YOGA & LEATHER: A New Road for Bikers
Every yogi is the same. But every yogi has been injured in their own way. Debbie McGregor, passionate yogi and motorcyclist, was first injured at age 11. It happened in a rodeo mishap when she was locked in a cramped chute with a panicked horse. A broken back sustained in a motorcycle accident in her early 30’s became major injury number two, and she suffered a broken neck in a car accident during her early 50’s.
“When I read about YOGA AND LEATHER: Yoga for Bikers,” she said, “I couldn’t believe it; something combining my two passions, I had to come.”
After her car accident, Debbie was told she’d be paralyzed from the neck down, but she resolved to walk and was determined to ride her Harley Davidson motorcycle again. She invested in physical therapy and added yoga as a daily routine. Three years after the accident, Debbie is doing yoga and motorcycling around the country. “It’s unexplainable how much yoga does in the path of healing. The more I do, the more I want and the more I heal,” she said.
Paul, a 79 year old retired Chicago police officer, is another dedicated rider of Harley Davidson motorcycles but new to yoga. Like Debbie, he found his way to YOGA AND LEATHER, and considers it healing balm and an island of peace.
Recently, Paul’s 900 pound motorcycle tipped over and landed on his foot. He hobbled into class wearing big boots and blue jeans, but did what he could. “I need it, it’s good. I have to do it,” he said. And he did.
Debbie and Paul signify the independent spirit which defines the motorcycle community. Motorcyclists want to express themselves in their own way, and bikers excel at adaptation. They ride through cold or hot, rain, dust, hail, and strong wind without windshields and roofs. Motorcyclists don’t like riding in cars, and see automobiles as cages where experience on the road is sanitized and one-step removed. Bikers are strong willed and eager to wring the last drop of life from every experience.
Bikers love the journey; it’s what keeps them going, and propels them onward. It even keeps them limping into a yoga class. This is my teaching community, and because I understand them, I started YOGA AND LEATHER: Yoga for Bikers.
While most yogis don’t ride motorcycles, they exhibit some of the same qualities as motorcycle riders, particularly independence of thought and a willingness to move outside culturally sanctioned boxes.
I am confident in yoga and have deep respect for yoga’s tradition; yet as a citizen of our time, I am part of yoga’s movement in culture and its expression in new forms like YOGA AND LEATHER. For some, reforming tradition is confusing; but reformation is a natural process of adaptability and it happens with everything in the environment and human cultures.
Riders practicing yoga are comfortable in their environment; therefore, we practice at the Superstition Harley Davidson dealership in Apache Junction, Arizona. Surrounded by the roar of shiny motorcycles and black-leather clad bikers, the yogis don’t mind roaring motorcycles in the background as they focus on breath or balance.
Yoga and motorcycles may seem like an odd juxtaposition but there are similarities. Both activities require a good level of mental and physical stamina. Participants bike or do yoga because they want to, and both can lead to a sense of relaxation, wellness, and freedom.
Ideally, yogis and cyclists start by learning from qualified instructors that present the activity in sequential learning steps. It’s not safe for any beginner to simply throw a leg up over a bike and drive away. But a rider, after taking a rider safety course, is a better and safer rider. In the same way, a beginner is wise to start yoga with a qualified teacher giving instructions. Like riding, this will help the yogi avoid injury and they learn the right way the first time.
Neither activity requires a religious affiliation, yet some stereotypes brand motorcyclists’ as gang members, and yoga is wrongly branded as an outreach for Hinduism or a New Age religion.
People are eager to learn about yoga for bikers, and they often ask me how many people come and how it’s going. But long ago, I learned to define success by quality not quantity. When Paul and Debbie walked into my class, I didn’t start talking esoteric principles, Sanskrit terms, or difficult asana postures; I began by thanking them for doing something outside of the normal comfort zone and said yoga is a complete system for total health.
I noticed Paul limping and asked him about it. He said, “I have an artificial knee, bad hips, and a sore back.” I said, thanks for telling me, you are in the right place. Let’s start by reaching out and holding those bars (along the edge of an outside terrace wall), and bend just a few inches into your knees while breathing deeply. Again, a little deeper.
That was my language and a starting point for YOGA AND LEATHER. Bending and breathing was success. But bend and breathe is the same fundamental skill for the first-time yoga student to the most advanced practitioner even if there are many kinds of bends, breaths, and twists. They all lead to the most cherished thing for riders and yogis: to RIDE ON with or without bikes.
MOVING BEYOND STEREOTYPES
Both yogis and motorcyclists’ have been subject to stereotypes – which is an easy way to dismiss someone as fringe or outsider. Motorcyclists typically are not doing yoga. Many believe that yoga is easy, that it’s only a women’s activity, or that one has to be flexible to start.
Some people believe yoga is only for women. But from its origin, and up to the early 20th Century, yoga was practiced only by men. Worldwide today, many women practice and teach yoga, and in the US about 80 percent of yoga participants are women.
Similarly, some people believe motorcycling is only for men, even though nearly 25 percent of all riders in the US are women. Motorcycling and yoga are undergoing changes, and with these changes, stereotypes no longer apply.
WHEN RIDERS START YOGA
Start out easy with beginner classes, like YOGA AND LEATHER. Be patient and give yourself time. Observe how you improve when following breathing exercises, focusing in meditation, or moving in asana. You may find increased range of motion in your neck or more comfort and depth when twisting from side to side. Perhaps the forward and backward bending in your class will begin strengthening your back around your spine. You might notice your balance improving, and that you concentrate better. Maybe this will translate to other areas in your life.
You may notice how yoga’s lessons on breathing and relaxation in the midst of stress become applicable to driving or life problems. Breathing deeply is so important, that breathing alone may be enough to shift perspective and bring calm.
Get beyond stereotypes – both others’ and your own – the benefits of yoga for riders are too important to let worn out cultural ideas stop us from shedding old skin. “The times they are a changing,” Bob Dylan wrote. Yes they are, and yoga practice in a Harley Davidson dealership proves it.
YOGA BENEFITS FOR BIKERS (potential life-saving)
Improved mental focus and coordination, clarity of thought developed by balance and silence in yoga practice / life and death on the bike is directly related to mental focus and clarity.
Improved balance by practicing one-leg standing postures / better control in tight U turns and backing.
Improved sleep after a hard yoga practice / no dozing while driving, deeper sleep leads to increased energy on the road.
Improved posture / improved back and neck comfort on rides.
Immune system activated by massage of internal organs through poses of constriction and release / internal organs take a pounding on the bike, and yoga’s corrective is a full body massage through postures.
Improved flexibility by bending and stretching / pick up what you drop with no problem or pain.
Improved adaptability to stress by postures that place stress on the body while learning to be at ease and breathe calmly.
Improved strength and muscle tone through weight bearing and power postures / for large bikes and long tours, building strength for long days on the road.
REMEMBER the skill of staying calm on the road – the first lesson taught in Motorcycle Safety Foundation riders’ class – when facing stress.