The Buddha spoke of moderation in all things. The more years of life experience I gain, the more truth I realize there is to these simple but vastly eloquent words.

Most often, when I find myself “off-course,” if I can allow myself to glimpse a reality outside of the one I have created in my own head, I will realize that the see-saw of balance is too weighted on one side.

A couple of years ago, after almost two decades of teaching yoga — and of being a bit timid about activities which might impair my practice — I picked my mountain bike back up, bought a new pink helmet, hit the trail, and fell in love with this sport all over again.

Gliding along a swishing descent, I whispered with the wind. Climbing “Meditation Hill,” when all I could see on the crest of the horizon was the never-ending palette of blue arching into infinity, I melted into her embrace. When the scorch of the sun sent rivulets of sweat trickling down my skin, I sensed the joining of the waters of the world, and the life- giving power of those warm rays. And the pounding of my pulse in my ears, and in my legs, reminded me of the tidal surges that reach around the globe.

So much of the mental training required for mountain biking parallels the yogic teachings…and all of it pertains to Life.

Balancing my yoga practice with biking several days a week has, most assuredly, benefited both activities, physically. But the serenity of mind found on the trail has become what I crave the most about those rides. The time spent in nature, away from the iPhone, away from e-mail or the computer screen, begins to erode the disconnect from the wild that characterizes much of modern life.

Golden finches trill from the shrubby juniper tree tops. A regal pair of red-shouldered hawks, their golden bellies lit up in the afternoon sun, dip and dive in the eddies and whorls of warm air drafts rising to the heavens. Their screams of joy spiral on the breeze.

Red-shouldered hawks, photo ©Erika Burkhalter

Mustard fields, abuzz with bees, blanket our nearby canyon every spring, gilding the rolling hillsides. And little lizards with sapphire-blue necks dart across my path as I am about to descend “The Spine” (what we have named our local “monster hill”).

And, as I take it all in, the distance between me and the enormity of the Universe begins to collapse, and I feel that I am part of, and embraced by, this great world.

As I ride, I often muse, and plot stories and poems, or contemplate philosophical teachings. These thoughts interweave with, and become one with, me and “the ride.”

On the Bike, As in Life:

1. Keep your gaze slightly ahead on the trail.If you focus on the rocks right in front of you, you will most assuredly run into them. Too often, in life, we focus only on the obstacles that we perceive to be holding us back. 

But, if we allow ourselves to peek at a slightly bigger-picture perspective, those rocks might look entirely different. There is always a way around, or over those impediments. Or perhaps, we need to stop looking at those rocks as obstacles and embrace them as part of the totality of the experience.

2. Roll with it. Putting on the brakes too hard only causes you to skid, and it deprives you of the chance to ride right over something that you didn’t think you could.

The sage Patañjali counseled, “vitarka bādhane pratipaksha bhāvanam,” or “when disturbed by negative thoughts, opposite (positive) ones should be thought of.

My riding and yoga buddy, Rebecca, has had a (quite reasonable) fear of “The Spine.” Despite all attempts and determinations to try this descent, she always panics and gets off of her bike to walk down this tricky hill.

A couple of weeks ago, on our last ride before she was leaving for vacation, her first thought as we approached The Spine was, “I shouldn’t take the chance on this.” But then, she literally turned that thought on its head at the last millisecond and decided that she needed to tackle that descent precisely because she was going on vacation the next week. She wanted to know she had conquered it before she left.

I heard her screaming all the way down, “I’m doing it!” She rolled out through the sage scrub at the bottom of the trail, victorious, all-in-one-piece, with a giant grin.

3. It’s more fun when you share the experience with people you love. Interconnection is the fabric of life.

4. Remember Buddha’s advice. 

Be very wary when your husband (who actually is an “expert”) persuades you to ride a route marked “expert” in the biking book. “Moderation in all things” applies here! We don’t always have to do the most complicated variation of every pose presented in yoga class, or attempt the hardest ride.

We so often get stalled in life when we think we have to finish writing a book or cleaning every closet, or mastering a handstand today.

Moving in steps, and working with what is approachable and accomplishable now, will likely take us further down the path in the future. Sometimes, doing the “simpler” version can bring us into a more mindful presence in “this” moment.

And yet, sometimes, it is fun to throw it to the wind and just go for it too (see number 2, above)!

5. Remember to stop and take in the scenery. It is way too easy to get too focused on technique or on trying to survive the ride. We, sometimes, forget that we are surrounded by the ephemeral beauty of nature.

Today, Rebecca, and I saw two tan-coated roadrunners sprint across the path directly in front of us, their spiky toes kicking up dust and leaving little V’s across the trail. They dove into a clump of sage and we lost sight of them, but we heard the squeaks and tiny chirps of a batch of baby birds rejoicing to see their parents again.

Last summer I had a close encounter with a granddaddy rattlesnake at the bottom of a fast descent from a twisty, rocky trail. I managed to avoid him, although he stretched across most of the rideable section. And, in that moment, I was able to make out the details of his five, almost-translucent — but etched with fine black veins — rattles stacked atop one another.

The world is a much bigger place than the little biosphere we tend to inhabit. It is in moments like these, when we are engrossed in the feel of the wind against our skin, or when we notice a whole universe of minnows or frogs dwelling in the mossy inlets of the creek we are riding past, that we begin to sense the vastness of nature and to understand our own integral connection and place within it.

But, we also need to remember that same feeling in the moments when we look up from standing in line at the grocery store, annoyed that it is taking so long to check out. It is then that we realize that everybody in front of us has the story of their life playing out in this second too.

And it is in those times that the serenity we were gifted with on the trail, or in our yoga practice, or on our morning walk carries over and fills us with a sense of peacefulness and connection to the fellow inhabitants of this planet.

Erika Burkhalter is a yogi, neurophilosopher, lover of cats, gardening, traveling, photography and story-telling (MA Yoga Studies, MS Neuropsychology).
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Erika Burkhalter is a yogi, neurophilosopher, lover of cats, gardening, traveling, photography and story-telling (MA Yoga Studies, MS Neuropsychology).

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