By Sonia Osorio
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Spring/Summer 2008.
Yoga and cycling are two very different activities that have found common ground in a program developed specifically to bring the benefits of yoga to cyclists and their unique needs. Some of the most common complaints of cyclists—shoulder and back pain, neck strain, and joint aches—are most readily addressed by the practice of yoga. In fact, yoga can not only relieve such complaints, but can actually enhance performance for some cyclists by working under used muscle groups, increasing inner and outer focus, and cultivating a sense of calmness and overall balance. Incorporating this system helps prevent injury, while at the same time energizing and encouraging the muscles to release unnecessary tension. Legs, back, neck, shoulders, even the mind—all areas where physical and emotional stress can build up—can benefit from this work. The gains are multiple, on or off a bike: increased stamina, less stress, better stability, and a steady focus.
“Although bicycling and indoor stationary cycling are among the best forms of cardiovascular conditioning, they can often leave the participant with tightness, aches, and sometimes pain,” says Beth Shaw, a certified fitness and yoga instructor and president of the largest yoga school in North America, YogaFit. “Cycling places the body in forward flexion for long periods of time, which often leads to painful backaches. Since the muscles of the lower body are constantly pedaling and working hard, the quads, hamstrings, and glutes also can become very tight. A consistent sport-related yoga program could alleviate many of these symptoms.”
Echoing this, Baron Baptiste, a yoga instructor and athletic trainer in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who is known for his work with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles and as host of ESPN’s Cyberfit Power Yoga, says: “In order to achieve overall flexibility and balanced muscle groups, a biker needs to incorporate balancing, counteracting movements. A yoga practice can help restore balance by taking the alignment principles of yoga and transferring them to how you sit on your bike.”
Cycling Through The Body
Cycling, like hiking and running, is a linear kind of sport, moving the body almost exclusively in one direction and putting continuous demands on the same muscle groups. This continual use of some muscles to the exclusion of others can cause postural imbalance both in the short and long term. Overuse of the quadriceps, for example, can lead to shorter hamstrings and low-back strain. Tight hips or weak adductors on one side, can also lead to an overall imbalance as one side of the body consistently works harder than the other, contributing to more tightness or placing unnecessary strain on key joints, ligaments, and tendons such as those in the knees and ankles.
The way a cyclist sits also contributes to muscular tension and imbalances. Poor postural alignment or a weak core will place much more demand on the back and upper body. For example, arms spread too wide can place strain on the shoulders; too narrow a handhold can collapse the chest. If the pelvis is tilted too far forward or backward (sometimes due to tight hips or hamstrings), the lower back can be strained or the hips can be compressed. The spine itself, often hunched over the handlebars, is not in a neutral position, creating undue strain while leaning forward.
Since yoga’s aim is to create an overall sense of awareness and balance in the various muscle groups, it is ideally suited to address the tensions and strain that can come from cycling. A well-rounded yoga practice will incorporate postures that move the body laterally, forward, back, and into positions that articulate the spine. This encourages ease of movement and freedom of breath.
Yoga’s focus on alignment and stability—particularly from the pelvis, hips, groin, and abdominals—also carries into one’s mental attitude. This, too, is key for a cyclist since mental tension itself will tighten muscles and cause the body to move with undue strain.
Central to a good yoga practice is breath awareness: how the breath is moving, or not, throughout the body, and directing to the areas where it needs to go. This has the added benefit not only of reducing muscle strain, but also of encouraging a more efficient use of breath and oxygen intake. In general, there should be a sense throughout the body that the breath is flowing easily. The overall effect is to increase blood flow and oxygen to the muscles, thereby using them more efficiently and consciously.
Knowing how to consciously use breath, feeling where tension resides, and understanding how alignment affects both body and mind are basic tenets of yoga. These principles are of great benefit for cyclists, whether it’s more professional-level cyclists who must cultivate advanced racing skills or simply for recreational cyclists who want to deal with tension that can come from riding.
Yoga Meets Cycling
At the forefront of addressing cyclists’ unique needs through a yoga practice is Shaw. She created her first yoga for cyclists program in 1997. Her aim was to design a practice for cyclists that would complement and enhance their workout, balance their bodies, loosen their hips, and develop the core and upper body strength not typical to cycling. She says the benefits of her program include reduced stress on joints, reduced low-back pain and injury, better breathing capacity, a feeling of peace and calm, less muscle tightness, and an overall sense of physical and emotional balance.
For both avid cyclists and those who enjoy leisurely riding, a yoga program can help build strength, endurance, and flexibility, yet steering these athletes in a direction of well-being for both themselves and their community is probably one of the most significant aspects of what yoga can bring to cycling.
For more information on Beth Shaw and her YogaFit for Cyclists DVD, which accommodates all ages and fitness levels, from recreational to competitive to professional racers, visit www.yogafit.com.