Ryan Leech began dropping hints in videos and blogs. Knowing his personality it was no surprise to learn he was into yoga. The moves he performs take large helpings of concentration, balance, strength and flexibility. If yoga helps him get there I was keen to know more.
I finally dragged my own stiff, injured bag of bones to a class three years ago and I haven’t looked back. The benefits of mountain biking are very clear to me; it’s equally clear that years of riding comes at a cost. Crashes bust us up but beyond that mountain biking can seriously mess with your physique. We over-strengthen certain muscles while neglecting others and the hours spent in one position lead to shorter, less compliant muscles and connective tissues. I sometimes joke with my riding buddies that we look ten years younger than our less active peers – but feel ten years older. Yoga for me has begun to change all that. I feel both stronger and more flexible – and I’m riding better than I have in years.
From dirt to the mat, Lululemon to Dakine, gravity fuelled adrenaline to deep breathing and meditation; yoga and mountain biking couldn’t be more different, and yet the two activities balance each other nicely.
Talking to Ryan last year I learned that he had become certified as a yoga instructor and that he was planning to run a retreat that combined mountain biking and yoga. If I can figure out a way to have some of his awesomeness rub off on the rest of us mortals I’m all over it.
Now let’s get up to speed on Ryan’s other passion.
nsmb – How long have you been practicing yoga?
Ryan Leech – It must be over five years now.
nsmb – What drew you to yoga at first?
Ryan Leech – Initially, I was interested in using yoga to help recover from and prevent injuries. I had some pretty debilitating back issues arising, one wrist that was chronically sore, tendonitis in my elbow, knee issues, and a finicky shoulder issue. I didn’t have too many expectations for yoga, thought it might make me feel a little better, loosen up a bit, blah blah kinda thing. So I went along to a highly recommended power yoga class by Eoin Finn, I figured it’d be no problem, I was a fit and strong trials dude after all; but I got totally worked, I was humbled!
Ryan leads a noon hour yoga class at the Norco head office every Monday and Wednesday for any staff who are interested. Photo ~ Andy Kazakov
Once you began what surprised you? What kept you going and made you become a dedicated practitioner?
I stuck with the practice for a while once or twice a week – and then I started craving it. That wasn’t surprising though as I tend to get pretty into things, but what did surprise me was that my injuries did seem to alleviate themselves, slowly but surely, I was feeling as good as I did at the start of my riding career. I was sold on yoga.
The first time I did yoga I was surprised by how challenging it was. Challenging poses trains your nervous system to be able to react well to physical stress. Photo ~ Andy Kazakov
How often do you practice at different times of the year?
The time of year doesn’t seem to affect my practice frequency, but there has been a steady increase in frequency since I first started. I am quite spontaneous with my practice; I don’t have a strict schedule I stick to. I practice when I feel the urge arise. But on average it is about 3 maybe 4 days a week. I love going to classes or watching DVD’s, but I tend to prefer doing solo practices.
Is it difficult to set time aside for Yoga when you are on the road?
It is really just a part of my lifestyle, so it is easy to make time. I always travel with my yoga mat, and it is a bit of a game trying to re-arrange hotel rooms for the optimal space, or to explore the neighborhood for a sunny, quiet spot to roll the mat out on. I love doing yoga the morning of a flight or a long drive and/or the evening after a long trip.
Ryan leading the group through Bakasana or Crow pose. Photo ~ Andy Kazakov
Have you noticed that your riding has changed since you began yoga?
Yes for sure! During a ride, my body sometimes tells me to “giv’er”, but sometimes it is more like “back the frick off”, you know? For a long time, and like many people, those two messages kind of blended together resulting in chronic injuries and diminished enjoyment; but it seems I am now able to listen to those signals and sense the difference at a much subtler level—some of that is just natural progression, but I credit much of this, especially the finer details, to my regular yoga practice.
But the key thing that has changed is my increased enjoyment of riding, of all types of riding no matter how fast or slow, technical or easy. How much yoga is a factor, not sure, but credit is due.
Balance is another fascination I have had on my bike, I love skinny balance lines, can’t get enough of them. I think there is a connection there too.
Are mountain bikers good candidates for yoga? If so why?
So as I said above, mountain biking can be abusive to the body. It just so happens that mountain biking attracts those who are great at toughing out that abuse. That’s all good to a certain point, but it can catch up with you. So mixing in some yoga for that ‘balls out’ style can even build a deeper connection-to and awareness-of the body which will I think fosters increased smoothness, style, and skill.
And some gentle individual instruction. Ryan is a natural teacher. Photo ~ Andy Kazakov
Also, cyclists are constantly hunched forward and thus impacting the spine repeatedly in that position. So a series of front body stretches (back bends) will do wonders for the low back and neck, at least it did for me.
Balance and yoga go hand and hand, it’ll dial and develop all the muscles and mental focus needed to effortlessly flow through the toughest of balance lines…and perhaps the patience for all the failed attempts which are inevitable 😉
I always picture mountain bikers being tight stalky bundles of knotted muscle. Muscles that look all dreaded (kinda like Jay Hoots’s hair); yoga can help untangle, smooth out, and loosen up those muscles leaving them much more effective, strong, responsive, and durable. Instead of like an old dried out elastic band ready to snap and tear, you’ll feel much more resilient and strong after committing to yoga for long enough. (it’s not a quick fix kinda thing though)
Is there an approach or type of yoga that works best for riders?
There are so many different styles of yoga, and so many different ways of teaching those styles. It may take some time to find a style and teacher that works for you. My guess is that mountain bikers would like to get both a workout and a good stretch, nothing too hokey pokey—at least that is what I initially wanted out of yoga. So perhaps a power yoga, or a vinyasa flow yoga class would be a good place to start. It’s harder and more challenging than you think. Be prepared to get an ass-whooping if you’ve never tried it before! After a good 90 minute class, your whole body will feel worked in such an incredible and energy enhancing way. There is nothing quite like it.
But remember, saying that you’re too stiff to do yoga is like saying you’re too thirsty to drink water. And it’s not going to get any easier if you wait ten years. So go play yoga, have some fun, don’t take it too seriously, and see how it goes.
Like he does with mountain biking, Ryan makes yoga poses look easy. Photo ~ Andy Kazakov
What benefits do you notice aside from those in the physical realm?
Focus and concentration are strengthened through yoga practice; it’s like a muscle, so it takes development, it takes cross training. If you find that you have a bunch of distracting thoughts streaming through you mind while on a log balance line, or you keep thinking about crashing while on the steeps, then perhaps developing a little more mental muscle is the best thing for your riding progression. Yoga can help with that for sure. To be in a room and not get distracted by the all the lulu girls (or boys) and instead focus on how your body feels in the moment is a unique challenge.
Often our mountain bike trails are seen as a playground, an amusement park of sorts, they’re there ‘for us’ so ‘we’ can get a quick buzz and a thrill. That is great, yes, but there is more to be grateful for that is often missed. This expansion of joy while out riding happens naturally, but sometimes gets stalled, yoga helped me speed it up, or get it rolling again. It taught me patience and built the stillness necessary to fully absorb not only the high you get when rocking down the trail, but also the one you get when you take the time to acknowledge just being in the forest instead of always thinking about the next stunt beyond the next turn.
You’ve recently taken your teacher training in yoga. Can you tell me what inspired that and what the journey was like?
I just felt the urge to share and introduce yoga to others, and I figured I could use my name in the industry to do just that. So I managed to get a spot in my favorite yoga teachers’ teacher training class, and 200 hours of training later, I was certified. Since then it has just been a matter of teaching as often as I can to build up experience. I’m loving it. Part of the training was in Ucluelet on the west coast of Vancouver Island, Eoin is a surfer, so he made time in the schedule to get us out in the water. That was the style, pretty laid back, but with intense learning at the same time. Teaching yoga is a lot harder than I thought. There is so so so much to learn, and I feel I have just scratched the surface.
Yoga builds flexibility and strength. Photo ~ Andy Kazakov
Do you meditate as part of your yoga practice and/or independent of your practice? If so what do you notice about the benefits of meditation?
In my opinion, the most important pose in yoga is savasana (corpse pose). Some think of it as meditation, but however you ‘attempt’ to describe the experience, the intent is the same, it is a rare chance in our busy lives to just be, a chance to allow the body to absorb the offerings of the yoga practice, and a chance to relax in to the gap between thoughts. It is not a falling asleep feeling, but just the opposite; it is a feeling of presence in the moment. Based on my limited experience, this is more or less, what meditation is all about too; finding space in between the ongoing internal dialogue and actually witnessing the internal dialogue instead of being lost in it. These thoughts, especially if persistent as is commonly the case, lead to either depression (past thoughts of better times), or anxiety (future predictions); it is a skill to be present with full focus and awareness in the moment. This is where the cross between mountain biking and meditation gets interesting to me. It is by experiencing ‘the zone’ or ‘the flow’ on my bike that I became so curious about the experience, is it just a really cool feeling or is there something more to it? Reading and researching lead me to believe there is something more to it than just a temporary high.
Surprise! Ryan’s good at yoga too. Here he is demonstrating Astavakrasana. Photo ~ Marc Landry (check out Marc’s new site here)
Mountain biking is one way to quiet the mind and be in the moment, or in the zone; we crave this state, and that is part of why sports can be so addicting. We often force the experience of being in flow by going really fast or hard, or dangerous; it is dependent on the sport rather than training it to be a natural and ever present quality of your being. That is why people like watching a crazy riding videos, they momentarily connect to that state that I or another pro rider is in. Studying this kind of stuff is fascinating to me.
Benefits might be the ability to take a clear(er) and honest objective look at myself leading to an ever evolving vision of purpose based not only on motivation from the needs of the world but also on inspiration from the heart — this is often the part left out. I feel a greater ability to recognize choices in situations where I would have normally just unconsciously gone with the flow. So there is a great freedom to design and consciously contribute to the evolution of humanity and the world in my own small way….But hey, don’t take that all too seriously, it is just my opinion, and humour is needed when you contemplate so deeply 😉
Photo ~ Andy Kazakov
Are there moves you perform on the bike that you couldn’t master before yoga?
I can now pedal-kick-assana….no really, I think it is hard to credit just yoga to certain skills I can do on the bike. I would say it is a factor such as being able to better utilize breath to build focus and concentration. But I have to bring it back to the bottom line of enjoyment, that’s the key for me anyway, whether I can do a new trick better or not, the pleasure derived from even simple moves is now much fuller.
Do you do other types of training off the bike to supplement yoga?
I do like to mix it up. Trials, yoga, hiking, road riding, mountain biking, trail running; that seems to do the trick for me these days.
How would you recommend getting into yoga for yoga virgins?
Every body knows somebody that does yoga these days, just mention to a friend that you’d like to give it a try; if they’re in to yoga, they probably have a good teacher recommendation. That’s the hard part, finding a style and a teacher you like. Don’t let one bad yoga experience turn you off, keep exploring!
Photo ~ Andy Kazakov
You have a unique skillset. Are you planning to combine both in a way you could share them with those interested in yoga and riding?
This is one of the key reasons I become an instructor, blending bikes and yoga just makes sense to me. So at many of the trials shows I do this season, I’ll be offering free yoga, for instance at the Seattle Bike Show and maybe at the Sea Otter Classic.
But the one event I’m excited about is the retreat I have scheduled in Whitehorse, Yukon this Summer, it’s called “Ride and Reach with Ryan Leech.” It is five days and nights from July 4-9, full of epic mountain bike rides, skill progression and instruction, yoga classes and workshops, and gourmet food. I’m pumped about this offering. Check out the Boreale Mountain Biking website for details, these guys are dialed in the tour business and their yurt accommodation rocks! Come join us, there are only eight spots available!
Have you ever injured yourself doing yoga?
Just because you’re doing yoga, doesn’t mean it’s good for you; it can be more dangerous than mountain biking. So don’t try to compare yourself to the person beside you, you can mess up your joints. It’s kinda like crashing in mountain biking in a way, some people push their limits a little too far a little too quickly.
I come from the stiff and injured mountain bike world, it took me four years of yoga to get my spine/pelvis forward of vertical in paschimottanasana (seated forward bend). So don’t gauge progress by what the others are doing, everyones body is different, different bone structure, muscle length, etc etc. ….again, it teaches you to listen to your body. It will teach you to follow your breath in a conscious way so you’ll automatically know how deep to go in to the pose and thus how hard to push it on your bike. It’s a complement to mountain biking, and vice versa.
Smiling as usual. Photo ~ Andy Kazakov
You’ve done some of your best work with Bjørn Enga. Bjørn filmed Eoin Finn’s DVDs – including his Power Yoga Surf Edition that is geared towards the needs of surfers. Has there been any talk of you collaborating on a DVD aimed at mountain bikers or cyclists in general?
No talk about this yet, the thought has crossed my mind though….maybe I’ll have to put out a “Yoga for Wrecked Mountain Bikers” DVD!
What is your plan for 2010? Are you going to be visiting schools with your Trials of Life program? Anything new in that realm?
Lots of plans, it’s going to be a busy year of riding. I’ll be hitting some of the big bike events to perform at such as Sea Otter and Crankworx, but the big trip is a cross Canada ‘Trials of Life’ school tour. I’m hoping to visit close to 40 schools during the 2 ½ month long trip.
I am also in the midst of building a new demo obstacle set up. Something with fresh lines, a fresh look, and easy to pack up and down.
How much time does it take to set up and tear down your apparatus before and after each show?
If I have help, it takes about an hour to get it all looking good. With my new set up, I’m hoping it will be even faster and easier.
I know you have seen Danny Macaskil’s videos. What do you think about his style and the way he rides?
He actually just facebooked me in hopes of hooking up for “a wee ride” next Summer because he’s coming to Canada. I love his style, it’s so much fun to watch. Typically, I have a hard time watching videos, just get bored, but Danny’s are pure magic. My back sometimes hurts in sympathy for some of those lines, but he has truly given the sport of trials/street a quantum leap forward.
Ryan clearing the bar at Crankworx 2006. Photo ~ Ian Hylands
He seems to have been influenced by Manifesto to my eyes. Do you think the evolution of your style has influenced trials rider of the new generation?
I would be an honored if my riding style over the years has influenced a few people, whether directly in the trials world or out on in the woods on the trails.
What bikes are you going to be on for 2010?
Norco Manifesto: I build up and travel with two identical trials bikes.
Norco Fluild LT: my do it all mountain bike, it’s a beaut.
Norco VFR: my trusty four year old flat bar road commuter bike
Any sponsor changes you’d like to tell us about?
I strive to make my sponsorship deals long term. I’m happy to be supported by
Norco Performance Bikes
Thanks very much Ryan!
Lebron James is another athlete who is serious about yoga and how it helps him perform. Think it may be for you? Tried it already? Tell us about it here…