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.

go ahead. be a legend.

photo by Reen

I figure if a girl wants to be a legend,
she should just go ahead and be one.
~ Calamity Jane

I was bestowed with a bracelet for my birthday that has the above quote by Calamity Jane prominently stamped across the top. It’s a silver mix of leather and metal and it’s sassy as all get out. I love this bracelet so much, and not only because someone went out of their way to make sure that I have said wristlet or because it looks kick ass (which it does), but because it serves as a reminder to me that I am in charge of my own destiny. I could pretend that everything in my life is out of my control (which, admittedly, many things are), or I could recognize that I have direct influence over the one thing that matters when in comes to my destiny: choice.

It’s true that I can’t control many of the external situations in my life, but I have choice about how I respond to them through my thoughts, speech, or actions. As much as I hate to admit this sometimes, I have the most direct influence in how my life is going to be. I could be a lover or a hater. And that’s the truth.

I could also choose to be a legend in my own right.

And I do have aspirations for greatness. When it comes right down to it, I want to be someone I can feel good about- and that includes everything from daily acts of kindness to working for social services that I believe in. It includes being righteous when there’s a cause worth taking a stand for, and not feeling compelled to follow the masses just because it’s comfortable or easy. Being a legend means sometimes taking the uncomfortable or unpopular path and recognizing that the only compass available is your gut.

Maybe Calamity Jane isn’t the best role model, but she was indeed a legend– and she was a woman ahead of her time. I admire her tenacity, her spunk, and her willingness to be an original. I’m not planning to take up firearms or to begin a daily whiskey habit (note that I said daily) any time soon, but I do fully intend on living my own dharma and packing my own metaphorical pistol of truth along for the journey. I am bound for greatness.

So, of course, I made a list of inspirations for how to live like a legend:

  • Generate tapas/fire/energy through work and activities that inspire and engage you.
  • Be fierce in your love, faith, beliefs and allow them to guide you.
  • Laugh at yourself (loudly) and cry in messy ways. Allow someone else to clean up the mess.
  • Fight for a cause you believe in, stick to your guns, and wear something outrageous every now and then just because you want to stick out as the unique and fabulous individual that you are (because legends usually have a style all their own).
  • Stop: playing like you’re not a miracle, being smaller than you are, or seeking forgiveness for the things you don’t really feel sorry for. Also- pack away anything in your wardrobe that makes you uncomfortable or that bores you out of your mind.
  • Start: speaking your truth (even if that means dropping the “f” bomb in yoga class), valuing yourself, and making room for greatness.

Lastly, forget the lists (including the one above) or the plans or the “could/should” ideas lurking in your head and just live from your heart. Trust your intuition and live fully. Be legendary.