Cycling as meditation? You ask. What? Are you crazy?!
Well, I am a little bonkers—in a good way!—but cycling really does have meditative powers for me. I am most at peace on my bike—I feel free. My racing brain shuts down and it is the best place to process difficult feelings, emotions, and thoughts. Cycling has also been a major contributing factor in my journey towards health and wellness; helping me lose nearly 60 pounds, and being more physically fit than I have ever been. Most weeks I cycle in excess of 70 miles; not out of necessity, or obligation, but because I love it.
I didn’t always feel this excited about exercise though. My story is that I arrived in recovery physically and mentally ravaged by addiction; I was 150 pounds overweight and I felt terrible most of the day. I spent the first 18 months of my recovery physically exhausted. I was so frustrated that I hadn’t found out about holistic recovery earlier—particularly the importance of looking after my physical health. My experience was that traditional recovery modalities lacked any reference to looking after my physical health. In fact, some literature positively encourages the consumption of sugar.
Sadly, for the first two years of recovery my life consisted of meetings and working an unfulfilling job. There has to be more to life I’d say to myself.
Around the three year mark—suffering with ongoing stress and depression—I reached a point where I’d had enough. I knew it was time to change and I knew what had to change: I began to work on physical health. I started by getting help with a health coach. She helped me to look at my disordered relationship with food and my non-existent relationship with exercise. Oh, and the lack of fun in my life.
I’d always hated exercise. I thought it was unenjoyable because it felt too difficult. In reality, I was choosing activities which I wasn’t actually interested in. Second, I felt that my physical size limited my choice of activity—I couldn’t possibly take part in activities I used to enjoy at a smaller size such as kickboxing and yoga. And running was out of the question—I felt far too fat to run.
What was great about working with a health coach is that she helped me to change my perception: that the only limits on my choice of physical activity were the mental ones that I placed there. Once I saw that, I overcame those self-imposed barriers and began making incremental changes.
I immediately got active. I began incorporating walking into my routine—starting with walking 10,000 steps a day. It sounded daunting, but I was able to do this by walking to work, taking a stroll during my lunch break, getting off the bus a few stops early and walking the rest of the way home. Before long, I was easily logging over 10,000 steps a day. It felt great. I started to sleep better, and I felt less tired. “This is so worth it!” I’d say to myself.
During a lunchtime walk, I passed a bike shop and felt compelled to walk in. I’m not entirely sure why—I’d not cycled since I was a teenager. Yet there I was, contemplating how awesome it would be to ride a bike. I left that shop with an order placed for a new bike and a spring in my step for the courage I’d shown in tackling my fears and self-imposed limitations.
I sent a text to my coach and she was blown away by my miles of progress.
Before I knew it I couldn’t get enough and was cycling 50 plus miles a week. I gave up my bus pass and used my bike as my only mode of transport all-year-round. I was raised in the UK so that means I was rained on most days—I call that commitment. I think that the fact I made exercise have a purpose—such as a commuting—it made it fit more easily into my life and I didn’t feel like I was doing it because I had to for my fitness.
The benefits of my increased activity were endless.
Physically, I slowly lost weight and built muscle. I felt refreshed and energized after just a fifteen minute ride. I also began to make better food choices to fuel my riding, rather than eating foods which would make me feel too full and inhibit riding.
Mentally (and/or spiritually), the benefits are plenty. The fact that I have to be 100% aware of my surroundings means that I am physically present in operating my bike and navigating my route. That is not to say I don’t have the opportunity to think through problems on downhill cycles. In fact, I come up with most of my creative solutions on my bike. During uphill climbs I have no choice but to totally switch off my mind and focus entirely on the act of getting up the hill.
For someone who is an over-analyzer and a solution-oriented thinker, cycling gives my brain the space to rest—that is the freedom I speak of. Then there’s the breeze in my face and fresh air in my lungs which feels glorious. Those benefits have the same qualities as meditation or attending a meeting. I feel more upbeat with less recurrence of stress and depression. In fact, I found cycling to be one of the best ways to destress—particularly if a hill ride is involved. The problem seems so much smaller after cycling.
Overall, cycling has been invaluable to my recovery. Not only have I gained a new sense of independence, but I’ve learned new skills and increased my self-confidence. I mastered two cycle maintenance courses and a road safety course. Physically and mentally I am so much healthier, and my energy levels have skyrocketed. But most of all, cycling gives me peace of mind. I cannot underestimate its meditative powers. It gives me the breathing space and connection that I was seeking in alcohol and drugs—but this time it’s real.
I still cycle today, two years later, and I moved to Portland—one of the biggest cycling communities in the US. I bought a bike my first week here. My mileage nowadays is around 100 miles a week, and there are a lot of hills here, so I am a little more practiced at being present and that is no bad thing for my [good] crazy brain.