Written in the late 90’s for the Dharma Yoga Journal, a quarterly collection of yoga information and personal writing edited by Julie Friedeberger.
Inspired by Priya Shakti’s piece last month on swimming, I looked at areas of my life in which yoga was beginning to exert its influence. As I learn more in yoga , I recognise how useful it is to constantly assess my habits and lifestyle to gain greater understanding of what makes me tick.
One habit I have had all my life is cycling, some of my earliest memories were associated with my bike, learning to ride it and cycling around the cul-du-sac where I lived, singing ‘Born Free’ to myself. (strange child!).
Both my parents enjoyed cycling and I was fortunate to live in area where the roads were not too busy. I cycled round my paper round for years, then through university and now commuting to my work. So why do I continue this habit? Many people ‘grow-up’, buy a car and the poor bike gathers dust and loses air in the shed. Much of my love of cycling comes from the way it makes me feel physically. The muscles of the legs pumping, the lungs working and the arms supporting the spine, I always feel alive and fresh after a cycle ride. But my mind enjoys cycling too, so much is going on, pushing the pedals, balancing, looking at the scenery, avoiding pot-holes and oncoming traffic. All this activity fills the mind, distracting it from any worries or idle thoughts and focussing it very much in the present. If the cycle ride is long or on deserted paths , the mind is free to roam or quieten down into a state of contemplation. Unfortunately there is little time for such thoughtful bliss on my daily commute to work, normally it is filled with “Am I going to catch the train?” but on arrival I am wide awake and ready for the day. Being out in the elements is an important part of the cycle experience. The joys of taking a regular cycle ride through the changing seasons are endless. Admittedly there are times of being cold and wet but even that brings an appreciation of being warm and dry, a useful reminder as we spent most of our lives so protected by cars and houses. My particular favourite is that warm sunny afternoon as spring turns to summer and there is a tremendous lift in the spirits as I know the dark cold winter has finally relinquished its grasp.
Cycling has shown me that the levels of pollution in London are very high.. When I commute to work I go from Leyton to Tottenham Hale in NE London, the roads are congested with long jams at traffic lights. The cars and trucks chug away creating a haze which is most noticeable during muggy days in summer or fogs in winter. There is no relief in the cleansing rain as even that is dirty in London. But as I sail up the middle of the road past all the jams I feel good that I am not contributing to the pollution problem. There are several great organisations like SUSTRANS and the London Cycling Campaign (LCC) who are actively promoting a return to the use of the bike. As the roads become busier I believe there will be a shift back to the bike as the most pleasing and responsible way of travelling short distances. The bicycle is a universal tool of mankind found throughout the world. By observing a society’s attitude towards the bike it gives an insight into their outlook. In many countries around the world, Cuba, India, China and The Netherlands spring to mind, a traditional style of bike is the favoured mode of transport. The ‘sit up and beg’ design has been around about a hundred years and places the spine in a vertical position.
This allows the weight of the body to be supported by the bones of the spine making it a comfortable riding position. As most people ride the same type and make of bike, nobody cares whether your bike is old or new or shining or battered; it is a way of getting around. In many cities of the world bike taxis are the norm, people work and live by their bike, I have witnessed some amazing acts of balance including sacks of rice, huge trays of bread, chickens on the way to market and of course a passenger perched side-saddle on the back. The bike is very much a way of life for a large section of the people for whom car ownership is just a dream.
In the UK, however, a few years ago a new phenomena came across the Atlantic, the mountain bike, designed with the rugged outdoors in mind. This very quickly became a designer item with its shiney outsized frames, lots of gears and fat tyres, a great success. No doubt this type of bike is better for the serious offroader but when used on the ordinary roads for extended times the sitting position can become uncomfortable. As the handlebars are further from the saddle, the spine is at an angle; unless the hips and lower back are supple and open there is a tendancy to hunch the back, as a consequence in order to see the road the back of the neck becomes compressed. After long distances the back and the neck can become sore.
So in our endevours to be at the cutting edge of technology and fashion, the body is stressed, is this not indicative of our style in the UK?
Whilst cycling I concentrate on minimising the curve in the thorasic region of the spine, lifting the sternum, opening the front of the body, working into the upper back. By placing the neck and head as an extension of the spine it is possible to see the road without the compression of the neck mentioned earlier. This suble opening of the upper back places surprising new emphasis on the hips joints and the large muscles of the buttocks are activated. The very root of the spine -muladhara- feels an increased pressure on the saddle and suddenly cycling feels a completely new and different experience. All these combine to give a surge in power delivered through the bones of the legs to the pedals and I sail along thinking “Why don’t I always cycle like this?”
I enjoy my bike, it is a life-style choice and to me symbolises freedom. The freedom of being alone with my thoughts, receptive to the elements, free from the multinational corporations who supply us with cars and petrol.
To finish a request, I know there are some keen cyclists within our group and I would be interested to hear of your experiences of yoga in the saddle.