Essay: How Urban Cycling Cultivates Mindfulness

Cycling Cultivates Mindfulness
In a personal essay, a New York City bicycle commuter and yoga practitioner reflects on the meditative qualities of pedaling through the city.

By now, most people are aware of the benefits of bicycling. Biking is a form of cardiovascular exercise, so it’s good for your heart and overall health. Pedaling is undeniably the most affordable way to get around. It’s a zero-emission form of transportation. And, on a bike you generally don’t have to worry about traffic or public transportation delays.

But there may be an additional advantage that is worthy of consideration as our culture increasingly embraces the benefits of meditation. When you ride a bike, you are living in the moment in the most radical way, and in doing so you may have the potential to reap the mental health and spiritual benefits similar to that of yoga or a meditation practice.

About the author: Beth Heyde is a sustainable and active transportation planner. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and their five bikes. 

Exquisite Mental Presence

How does pedaling with traffic amid the clamor and swirl of the city, maneuvering through traffic and past delivery vans parked in the bike lanes, cultivate mindfulness? Let me explain.

As someone who has been commuting by bike for 20 years, I have experienced the benefits of biking first hand. Having practiced yoga for 10 years, and previously taught both Vinyasa and restorative yoga, I also understand the stress-relieving qualities of yoga and the benefits of mindfulness and how over-stimulated New Yorkers desperately need these practices to help create more balance in their daily lives.

When you ride a bike, you have to be alert and receptive to everything around you.  You constantly scan your surroundings, looking out for the unexpected. You have to “Be here, now” as Ram Dass, the noted psychologist turned spiritual teacher succinctly asserted in the 1970s.  You have to watch for pedestrians stepping into the road, taxis swerving to pick up their next ride, and vehicles stopping short or taking turns without signaling properly. When you ride a bike, you learn to anticipate others who don’t notice you, pay attention to vehicle doors opening without warning, watch out for potholes and cracks in the streets, even dodge an occasional flung cigarette butt — all while keeping your eyes on the road!

Movement in Harmony

This sounds stressful, right? Well it is or it can be. There is certainly an adrenaline surge at times, even exhilaration. But there is also a sense of flow that magically unfolds while you weave through traffic and move in harmony with your fellow New Yorkers.

As you pedal, you are in sync with your bicycle in an active, not passive way, and your surroundings pass by your consciousness as you move. Similarly, when you practice mindfulness meditation, you let your breath be the object of your attention and practice letting your thoughts pass by.

In yoga it is the same.  I remember the joy of one of my first yoga classes.  I was so challenged and engaged by the physical poses and keeping pace with the class that I hardly realized 90 minutes had gone by.  I remember feeling euphoric, and as I look back, I know it was the reprieve from my normal thought patterns and the endorphins released that enabled me to feel at peace.

The Mind-Body Connection

The experience of riding a bike on New York City streets demands that you stay present at all times. There is no point of lingering on the car horn that just scared you, because you are already in the next moment and maybe this time you’re taking in the beauty of the Brooklyn Bridge or the awe the city skyline.  Every moment on your bike is a new one, so while your heart is beating steadily and your breath is flowing, your mind is awake and receptive. It is this connection of the mind and body that brings you into the present moment, where there is not worry about what happened in the past, or concern for what might happen in the future. The present moment is where you realize everything is okay and in that realization, even for just a second, you might let yourself feel peace. In yoga and meditation, we return to the breath, over and over as our minds wander, to cultivate a sustained feeling of peace.

I used to say that my best yoga class concepts would come to me while riding my bike. It is in the moments of being fully present where we are able to experience peace and clarity in the mind.  In his New York Times best-seller, Eckhart Tolle describes The Power of Now: “As soon as you honor the present moment, all unhappiness and struggle dissolve, and life begins to flow with joy and ease. When you act out the present-moment awareness, whatever you do becomes imbued with a sense of quality, care, and love – even the most simple action.”

Like riding a bike.

When we are able to connect the body and the mind, we are able to live radically in the present moment and more times than not, in the present moment we find that everything is just fine.

Photo: Matthew Wiebe

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    • Claudia and Yasha, agreed! I think many of us have experienced this in cycling, but Beth really articulated it beautifully in her essay. Thanks for reading.

  • Do you have any tips for how I can practise mindfulness while riding ? Sadly I don’t share your experience. I would so love to make my ride a meditation but I don’t know how to start (I also have a daily mantra meditation practice which I am getting quite good at, but I haven’t tried it while riding, I’m not sure if it would be appropriate or safe ?) I am a very experienced city cyclist, I’ve been a commuter for 10 years, and was a messenger for 3. I find I don’t need to concentrate much riding in traffic and my mind tends to be quite busy. The only way I can make it challenging enough to achieve “flow” is to run red lights, however l am very frightened of police (I have had some scary run ins) and it also tends to attract a lot of rage from other cyclists, so this adds a lot of stress to my ride and I don’t really do it much anymore.

    • Max, thanks for reading! Beth Heyde, the author of the post, shares this advice:

      “My recommendation would be just to ride as you do, and as you notice your mind start to drift, bring your attention gently back to the present moment, which certainly includes stopping for red lights 😉

      With meditation in general it’s common for the mind to wonder off, and the teachers I like best, Tara Brach and Sharon Salzberg, suggest just to notice that, accept it, and bring the attention back to the object of focus, whether it’s the breath, a mantra, or candle. The key for me is to just be in the moment, and let it all flow by without judgement, and that includes my own day dreaming.”

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