RUNNING AS A DEVOTIONAL PRACTICE
“I’ll be back in 35 or 45 minutes, guys,” I exclaimed to Lilavati & Pintu.
“Ok, brother, be safe & have fun!” “Ram Ram!”
I emerge from the villa where we’ve set up base and look down at my running shoes as they begin shuffling over the sun-baked golden dust that comprises the banks of the Ganges River at Varanasi. Parts of the shore are carved with impassible monsoon-created chasms that require back tracking into the primary motor thoroughfare in this part of town. If I hadn’t been jolted awake by morning chai or the omnipotent sight of Ganga-Ma, then merging into tuk-tuk and high-stacked lorry traffic on foot at a cool 6:00 split pace will positively rocket-propel me into consciousness!
Locals turn their heads. “Full power!” they frequently exclaim, though most look curiously and silent. The contrast of a heavily tattooed Westerner moving at a high velocity through the impossibly crowded ancient streets and back onto farmland access roads through miles and miles of sun-drenched mustard farms was palpable and pronounced, but somehow fitting. As I run I’m chanting Shiva mantra and feasting my senses on high-prana stimuli at every step. The experiences are as rich and complex as they are austere & simple. It’s the beginning of a merger between an athletic pursuit and an elevation of consciousness. It’s Kashi.
This was a snapshot of the day after I committed my beloved wife, Amanda, to the Ganges by Manikarnika Ghat, her ashes scattered during a ceremony before dawn. This was why I traveled around the globe to India. Amanda left body eight months prior in June of 2019 after sustaining a severe brain injury in a traffic accident. In the blink of an eye, shattered was the life we had mapped over our two years of blissful marriage, the remaining pieces and splinters virtually unrecognizable from that treacherous night in the ICU onward.
Young couples don’t usually spend large swaths of time discussing end of life planning. However, Amanda was a prolific Philadelphian yogi and practicing tantrika. She also married me knowing my nearly life-long exposure to Krishna Consciousness beginning in the 1990’s, so our typical topic of conversation dug deep, centering around big questions and provided important insight and direction after she left her body. At her memorial service in August 2019 at Palo Santo yoga studio, where she taught, the plan was set in motion for a yatra group to bring her ashes to India.
Running had been a part of my life for some years at this point. I spent my 20’s & 30’s as a touring musician and found the practice counterbalanced the rigors of being on the road with a high-energy rock & roll band. In 2013 I pushed the practice into high gear and began running marathons, and then ultramarathons (distances that supercede the traditional 26.2 mile footrace). Running became an all-encompassing hobby, partitioning out years of my life with training cycles, key races with projected finish times, a couple weeks of recovery, then rinse and repeat. When I met my wife in 2016 I was fairly seasoned in the sport and though I was cognizant that running long distances held some inherently metaphysical and spiritually-blossoming aspects to it, aligning myself with that soulful subtext or experiencing “breakthrough” always seemed just another race or another personal victory away from my grasp.
My wife hugely supported my passion for running and considered it a yogic practice.
She saw how it provided me a stillness of mind, an ability to yoke soul and body. Immediately in her absence, I fell back on those support pillars I had erected in better times: running, yoga, mindfulness, self-care & veganism… and I maintained an extremely rigorous and conscious regimen during the months of acute and life altering grief. Running big distances in the wake of extreme tragic loss became a way for me to detach from the emotional entanglement, if only for a few seconds. It allowed me to meditate on my own pain by playing witness to my circumstance and simply observe with just enough distance from the hemorrhaging wound in my heart – because in times of genuine crises sometimes all we need is just a tiny moment of reprieve. In the tailspin of insurmountable tragedy and heart-shattering trauma, I transformed into a running devotee. By the time I boarded my flight to Delhi with my wife’s ashes in my carry-on, I had run 10 full marathons, including an ultramarathon, in about an eight month span. My ambition was to run in India as much as I could, but this proved to be a much more difficult task than I had imagined!
I mentioned to my yatra mates that my running in India wasn’t a pursuit of a physical nature – it wasn’t “training”; it was a devotional offering to the land, the people, the animals, to God. I dutifully carried out the simple task as often as I could while we traversed the subcontinent, sometimes running shoeless, always chanting mantra while clicking miles. If you’ve traveled to India you understand how chaotic the thoroughfares are, particularly in pilgrimage sites. On the streets you’re negotiating your path with mischievous monkeys, cows, goats, pigs, rickshaws and tuk-tuks, territorial street dogs, burning pits, 20-foot tall lorries, thousands of motorcycles and automobiles all beeping in cacophonic unison. Running wasn’t easy. It was this particular context in which I began my running streak, and for an endeavor as sustained and intense has it’s been, it’s an apt origin!
I “imported” my running streak from the streets of Varanasi to Delhi, then back to the USA where I continued to run through pandemic lockdowns in apocalyptically empty streets. I’ve run through the civil unrest following the George Floyd murder and through not one – but two – National Guard occupations of my city. I ran in literally every imaginable circumstance in scores of different terrains and locations. As I sit here & finalize this article I’m on the even of celebrating my 1,000th consecutive running days at an average of 10.4 miles a day. It is simply an act cherishing a higher love, a devotion and a union. This very act that I ritualistically engage daily for nearly 1,000 days spanning the American desert or on a tropical island, in the Alps, along the banks of the Mississippi, at the Jersey shore and on the California coast is the same pattern in which I ran by Neem Karoli Baba’s ashram in Vrindavan, or through the cremation ghats in Varanasi. I view my running streak as an energetic arch connecting me to my spiritual home as well as a means to shine the light within me brighter. Not unlike mantra and meditation, one works through the turbulent and scattered nature of one’s human mind for the first 15 or 20 minutes and when the breath and rhythm get in sync, it’s OMMMMMMMM for a couple glimmers of supreme reality (if we’re lucky!).
Running every single day in every fathomable circumstance within the self and without the self and covering no less than ten miles daily, I believe, is a part of my dharma and I feel absolutely blessed to have the ability to replicate my expression of devotion and love for 999 days and counting!
Jai Shree Ram! Jai Neem Karoli Baba!
Written by Edward Gieda III
Thanks for sharing your story with us, Eddie.