mindful cycling

10 Ways to Improve Your Life With Mindful Cycling

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“I thought of that while riding my bicycle” – Einstein on the Theory of Relativity – Taken from Einstein and the Art of Mindful Cycling by Ben Irvine

Riding a bike makes you happy.

OK, you might not be screaming in elation with tears of joy streaming down your cheeks as you’re cut up for the second time by another idiot car commuter, or as your legs burn as you tortuously climb uphill but, broadly speaking, being on a bike is a positive experience.

Think about it for a moment.

It’s almost impossible to get on your bike in a bad mood and then for it not to melt away as you cycle. A cycle ride can dissipate stress, it makes you feel good, makes you feel virtuous and you fairly much always finish in a better mood and with a clearer head than when you started.

That’s probably one of the main reasons why people become slightly addicted to cycling, it’s a bit of a feel good drug and, to a certain extent the more you do it the more you want it.

And hey, it’s a lot better for you than doing any Class A!

mindful cycling in the hills

Obviously, there are physical benefits to cycling as well and we all know that physical activity releases those happy endorphin things. In fact, people talk about getting an “endorphin rush” – you can apparently get it from exercise, sex and spicy food amongst other things.

……let’s just imagine for a moment the ultimate endorphin evening of cycling over to your girl/boyfriend’s place going out for a curry followed by vigorous sex and a fast cycle ride home. Imagine the rush you’d get from that!?

But, cycling also has the ability to automatically put our minds and bodies into a state of “flow”.

This is a really good thing because, when we are in flow, we’re running incredibly efficiently, are incredibly happy and all feels good with the world.

Erm, brakes on for a moment. I have times when I’m battling a head wind on my bike, the traffic is in my way or I just feel a bit shit. That’s not really being in this wonderful state of flow is it!

Well, no, not really. But I think I can appreciate that, on a good day, I do get into a state of semi-meditative happiness on my bike – generally when the wind is behind me, it’s all down hill and there aren’t any cars in the way!

So, “flow” is when you get so lost and caught up in an activity that you forget everything else, you lose track of time and you feel content and fulfilled. It’s one of the most contented states a human being can be in.

Flow is a state of meditation— of mindfulness – that you’re experiencing not while sitting quietly, but while fully and completely absorbed in an activity.

In flow, your ‘ego’ withdraws, making way for the process to happen, unimpeded— you’re not conscious of inhibitions, hunger, thirst, fatigue, aches or anything outside of the activity. All worries, thoughts and memories seem to melt away. – Melli O’Brien www.mrsmindfulness.com

In terms of being in “flow” when cycling you have a greater awareness of yourself both physically and mentally, you sense your mind and body and the bike all working seamlessly together. You’re absolutely in the moment and concentrating yet your brain feels released from all of the clutter of everyday life. So much of modern day life is mindless and being in a state of alert and positive mindfulness is refreshing, clarifying and inspiring.

jump for joy

The great thing is that this freshness of mind continues long after you have finished riding. The sense of creativity, flow and positivity continues well after the ride. Of course, it would be brilliant if we could all be this effective and mindful all the time which is why people practice meditation and study for years to achieve inner peace but, in the bike we have, as Ben Irvine says in Einstein and the Art of Mindful Cycling:

“a dream machine that blends meditation with movement, curiosity with velocity, mindfulness with mudguards”

Einstein was a keen cyclist and was well aware of the positive benefits to be gained from cycling. He was even have supposed to have come up with the Theory of Relativity whilst cycling and imagining himself riding along side a beam of light.

He was also very clear on his view that life is a bit like riding a bike and that in order for your life to remain in balance you need to keep moving. Every cyclist knows that if you lean too far to one side or another or to front or back you will lose your balance. Think of the human brain as having a front back left and right side – the left specialises in mechanics and systems and order, the right in creativity, self-awareness and imagination, the back in emotions and needs and the front allows us to see our lives in the context of a wider perspective.

On a bike, we need to remain centred, not lean too far forward or backwards or one way or another. In our lives we also need to keep this balance, to keep our minds and influences balanced, in control and in proportion. This is the art of mindful cycling and the key to achieving balance in an increasingly mindless, stressful and unbalanced world.

mindful cyclist

Mindfulness is…………..Less of the material things and daydreaming about the “perfect” future, and more time appreciating the simple pleasures and making the most of every moment as it happens. – Rachael Kable www.rachaelkable.com

One of the greatest aspects of mindfulness is the ability it gives us to make an objective appraisal of our emotional state. It allows us to get our external influences into context and to make decisions from a more rational and balanced perspective.

Have you ever come back from a cycle ride having made a big decision?

Thinking things through on the bike gives you a clarity of vision and an emotional detachment that it’s really hard to achieve anywhere else. It has an uncanny ability to comfort and reassure and gives you a sort of confidence in your own mental processing.

One thing we know for sure is we are active participants of our health and well-being. The first thing we need to do is regulate our emotions, creating a sense of stability and control. From this place we are level headed, have perspective and can make wiser choices. – Elisha Goldstein Ph.D.

I often find that I’m sorting things out almost subconsciously when I cycle. My brain operates in a much less fuddled way. I can think more clearly, and I have a much more focused sense of mental purpose than I often do in general life when I’m being bombarded by information, questions, emotional pulls and all sorts of other baggage and trappings of the modern world.

Sounds like some sort of cycling utopia! Yes, it’s an almost spiritual experience, like flying on a magic carpet, all is well with the world when you worship at the alter of the great god BikeStrava!

Well not quite! But here are a few practical things that you can have a go at to practice mindful cycling, maybe build on the already positive mental aspects of cycling that you doubtless already have experienced (or you probably wouldn’t have read on this far!) and that might help you achieve a bit of balance both in your cycling and in your life!

1.Get those damn headphones off!

So many cyclists do this and it can be safe enough if you use a pair of cheekbone headphones like these Aftershokz ones but, at the end of the day, music is distracting. It fills your mind with stuff and bombards you with sensations other than those of cycling. Listening to music whilst cycling is a classic symptom of “doing” and not just “being” – keeping your brain occupied lest it should freewheel for a bit and run a bit wild!

Now, I actually love listening to music whilst I’m cycling with the Aftershokz and there is something great about being in your little music bubble and cycling along, however, it is distracting from mindfulness and it does dictate your experience rather than leaving you open and receptive to your thoughts and the sensations as you cycle.

2.Be free! – Go without a satnav or computer

I love checking my heart rate and cycling in the correct zone for the correct amount of time and checking my pitiful Strava results and checking my speed and seeing who else rode that way today…….

But, heaven knows how many times I look at my bike computer on a ride to check my speed, check my heart rate etc. There’s a big risk that your riding becomes just about performance, about physical fitness and beating your previous time and whilst this is great and also mentally stimulating, it’s not mentally nourishing in the way that mindful cycling is.

The success of a cycle ride doesn’t have to be quantified by miles covered, personal records broken or calories burned. It can also be measured in terms of enjoyment, new places discovered, mental refreshment, problems sorted out and quality of thinking done!

3.riding for the hell of it and not keeping track of time or route

When was the last time you just got on your bike and rode? Followed your nose, went where the fancy took you, explored and took the back roads before coming home whenever you pleased? Of course, we all have other commitments to adhere to but the simple pleasure of finding a new area or seeing something familiar from a different viewpoint can be inspiring and liberating.

You don’t have to plan, you don’t have to take the optimal fast route – stop and “smell the flowers”  and take a route that your instinct and sense of adventure dictates rather than your bike computer!

4.Listen to your body

Mindfulness also means being acutely physically aware of how your body is working and how it relates to the bike. Listen to your breathing and the regular ticking of the bike as you go along. Try to concentrate just on the sensation and the feeling, it can be hard not to let your mind wander all over the place but try to centre your thoughts and focus.

You have to get curious, get open, and start having fun exploring sensations in the richest way—getting into the sensuality of body sensations. – Michael T Taft – www.deconstructingyourself.com

Interesting fact: Cycling is one of the most efficient means of forward propulsion per calorie of energy burnt. As humans, when we walk we use 0.75 calories per gram per km. On a bike this is improved five times over – no animal can achieve this and the most amazing thing is that no machine can achieve that amount of efficiency either including even cars and jet engines. If bikes ran on gasoline they would come in at an astonishing 5000km per gallon!

5.stopping and taking a picture

What?! Stopping when I’m going at full tilt in the middle of a Strava segment – you must be joking! Have a go at shifting the focus of your ride from getting the best Strava result to getting the best photo on your phone and see how that feels!

That’s not to say that physical fitness and striving for improvement isn’t important but it’s not the be all and end all of the equation. Looking for pictures gives you an awareness and connection with your environment that few other activities can produce. It’s not the same as just looking out of a car window – a cyclist is grounded in the environment in a much more profound way and this experience of your surroundings is one of the keys to mindfulness.

6.smiling

Ok, well if you can’t imagine an ongoing smile at everyone then at least have a go at inwardly smiling! Smiling at other road users is a good thing to do and, particularly as a driver, goes a bit against the grain!

As a cyclist, it’s much easier and you can at least start by acknowledging other cyclists and a simple greeting can go a long way to feeling good on your bike and feeling connected with others around you.

I’m not suggesting that you go along with a smug grin plastered on your face as this is very likely to just inflame drivers and make them want to run you over (!) but a physical manifestation of the cycling pleasure you feel inside goes a long way.

When was the last time you went fast down a hill and just whooped for joy? Come on, you don’t have to be that grown up, find your inner big kid and have a scream next time you go really fast and feel the exhilaration of the wind in your hair and the pull of gravity!

7.going slower or maybe not!

Have a go at slowing down and taking in your surroundings more. Try pootling around on your bike rather than stressing about your FTP. It’s quite refreshing! Let your mind wander a little, concentrate on going slower rather than going faster, turn the world on it’s head for a little while!

Or, what about just trying to go fast!? Most cyclists love cycling at “tempo” as you feel as though you are working hard and going fast but could sustain it for a long time – you really do get in the zone where and get into the flow really well.

Have a go at finding your own speed “sweetspot” – try to remember what it feels like and revisit it often!

8.Don’t get annoyed by other road users

Just make it your business not to. Mindfulness allows you to be objective about how you are feeling and you can use this to just glide serenely on. Try to let go of judgements towards other road users, even when they aren’t necessarily doing the right thing, and remain focused on your own journey. I have the view that every other road user is a moron and I’m invisible on my bike, I always expect the worst and that I won’t be seen. If things work out better than this and a driver does actually see me and even make way for me then I can smile and all is good with the world!

9.cycling alone or in a group

It’s easier to practice mindfulness and to attain the feeling of being in “the zone” when you cycle alone and, in fact, cycling may well become a valuable alone time opportunity. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this and taking time out for yourself, alone, just to explore, be at one with yourself the world and your bike is a perfectly normal and healthy thing to do.

However, cycling in a group, with friends and/or in a club brings with it a special kind of camaraderie that it’s difficult to explain and difficult to find elsewhere. Maybe it’s the combination of fresh air, physical effort, common purpose and sense of achievement but group cycling can bring about valuable conversations, meaningful connections and be the instigator of great friendships.

group of road cyclists

10.Cycle more often

And finally, and of course, if it feels good and you enjoy is then why not do more of it!? The more you cycle the better you will feel both mentally and physically as well. Three short rides a week are much better than one long one and I would even go as far as saying that a quick 15 minute bike ride might not have huge physical benefits but the mental benefits can be felt almost immediately even after such a short time.

And what that means is stopping, tuning in and listening, actually hearing what your emotions and body are telling you and honouring your feelings. And rather than racing to that bucket of Haggendas, or Netflix, or bottle of Crown Royale, I hope that you’re able to offer some space for whatever’s in your experience, finding within you the strength to turn towards your fear or sadness and tenderly say, “I see you. I hear you.” Instead of judging yourself and making those unsettling emotions wrong, offer them acceptance, loving kindness, and compassion. – Tamarra Levitt www.calm.com

Try to make cycling part of your routine, have regular cycling time slots and try to swap out car journeys for cycling journeys as much as possible. It sounds obvious but cycling doesn’t have to be just the thing you do on your road bike on a Sunday morning. It can be a family activity and something that is part of your everyday existence even if you only cycle very briefly each time.

So, do you experience the sense “flow” when you cycle? Do you feel that cycling is as good for you mentally as physically and have you ever made any big decisions or sorted any big problems out whilst you were out on your bike?

Let me know in the comments below. I would love to hear from you!

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Comments

  1. Lovely article Andrew! I’m a cyclist too and I love the feeling of being out and about whilst moving my body. Mindfulness to me is being aware of what it is you are doing in this moment. If we can be present in the moment then we are no longer thinking ahead, or worrying about the past, we just are. And being mindful whilst riding can actually give us more energy as we aren’t using it up with thinking. I love your idea of stopping to take photos along the way, it’s the perfect way to practice mindfulness and have a lovely memory to share with others.
    Thank you for sharing this,
    Samantha.

    1. Author

      Hi Samantha, thank you for your kind comment. Yes, the older I get the more I realise it’s the here and now and the present moment that’s of prime importance. there’s little point in reliving the past or worrying about the future, it’s much better, as you say to divert your energy into the present.

  2. Love your article, Andrew. As a Buddhist, mindfulness is what I strongly believe in and I can easily attain via cycling. Thanks.

    1. Author

      Hi Nick, thank you, glad you liked it. Yes I strongly believe that cycling has both spiritual/mental health benefits as well as physical ones.

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