Story and photos by Rahul Naik
The next day, my lower back ached, rendering me incapable of bending to sit down or pushing forward to stand up without grimacing. Small, red bumps speckled the tops of both of my feet, as if I had been infected by a sudden wave of chickenpox. I found it ironic that all I had to show for such a rejuvenating experience from my first yoga ride was a myriad of mosquito bites and a sore back.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about doing yoga for what I considered the first time, but rave reviews from the Austin Social Cycling community reassured my decision to experience the yoga ride for myself.
Every Tuesday night, a group of 20 to 30 determined Austinites make the winding ascent up Doug Sahm Hill, just a few yards west of the Long Center, to meet up before their weekly yoga ride.
At the peak of Doug Sahm Hill sits a gold, engraved emblem of the map of Texas, spanning the size of the circular landing. On this Tuesday, children screamed with elation as they pranced in color-changing fountains behind the riders. As a group, we waited as straggling riders to gradually made their ways to the top of the hill. I thought I should use the waiting time to make last-minute preparations for the task ahead, but as I sat in silence and self-reflection, I realized there was nothing more to do than to be.
The assemblage of “yoga riders” was a glorious blend of colors and personalities. A young, soft-spoken Asian man with square spectacles and a thick accent. A loud, yet genuine, blonde-haired woman making passionate conversation with another rider. A skinny, cleanly unshaven student, brimming with enthusiasm and charisma. A short-haired woman with a pierced septum and a sweet smile. Me. And Richie.
My first impression of Richie Flores was that of amiable approachability. I pegged him as a fellow rider, until he asked the group which body parts they wanted to focus on during the lesson. His trimmed goatee, pointed nose, dark eyes and hard facial features hardly indicated to me that he was the yoga instructor, but I played along.
He led the descent back down Doug Sahm Hill and we followed in tow, seemingly ready for the journey ahead. His metallic, white bike glistened in the disappearing daylight as the indigo bike lights lining his wheel spokes illuminated the seven-foot radius surrounding his bike.
It turns out a lot more hid behind Richie’s dark, brown eyes than a simple hobby for practicing and teaching yoga. He told me of how yoga fueled a dramatic turnaround in his life. “I was in a pretty bad place and a man named Geoff O’Meara had come to me to teach me mindful living — I was in jail,” Richie said.
Sure, I had only met Richie once and formed my opinion of him solely on a two-and-a-half hour interaction, but I found it difficult to imagine him in that situation, on that side of the law. “I had seen commercials for things on TV, but had no clue what yoga was. I was deeply into alcoholism,” Richie said. “A long story short, I got clean through the Eight Limbs of Yoga.”
While on the yoga ride we crossed the Lamar Street pedestrian bridge as a black, retro Fuji road bike flew past me. My royal blue Trek 7500 cruiser paled in comparison to the uniqueness of the other bikes.
Lit by an assortment of flashing lights, our congregation of wheels rode toward the distinctive Austin skyline, the full moon adding to its wonder. Richie led us west. Though we only encountered one hill on our trek, the lactic acid produced in our thighs was enough for Richie to receive some contempt from fellow riders for taking us on this route.
I can’t tell if I was fooled by the sheer enjoyment of the experience or if the weather was actually perfect, but I felt crisp, 70-degree air gliding through my hair and across my face as we passed under MoPac.
Below the flyovers, the route followed a dark sidewalk trail full of dips and curves. Having lost my front bike light a week before, I navigated the unpredictable terrain using the dim light from the bike 30 feet ahead of me. Adrenaline rushed through my veins as I risked face-planting into the gravel, maneuvering the winding path in darkness.
After hollering our way through tunnels sprayed with graffiti, we finally arrived at the Texas Rowing Center, our yoga destination.
Richie led us onto a pier lit by two large flood lights and we searched for space on the boat racks to park our bikes. I unrolled the bright orange yoga mat I slung over my right shoulder during the ride. Sitting with my legs stretched out in front of me, I relished my surroundings. Water calmly glistened in front of me, and stars did the same in the night sky above me. Four ducks and a couple of geese swam by, like eager spectators waiting to watch me embarrass myself.
According to Richie, we would practice the third limb of yoga, asana. This practice focuses on the postures of yoga and treating the body like a temple of spirit. It helps train the mind on discipline and concentration, both of which are vital facets of the practice of meditation.
Richie said that through yoga, he gained an ultimate respect for the body and saw teaching to others as his civic duty. “I like to focus more on nurturing the body and the mind in the spirit,” Richie said. “When the opportunity arises, we don’t have a choice anymore. We have to give ourselves to our community and our people. If we don’t try to create a better place, then we can’t complain about it not being a better place.”
Upward dog, swan dive, downward dog, crab pose. I felt closer to nature than ever as I practiced so many different poses resembling animals, coupled with the dozens of mosquitos that sat on my exposed skin at any given time, not to mention the ever-curious ducks swimming back and forth, marveling at the humans fully testing the elasticity of their bodies.
My favorite pose was the warrior pose, from which I could reposition my body, arch my back and stretch my core into the upward dog pose. Each movement or repositioning was accompanied by either an inhalation or an exhalation, as instructed by Richie’s calm, confident voice. I felt the tension gradually leaving my body.
Richie instructed the group without a yoga mat of his own. Perhaps not using a mat was a status symbol among instructors. He easily performed poses, standing on his head without a barrier between him and the rigid, wooden planks of the pier.
The highlight of the night came at the end of the yoga class, when Richie pulled out a bottle of liquid eucalyptus for us to apply to our temples and upper lip during the meditation portion of the lesson. The soothing quality of the eucalyptus was unlike anything I had ever experienced. Its distinctive fragrance resembled that of menthol and pine. I found myself lost in the emptiness of my mind, focused on the breath above my upper lip.
When I rolled up my yoga mat and slung it over my shoulder once again, sweat streamed down my face, leaving the taste of salt on my lips. Richie invited us to cool off in Barton Springs after the lesson, as is tradition, but I had to get back to school.
I walked to the boat racks, stocked with racing shells, to unlock my bike. I marveled at how each facet of the yoga ride provided the best of what Austin has to offer. The mesmerizing views. The incomparable weather. The weirdness of combining biking and yoga. The amazing people.
The experience was completely revitalizing, and as I thought about it, the three-mile ride back to West Campus didn’t seem as daunting.