hasn't led me to meditation (yet), but I really like it !

  • Jane Horan

    Great post - inspirational and insightful, thankyou!

  • Kerina Pharr

    Thanks for this, Jenna. It's so great to hear someone's humble appreciation of a very hard task!

    I was a sprinter in high school, and I miss the feeling of being strong and running fast. Never really adept at distance running, that seems to be my only option now if I want to keep up the sport.

    It's been a struggle to keep with running or meditation, as no matter hard I try, it never seems good enough, and there are always those people out there who seem to be doing it so much better.

    I really want to thank you for sharing your journey and your thoughts along the way. I'm really inspired by your stick-to-it- attitude and your positive take on your progress. You have inspired me. Don't ever hesitate to be proud of yourself :)

  • Tina Deschamps

    Wonderful post! Thanks for sharing. :-)