Good space, bad space and how the wheel of a bicycle informs our practice.

Marcel Duchamp & his Bicycle Wheel

Marcel Duchamp & his Bicycle Wheel

Thirty spokes share the wheels hub;

it is the center hole that makes it useful.

Shape clay into a vessel;

it is the space within that makes it useful.

Cut the doors and windows for a room;

it is the holes which make them useful.

Therefore profit comes from what is there;

 and usefulness from what is not. 

Tao Te Ching, by Lao Tzu

Today, Chris and I are heading out to watch a bicycle race. Not just any race but La Vuelta.  Also known as Vuelta a Espana, this race is Spain’s Tour de France.  It's mammoth proportion includes a three-week ride consisting of thousands of kilometers and a variety of terrain which includes an annual climb up the Pyrenees. Now, I don’t claim to know a lot about bicycle racing; it actually appears to be a pretty complicated sport. The characteristic time trials and team efforts can mystify a casual observer. That being said, having a leg, the last leg of La Vuelta in our valley is pretty exciting.

Like Vuelta a Espana, a many chaptered race, The Literary Cyclist by James E. Starrs is a collection of writings in poem and prose referring to the bicycle. It illustrates the beauties, thrills, insights, and transformations that come along with the sport. Reading the book created a “good space” in my heart. All the quotes in this post come from Literary Cyclist but their original source is cited where applicable.

Speaking of space, in Yogic Philosophy there are 2 terms Sukha and Dukha which refer to "good" and "bad" space.  Often translated as "pleasure" and "pain", when we look at Sukha and Dukha in terms of space, we can relate to our performance of posture as a skill to be enacted with precision and functional awareness. The etymology of the word Dukha, Wikipedia tells us, is of an Aryan origin. Dukha is derived from terminology referring to the axle hole.

“ The bicycle is the most civilized conveyance known to man. Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.” Red and Green, Iris Murdoch


Chris and I have been cycling all summer. Every other day we hit our beautiful valley to climb and run; its a pretty mountainous region. We are not pro’s, our longest ride is around 65 kilometers and takes a couple of hours, but oh the joy it brings. A lot like the yoga practice, cycling brings the body, breath and mind together. Bliss is easily found.

Our region of Spain, as it turns out has some of the best biking in the world. The mountains, continents pushed together by some magnificent geological force, allows for challenging uphill and soaring downhill release.

"A wheel is not a wheel without the space for the axle; it cannot function. Neither can we.” Leslie Kaminoff

Our portion of Vuelta a Espana is moving from a city south of us, Benidorm, at sea level, up over our mountain pass, Coll de Rates, into the next couple of valleys, (Orba and Pego) and ends some 200 kilometers from the start. Remember our leg begins 25 days after the tour begins.

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them. Thus you remember them as they actually are, while in a motor car only a high hill impresses you, and you have no such accurate remembrance of a country you have driven through as you gain by riding a bicycle.” Ernest Hemingway

Dukha specifically refers to an axle hole that is made off kilter, causing a very bumpy and uncomfortable ride. It’s important when riding a bike that the wheel rolls true. This requires perfect shape in the center of the wheel and perfect support around the 360-degree circle that is my wheel.

I also like to think about the axle hole in relation to creating space in the center of the body during asana practice. Lifting up is called Prana Vayu. And pressing down is called Apana Vayu. Balancing these two efforts leaves space in the center of the body, which allows one to roll true, so to speak.

From this historical reference we can look at an expansion of the idea put forth by Leslie Kaminoff: 

 If: Du =bad Ka=space

Then: Su=good Ka= space

“The bicycle is mechanical perfection. When man invented the bicycle he reached the peak of his attainments. Here was a machine of precision and balance for the convenience of man. And unlike subsequent inventions for mans convenience, the more he used it the fitter his body became…Progress should have stopped when man invented the bicycle.” Hovel in the Hills, Elizabeth West

Chris and I have met quite a few bikers on our rides, and we've ridden to many different places. We have certainly been passed by a few experts and one thing I can tell you is many of the Spanish riders are tiny.

The pros are slim and muscular with the tiniest behinds you have ever seen. We know because we are always behind and the view is small.

Our first task in watching the race was to find a place from which to view the event. We looked at the map, we scouted for days, and we asked friends. “Where is the best spot?”

Finally, we decided that to climb up the mountain on our bikes and find a place where we could see the cyclists coming down would be fun. Our spot promised that after the riders flew by we would be able to continue to see the road and the racers soar back and forth through the steep pass and into the valley below.

Sukha, which can imply sweetness and lasting pleasure, also implies a perfection that is the good space of a round axle hole, correct in form and function.

Dukha, which implies suffering, discomfort, unease, sadness or any of a number of negative feelings, reminds us how important it is for our support and inner space to be true.

We were not alone, hoards of bikers started out early in the morning to find the perfect spot. We left home around 11 and found a hairpin turn halfway up the mountain by noon and began to wait. We were expecting the riders around one but there was plenty of excitement on the road. The race had began in Benidorm an hour earlier so helicopters, the civil guard, and lots of circus type cars filled with girls and signs and horns, drove by doing security, inciting celebration, and filming for TV.

Chris and I spent time looking for the best angle to take a photo; we had no idea what to expect. The sun kept going in and out and we were surprised that bikers and cars continued to climb the mountain in a steady stream, looking for perfect viewing; the competitors were less than 30 minutes away.

“You can’t despair for the human race when you see someone riding a bicycle.” Spokesong, Stewart Parker

In the yoga sutras, one of Patanjali’s few teachings on posture uses the word sukha to describe correct execution of asana. If we think about sukha as good space, then the idea of axle hole becomes primary in our explorations during the posture practice.

Whether I am riding a bike or practicing asana the shape of my body, the condition of my mat, and the contents of my mind must be sweet. The practice or the posture may not begin out feeling sukha but the process of practice resets the space in my center: balancing lift and grounding. Sukha arrives.

Then they came, don’t ask me who or in what order, it was very fast. There was one or two leading the way, a clump soon followed. Then to my surprise, cars and vans filled with people and loaded with spare bikes squealed by. They struggled on the mountain road to keep up with the leaders….

The transformation from suffering (dukha) to sweetness (sukha) is certainly a goal, if not a by-product of any mindful asana session

“Bicycling…is the nearest approximation I know to the flight of the birds. The airplane simply carries a man on it’s back like an obedient Pegasus; it gives him no wings of his own. There are movements on a bicycle corresponding to almost all the variations in the flight of the larger birds. Plunging free downhill is like a hawk stooping. On the level stretches you may pedal with a steady rhythm like a heron flapping; or you may be like an acciptrine hawk, alternate rapid pedaling with gliding. If you want to test the force and direction of the wind, there is no better way than to circle, banked inward, like a turkey vulture. When you have the wind against you, yawing and wavering, like a crow flying upwind best make headway. I have climbed a steep hill by circling or spiraling, rising each time on the upturn with the momentum of the downturn, like any songbird. I have shot in and out through traffic like a goshawk through the woods. The best way to ride, especially downhill, is with both hands in your pockets and leaning backwards. This is not so hard as it looks: like a bird, you control your direction perfectly by unconscious shifts in your balance. Especially on the long down-slopes, this is to know the freedom of the wind. The air rushing past your ear reminds you that the birds must be partially deafened by their own speed.” Spring in Washington, Louise J. Halle, Jr.

Sukha should be differentiated from fleeting impermanent pleasure. Sanskrit terms referring to the fleeting pleasures might use words like: bhoga and preya. We are referring to the sweetness that inevitably arises with attention.

Posture, like riding a bicycle, requires good architecture, balance and strength. There is a good space in the body and the mind when effort places these characteristics into any given moment. Iyengar, in his commentary on the yoga sutras, says that any asana is a symbol that implies the highest quality of attention to perfection in the space of the body.

The morning of the race there was lots of talk in the bike shop about who would win. Who had the psychological advantage and who possessed pure physical ability? Then after the initial leaders of this leg, which are not necessarily the leaders of the race, came another big clump of riders called the peloton. The leaders are nestled in this group. Cycling is a team sport and there is a lot of support cycling, pacers, and guys who are not out to win the entire race but a leg here or there. I couldn’t tell one rider from the other but after a couple of minutes all the racers, cars, ambulances, spare bikes and security guards had passed and it was over…. for us. The bikers were one hour into a 4-hour leg, 25 days into the race.

“More than any other emotion, melancholy is incompatible with bicycling. A bicycle ride is a flight from sadness. It is a release from despair and a resurgence of hope.” The Literary Cyclist, James E. Starrs

When Patanjali instructs that the posture should be sukha and sthira, it is helpful to apply "good space" to the translation. Applying good space frees us from the misunderstanding that the posture is easy, natural, or even pretty to look at. The good space is functional and supports the many spokes of the wheel of our bodies.

Chris and I got on our bikes and flew down the mountain feeling like pros and getting cheered along the way. The town, Parcent, at the bottom of the hill was full of festivities and as usual we were passed and passed again by the big dogs, with little bottoms but we smiled all the way home. It was really great.

“Sartre much preferred riding a bicycle to walking. The monotony of walking bored him, while the intensity of effort and the rhythm of a bicycle journey varied constantly. He would amuse himself by sprinting on hills. I would become winded and fall behind him…. Both of us loved the freedom of downhill runs. The scenery flew by much more quickly than when we are on foot.” La Force de l’ age, Simone de Beauvoir

Iyengar in his commentary of the Yoga Sutras clarifies this understanding of sukha. The term though implicated earlier in the sutras as a sensation that can lead to attachment and craving, is describes by Iyengar's specifically implying good space:  “A pure state of joy is felt in the cells and the mind…all opposites dissolve.” (As in a wheel.)

Sukha and sthira then point to a very well crafted and high quality experience which requires a concentrated mind and a trained body. Yoga.

The good axle hole is a good space at the center of a wheel. It is not just any space; it is the space at the center of something that enables it to function. To be a wheel, a disk must have the space in the center. People are like wheels; we need space in our center. The space allows us to connect. We connect our form to function and we connect the outside world to the inner experience. Imagine your body as a wheel, with an axle and spokes of support. See what this does to your practice, to your life, to your ride.

I came home after the race and got a nap and a swim. Chris tried to pay attention to the results of La Vuelta online but it’s 7pm and we can’t really understand what happened. We think the Spanish guy won but maybe it was the Italian... we are not too sure. For more on release from suffering read the story of The Spade Sage.

“The Bicycle, surely, should always be the vehicle of novelists and poets. How pleasant if one could prove that the decline in literary delicacy followed the disappearance of the bike from American roads.” The Romany Stain, Christopher Morley



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