What do Yoga and Cycling Have in Common?

yogaforcyclistsA yogi, turned cyclist discovers how two diverse disciplines have more in common than we think.

At first glance, it would seem that yoga and cycling cannot have much in common. We may often think of yoga as a slow, contemplative, meditative practice. It is a practice of guiding the awareness inwards and of letting go of ego and competitiveness. Cycling on the other hand can be seen as a fast, thrill seeking activity where the cyclist is often competing against other cyclists or perhaps trying to beat their own personal best. It is one where the cyclist constantly pushes their body beyond its limits and where legs and backs and shoulders ache at the end of a long outing.

However, upon moving to Ilkley this year, home of ‘the largest cycling club in the UK’, I have returned to cycling once again. I grew up cycling in the west of Scotland on a big heavy, run of the mill mountain bike. I loved it all. The wind rushing by your face, the thrill of the downhill, managing to get up that really steep hill without stopping for the first time…. And then I moved to London for the next 16 years. Apart from a few outings, (and one rather unfortunate incident of driving under a low height barrier and ripping the bikes from the roof of the car) the bikes gathered dust in the shed. The London roads were just a bit too scary, polluted and unpleasant to contemplate.

Fast forward to 2014 and here I am in cycling heaven. I buy my first ever road bike, procure the appropriate stretchy cycling attire and off I go. What I didn’t realise is that there are no easy cycle routes around Ilkley! I thought having cycled around west Scotland that I would be fine but it appears that north of the border they built the roads around the mountains. Here, they just chose the quickest route over the hill to lay the tarmac!

So as I cycled up a lovely 20% gradient to Beamsley Beacon for the first time, I found myself struggling. Legs burning and my heart feeling like it was about to burst. It was then that the similarity to yoga struck me. This feeling of ‘suffering’ for want of a better word was simply just another sensation. Yes, my body was having to work much harder than normal. Yes, my muscles ached. Yes my heart rate was noticeably high. But at the end of it all, it was really just another sensation. It was my mind that decided it was ‘suffering’. Actually, ‘torture’ was the word I was thinking at the time! A common meditation practice is to label each sensation as it comes up, without attaching any mental emotion to it.

I also found that similar to yoga, cycling teaches you how much of your ability is hindered by mental blocks. I am struggling as I reach the top and my mental chatter is saying ‘I can’t go any further, my legs are burning, there’s no way I can make it to the top’. But this time, I keep cycling and I ask myself, ‘Am I really genuinely at my limit or is this my mind that just doesn’t want to put up with the discomfort any more?’ Well, it turns out the latter answer was correct. As most of us do, I had more strength in me than I realised.

This is not to be confused with ego or competiveness. I don’t mean pushing your body way past its limits, causing injury and avoidable pain. On the contrary, I refer to the act of really looking inwards. ‘Am I capable of this or am I forcing myself beyond what I can do today? Is this a wise action?’.

To me, cycling has also become a form of meditation. When I am out there cycling along the moor or through the dales, I often really feel at one with nature. It is ‘food for the soul’. Being in the outdoors, especially on those early morning rides where the wildlife is everywhere and the air is pure and clear, you really feel a complete sense of peace on the bike. You can be cycling fast but still feel a sense of stillness inside. It is that same stillness that I find from my yoga and meditation practice.

The two activities also complement each other beautifully. Both build strength. Yoga brings increased flexibility. It stretches out those tight legs and hip flexors. It stretches out an achy back, neck, shoulders after a long cycle. Yoga breathing exercises (pranayama) help when you are on the bike. The practice of yoga teaches us to look inwards and this practice works wonderfully when on the bike.

Likewise, we also have to find our strength inside when cycling and similar to yoga, when you’ve started that journey you can’t just give up and turn back. You have to keep going forwards on your chosen path.