Riding your bike is all about connection.
On a good day, you’ll feel at one with the bike. You’ll feel every bump and curve of the trail through the wheels and frame. The ground you are riding over will feel as close as the wind that’s whistling past your ears. You and the bike will compress and stretch and lean with the track like dance partners.
That’s what I want. When I hit the singletrack, that’s the state I’m hoping to pedal into, and it’s a feeling I get in a good yoga class, too.
So when I heard about Kelli Refer’s new book Pedal Stretch Breathe: The Yoga of Bicycling, about yoga for bike riders, I had a copy on order before I had even read the blurb. Just as well, really, because in my enthusiasm I had assumed that Pedal Stretch Breathe would be about yoga for mountain bikers; had I read through that blurb, I would have discovered that Refer had written it for commuter cyclists.
Whether you’re riding your bike through traffic or weaving through the trees, you’re bending your body and mind to become 50% of the hardware and 100% of the software of a self-propelled two-wheeled machine. The goal is to meld with your bike to connect with the trail surface under your wheels, much like the way you focus on getting grounded on the yoga mat. So Seattle-based yoga instructor Refer, who has taught yoga since 2009, and rides her bike everywhere, has had a lot of time to think about how us bike riders do this, and the kinds of obstacles that might hinder connected-ness.
In Pedal Stretch Breathe Refer targets obstacles to riding that lurk in a rider’s body and mind and the bigger picture: tired, tight or injury-prone muscles; fear, tension or competitiveness; and the nature of the yogi’s relationship to their riding environment.
This should all sound pretty familiar to anyone who’s walked the A-line, trying to decide if it’s worth a go, or slammed down the greenbacks for a race rego or a big backcountry trip and then wondered if they will be able to put in the training to survive the big day. Every trailhead you roll up to is a challenge, an invitation to back yourself to see it through. Can I get from A to B? I sure hope so.
Pedal Stretch Breathe is a little guidebook on yoga for regular folk. No flash, carbon-framed bikes, fancy yoga mats or fussily ‘calm’ practice space required: Refer’s mat-less yoga is for people on the go, and she’s orientated it around bikes.
Refer puts the poses and her yoga concepts into bike-related frameworks, and she has modified many classic poses to suit the needs of a cyclist for before, during or after a ride. So you can use Pedal Stretch Breathe to warm up, cool down or stretch aching muscles on the side of the singletrack, often using your bike as a prop
Refer also has a selection of poses for away from the bike, selected to will help you stretch and strengthen the muscles you need to keep those wheels turning.
There are poses to build your confidence and tap into calmness (like the Heart Opener, above) – a valuable thing to be able to do in any cycling situation. (1) And there’s a chapter that focuses on key cycling muscle groups and parts of the body, so you can read up on what to do about that awkward-to-stretch bit around your pelvis (the psoas and hip flexors), and how to release the tension on that piano-wire-tight outer quad area (the iliotibial band, the bane of cyclists the world round).
My new all-time favourite-ist-ever pose is Refer’s Down Dog Twist (Parivritta Adho Mukha Svanasana, on page 32). Part of Refer’s Pre-Ride sequence, this pose looks like nothing special in the book, but try it. The Down Dog Twist targeted a bunch of usually very tight muscles – my IT band, and around my lower back and hip region – that have been tightening up steadily since me and the mountain bike became an item. This pose gets the whole lot of them in one go. Sweet!
The book does have a few oversights. Pedal Stretch Breathe is a chatty contemplation on yoga and the joys of riding around on your bike as well as a how-to on yoga, with content for beginners and experienced practitioners alike. But readers trying Refer’s poses or concepts for the first time will struggle because not all poses and sequences are illustrated. The descriptions and instructions are well written, but perfect binding (that’s publish-ese for ‘regular, glued up spine’) does not lend itself to open display for mid-pose consultation.
And that same chattily welcoming narrative also makes it harder to use Pedal Stretch Breathe like a reference book. (The index lists poses by their casual English names only, with no mention of their traditional names or the muscle groups they work on.) The rationale behind the organisation of content was also tough to crack, with poses clumped sometimes according to when they can be used, and at other times by muscle group.
But if you can get a handle on the contents of Pedal Stretch Breathe, you’ll have at your fingertips a veritable superpower, one that will give you the edge in mountain bike races, on tricky sections of track and on longer backcountry rides: a seamless connection between the singletrack, the bike, your body and you.
Pedal Stretch Breathe: The Yoga of Bicycling. Written and illustrated by Kelli Refer. Portland, Oregon, US: Elly Blue Publishing / Taking the Lane, 2013. RRP US$9.95. Available online from Elly Blue Publishing at takingthelane.com.
(1) Professor Amy Cuddy at Harvard Business School has found a strong correlation between body posture, confidence and success. Check out her findings here, or watch her TED Talk ‘Your Body Language Shapes Who You Are’.