Yamas and Niyamas- Bicycle Style


bicycle at Fisherman's Terminal

shifting light & changing gears

The quality of light has shifted in the past couple of weeks, reminding me that summer is coming to an end soon. There are fewer birds in the trees on my morning bike ride and the geese that I’ve witnessed turn from chartreuse gosling to awkward adolescent have finally made it to full-fledged goose.  I’ve planted winter crops in the p-patch, begun to empty my closet of summer wear and pulled out my socks and boots in preparation for fall and winter. And just as the trees are beginning to change color, my wardrobe is beginning to move back toward my basic black.

Usually this time of year makes me a bit wistful about what I’ve missed out on during the long, lazy days of summer, but with the overwhelming events of the summer, I’m feeling ready to hunker down for the dark days. That is, except for my bike commute to work…I’ve been riding my bike to work regularly since early spring of this year, and I’m not quite used to riding in the dark or the rain. I’ll be damned if I’ll be a fair weather rider again, and so I wanted to inspire myself to take my cycling journey more seriously. I realized I needed to pull out the big guns. I decided to look at my cycling through a yogic lens of the Yamas and Niyamas.

my journey of bicycle riding through the first two limbs of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga

Yamas: Moral principles and social behaviors (some call these the “restraints”). If followed, these five precepts can help anyone to find balance- which is always good when one is riding a bike.

  • Ahimsa (Non-Violence):  Donna Farhi describes Ahimsa as “a state of living free from fear”, which is the perfect reminder for my bicycle riding. It’s impossible for me to ride a bike without experiencing some amount of healthy fear, but I can’t allow this to impact the entire experience. I have to trust that I will not necessarily fly over my handlebars or be slammed into by a texting driver. As regularly as riding a bike brings me in touch with my mortality, I have to understand that nobody is out to hurt me intentionally. And riding a bike subsequently causes less harm to the planet than my driving a car- which makes me (and my body) happy.
  • Satya (Truthfulness): Honesty is moral and good, and so is following rules. So, to be completely truthful here, there are times when I run red lights or blow through stop signs on my bike (like at 5:40 in the morning when there’s no traffic at all). The important thing is to have a commitment to being an upright person in thought, action and speech. This means being honest with myself and others as well as living as impeccably as I possibly can. Sort of like confession- I speak my truth to you about being a morning stop sign runner and now I am forgiven (ok…not really).
  • Asteya (Non-Stealing): Asteya has as much to do with not taking from others as it does not stealing from ourselves. It could relate to not cutting someone off or riding too close- stealing space. It can also be an opportunity to practice being generous- welcoming another biker to take the lead, offering assistance to someone who is broken down or offering up an extra bike to someone who needs one (this is really generous and builds up positive biking karma).
  • Brahmacharya (Celibacy/ Self Control): It’s important to hold back sometimes to conserve some much needed energy and to notice the small things that might have seemed insignificant before. If we’re only going full speed ahead searching for that biking orgasm, we aren’t going to notice the little thrills along the way. And isn’t noticing the small sensory details one of the best things about biking?
  • Aparigraha (Non-Grasping): Be here now. This moment matters, and if you’re grasping onto what just happened or where you need to get to, you’re potentially missing out. You’re also likely distracted from paying attention to things like cars, other bikers, pedestrians, rodents, potholes, etc.  Another perspective is this: riding a bike is just about riding a bike. All of the gear in the world doesn’t take that away. Your bike just needs to get you from point A to point B. Everything else, my gear-head friends, is icing on the bicycle cake. I may want the Linus bike, but do I really need it? Probably not (but don’t tell Santa…).

Niyamas: Personal observances that focus on inner discipline and responsibility (connecting with the self) in order to cultivate a connection to the Whole.

  • Shaucha (Cleanliness): Wash up, people. And that means not only your body but your mind, too. Clutter creates chaos, so it’s just as important to clear your mind as it is to clean out that pannier. I like to take a few minutes before getting on my bike to think about my ride and to prepare for entering the world. If I have everything ready the night before, I have the time to setting before setting out in the world.  That way, my ride itself can be meditative. And that’s really a lovely experience.
  • Santosha (Contentment): Contentment doesn’t mean “happy”. It means equanimity- not placing “good” or “bad” on the situation. Traffic is just traffic. Rain is just rain. Sunshine is just sunshine. A flat tire is just flat. And all of this shall pass- the good, the bad and the ugly.
  • Tapas (Fire/Austerity): The amount of energy you put into anything is what you’ll get out of it. I like to think about the idea of alchemy: burning away those things that don’t matter to make room for the things that do. Riding my bike at the end of the day allows me to forget the things that I was freaking out about just minutes before (refer back to Santosha). It also helps me to decide what it is I want to spend my energy and attention on.
  • Svadhyaya (Self-Study): Svadhyaya refers most specifically to study of scripture and ancient texts. In bicycling, this doesn’t exist as far as I know- but might I suggest reading Pedal, Stretch, Breathe by Kelli Refer. It’s a small little book that takes up very little space and costs just a few bucks. It’s sweet and honest and has incredibly simple suggestions for ways to move your body before, during and after riding. And if this doesn’t appeal to you, I would propose that most spiritual texts are meant for you to take the teachings into the world- why not read the Bhagavad Gita and explore the ways riding a bike in the city can make you feel a bit like Arjuna preparing for a battle (and then go deeper into the concept of dharma, morals, ethics and spiritual connection).
  • Ishvarapranidhana (Devotion): When I open up my heart to God, the Divine, that which is greater than me, I see the world with new eyes. My ride becomes less about where I am going and more about the experience of being connected with everything around me. I develop a greater peace and I soften to the subtleties that occur when I’m on my bike.  I notice my heart beat, the resonance of the birds along the canal, the rhythm of the tires on the pavement and the sound of other bikers breathing as they pedal to pass me. When I pay attention, my interconnectedness with everything feels like a great comfort- and this is really what draws me to riding my bike in the first place.

my bicycle santosha

I have owned exactly 3 brand new bicycles in my life. The first was a bright yellow bike with orange and yellow fringe on the handlebars and a banana seat with a smiling sunshine face on it. I was twelve years old, and my bike was a glorious Christmas surprise. My brother and I both received bikes that year, which was perfect given the fact that it was a year for record breaking warmth and we were able to ride up and down our gravel street without jackets on (unusual for Eastern Washington winters). David was the recipient of a red and black sporty BMX bike and I was graced with my sunshine daydream. I was beside myself. That yellow bicycle represented a beautiful mix of freedom and joy and I rode it everywhere. I rode on roads both concrete and gravel and I rode on endless trails by the river. I rode that yellow bike until it was the bicycle version of the velveteen rabbit.

Thinking back, I realize that part of the magic of my childhood was my trust that I had everything I needed on my own person. I rarely went without, despite growing up in a working class family, and I seldom thought twice about slamming out the screen door on my way toward adventure. And that usually entailed me jumping on my bike without so much as a bottle of water or a jacket in case of adverse weather conditions.

After outgrowing and riding my yellow bike beyond recognition, I rode many hand-me-down bicycles that had previously belonged to my brother or sister. Bikes were the way I got around, and I never worried about needing my own bike lane, traffic, or how far I had to go to get to my destination. I just pedaled away, oblivious that helmets even existed.

Once I hit the magic age of 16 and got my driver’s license, however, I ditched my bike for a turquoise blue AMC Pacer. We lived in a semi-rural area, and I had aspirations of seeing the world in my bubble car. I had to get places faster than a bike could take me. So all previously used bicycles sat buried in the garage behind old tarps and cardboard boxes filled with other tossed away items awaiting fate at a garage sale. I was way too independent for a bike.

My second brand new bike was a chartreuse green Huffy mountain bike that my parents bought for me when I was fresh out of high school and on my way to Healy, Alaska for seasonal work. I strapped that bike onto the back of the sporty Ford Mustang I purchased (with help, of course) after my Pacer literally went up in smoke along the highway on my way to work. My friend and I made our way with our mountain bikes out of Washington State through Canada and the Yukon Territory to the wilds of Alaska. I rode that Huffy proudly, despite the snickers that came my way from the other seasonal workers riding fancier mountain bikes. I rode my sturdy green bike past huge RV’s, trailers, and the occasional moose on my weekly rides to the post office and took it with me into Denali National Park to explore bear country on two wheels. I had the last laugh when my bike was one of the few to avoid breaking down on the dirt and gravel terrain of the park. I never even experienced a flat tire. I kept that bike for years, riding from the sailboat we lived on near Gasworks Park in Seattle to work and school and everywhere in-between. I finally left my green workhorse of a bike sitting out at the marina as an offering to anyone who might want a good, sturdy bike. I have many fond memories of that bike.

My third and most recent new bike is the one I purchased just before my fortieth birthday last year.  I wanted a bike for several reasons, but the most important was that I wanted to cultivate the same sense of freedom and ease that I had when I balanced on two wheels through adolescence. That, and I realized that my ass had been getting fat. Let’s be honest. Chemo and all of the starchy goodness I ate as a result of the chemo-related nausea did a number on my backside. I needed exercise, and I almost always prefer to do that in nature. So, I did my research and went to the store several times to test ride several bikes within my budget. I settled on a sweet little hybrid cruiser bike with a bright blue frame and a memory foam seat.

My bike is adorable and sturdy at the same time, and I love riding it. I adore experiencing the city again from a different perspective. Instead of being sheltered inside a vehicle with heat and music, I’m in the elements and participating in my surroundings. My music is nature- and, oh, how I love that sound.

Riding a bike on a regular basis again has affirmed that I still feel a sense of autonomy when I spread my wings and power my own mode of transportation. I feel expansive and at ease (when I’m not fearing for my life alongside rush hour traffic). The difference, though, is that I have a harder time getting on my bike without worrying about having enough- I pack a first aid kit, tire repair patches, extra clothing, sunscreen, water, snacks, sunglasses, and my purse. I rarely just get on without a second thought. And this makes me sad. Even in my commitment as a yogi who trusts that what I need is right here in this body, I experience a racing heart when I think about going more than a mile without my water bottle and some emergency cash. Last year I actually left the house forgetting about a helmet for the first mile of my ride. As soon as I realized this, I felt pure terror of impending doom. I rode home at a slow and steady pace, looking every which way for possible causes of head trauma.

I do not want bicycling to be scary or to feel like a chore so, in honor of Bike to Work Month, I am going to work on cultivating bicycle Santosha- contentment with biking in the simplicity that it is. I will work on packing lightly and enjoying the ride rather than using my bike as just a means of getting some exercise and saving fossil fuels (which I totally believe in, by the way). I vow to smile more at strangers and to every now and then play with taking my hands off the handlebars to feel the wind on my wings. I will breathe in the fresh air around me and notice the beauty of the city where I live, and I will honor every brave and beautiful soul who perches their body on two wheels to get around, even when they curse at me for being slow. Because for me, it’s not a race-it’s a journey.