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Gettin' Flow

This shot of me at my race was caught by fellow MTB shredder Annie Kappelman of my Nature Force crew!

Look at my social media, and you’re prob all, “Where’d the yoga go?” Just yesterday, a really close friend texted me: “I’m super excited about all your mountain bike successes, but girl, what happened to the yoga?!?” It’s there, girl. It has taken its seasonal place, following the pulsing rule of life, like all things natural. It’s not out front, but man do I got my yoga goin’ on. Because right now, it’s fucking racing season.

So, this 46-year-old yogi who got all competitive this year is gonna tell you how yoga played in with my mountain bike (MTB) race last weekend, and how it is the core of the experience every. time. I. ride.

It was my first time doing one of these crazy mass-starting, dude-dominated, beer-tenting races, and I wasn’t all “I got this.” Don’t get me wrong, that element is my thing. 😉 I knew the George Wyth MTB Race expertly put on by Cedar Valley Association for Soft Trails (CVAST) was the total shit. It was what I didn’t know that had my head feeling off. Things like, If I hit the singletrack trail entry ahead of a faster rider, holding them up, I’d be an assy newbie. And a fall I had two days before had left me riding uncharacteristically cautiously, tight, not applying what I knew. And my legs. My legs! They were sluggy. They hadn’t been the “these legs don’t stop!” legs I’d bragged about on the final days of RAGBRAI (the epic annual 500-mile road ride across the state of Iowa). So – was I gonna totally bomb my first MTB race?

Enter race day yoga. I rolled in enough time the morning of the race for a yoga practice. Just 20 minutes. It was 3 parts – physical, physical + mental, and mental – with the purpose of prepping for free-feel riding, and to loosen up from that recent fall in more ways than one.

Part 1: A brief physical yoga practice consisting of targeted dynamic range-of-motion movements for freedom where a mountain biker needs it most.

Part 2: Add vision, using vision to lead movement into dynamic stretches, replicating what a mountain biker’s whole system does as they ride a trail.

Part 3: (a) Meditative presencing of my body, (b) Visualization of successfully navigating tricky race thingies, and (c) Embedding of specific race day intentions.

So there’s the yoga, bitch! (She said with utmost love!) Now – who wants some o’ that? Hmmm. I should post a video of Parts 1 and 2 some time, and get it on Singletracks.com or some shit. 🙂

Now I’ll get all personal. What exact things did I do in that Part 3?

Presencing My Body

Presencing my body was a simple practice I include in the centering part of every yoga class I teach. (I feel like the more I say “yoga,” the less you gonna worry ‘bout me bagging on it. That was number 10, for the record.) I got this practice from my main teacher, Karina Mirsky. Here’s the statement to cue yourself into it: “Rest your awareness in the entire space occupied by your body.” There. BAM. I like to remind people it’s not mind over matter. It’s mind with matter. Mind and body in one field. That’s what you get to feel when you do this. It’s a great space to be in when physical performance is a priority.

Visualization – Seeing and Feeling

Visualization that morning covered those unknown things that had me ungrounded. You know, how not to be the assy newbie holding people back, or the locked-down me still living in my crash two days before, or the heavy-legged grinder. I saw – and sometimes felt – myself in positive versions of these situations, executing specific strategies to be successful in them. I saw myself successfully shredding the first section of singletrack, doing my thing, no concerns of anyone who may or may not be on my tail.  I saw and felt myself use proper weight shift entering tight turns, to avoid the wash-out kind of crash I had experienced with the dry hard-pack too-smooth trail conditions that continued. I felt myself riding light – arms, legs, whole body responsive.

Embedding Intention: Gettin’ Flow

And that leads me to my last pre-race mental practice: intention. Oh how I love thee, intention! Give me intention or give me… a sucky dead race!

I knew that “body responsive” thing was key. Fear-based cautious riding = seizing. An unresponsive body, locked up. So, I had three things I wanted to feel that day, in this order: Soften. Be responsive. Flow. You soften to be responsive. When you’re responsive, you flow. Literally, flowing on the flowy trails, sure. But also, that mind and body together thing. That way you feel when you’re all-in on an experience.

What is that kind of flow? It’s what happens when skill level = level of challenge. That’s the fascinating psychological state of flow that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi identified 40 years ago and continues to study. Another phrase he uses for it is “optimal experience.” Yeah. I be likin’ all over that.

Flow in this sense is something I’m getting involved with now, in my community, thanks to Gary Gute and the Creative Life Research Center he built here at the University of Northern Iowa. Gary’s hatching up some amazing things, working with The Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. And I’m actively supporting what Gary’s bringing to my community. Because I can’t resist me some solid karma yoga – the yoga of action, and better yet, activism. (Plus, that Gary always “likes” my MTB flow posts on Facebook, and writes gushy comments.)

Flow theory explains why cautious riding = seizing: because when the challenge – actual or perceived – is greater than your skill level, the state you experience is anxiety. This triggers sympathetic nervous system responses to seize, defend. The opposite of soften, respond. See how I got all that to flow full-circle? 😉

So, I sat for a bit the morning of my race, and I let myself feel my first two intentions. Soften. Be responsive. I felt them, and through that, I could believe they were available for me to feel any time. I was ready to flow. I visualized myself on the trail, softening, being responsive, and damn if I wasn’t flowing like a badass shredder!

Flow state in yoga is the pre-meditative state known as dharana. (See that? I said yoga! Again! And I used a Sanskrit word!) Dharana is an intense, all-in focus on the one thing you’re experiencing. It’s like mindfulness, if mindfulness was on crack.

Often, experiences of flow happen when we are engaged in something with a significant physical component. Because it’s easier to get out of treating our heads as a separate thing, to get free from following all the flow-stopping shit running around in them. I’ve got some challenges in my life right now. Some things that are hard for me to hold but are mine alone to hold. So I won’t be sharing them. I’ll just let you know that when I’m mountain biking, I’m freed from the painful places my head sometimes goes.

How’d all this yoga shtuffs work for me, then? I rode clean. I was zoned in. Legs weren’t all they could be, and over-caution reared up a few times, but I was feeling so alive out there. And then – I won my race. Good feels.

So, now ya know. I get my yoga on every time I’m on the trail. I do conscious yoga practices when I’m not on the trail, for personal growth – including growth in mountain biking and all the empowerment that comes with it. And I scored the word “yoga” over 20 fucking times in this blog, baby! (And only two f-bombs!)

So let’s yoga on, ride on, flow on. Give yourself permission for optimal experience – being all-in on something you love. Know that people may worry about you. They may judge you and they may question your judgment. So what. Get it. Get it anyway.

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