November 2, 2012

The Yoga of Bicycling: Pedal, Stretch, Breathe.

Both are intense, consuming passions, highly physical, involving lots of sweat and heavy breathing, and, sometimes, not a lot of clothing.

And yet, the relationship between yoga and biking can be complicated, fraught, and difficult. One reason I got into yoga in the first place was that I’d gotten seriously into biking while living in western New York state—the Finger Lakes area—a part of the country resplendent with near-endless broad-shouldered, lightly trafficked roadways and dazzling scenery infused with a gentle verdant beauty.

The thing about the local topography, though, is that it’s carved out by glaciers. While there are no mountains, per se, the hills are about as steep as hills get. One thing you learn is that when a sign says road not maintained in winter that means it’s too steep for a plow. My knees began to feel those hills, particularly since, as a particularly un-athletic kid, I never learned anything about stretching. So where better to learn about stretching than a yoga class? As such, I’ve credited yoga with allowing me to continue biking.

As good for biking as yoga was, however, the reverse didn’t appear to be true at all. In fact, as I struggled endlessly with the inability of my heels to get anywhere near the floor in downward facing dog, it was pointed out that this, and various other hamstring-related issues, all stemmed, precisely, from biking, which also exacerbated my always-tight shoulders as I gripped the handlebars over which I hunched while desperately clenching neck muscles to go up steep hills (despite the somewhat obvious fact that gripping and clenching don’t do a thing to help propel a bicycle up a hill, but do contribute significantly to tension headaches).

With all the potential physical, mental, and spiritual benefits of yoga, most of my practice, it seemed, was dedicated simply to counteracting the effects of my other passion.

Then, on the other hand, I never feel as ready, willing, and able to practice yoga as when I bike to class. And, during long snowy winters, when conditions keep me off the bike, I tend to get fat and sluggish. Motivating myself to practice yoga becomes a lot more difficult, and the practice itself becomes harder and far less enjoyable. And, moving away from the purely muscle-related aspects, I seem to do my best thinking on the bike—with body fully occupied in peddling along the Schuylkill River or Wissahickon Creek, the mind seems to work at an optimal level, as seemingly insolvable problems find their solutions.

And, of course, biking as a mode of transportation dovetails nicely with yoga ethics. I try to avoid driving to yoga classes, in particular, usually going by bike (even if, as most classes I go to are in downtown Philly, this can mean taking my life in my hands). Tight hamstrings—though not as tight if I didn’t practice yoga—seem but a small price to pay. And, thanks to yoga, I also bike a lot more mindfully than I used to—less crouching, tensing, and gripping; more taking it easy when climbing hills.

Kelli Refer, apparently, has thought about the biking-yoga connection even more than I have, and shares her ideas in an inexpensive (only $5!) bike-sized paperback (or zine, as its author calls it), Pedal, Stretch, Breathe: The Yoga of Bicycling. Kelli (I’m dropping my usual staid formality as a reviewer to use the author’s first name because I can’t imagine what else to do with a book that begins “Hello! My name is Kelli….” Books—or zines—don’t get much friendlier than this) points out that biking, like yoga, seems like a purely physical activity (making me think: hmmmm…though on opposite coasts, our bikes seem to have taken us to some strikingly similar mental places). But, like yoga, it can be a means to union. As I read on, any line between yoga and biking seems to grow increasingly fluid.

On a bicycle, when we are aware of our body, our breath, and our surroundings, we enhance our ability to adapt to the changing circumstances of the road. When we are aware and alert, we are safer—both on our bikes and our yoga mats.*

First, we’re given asanas, flows, and awareness exercises for and after riding, including some modified to include the bike (providing basic instruction for each, making them accessible to cyclists with or without previous yoga experience), and even to provide logistical support for one’s ride (a heart opener contains the instruction “Gaze up to the sky to assess the accuracy of the weather forecast”).

Then, Kelli moves on to breath—central as it is to biking, yoga, and, y’know, being alive, in general. She discusses using pranayama to climb hills, before going into the intricacies of breathing-while-biking, including the alarming (though, when I think about it, hardly surprising) fact that urban cyclists breathe in and absorb more toxic particles from car exhaust than other people. Here and elsewhere, Kelli ties biking to ecology, and ecology to biking, illuminating ways in which, ethically as well as physically, biking can be yoga.

Yoga brings this inner awareness of breath moving in and out of your body. Cycling is supported by that full breath. Cycling is a way to detoxify our communities and inspire change. Changes manifest in healthier, more active bodies and neighborhoods that are safer and cleaner.

This, of course, is the point at which some readers may say “if I wanted to hear this kinda tree-huggin’ hippie crap, I’d pull my Hummer over and talk to one ‘a those freaks with the dreadlocks and hemp backpacks with the yoga mats strapped to ‘em that’re always slowin’ me down in traffic.” For now, such readers might want to skip ahead to the next part, which will prove useful when you drive out of town and take the bike out of the back of your roomy vehicle for a bit of exercise in one of those damn parks your taxes pay for. In a short section (which I wished had been a lot longer) we’re given a brief yet intricate discussion of perching on a bicycle seat as an asana in itself, going into matters of alignment that tend to be ignored by the pedaling masses motoring up hills hunched over with a demon grip on the handlebars.

Much of the rest of the text is made up of a discussion of chakras, with an in-depth comparison between one’s set of chakras and one’s bike, between self-care and bike-care. This is by far the most in-depth and most creative and ambitious as well as most esoteric part of Pedal, Stretch, Breathe. I enjoyed reading it, but also found it the least convincing, and sometimes confusing. Kelli attempts to explain every aspect of biking by way of the chakras, and the connections sometimes seem a bit strained. Nonetheless, included here are loads of useful and sometimes surprising insights. Still, I’d rather have seen the previous sections expanded and this part contracted (much in the way we expand some muscles and contract others in biking and our yoga practices and…you get the idea).

A mental shift accompanies the transition from driving to biking. Many car oriented folks are baffled by the fact that someone could ride a bike for forty minutes to a party. Instead of viewing it as a chore, I see it as an opportunity for adventure….

Overall, this is a tiny tome that makes me want to get on my bike, and to bike more mindfully and healthfully, and get even more enjoyment from it than I already do. It describes the many ways that I can enhance my biking experience, to make biking yoga…so that, instead of biking to yoga class, I can yoga to yoga class. Awesome.



* All quotes are from Pedal, Stretch, Breathe: The Yoga of Bicycling.

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