Running With Spirit: How the Navajo Use Running as a Way to Connect With the Divine

I started running about four years ago.

Well, actually I’ve been running for more than 2 decades. But about four years ago I started running differently.

At some point, my runs became less about how many kilometers I ran or what speed I did, and more about the feeling I was cultivating inside.

And that feeling was liberation.

The mental, emotional, spiritual shift I have been cultivating on my morning runs has been fascinating me for some time so I did some research. Turns out I’m not the only one who experiences connection with something else when she runs.

I learned recently about the 55km Canyon de Chelley Race, the only Navajo organized ultra-marathon on Navajo land. The race starts at the entrance of the Canyon and passes ancient ruins, petroglyphs and vertical climbs.

According to race director Shawn Martin, “Navajo children are taught to wake up and run to the east, where the holy creator is awake and out at the birth of a new day.” 

They run  to celebrate life and give gratitude for everything – the good and the negative – because it is the Navajo belief that hardships bring strength and growth.

Just like running.

For the Navajo, specifically, running is three things

Running is a way to pray

When the Navajo run, they breathe in the air and touch the ground, giving thanks to both Mother Earth and Father Sky. The Navajo are taught aas children to yell when they run announcing to the deities that they are there. I can actually sheepishly relate to this last part as well. Normally I’m fairly subdued and quiet, but when I run, I often find myself giving in to an impulse to hoot or to yelp. That feeling of liberation, it turns out, is hard to contain.

Running is a way to develop tools for life

The Navajo believe that running teaches them how to overcome obstacles, to learn self-discipline, to be with discomfort and to find appreciation for hardships. They believe challenge provides the opportunity for growth, and develops persistence and resiliency. Any runner who has laced up on wintry day or trained for long distance race or who has kept going on days, even when they didn’t want to, can relate to this.

Running is medicine.

Through moving the body and praying, the Navajo believe, they can both improve physical health and heal emotional wounds. The physical benefits of running have already been well documented. But the mental health benefits, in my experience, are equally impressive. I have cried when I’ve run and celebrated. I’ve released past emotions and I’ve cultivated future intentions. I’ve let go of what I no longer need and reminded myself of what I’m working towards. Without running my anxiety would be overwhelming, my mind would be cluttered and my spirit would be broken.

The Navajo run on rock and I run by water. They run in warmth and I run in cold. Despite our differences in geography and climate there is something universal that both the Navajo and I connect to on our runs. Running is much more than physical exercise. It’s a way to connect to something bigger than ourselves.

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