Ryan Leech Interviews Stu Loewen
I had to do the math when I was reading through this earlier. Even though I was at Stuart’s 50th birthday party I have a hard time believing he’s over 40 – let alone 50. Stuart looks young, rides young and lives young. He rides his motorcycles too fast and continues to go hard on his bike after a crash that at worst could have killed him and that certainly should have left him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life. Here’s what he had to say about yoga, riding and life.
Ryan Leech: To start lets cover the basics: How long have you been riding bikes and practicing/teaching yoga?
Stuart Loewen: Hey Ryan, My earliest memories of bike riding were creating a jump on my driveway in my small town in Manitoba in ummmmmmm, 1964, at the age of 6, I progressed from that to wheelieing with the front axel bolts loosened so I could watch the front wheel roll away in a wheelie. I had so, so much fun and adventure and freedom on my little 16″ balloon tire bike. As kids, bikes are freedom and fun, same as adults! I progressed to an off-road motorcycle at 13yrs, and pedalled from Vancouver to Winnipeg at age 21 in 1979. My “adult” biking restarted with the advent of mountain bikes when I bought a Giant ATX770 fully rigid when I was posted at Mount St. Anne near Quebec City for three months, that was in 1992 or so. I biked to my first yoga class at a home in West Van about 13 years ago, and started it as a way of healing from my “uncontrolled dismounts” on the North Shore trails. I remember the relaxation, wellness and also liberation I felt after my first class. I’ve practiced about 3 times a week ever since.
It turns out yoga, motorcycles and mountain bike keep you young. It’s working for Stu!
Ryan: Sounds like you were doing front wheel’less wheelies even before Hans Rey! LOVE that history of bike riding, and indeed, yoga is sweet medicine for the battered bike body syndrome. Liberation is a wonderful and powerful word to use when describing your first yogic experience, can you expand on that word and precisely what it meant for you.
Stuart: Hmmmm, liberation and my first yoga experience….. Well, my first yoga class relaxed a stressed and tight body. Leaving that class, I felt so tension free, I knew I needed more of that. And also, unknown to many early yoga practitioners, there is a one to one relationship between muscle tension and emotional tension. So, as you relax your body, you relax your mind, and vice versa. Yoga in the West focusses on the body first, which relaxes the mind. So leaving my first class I felt the liberation of dramatically easing a tight body, and mind. Liberation with yoga has many deeper layers of meaning for me now but for the first class it was mostly about liberation from body and mind tension.
And there are other benefits! Stu and friends on a recent trip to India.
Ryan: Ahh yes! No longer can we get away with compartmentalizing the body, mind, spirit, nor would we want to; to know that though we need that first liberating experience! Sooo, lets ping back to cycling, how has your yogic experience influenced the way you approach cycling?
Stuart: Fun question Ryan. In short, I, and my riding buddies, now more and more go for the flow instead of the stunts. The stunts can be part of the flow but unlike 10 yrs ago, the trail is the trail in its entirety, not as much a sequence of “problems”. I think our North Shore trails have also evolved in this way during the same time but for sure my yoga has helped me access the joy of using my body intelligence to feel my way down the trail rather than my mind pushing me over the edge of a cliff. Also, there are some very fun parallels between a flow yoga experience and a great trail ride. The drishti point in yoga is where your eyes, or your mind’s eye, is focussing. Think of any balancing pose, for cycling when balancing on an elevated narrow log, us bikers use a moving drishti point, best about 8ft in front of us on the log. For night riding, our focal point becomes more internal, think eyes closed backbend in tree pose, its the same feeling. My cycling balance is way, way better because of my yoga practice. Other parallels are the importance of engaging core muscles to keep balance, both in yoga and in cycling. In summary, yoga develops body intelligence and awareness which infuses itself in almost all aspects of riding skill and pleasure.
From Stuart’s article on his crash and rehab: “The C1 is called the “hangman’s vertebrae” and the spinal cord is said to have the thickness and consistency of overcooked asparagus. I was told by one surgeon that the lesser of my two injuries, the C6/7 failure I had makes the patient quadriplegic 70-80% of the time. The C1 burst usually kills. I’m incredibly lucky I can walk. My helmet saved my life, and my buddy saved my ability to walk and use my arms.“
Ryan: You hit on some juicy points Stu, ones that are dear to me too; ie-love how you described the mind pushing you over a cliff vs using the body’s intelligence to access greater joy and pleasure. How might you describe how breathing can assist in this gradual process of developing greater body intelligence and awareness?
Stuart: Nice one Ryan. The fascia under our skin and between muscle segments is like a balloon which keeps the shape to our body, ie. keeps our insides from bulging out. It looks and acts much like the clear envelope which separates the segements and subsegments in a navel orange. When we breath in deeply, we are increasing the volume in that balloon which tightens up all the fascia. This heightens the feeling of tension in especially areas of muscles and fascia that were already tight. Then as we breath out, all the areas relax, and especially those areas (e.g. calf muscles in down dog) which were tight, then stretched even more as we breathed in, we can feel those areas relaxing more acutely. So in yoga we learn to relax the muscles on the exhale because they are already relaxing and we can couple into that preexisting feeling. As well, relaxing on the exhale balances the parasympathetic nervous system which engages more the non-thinking parts of our brain which lets us tap more into our “body intelligence.” So, extend on inhale, relax on exhale works the muscles naturally in conjunction with the breath. It’s a great Mantra for beginner students to recite to themselves during a class. You will stretch and relax much more quickly and deeply if you do this.
Stu enjoying the highs of the Chilcotin mountains, 2007.
Even more weird and wonderful is that we have this connective tissue (“medial line”) running from our toes up thru the back of our knees, thru our pelvis up to our breathing diaphragm which then connects to our spine about midback, directly connects to our heart and then up finally to the tongue. I saw a video where recently this anatomist disected the entire medial line from tongue to toes!!! Whew, now knowing this is all connected, and connected to the diaphragm, you can get a sense of how our depth of diaphgram breathing can be connected to tension and feeling in our body from tongue all the way down thru our body even to our toes! It’s bizarre and mind boggling to me but our internal body senses are so, so rich and in most of us, so unexplored. Yoga, and quiet attention to sensation during breathing can connect our mind to previously unsensed parts in our body. There is so much more in here including chest and collar bone breathing, but I think I’ve given an idea of the richness of breath/body connection. Breath in to extend, exhale to release, connects you to your body, in deeper and deeper layers over time.
Ryan: …Breath in to extend, exhale to release…whether you adopt Stu’s mantra for the mat or bike or both, the benefits, I can attest, are awesome! Due to your yoga practice, what might be some unexpected ripple effects in your life, beyond the bike, because just like the tongue is connected to our toes in mysterious ways, our yoga is connected to our professional, emotional, spiritual, and relational life. Thoughts?
Stuart: Hmmm, Wow, that is so big. I think the answer to that question is a beautiful journey of shared and individual discovery for anyone who starts practicing yoga. As we practice our physical poses, we get more practiced at holding our reactions in life encounters, we learn more about ourselves, and so can respond rather than react when challenged by life’s “stuff”. Of course, we get stronger, more toned, more attractive in many ways, ….. but we also get more attentive, less judgmental, more observant about what really is, rather than what we are projecting. And this is not by accident. Yoga is a 4,000+ year old science of direct experience developed personal transformation. It is non-religious and indeed, can support any authentic religious belief or practice.
Happy to be alive and just a little wasted in Rossland BC, 2008.
Yoga means union, of mind, body and spirit. In the full menu of yoga, poses are one of 8 elements, the others are right living, taking care of ourselves, breathing exercises, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation and ultimately being in a place of bliss connected to self, spirit and the bliss state. As we get healthier and more tuned in and aware in one area, we intuitively realize what is unhealthy and needs work in other areas. The wellness spreads throughout our life as we practice yoga. It’s not always easy, but it relentlessly brings us to a better place. Yoga expands us, expands our physical, mental and other awareness and so makes us feel more alive. I think I’ll leave it at that for now.
Ryan: Beautifully articulated Stu, thank you so so much. I want to acknowledge that you said “it’s not always easy”; many people may be inspired but then twist any inspirational vision in a way that “proves” they just don’t measure up, especially when things get tough, which they will, for everyone, in very uniquely personal ways.
You’ve been more than generous with your time Stu, but if you will, I’d like to sneak one more question in, but it’s more of a statement request than question: In typical to the point mtn bike slang style, can you send out a call to yogic action?
Stuart: Hey Ryan, Thanks for the opportunity. Cute, yogic call to action? Hmmmmm…….. How about,
“Just be yourself,
……………..the best self you can be,
……………………………………………………..join us yoga this Sunday!”
or “Come stretch out the kinks! Bring your buff and battered biking bod to yoga this Sunday!!”
Click here for the NSMB story: learning from breaking my neck, biking perspective.
Click here for the YogaPod story: learning from breaking my neck, yogic perspective.
Click here for one of the best places to practice or learn to teach yoga on this planet.
This Sunday, February 5th, Ryan will be teaching at the Anne MacDonald Studio beside the Presentation House Theatre here in North Van (map below) from 1:45-3:00pm. This will be a regular class throughout the winter. Everyone is welcome and no previous experience with yoga is required. It’s also a bargain. Prices below.
5 Class Card: $40
10 Class Card: $75
Any class, any location, no expiration
For more on Ryan and his yoga experience click here for our interview with Ryan.
Or to hear Ryan talk about yoga on his web site click here…