We humans are always looking to improve, make progress, get ahead. If we can find a short cut, a hack, a trick, we’ll more often than not take it. The path of least resistance isn’t necessarily laziness either. There’s a fine line between sloth and smart. When it comes to cycling, whether you ride 5,000 miles a year (as I did in 2019) or 500, the easier the better. Mindfulness is all the rage now, although meditation has been around for thousands of years. So, can meditation improve your bicycling?
The short answer is probably. A quick search found no specific studies about biking and meditating. In general, it’s well known that if you are more focused on something, whether it’s cooking a meal or conducting brain surgery, naturally you would expect better results. There are studies attesting to the benefits of mindfulness in performance, though.
However, this brief post is not a scientific review. It’s about the last three weeks of my adding five minutes of meditation to my daily half hour of yoga, which I’ve been practicing for over six years now. Though not specifically a hard core New Years resolution, I am sticking with it.
The tool I’m using is the free Insight Meditation Timer, which has all kinds of pre-loaded recorded sessions. I pick Meditation, a subset (stress, Buddhism, sleep), and just follow along. (No, I’m not getting paid for mentioning it, but IMS, if you see this, feel free to send some dana my way.)
This is the same app I began using halfway through my daily yoga journey. There are others out there; if you choose to use one, pick one that works for you. But it’s not necessary. A simple alarm or egg timer will work. While there are many kinds of meditation, the general point for me at least is to still the body to allow relaxation, healing and focus to come to the mind. Whether you put your attention on your breath, a candle, a mantra, or something else matters not.
If you are new to “sitting” (chair, mat, cushion, etc.), you will probably find the notion of doing nothing ridiculous and impossible. Especially not reacting to sounds, sensations and certainly roaming thoughts. “How do I know if this is working?” or “I suck at meditating,” and “Serenity now!” My favorite is “I don’t feel enlightened yet, so can I quit already?” It takes time to establish the habit of a practice, but even if you just do it occasionally you may notice benefits.
As for my bicycling, the improvements are subtle, and may not be noticeable at all at first. I cannot prove any definite correlation between the two. I can’t tell you for sure that meditating has made me faster, a better bike handler, or anything of the sort. But anecdotally, I can share an example of when I remained calmer on the bike than I might have before trying this experiment. Whether it’s there’s a direct cause and effect link, I can’t say. But I suspect there is a connection.
The other day I was exiting The Peddler Bike Shop during rush hour. It is at a busy five-way intersection. I lined up to enter the crosswalk, planning to merge into the bike lane on the other side. A car was turning right, so I made sure to be noticed and cross carefully when the signal turned. The car driver was in a hurry, and started to do a right hook, but clearly saw me. I slowed but did not completely stop or yield. I was prepared to dismount and walk. He saw I wasn’t backing down so he stopped and I moved on and got out of the way quickly. He yelled the classic but unimaginative default insult involving an impossible self sex act and extending his middle digit. For the hell of it, I yelled back, “Come back and try to make me!”
In that moment, I was irritated, stemming from the surety that I had done nothing wrong. My adrenaline increased, and I could see where he was going that he’d be stuck at the next light, so I decided to chase the dude down. After about a half-mile sprint, I found his fancy silver sports car. That’s no small feat for a middle-aged fathlete on a 28-pound, 9-speed bike, by the way. From the adjacent lane, I signaled for him to roll down his passenger window. I proceeded to explain in calm but firm tones that:
- yes, I was the same dude he had just nearly run over
- cyclists can legally use the sidewalks and I had the right of way
- I did not break the law, but he did by not yielding at first
- we didn’t have a crash so the system worked as it should
He didn’t apologize, but seemed chastened. “I didn’t know that!” he said. The light turned green, I sprinted across the intersection, and I pointed to another sidewalk I was getting onto. Hopefully he learned his lesson and would yield sooner next time. It did occur to me that maybe he hadn’t seen me, but when he admitted he was looking for pedestrians and thought he was going to get hit from behind, I could see things from his perspective. I felt a little bit of compassion, another key component of Buddhist wisdom that one cultivates through… you guessed it: Meditation!
As for my equanimity, I certainly did lose it for a moment when I felt attacked. That’s natural response — the fight or flight response is pure chemicals meant to save us from danger, after all. A more experienced meditator would probably have not have reacted at all. But then, it returned soon. Why? Because, breathing.
When I caught up to the guy, my heart was pounding from the effort. I was panting hard and had to catch my breath, yet inwardly, I felt a sense of calm. My tone and mood were perhaps not those of His Holiness The Dalai Lama, but it was not aggressive, mean or derisive, either. I was assertive, sure, but I was legitimately curious and wanted to know why he did what he did. If I was wrong, I wanted to know that, too. We all make mistakes. With bikes and cars, they can be deadly.
This is just one small example. I wasn’t 100% cool cucumber, and some times I am not so calm, when cars come very close to hitting me. I’ve been going at this a while (20,000 miles in just over four years), so I’d like to think I have already been cultivating some ability to stay cool under pressure. I have had exactly 0 crashes with cars as a result of being a safe, sometimes quite slow sidewalk rider. If I stick with it, maybe I will find more noticeable and obvious links. Robin Mazumber, a neuroscientist and cyclist in the Toronto, Canada area, wrote “Moving Meditation: How Riding A Bike Can Keep You Grounded.” His post on Medium.com from a year ago suggests it works for him.
So, will meditating help your bicycling (or running, swimming, etc.)? There’s precisely one way to find out. Don’t just do something, sit there. Let me know in the comments if and how it works for you.
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