Cycling as meditation: Can riding help us achieve mindfulness?
Have you ever been out for a ride, lost yourself in the moment, then come home and felt like your mind has been cleansed? Like you’ve figured out the answers to all your problems?
I’ve often made uneducated comparisons between meditation and the repetitive and soothing activity of going for a road ride, or between meditation and the absolute concentration of ‘being in the now’ while mountain biking on flowy singletrack. My colleague, Simone Giuliani once said to me “I ride on the road if I want to think something through, and I ride on the dirt if I want to completely forget about it for a while.”
So are meditation and cycling similar in what they can help us achieve? Can bike riding help us in reaching ‘mindfulness’?
“If you want to understand your mind, sit down and observe it.”
— Anagarika Munindra, meditation guru
The word meditation derives from the Proto-Indo-European root “med-” which means to “take appropriate measures”. In Latin, the word derives more closely from “meditari” – “to think”, “to dwell upon” or “to exercise the mind”. While it’s difficult to concisely define meditation, it’s often associated with a state of consciousness that contains clarity, awareness, positivity, mindfulness, energy, and inner peace.
Quite simply, meditation allows us to understand ourselves. By meditating, we can begin to see what creates suffering in our lives, and what brings happiness and peace. When we see these things we can begin to make better choices. And when we make better choices we become happier. That’s the theory anyway.
Without some sort of introspection, we’re likely to just act according to whatever thoughts and emotions are in our head. With meditation we begin to observe those particular thoughts and feelings and identify that they’re present. Once aware, we have the space and opportunity to change the way we feel and act. It becomes possible to ask ourselves: “Do I want to follow and build on this feeling or emotion?” Or: “Do I want to let it go?”
While researchers still have a lot to do when it comes to understanding the benefits of meditation, there are promising signs. For example, in 2013, U.S. researchers used MRI scans to show that those who practice “mindfulness” can have calmer, less-stressed brains and better memory, awareness, concentration and decision-making.
Dr. Russell Asleson is a retired neuroradiology specialist in Colorado Springs who has an interest in the structural changes that happen in the brain as a result of meditation. He is also a keen cyclist.
In college he studied philosophy, practised yoga and, in his own words “was interested in eastern religions”. He’s always been an athlete and combined cross-country ski racing and road racing. This eclectic combination of activities led him to an interesting realisation.
“I didn’t realise how all this stuff came together until more recently, in the past 15-20 years,” Dr Asleson said. “I began to notice that when I was skiing or mountain biking it puts you in the same state of mind as regular sitting meditation.
“A lot of it has to do with the focus you need for each of these things.”
Meditation and cycling
My curiosity about links between cycling and medication led me to Dr. Patrick McCartney, an anthropologist based at Kyoto University in Japan. Patrick is currently working on a research project about the global yoga industry. He was introduced to yoga and meditation as a child and has taught both practices extensively across the world over the past 20 years. He too is an enthusiastic cyclist.
Dr. McCartney provided the following explanation of meditation.
“Meditation is … basically about placing one’s awareness on one point,” he said. “In classical yoga, there are eight steps to this process. This is commonly known, today, as the ashtanga system of yoga. Meditation, technically speaking, is understood within this particular system of yoga as the seventh step.
“In order to achieve these later steps, one must first succeed at all the previous steps. They build on each other working systematically towards inducing sense-withdrawal and focused attention. The yogi’s inner journey moves toward a spontaneous, penultimate state of absorption that ultimately leads to final absorbed state of concentration.”
As Dr. McCartney explains, there isn’t one path to a meditative state of mind. Indeed, cycling can be one way to help get us there.
“I think when you talk about cycling as a form of meditation, cycling helps to create meditation through an assemblage of aesthetic elements [ed. a set of underlying principles and guiding work],” he says. “Meditation can be understood as a spontaneous state that arises where, in a Buddhist essence, it’s about not thinking, or actually identifying the moment between thoughts … and expanding it toward an event horizon where things and thoughts cannot affect the observer in the way they normally do.
“The monotony of cycling allows one to enter a truly blissful state of mindlessness where the thoughts begin to recede and appear to have disappeared, completely. This sense of thoughts being moved to the background is essentially what meditation is for me.”
When you think of getting into a meditative state, you might think of calmness, peacefulness, and other things that cycling might provide, if in the right environment. So, is it the repetitive act of spinning the pedals that allows you to reach a state of meditation and thoughtlessness?
“When I get on my bike and spin the pedals around, I begin meditating.”
– Patrick McCartney
“If you look at some of the more psychological and philosophical literature on meditation and movement, they talk about these heightened states of receptivity and this idea that you are more susceptible also to being hypnotised,” Dr. McCartney explains. “It [spinning the pedals] is a very similar state to that and [so is] this highly repetitive nature of cycling and the fact that you’re locked into a particular position on a bike.
“The eight steps to get into a meditative state involve this idea of sense withdrawal, so you are withdrawing your senses when you hop on a bike. You’re instantly locked into a particular attitude – a physical attitude and also a mental attitude. That helps train the mind into a particular groove which is also helped by just riding down a quiet backroad or single-track. These are aesthetic elements that all come together to help.”
But how do you purposely get into this state of ‘active meditation’? One of the key elements to meditation is focusing on the breath and the movement of the breath. Dr. McCartney explains.
“Cycling affords you an interesting way into creating a relationship with the breath,” he says. “At a normal resting state we breathe around 15 times a minute. So that works out to 21,600 times a day. The times where we’re actually aware that we’re breathing in and breathing out is actually pretty low. So when you’re riding it’s a good chance to connect with the breath.
“If you can slow your breathing down [you’ll] then go through these different alpha – beta – theta states of consciousness. So when you’re just pedaling along you can connect with your breath and then work on slowing it down.”
Different states of mind
What does Dr McCartney mean by “alpha-beta-theta states of consciousness”? In short, scientists believe that different states of human consciousness correspond with “brain waves” of different frequencies. There are five different types of brain waves: alpha, beta, theta, delta and gamma.
“Right now, we’re concentrating, so we’re in a beta state,” Dr McCartney says. “But, then you get into this alpha state which is when you’re much more relaxed. And, so, when you’re trying to get into a meditative state, you’re trying to get into a deep alpha state, maybe just on that border with being asleep (delta).
“That’s when you experience these really deep states of relaxation and awareness, which can then ramp up to the highest state of gamma, which is known as the ‘insight wave’”.
How do we relate this back to cycling?
“When you are pinning it downhill on a mountain, or on a road bike, we have to be in the now and that’s a purely blissful state – you are on the edge of control, but you’re a master of it,” Dr McCartney says. “That’s quite different to spinning up a hill in the granny gear trying not to redline and blow a gasket. But, breath, focus, and being aware of oneself is probably even more important during the ascent. And, if you like to eat hills for breakfast, then it can be just as blissful as the descent.
“These different states are where you can just sit back, relax, and watch those thoughts flow through through the mind.”
Being at one with the bike
“I ride on the road if I want to think something through, and I ride on the dirt if I want to completely forget about it for a while.”
– Simone Giuliani, Ella CyclingTips
The alpha-theta border area is sometimes referred to as the ‘flow state’, the border between the conscious and the subconscious. It’s a state of mind absent of conscious thought, a zone where things happen automatically. When we go out on a ride we start out in a beta state, but move into alpha and eventually theta.
What does this flow state feel like? How do you identify it?
“It’s singular focus where some of the peripheral environment just isn’t there anymore,” explains Dr Asleson. “You’re hyperaware. It’s hard to put it into words.”
Dr Asleson says that most people might not even know that they’ve entered this theta state. But what can we do to achieve it?
“To me it’s situational,” Dr Asleson explains. “When you’re on a sweet trail then you’re aware that in order to survive you need to keep your focus. Sometimes it’s environment as well. Often for me it’s in the woods, somewhere I feel most comfortable anyway.”
And as for why all your problems seem answered after a nice long road ride, it’s because of the theta state you’ve entered along the way. It’s in the theta state that you’re optimally creative and your intuition is at its peak.
Meditation has been a mental and spiritual practice for thousands of years and there are many interpretations of what it involves and what it can help you achieve. As Dr McCartney and Dr Asleson have explained, there is more than one path to the peacefulness and clarity that a meditative state can bring, including through the repetitive motion of cycling.
Meditation research is still in its infancy, but it’s been shown that people who practise meditation may experience many benefits of a healthier mind. Whether it’s entering a creative state during a road ride, where mindfulness results in solving a problem or giving clarity, or entering the ‘flow zone’ on a mountain bike that puts you in the ‘now’, meditation is just one more reason why riding a bike is good for the mind, body and soul.