Studies show prayer and other aspects of religion can reduce stress and promote a positive outlook. I am a person of the Muslim faith since 1999 and have committed to 5 times daily prayer and have thankfully never skipped one in all these years. As a Muslim, Islam teaches me, that God is not in need of my prayers, rather it is I that am in need of them. I have certainly found checking in with God 5 times a day helps me to stay on track, centre myself and hand over the things to Him that I need help with. However, throughout my life I have suffered from periods of mental sickness. Bouts of depression, periods of anxiety, sometimes so overwhelming I suffered from panic attacks and was put on an antidepressant medication designed to lower blood pressure and reduce the symptoms of anxiety . So if I was praying five times a day, fulfilling all my religious duties and mostly trying to connect with God, how did that happen?
Typically, when Muslims seek spiritual guidance from their Imams, or sometimes friends and family, the advice goes something like “pray more” or “depression doesn’t exist if you are praying properly” or “You are doing something wrong, if Islam isn’t giving you a peace of mind or heart”. Such advice, can only produce feelings of inadequacy, plummet self esteem further and just add to the negative voices playing in our minds, creating unnecessary guilt and leaving us wondering why God isn’t answering our prayers. Such speakers need to understand the impact of their opinions on those suffering with mental health issues and the impact of that oft-repeated narrative on communities on a wider scale. It is time we recognise there is more to improving mental well being than prayer and other religious rituals alone.
I strongly believe that the path to good mental health is to have a strong spiritual connection with God. However, prayer alone, in and of itself, is not the only way to connect with God. My personal belief, and certainly my experience, is in order to feel mentally healthy we also need to connect with our own self and then our families, friends and communities as well. Connection in all its forms makes the spirit alive in polar opposite to isolation whereby one can sink and feel trapped, unable to reach back out. I take the example of Adam, the first created human being, who was in the Garden of Eden, with everything his heart could desire. But although he talked directly to God and had this amazing connection with Him and was living in the ultimate Paradise, he became sad and did not know why he was feeling low. Then God created Eve – and he felt whole. He was missing human connection. God did not create us to be isolated beings – rather to live in a community, taking strength and support from each other. Running can give us that. Running gives me that.
In December 2014, I was experiencing a period where my mental health was weak. I was having regular connection time with God, with myself (through counselling) and with others, through friends, work and the local mosque. So why, was my mental health deteriorating? I was also a regular gym goer and always have been. I thought all my boxes were ticked and that I was doing all the right things. Lying in bed unable to sleep one night, I visualised myself getting up, in my nightclothes, opening my front door and running out bare foot. Just running, into the night, without purpose, without direction.
In the morning, I put on my trainers and ran/walked to the nearest park. It was cold, it was windy, there were no leaves on the trees or flowers in the flower beds but I felt connected. Connected to nature, to myself and ultimately to God. Burning off the excess adrenaline, I returned home feeling more centred. I felt as if I had literally got rid of some of the difficult emotions and left them in the park. I had been seeing advertisements for the Race4Life that upcoming spring and made a decision to sign up for it. I wanted something to work towards and I felt this would be a good way to set a time bound goal.
I trained hard for that 5k. It gave me a greater sense of purpose. I downloaded a running app on my phone which notified me every time I completed 1km. I realised there was a tree that was exactly 1km from my front door. I set a small goal that I would be able to run to that tree without stopping. The day I did felt like a great achievement. That tree became, and remains a good friend of mine (don’t judge me, trees have feelings too don’t you know?).
Running increased my self esteem and belief in myself, from the moment I hit that first 1km without stopping I set myself a new goal, extending the distance each time, and believing in myself that I could do it. Running has taught me that connection with the self, means being in tune with my body as well as my emotions and sometimes having to challenge both in order to understand them, just as challenging the spirit strengthens it. There have been times I have cried when I ran, smiled to myself, talked to myself. There were times when I connected with the child in me at various different ages. I would come from a counselling session, having spoken about an experience at a particular age and found that when I went running I was connecting with that little Lynne. I would talk to her, nurture her, tell her she was safe and being looked after by me, the adult Lynne. I would reassure her that I am handling things and I would fulfil her childhood hopes. In this way I was able to find closure in some of the things that had been unresolved, that would often non consciously come into my adult world and affect my responses to situations. I was able to leave my child within to sleep or play, just as she ought to be doing, instead of worrying about the stuff going on in my present adult world.
The day I ran 5km without stopping was a truly amazing feeling. I felt accomplished and my self-esteem increased. I began to believe in myself more. Before I turned up for the Race4Life I had already entered the Richmond Running Festival 10k race later in that year. Because I knew, although it was going to be a challenge, I could achieve it. Only a few months before I never would have believed that possible.
And so it went! I began to increase my goals, surpassing what I thought I could achieve. 10 mile race, Half Marathon, 20 mile race. Until eventually I had completed my first marathon at London 2018 with the greatest amount of self belief, self love and connection to the world, and ultimately God, the One who I believed was giving me the strength to make this all happen. Of course I have just fast forwarded there so let me tell you what happened in between!
So in February 2017 I joined my local running club, Dagenham 88 Runners. Shy and nervous at first, I got to know some of the other members and signed up to club races in a few of the leagues. It was great to be part of this club and be around such positive people who encouraged me all the way. Runners have got to be the most positive community going. There are no losers. The last runner to cross the line always gets the biggest cheer. I have been made to feel valued, appreciated and supported every step of the way. In a recent relay race and we were sorting out teams of four, one of our fastest runners added me, and someone of a similar pace to his team, in unison we said “but we are much slower than you”. Did it matter to him? No. Running brings about unity, no matter your speed, your background, race, gender, religion. There is something very special about that. Nothing else matters when we are out running together. It brings people from all walks of life, ages and experience together in unity. To be a part of something so special lifts my heart and makes me feel spiritually connected to this world.
This is not something unique to the modern western world. We can draw from examples of early Muslim history to demonstrate that similar experiences were had to ensure a holistic way of life. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and his wife, Aisha, raced one another in running. Aisha is recorded to have said
“I competed with the Messenger of Allah and overtook him. Later, when I had put on some weight, I once again competed with him, but this time he overtook me and said: ‘We’re even now.’”
There are many other examples of sports throughout the early Muslim life and through Islamic history. The Prophet Muhammad was also an avid swimmer and wrestler. He even wrestled Arabia’s champion wrestler, Rukaana, and defeated him. Interestingly, the Arabic word for sports is Riyadhah which is also the word used for strengthening ones spiritual self, thus, demonstrating the link between the physical and the spiritual self. It also comes from the word Riyadh, which means gardens. Bringing these two meanings together we can see that sports is a place of both physical and spiritual growth and what a lonely garden it would be if there was only one rose. As Adam needed connection, we too need that to become stronger as individuals. Sports provide us with the perfect opportunity to achieve that together and that’s why I created the hashtag #runtogetherstandtogether
The running community has truly helped me grow in so many ways. I have learnt to value every part of myself, in connection to myself to God and to the community. I have weeded out negativity from its roots. I have watered positivity and taken nutrients from those who have been a source of light to me along the way.
I have also been on a fundraising journey though out my running career for a number of different charities including Cancer Research, Place2Be Children’s Mental Health, and more recently raised £17,000 for water wells in the Gambia with Penny Appeal. Running for an even greater good, to give back to humanity, in some way, and get many people involved, even from their arm chairs has helped me connect globally and brought amazing people and opportunities into my life. I am so happy that my Muslim community have been behind me, cheering me along, donating and encouraging me. I have received messages from other Muslim ladies saying they have been inspired to get into running. It really makes my day when I get a message like that.
Prayer brings me a sense of peace, tranquillity and pleasure. Everything stops for that moment when I put the world aside to connect with my Creator. In Islam we regard any good action as an act of worship and running is definitely a form of worship for me. Through running I have strengthened my connection with God and am grateful to Him for directing me towards it so that I can feel more whole as a person. When I crossed that line at the London Marathon in April 2018, I had brought every piece of myself together and felt like God had got me there, with a massive cheering squad of family, friends and world wide community behind me. That is why I pray, run & repeat.
Lynne Northcott AKA Jogonhijabi
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