The Bicycle by Georges BraqueI’ve been a cyclist and yoga practitioner for most of my adult life, and I’ve always thought that these two passions marry well. Cycling is great for my cardiovascular health and allows me to get out into nature. (I live in rural Ontario, so my attempts at outdoor asana practice are usually hampered by mosquitoes, wild temperature fluctuations, pokey pine needles, and the occasional wandering toad.) In addition, while my asana and meditation practices are usually solo, I enjoy road cycling with friends, and while my yoga practice leaves me feeling serene and centred, cycling appeals to my playful side.
Of course there are many varieties of road cyclists. My husband has been a road racer since he was fourteen years old, and although he’s turning sixty in a few months he’s still fiercely competitive. I am more of a tourist. I love stopping to look at flowers, chatting with friends, and very often seem to wind up in bakeries and ice cream parlours (I don’t know how—it just happens). I often cycle with the octogenarians in our local club, because they’re more fun and like to play games. For example, there’s a local hill where, if you hit the descent just right, you can make it all the way to the next concession without pedalling.
Some road cyclists pride themselves on going fast, others on endurance. Some are “spinners” who ride at a very high cadence and others are “grinders” who are muscular types who ride big gears. Some excel at climbing and others at sprinting to a finish line. Depending on an individual’s cycling habits, the body will have different stress points, but there are commonalities that we all can relate to.
You would think that knee and hip pain would be commonplace, but most road cyclists suffer far more from neck, shoulder, and low back strain. Road bikes are built for speed and aerodynamics, and even a well-fitted bike results in a low profile position with the hips flexed and a spine that is almost parallel to the ground. In order to see, a roadie has to extend her neck to bring her eyes level with the horizon, and often reduces the strain of bearing weight by locking the elbows and hiking the shoulder blades. I like to joke that the resulting upper body position is a fusion between a turtle’s head and giraffe’s forelegs. Another unfortunate consequence is that the poking chin and flexed hips of a cyclist often reiterate the position we’re in when we’re sitting at our desks during the day (it’s just rotated ninety degrees).
Most cyclists know that it’s important to stretch and to strengthen our core muscles, but often we focus on the wrong areas. When we’re on our bikes we tend to be “locked long” across the back line of the body from our sitting bones to the top of our thoracic spine, and to be short and tight in our front body, particularly the hip flexors and abdominals. So most road cyclists need to strengthen their back bodies, not lengthen them, and while building strong core muscles is paramount, shortening the abdominals using “crunches” or sit-ups can actually make matters worse. Also, cycling tends to take place in the sagittal plane, that is, the legs move forward and back, but there is very little activation from side to side. Most road and touring cyclists ride with their feet clipped on to their pedals, so the lateral muscles of the body can be quite weak and imbalanced because they are never challenged directly. Finally, most of us have a strong tendency to only unclip on one side, so that our calves, and our balance can become quite asymmetrical. One day last summer my right shoe got stuck in my pedal, and I had to ride up alongside a chain link fence so I could stay upright and get my left foot out.
Here are three of my favorite poses/practices from my yoga-for-cyclists workshops:
1. Arm Elevators. This is similar to Cat-Cow pose, except you do not move your pelvis and lower spine, just your upper spine. Start on all fours with your wrists below the shoulders and arms straight but not locked.
On your inhalation, without bending the arms, lower your breastbone toward the floor, feeling the space between your shoulder blades narrow. Then, on your exhalation, press your hands into the floor as you lift your breastbone up and away from it, allowing your shoulder blades to move away from your spine. Keep your gaze downward and your shoulders away from the ears. Repeat for 10 rounds of breath.
Once you have mastered this movement on the mat you can actually practice it on the bike. It will help to keep the shoulders more relaxed and better positioned. 2. Plank Pose Variations. Plank pose strengthens the abdominals and low back without shortening the torso. Plank is also an easy pose to adapt and titrate. For beginners, the version of Plank pose with the knees down can provide plenty of challenge. For those with wrist issues, you can practice the Dolphin variation of Plank (forearms on the floor). Finally, for those who find the classic Plank pose easy, you can combine it with the arm elevators described above.
3. Locust Pose. Locust pose is a great back strengthener and a good counter-pose to the flexed position in which we usually ride. I usually suggest interlacing the fingers behind the back (good chest opener) and then coming up into the backbend. Stay in the pose for three seconds and then slowly lower down for three more seconds. Repeat five times. To double up with a hip strengthener, come up into the Locust pose and then take your legs wide apart and back together before lowering back down.
I’d love to hear from the road cyclists among the YFHA readers. What asanas are most therapeutic and effective for you? Where do you tend to get sore and tired? What advice would you like to share?
Wishing you smooth, open roads, gentle breezes and a beautiful yoga practice to follow. Keep the rubber side down.
Elaine Jackson is a retired occupational therapist, yoga and meditation teacher, writer, cat-momma, wonderer, reader, and cyclist. She is working on a DVD for cyclists and so far is aging healthily, except for all the ice cream. You can contact her at www.jacksonyoga.ca.Subscribe to Yoga for Healthy Aging by Email ° Follow Yoga for Healthy Aging on Facebook ° Join this site with Google Friend Connect