Vinyassa Yoga which I practice regularly is described as a 'moving meditation'. Each asana or posture flows gracefully from one movement to the next. When on the mountain bike riding my favourite trails in Luchon, without a care in the world, also feels like a 'moving meditation. Flow has been defined as 'moving along in a steady, continuous stream'. In both yoga and mountain biking when the key movements glide effortlessly together you know you're flowing.
You can see the difference between a mountain biker who flows down the trail smoothly compared to one who tries to ride their bike methodically or even mechanically as I like to describe it. In my opinion for riders who flow naturally on a trail there's a real grace and beauty to their movement...annoyingly they don't even look like they're trying. Bike and body move as one rather than separate entities. For other riders who haven't quite found their flow yet there can be resistance within their movement. Bike and body appear disconnected. This disjointed movement is highlighted more so in riders who are afraid, tense or displaying a variety of emotional behaviour when their limits are tested or when they are trying too hard. I know I can feel and ride this way the first time on a new trail I'm not familiar with.
Perceived stress triggers the release of hormones that cause physical symptoms that in theory are meant to save one's life - 'Fight or Flight' - However in some people this actually interferes with riding a trail smoothly and safely. Have you ever found yourself riding a trail that tests you, so you choose to ride it really slowly and cautiously. Then when the bike accelerates your first instinct is to grab the brakes as though your life depended on it...next minute CRASH...you're on the floor! It's ironic that our brain tells us to brake quickly to save us from hurting ourselves when this action alone usually causes the crash not the intimidating trail. The mountain bikers I really love watching are those riders who simply flow without any restriction, stress or tension from within, mountain bikers who just let their bike glide from one bend to the next as though they're surfing the trail.
So how can Yoga help you find flow on the bike...
Muscle opening and lengthening
Can you stand on one leg without falling?...what about with your eyes closed? On the bike can you pedal slowly in a straight line or track stand without using your brakes so you simply balance on the chain...now can you track stand with both hands in the air? Improving your balance on the bike is a key feature to developing your flow on the trail. When I'm coaching riders, especially new or nervous riders this is one area I concentrate on.
I modify traditional yoga balance postures to compliment mountain biking such as Vrikshasana otherwise known as Tree Pose. Once a client confidently stands strong and relaxed in Tree pose, I then ask them to bend their standing leg and straighten it continuously, just like a one legged squat, but to do so with a smooth transition from straight to bent leg. Another example is standing on one leg and making a pedalling action with the opposite leg keeping back straight and tall. When that feels easy then to lower chest towards the ground whilst continuing the pedalling action with your leg.
There are a wide variety of yoga postures that can help strengthen your legs. I particularly like Warrior 2 because you have to concentrate on standing erect, grounded and strong. I like to think of the energy from the earth been drawn up into my legs and heart centre, before radiating outwards through my finger tips. This feeling I try to replicate on the bike as my tyres absorb the energy from the trail to give me extra leg power from within to manoeuvre the bike in harmony with the terrain...well that's my focus :)
MUSCLE LENGTHEN & OPENING
I was going to write 'flexibility' here, but actually due to my passion for sports that encourage tight hamstrings and hip flexors such as mountain biking I have made very few obvious gains in flexibility. However I know when my working muscles become over used and I'm on the brink of injury. I experience a deep ache in my glutes and a loss of function and power in my left leg. Due to an accident 15 years ago I have pelvic instability and an unstable knee. I can save myself the pain and frustration by making time to stretch. Certain yoga stretches help your muscles find space and lengthen the muscle fascia that can become tight with repetitive activities such as pedalling a mountain bike. So although I'm unlikely to perform advanced yoga postures that require a high degree of flexibility such as wrapping my feet behind my head, I can still make huge gains by stretching regularly as it will mean I can ride my bike pain free. I like to do a modified pigeon pose that helps release my tight glutes and prevents my left leg from losing strength.
If you haven't come across this word before then think of it as your 6th sense. Proprioception is being aware of your body position and movement in space. If we use mountain biking as an example proprioception is the awareness of where your body needs to be on the bike to ride with flow and spontaneity. Proprioception is the ability to know where your body needs to be in order to remain balanced on the bike or even when to pedal or what gear to be in at the right time. Often I will say to people 'back heel down' and they tell me it is down, but when I show them on the video you can clearly see that the back foot is higher than the leading foot. Another example is asking people to move on different parts of their saddle. Most people only know how to sit one way on their saddle which can effect their balance on the bike when riding more technical trails. This photo below is of me riding a short technical piece of single track that very few people have cleared...in fact I have cleared it more than most men. This is not to inflate my ego, but to point out how limiting strength and muscular force actually can be on a bike without a degree of proprioception. I have to make sure I'm on the right line, time my pedal stroke so I don't hit the narrow rocks and move my weight backwards and forwards on the saddle or in the air at exactly the right time in order to ride this section of trail. There's no time to think about each individual action and when I should perform the move. I have to change my body position according to the trail feedback. Yoga helps you to reconnect with your body and develop a deeper sense of how your actions on the bike should feel in order to ride freely.
Breathing is an automatic and involuntary action. However stress can affect how we breathe. In many cases stress causes short shallow breathing where one may only use a third of their lung capacity. Yoga focuses on several breathing techniques such as belly breathing. Place your hands on your stomach and simply breathe into your diaphragm so that you feel your stomach and hands lift together as one. Can you belly breathe when on the bike or do you find yourself taking short sharp out of control breaths into your chest. Breathing efficiently and using all that space in your lung cavity will enable you to have more oxygen rich blood to fuel your working muscles. Yoga practice is also breathing practice, as you develop an awareness of how to breath in time with the flowing asana movements. I find when I'm attempting a difficult piece of single track that breathing deeply helps me to ride freely as well as perform more challenging yoga postures. As soon as I allow myself to take short breaths the stress response kicks in and I will lose my flow on a trail or fall in a heap if practising a yoga head stand for example.
If you haven't heard of Mindfulness before then here is a brief summary - Mindfulness helps you to become fully present in where you are and what you're doing at a particular moment in time. For many people mindfulness is difficult to achieve because our brain can be so overwhelmed with 'to do lists', dead lines and expectations. I think for many of us mountain biking can be the closest one gets to practising mindfulness. In some people mountain biking can help us escape daily stress and help us live in the moment from berm to berm as we flow along the single track. However I have also seen mountain biking trigger emotional reactions from people who place unrealistic pressure on their shoulders to achieve a certain level of riding ability because they're always comparing themselves to others. Sometimes by stepping away from the expectation and judgement you place on yourself and connect with where you are at a particular moment in time you will enjoy your ride so much more. My Nan used to say - 'Always stop to smell the roses' - This expression reminds me to stop on every ride and look around me and connect with how I'm feeling at a single moment in time. I know practising yoga has helped me to be content within the moment and to appreciate where I'm at in my practice of yoga and mountain biking right now. When I used to race mountain bikes it was very difficult to live in the moment as I was always thinking about where I had to be or what I wanted to achieve in the future. I found this caused alot of stress and a feeling of instability. Making time for 'right now' and being aware of 'right now' is something mindfulness through yoga has helped me understand and benefit from. As a result I can enjoy my ride without expectation or frustration interfering with the experience.
Yoga offers so many gains without the pains and really compliments Mountain Biking.
There are many different types of Yoga suitable for everyone and as I have discussed hugely beneficial to mountain bikers. Both super stars of the mountain bike world Rachel Atherton and Josh Bryceland have admitted to practising yoga on a regular basis. I would recommend looking into local yoga classes or take a look at the numerous taster sessions on Utube.
If you join AQR on a mountain bike holiday then check out Kate's -
A Quick Release Yoga classes available to you on your day off or even daily on specific holiday weeks.
is now offering Yoga & Body Bike Awareness classes to all AQR Holidays guests in Luchon (Pyrenees) and AQR trips to Portugal. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for further details.