Put Your Own Spin on It: How Cycling Can Lead to Psychological Balance
It’s just me and the resistance knob now. That small dial that will determine how easy or hard this bike ride will be. The spin class instructor cues, encourages “TURN IT TO A PLACE THAT MAKES YOU PROUD!” My ego pushes me to break the stationary bike, to cycle beyond anything I’ve ever done before. My gut cringes and begs me to get in tune with what feels right to me. I search myself for the truth.
My mind has an internal dialogue that runs along at the pace of my pedal strokes. I know that I can force myself to do physical work that is past my breaking point, but that it will probably leave me lying on the ground, breathless and unable to move. I can also keep that resistance knob turned toward the left, toward a lighter road that is fast and painless. However, if I don’t honor my actual level of ability, and I let myself speed downhill, I might lose an opportunity to build endurance and strength.
The instructor continues to prompt, “Do not let fear drive this! Allow your confidence to be bigger than your fear! Exhale obstacles out of the way! Now SHOW. YOUR. TEETH!” Gosh, if I wasn’t motivated enough before, now I really want to push the effort harder.
I know that it can be dangerous to ignore my gut feelings about what is actually right for my body. I know this deep in the core of my being, where I have borne witness to the pain of so many people who have been pushed past their limits. They end up in my office with anxiety, depression, panic, disordered eating, or addictions. Peter, for instance, is a law student who stumbled onto my couch with a brutal hangover, asking me to “cure” his panic disorder so he could go back to working all day and studying through the night. Sophia, the teenager who accepted the role of mediating between her divorced parents, lifted her sleeve to show me where she secretly sliced into her arms when it all became too much. Amy, the mom who raised three amazing children, fell into a deep depression when she no longer felt needed.
Peter, Sophia, and Amy each reached a breaking point at which their self-denial was no longer adaptive. It can happen to any one of us. Over the course of our lives, we are so often told what to do, how to think, who to be. We’ve been lectured on what we “should” aspire toward. We’ve taught ourselves to ignore the voice within, the one that bangs its little fists up against our throats and begs us to speak. We may have become really good at lying to ourselves over time. We might drown out the protests of our gut instincts with the constant dinging of our inboxes or the prattle of our small talk. Eventually, our inner voices might just curl up in the fetal position and take a nap, hoping we don’t completely wreck our lives before we are ready to hear them again.
Back on the bike, I struggle to set my pace. Thankfully, my instructor today is the intuitive Christine D’Ercole, master instructor at Peloton Cycle, who knows exactly when to say things like, “Just find the rhythm. Are you able to close your eyes for long enough that you can hear your SELF?”
I take a breath and remember that the amazing thing about the human brain is its plasticity, i.e. its ability to change as we alter our thoughts and actions. It may take an enormous amount of courage to allow ourselves to relax in the present moment, tune into the rhythm of our own breath, or speak our truth. And if we do any of that, even once, we have what it takes to be productive in a way that is energizing. We can avoid physical and emotional burnout.
Over the time that we worked together, my fierce warriors learned to set some boundaries. Peter accepted his panic and anxiety as signs that he was headed toward a crash. He began to leave set specific study hours, and made sure to set aside one night each week for socializing with his friends. Sophia learned to tell her parents that she would no longer pass messages from one to the other. Amy realized that it was permissible to take care of her own needs, and that she could find purpose outside of her changing role as a parent. Those small changes were enough to move their stress levels from burnout-inducing to challenging.