Jan 082020
How Bicycling Keeps Me Flexible

My yoga habit comes and goes — that probably means it’s no longer a habit, doesn’t it? — so I no longer count on it to keep me flexible. When I say bicycling keeps me flexible, I’m talking about the flexibility bicycling provides in my transportation needs. But let me start with yoga.

The imagine on this post of a beautiful sunset, someone sitting in what might be a lotus position, and the silhouette of a bicycle does not necessarily illustrate incredible yogic flexibility, but I don’t have that. As my dear friend and yoga teacher Betsy says, “You don’t get flexible to do yoga. You do yoga to get flexible.”

Yoga provides a great balance (yoga pun!) to bicycling since it provides weight-bearing exercise and helps build upper-body strength along with hip openers and other poses that help offset the repetitive motions of cycling. The book Pedal, Stretch, Breathe* by Seattle author, bicyclist and yoga practitioner Kelli Refer nicely highlights the benefits of yoga and the postures that address the effects of bicycling on the body.

The mindset yoga helps you cultivate applies to bicycling too. You can stress out or you can rest in the moment and accept it for what it is, cultivating mental flexibility and mindfulness.

And now for the transportation flexibility as well as mental flexibility bicycling provides that I appreciate over and over again —

If you drive in a city with one-way streets you know this moment. You’re at an intersection and the address you want is only about a block away. Except it’s at least three blocks away because you’re on a one-way street and you’ll have to execute two right turns or two left turns to get anywhere near your destination.

At that kind of intersection my bike gives me all the flexibility I need. I walk my bike up one block, cross the street, and there I am — parked and inside in half the time it would have taken me to drive (not counting the hunt for parking and messing with payment that I get to skip.)

Now sure, I can park a car, get out and walk, and get where I’m going. But I will no longer have with me the vehicle that helps me get places faster and carries my stuff far more easily than I can with just my body to bear the weight. I’ll have to backtrack to (and remember!) where I parked, which introduces a hassle factor that constrains my choices about the next stop, and the next. If I’m someone for whom walking is uncomfortable I’ve increased rather than decreased the toll this outing takes on my body, whereas my bike can bring me to the front door.

I’m also pretty well assured that my car parking spot will not be directly in front of the building I’m going to, whereas I can park my bike right there at a rack if one’s available, hitch it to a tall sign post, railing, or other fixed item, or in some instances bring it inside with me. Voila — parking flexibility! The combination of bike/walk and route flexibility with parking flexibility enables me to string together a series of brief stops very efficiently.

Bicycling has increased the flexibility of my thinking and assumptions about how I get from Point A to Point B in other ways. Because the pace of bicycling enables me to experience my surroundings much more deeply I’m more apt to explore. I try different routes, take a jaunt down a side street because I see an interesting sign, and experiment with options that I hope (usually in vain) will allow me to sneak around some of the hill climbs I face commuting in Seattle. (It really does pay to check the topographical profile of a proposed route…. On the other hand, Zelda the e-bike now enables me to tackle hills with more zest and ease.)

Route experimentation provides an opportunity to inject flexibility into a stale commute route. You might think the exertion element would discourage checking out a street when you might have to turn around and backtrack. But on a bike it’s so easy to turn around! Why not take a little noodle down this side street? Never know what I might see.

Another way in which bicycling contributes to this flexible mindset: It’s easy to stop. If I don’t like the street or it doesn’t go through or something, I can easily pull over to the shoulder or curb, rethink this idea, then go. I’m not stuck going on and on until I can find a car-sized space, let alone enough room to execute a full 180-degree turn.

One day heading north in downtown Seattle when I wasn’t yet familiar with the streets I tried going an extra block up Pike before turning to get to Pine, where I would climb in the bike lane to Melrose. Lo and behold, when I got to that next block (9th, for you Seattle dwellers) I realized I couldn’t turn left because — yep — it was another one-way street.

If I’d been in my car I would have gnashed my teeth. I also would have had to do quite a bit of fiddling around, going blocks out of my way in heavy downtown traffic, because this is at a spot with major buildings and a freeway that introduce black holes into the street grid. (Side note: I would have been adding all the while to downtown traffic congestion and air pollution while going exactly nowhere.)

Since I was on my bike I again exercised the flexibility of the pedestrian option that someone on a bike always has. My bike and I were only one block away from Pine, after all, and roughly two minutes later I was back in the bike lane and climbing.

My bicycle provides wonderful flexibility when it comes to using other modes of transportation to extend my reach, too. I can put the bike on a bus’s bike rack, take it on Sounder commuter rail, or check it into the Amtrak baggage car and roll even farther. The time on transit is productive if I want it to be, whether I do some reading, writing, or email “catch-up” (no one ever truly catches up on email so that’s a big haha). You can’t do any of this with a car; once you leave the house with that mode you’re stuck with it and all its attendant hassles.

I can feel the stretching now. It’s good to cultivate flexibility.

Related Reading

 Your Turn

  • How often do you find yourself taking advantage of the bike/walk option?
  • Do you experiment with different routes on your bike or have you fallen into a routine?

PS: Possible additional factor: Our whole family loves the movie The Incredibles, which we’ve watched countless times. Elastigirl’s powers are pretty cool.

*A note on local economies and the book link: You should shop at a local, independently owned bookstore. Or check it out through your local library — did you know they can do that with e-books too, if that’s how you read? The book link is an Amazon Affiliate link. I’ve never made a penny from Amazon but the link gives you access to more information and reader reviews. If I ever do make anything I’ll donate it to a local bike nonprofit.

I wrote an earlier version of this post that appeared on the Washington Bikes blog. Updated for this blog with permission; I wanted to revisit the topic because the more I ride, the more truth I find in this.

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