Years ago I used to be a runner. At least I thought of myself as a runner. I once asked a good friend and fellow runner, "What do you think about when you run?" She looked sort of puzzled, and her answer was a simple, "Running." She said she monitored her pace, was mindful of her cadence and stride. She thought about her running technique. She ran to run and to be a better runner. As runners we were worlds apart. My approach to running was much different. When I ran I never thought about running, except to hastily check my time at each mile. I thought about my day, my week, my past, present, future. I made plans, conducted conversations, crafted great and incisive arguments on a myriad of subjects. And through it all I remained a lousy runner. I never improved past a ten minute mile, and never ran more than five miles in any run. Eventually I quit running because I disliked the physical punishment it inflicted on a body with forty-plus years behind it. But the truth is I just never really understood running.
It was soon after that I was introduced to yoga. Now yoga had been a part of my family life since the early Sixties. My mother practiced yoga, and still does at the age of 87. And although it was a strange and complicated thing to witness as a teen, it was part of the fabric of my youth. So it felt normal when I became a yogi myself. I loved it from the start. Yoga practice forced a mindfulness in me that I never experienced in running. Each pose required an exacting sequence of movements, it demanded an awareness of posture and position, and as a beginner I was encouraged to count my breaths through each pose. Together everything had the effect of focusing my attention on the present throughout the entire routine- no inner conversations took place for almost an hour. Nothing but blissful quiet and the sound of my breathing. My mind benefitted as much from yoga as my body did.
It was through yoga that I reentered the world of cycling. I loved the mental and physical calmness of yoga, but I was in need of a good sweat. In my teens and twenties I used to ride my bike everywhere. Even when I owned a really cool Camaro Z-28, I used to ride about eight miles each way to my factory job. Cycling was transportation and it was recreation. One of my lingering memories is pedaling home from work through the Buffalo city streets from the east side to the northern border with the suburbs at 2 am on a warm summer night. No traffic, no people. No noise save for tic, tic, tic of the freewheel, and the rhythmic cycle of the light and shadow marking my passage along the route. But a new job in a new town meant a different approach to transit, and the bike took a long, long nap. But my yoga practice coaxed the bicycle back out. And the result has been truly transformational.
There are many similarities between yoga and cycling; the length of time each pursuit requires, the warm-up and cool-down, the constant, precise mechanical flow, the inner quiet. Both are transcendent experiences. On my bike I find it easy to unhook my thoughts and focus on the mechanics of riding; cadence, pace, speed, distance. Things that escaped me running. And when I ride I begin to open up to the world around me, and feel connected to it. Connected to the road as it traces the contours of the farm, to the hilly ridges and broad valleys of this beautiful area I live in. I can watch the pattern of the wind as it moves across acres of corn. I can feel the sun, the pockets of cool morning air, and breathe in the pungent aroma of the warm asphalt. And throughout I remain attentive to basic mechanics of my cycling. I could never find that with running.
I'm not a great cyclist by any definition of the word. I'm pretty good, but its not a goal of mine to get 'better'. Its not a desire. I have a nimble, serviceable bike. I have a regular routine. A weekly Tuesday ride with the group, one or two solo rides through farm country on the weekend. Cycling keeps me in reasonable physical condition, it allows me a cheat meal or two each week. But the single reason I love to ride is that cycling produces a calm awareness- a pure, meditative, in-the-moment clarity that does not manifest itself at any other time outside of my yoga practice.
Clarity is what seems to escape me most often, and any source of improved focus and presence is beneficial to my continued peace of mind. Cycling is regenerative. It promotes, if even for only a brief time, purposeful and energized Mark. It promotes a true sense of equanimity. I do my best writing and have my most cogent thoughts in the afterglow of cycling. It opens a door to focus that I find far too often closed. Its the reason I'm so obsessive about it.
But cycling, like any other pursuit of this type, isn't for everyone. Mountain bikers like to chastise we 'road-weenies' for our silly spandex kit, and runners see the entire thing as superfluous. Hikers wonder why anyone would run when there is so much beauty to look at. Ultimately though, its about finding the avocation that 'clicks' within each of us. It's about finding that thing that makes it all make sense, and makes us feel centered. Everyone needs some element of that in their life. A catalyst to engage the mind/body bridge and focus the inner and outer self. Because for that hour or two hours during our practice, nothing else matters.
And truly, in a larger sense, nothing else does.