Can running bring you closer to God?

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The Rev. Greg Powell, left, runs with program participant and University of Victoria student Ronela Vainio. Running, Powell says, can be a spiritual practice, in that it takes us out of a practical “default state” of distraction and busy-mindedness, and, potentially, to a greater awareness of God’s presence. Photo: Contributed

On a campus track, B.C. minister teaches transcendence and ‘flow’ state through mindful movement

Over the centuries, many people have associated closeness to God with a sense of oneness, and they’ve sought that oneness in a range of ways—prayer, meditation, fasting, chanting, dance, immersion in nature and the consuming of hallucinogens, to name a few.

The Rev. Greg Powell, a United Church of Canada minister and a chaplain at the University of Victoria’s Multifaith Centre in B.C., and a veteran of marathons, likes to run.

“All of my most profound spiritual experiences have occurred when I was feeling the endorphin high of running,” he says. “I have broken down and cried when I was 32 kilometres into a 35-kilometre marathon.” Endorphins are hormones secreted within the nervous system that trigger a pain-relieving and mood-elevating effect.

With those running-based encounters to draw on, Powell helped start a campus program called Running with the Spirit, launched in May 2021 as an offering of the campus’s Multifaith Services.

Powell, who divides his time between university chaplaincy and ministering at the Westshore Community of Practice, a United Church plant focusing on new and ancient spiritual practices, sees body and spirit as intimately connected—to the point of, at times, speaking of spirituality in starkly physiological terms.

“A lot of contemporary spirituality focuses on serotonin-based highs such as you get from singing in church. But this is different—we focus on endorphins,” he says. Serotonin is a brain chemical whose levels in blood help regulate mood, including both happiness and anxiety.

Like Canon Neil Elliot, B.C.’s “soul-riding” Anglican priest who earned his doctorate in the spirituality of snowboarding (See “Soul Rider: B.C. priest explores spirituality of snowboarding,” February 2012, p.1), Powell is interested in exploring what we understand by the spiritual. He says that while words like “spiritual,” “contemplative” and “mindful” have distinct meanings, these meanings also overlap a lot.

“Spiritual practices are the things we do that might lead to a sense of oneness or flow or awareness of God’s presence,” he says.

Such exercises take us out of a practical “default state” of distraction and busy-mindedness. “But you could have a spiritual experience such as an awareness of God’s presence without having practised, and you could undertake a spiritual practice without actually having a spiritual experience,” Powell says. “The practice creates conditions for a spiritual experience, but it doesn’t always happen.”

Does Jesus enter into mindful running? Powell says he hasn’t finished thinking about this, but he suspects understanding and connecting with our bodies must help us understand the mystery of the incarnate God in some way.

Running has also taught him about his limitations—physical and psychological. “But it has also taught me about possibilities,” he says. “I recall when I was about to finish my first marathon, suddenly all the things I thought were impossible had at least a slightly higher chance of possibility. If I can run a marathon, could I learn to be a better partner? Minister? Guitarist?” he says.

And this state of boundlessness and connection is achieved not on a mesmerizingly lovely woodland trail or beside an ocean beach but on the running track of a bustling campus in a busy capital city. Meeting at 1 p.m every Thursday, the Running with the Spirit group has a short period of social catch-up, meditation, and breathing exercises, after which Powell says a prayer. “The prayer is essentially Christian, but the language would not offend someone who is not Christian,” he says.

Then the laps begin, but unlike other campus runners on the track, members of this group strive not for their athletic best but rather to set the spirit free. “Running takes us back to the freedom of childhood, the freedom of body and mind,” Powell says.

He teaches participants physical techniques, including a focus on the pelvis, to allow it to be free-rolling and free-flowing. “I also teach them to be aware of their foot strike—which part of the foot hits the ground first and—and to be mindful of what happens after that initial contact.”

So far, the runners in the group are only four, but Powell hopes word of mouth will soon swell that number.

Powell believes that we become better runners through meditation and mindfulness and, simultaneously, better self-knowers through running. His approach is based on the Feldenkrais Method, a system of physical exercise that aims to improve human functioning by increasing self-awareness through movement. Some medical research suggests the system can improve balance, reduce falls and help ease chronic pain.

Moshé Feldenkrais, an Israeli-Ukrainian engineer and physicist who developed this technique in the last century, held that thought, feeling, perception, and movement are closely interrelated and mutually influential.

The group makes a point of running in the rain, which increases awareness of the physical self. “It’s beautiful to feel each raindrop falling on your face,” Powell says.

Fellow runner the Rev. Lyndon Sayers, a co-chaplain at the Multifaith Centre and a pastor in the nearby Lutheran Church of the Cross, says that before he learned about Running with the Spirit, combining running and spiritual practices had been “new terrain” for him. But intrigued at Powell’s concept, he joined the group.

The awakening of the spirit through harmony with the body does not come easily, Sayers cautions. It requires serious concentration and practice. “The exercises seemed odd at first. You have to concentrate hard on your breathing, on holding your breath and focusing on your heart beat and controlling your gait. We even run barefoot sometimes,” he says. “Fortunately there aren’t too many spectators at that time of day!”

But when you do master the technique, you’re lifted out of default mode of mundane concerns to live in the larger moment. “You don’t review your day’s agenda,” says Sayers. “We become aware of our bodies and how we breathe. There’s a sense of groundedness and our place in the world.”

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Diana Swift

Diana Swift

Diana Swift is an award-winning writer and editor with 30 years’ experience in newspaper and magazine editing and production. In January 2011, she joined the Anglican Journal as a contributing editor.

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