I don’t always run with a Jedi master on my back, but when I do, I prefer Yoda

Two years ago I bought a Yoda doll that would yodasmallspout off Star Wars quotes when you squeezed his tummy. It still works, but the sensor that activates his voice has drifted from his belly to his head. The only way he’ll talk now is if you punch him really hard in the face, which would be playing right into the Sith’s hands.

His gift of gab was a bonus. I really just wanted a Yoda doll that could be sewn easily to the top of the big water bottle that’s slung on my back during long runs. Having Yoda tag along for the ride was meant to be a bit of dumb fun that might make exercise feel more like Jedi training.

Lucky for me, George Lucas decided to keep Yoda tiny. The Ewoks in Return of the Jedi were originally supposed to be Wookies. Had Lucas tinkered with Yoda’s size too, I might be running with a green Chewbacca-type beast on my back, which really would have screwed me over.

But this Yoda doll was perfect – just the right size to be noticed without being overbearing, and light enough that he wouldn’t slow me down. And sewing him to my hydration pack was a snap, because my wife did it.

So seamless is his integration with the rest of my running gear that I often forget he’s there. I usually don’t remember until I cross paths with a hiker who looks incredibly excited to see me. I’ll think to myself, “My running exploits have won the people’s hearts!” Then I’ll think: “Oh right … Yoda.” People, kids especially, tend to talk to the doll directly without saying a word to me. To mix Star Wars metaphors, Yoda is the high exalted Hutt and I’m his tauntaun.

I might also remember he’s there when I’m feeling beat and need a word of encouragement.

Yoda’s always good for a quote, so long as you don’t mind punching his face to hear it. I prefer not to. Fortunately, I’ve seen the Star Wars movies two or three times, and can recall the odd bit of dialogue.

Some of his lines seem like they were written with struggling runners in mind. “Do. Or do not. There is no try,” is the one I’ve heard repeated most often by other runners  – normal ones, I mean, not just those who sew dolls to themselves.

Other quotes are Ricklesesque wisecracks: “When 900 years old you reach, look as good, you will not.” To those I add a mental rimshot before fast-forwarding my brain to something more helpful.

Then there are words of wisdom that not only come in handy on a run, but also support my hunch that Yoda gave me my first exposure to Buddhist thought, way back in 1980 with the release of The Empire Strikes Back.

This one, where Yoda’s slagging off Luke Skywalker to a glowing blue Ben Kenobi, stands out:

“All his life has he looked away … to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph!”

Mindfulness is a big part of Buddhist practice, and can play an important role when you’re out on a run.

For example, when you’ve still got five miles to go, getting caught up in thoughts of how tough finishing will be can tempt you to throw in the towel, or make those miles much more miserable than they need to be. Focusing instead on how you’re feeling right this moment, on the fact that you probably don’t feel much worse physically than you did five minutes ago, can offer the clarity needed to carry on.

More importantly, mindfulness can keep you from breaking your neck.

One reason I enjoy trail running so much is that it forces you to keep your eyes open and your attention on a short leash. Potential hazards – loose rocks, exposed tree roots, poison ivy – are at every turn. You’re more mindful running on a trail, simply because you have to be.

The place I’ve sustained most of my running injuries is the stretch of sidewalk within two blocks of my house. It’s a safe, flat surface, so there’s no need to pay attention to it. With my brain freed up, I can focus on important stuff, like whether I can name all the players in Abbott and Costello’s Who’s on First:

Who’s on first, obviously – *snort*. What’s on second. I Don’t Know’s on third. The left fielder is Why. No, Why played right field. Or maybe he was the catcher? No, he was centre …

Then my toe catches the edge of the curb and down I go. Smack! Look who’s fallen on his face. It ain’t the first baseman.

Yoda has played some small part in helping me cut down on these kinds of absent-minded accidents. He’d probably be an even bigger help if he were strapped to my front instead of my back, so I’d remember he’s there more often. But that’s not how Yoda rolled in the movies, so he’s staying put where he is.

I could always sew a baby monster from Aliens to my front so it looks like it’s popping out of my chest. It wouldn’t reinforce any great quotes about mindfulness, but if his speech activation sensor ever shifted, I wouldn’t feel quite so bad about punching him.

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