There’s a good chance you’ve heard about mindfulness. You most likely know mindfulness practices originate in the traditional physical and meditative arts of India and Asia, such as yoga, tai chi, and Zen meditation. You may even be familiar with the work of the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hahn, whose books like Present Moment, Wonderful Moment explain the concept of mindfulness in clear, beautiful, and simple words most everyone can relate to.
If you’ve done research into mindfulness, you’ve uncovered the work of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a scientist from the University of Massachusetts who pioneered the movement to quantify and verify the utility of meditative practices in a clinical mental health setting. Dr. Kabat Zinn was one of the first to publish data-driven evidence to support generations of personal and anecdotal evidence regarding the stress-reduction benefits of yoga and meditation in everyday life.
It’s hard to imagine you haven’t heard about cycling—yes, riding bikes—and the fact that thousands of people across the world enjoy cycling as a sport, a recreational activity, and healthy and environmentally friendly away to get to and from work or run daily errands. In this article, I’ll discuss the relationship between this common aerobic activity—cycling—and the more esoteric practice—mindfulness—and describe how I discovered something I like to call mindful cycling.
Aerobic Exercise, Mindfulness and Stress Relief
Research into the effect of aerobic exercise on stress confirms beyond the shadow of a doubt that a regular regimen of aerobic exercise leads to positive emotional and psychological outcomes. Another strain of research confirms, also beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Mindful Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) practices reduce stress, increase well-being, and improves overall quality of life. One thing research hasn’t done is confirm what happens when you combine the two. I propose the synthesis of the two results in a one-two punch, which can simultaneously increase health and reduce stress;
I don’t have data to support this proposal, but I do have a wealth of experiential knowledge to share. When I first experienced stress in my life—real stress, not problems with peers, adolescent worries about relationships, or angsty teen agonizing about identity and the meaning of life—my refuge was running. I worked nights in a restaurant. Money was tight. I was spinning my wheels. When I went to my mailbox, all I ever found was bills, and they were all in my name: I was a real, bona-fide adult living without a safety net.
I badly needed something to do to let off steam after my restaurant shifts. At the time, my go-to activity was heading out for drinks with my co-workers. But I knew that was not sustainable coping mechanism. I needed a different way to feel good; I needed something else—and running gave me that. My nightly post-work runs made me feel good, relieved stress, kept me in shape, and gave me a positive activity to look forward to every night.
Around the same time I started taking yoga classes and learning the basics of meditation. The yoga, I loved, but the meditation part, I had a hard time with. My mind would not be quiet; the chatter wouldn’t stop. I suffered through those parts of class, and figured meditation just wasn’t for me.
I hadn’t quite made the connection yet—I didn’t get the idea that there are many paths to a quiet mind, and sitting still in yogic meditation isn’t the only one. I didn’t understand the relationship of aerobic exercise and mindfulness, even though I was already reaping the physical, psychological, and emotional benefits of both during my nightly runs.
Now, well into my fourth decade of life, my mind and my joints are tired of the high-impact nature of running. It’s been a gradual process, but over the years I’ve traded the intensity of running for the smooth, rhythmic cadence of road cycling. I’ve found fertile ground in incorporating mindfulness techniques from yoga and meditation into my daily rides.
Mindfulness and Cycling: Moon, Lake, and Concentric Circles
An amazing thing happens when I’m on my bike. It’s difficult to describe, but I’ll try: there’s a wonderful sense of simultaneous stillness and motion, of action and observation, of intention and reflection, which perfectly mirrors the mental state required by mindful meditation practices. Mindful meditation asks the mind to be both subject and object at the same time—to be both the doer and the watcher in the same moment. When I set off on my ride, within ten to fifteen minutes, my legs find their natural pace, my breathing finds its natural time signature, and my mind, soothed by the repetitive nature of the activity, finds peace.
Each and every time I reach this zone, I remember my first meditation class, when I struggled with the impossibility of what the instructor asked of me and wrestled with the metaphor he used. “Imagine a lake bathed in moonlight,” he said. “The moon is your higher self, in the sky above, shining a perfect path across the lake, which is your everyday mind,” he continued. “Imagine your thoughts as pebbles dropped in the lake, creating ripples, momentarily changing the perfection of the moonlit path. Each thought creates a small disturbance, and this disturbance has its own life. It emanates out in ever increasing concentric circles, thought upon thought, ripple upon ripple, until it fades away, leaving only the moon, the perfect path of light, and the still, smooth surface of the water.”
Years later, on my bike, it comes to me. I’m in my rhythm; I’m in my zone. I’m going downhill, pretty fast. I look at my handlebars—they’re perfectly still. Beneath my tires, the ground speeds by in a black asphalt blur. Beside me, trees, bushes, and flowers stream by, a seamless whole, the colors an unbroken flow. There’s constant motion everywhere, yet I am completely still. Yes, my legs move, and yes, I breathe. I turn my head, I adjust my hands, but in relation to the ground, the things around me, the trees, the flowers, the street— I sit in the middle of it all, calm, peaceful, and observing.
It’s my “A-ha!” moment. I don’t have to sit still and battle my thoughts. I can find mindfulness in motion.
Finally, I am the moon. I am my bike. The world spins around me, by me, and beneath me, but I am at the center and I do not move. I am undisturbed. I watch the ripples until they disappear. I savor this moment as long as I can. I’m there—I’m the doer and the watcher, the subject and the object—living in the glorious chaos of the moment without being swept away and consumed by it.
The Mindfulness Effect
When my rides are done, I bring this lesson home with me, back to my life. No matter what happens, I can be in both places. I can be the doer and the watcher. I can be in my life, and I can see my life. This perspective works. It helps me stay calm when things get tough, and helps me keep perspective when perspective threatens to slip away. It’s my ace-in-the hole; my strongest tool against stress: mindful cycling.
If you’re interested in learning about mindfulness-in-motion, Skyterra is the perfect place to start. From walking, to paddle boarding, to bike rides in the scenic Blue Ridge Mountains—there’s not a better place to find your peace. And you don’t have to bend yourself into a pretzel shape to do it.