BARNET, Vt. -- Picture a mountain biker. You are probably imagining a mud-covered, testosterone-laden young male flying down backwoods trails, sending day hikers and wildlife scurrying. Contrast that image with the archetypal yogi or Zen Buddhist who moves slowly and deliberately, emanating calm. Is there a place that melds the mindfulness of yoga and meditation with the adrenaline rush of mountain biking?
In mid-July, I attended the debut of a program at the Karm Chling Shambhala Buddhist Meditation Center in Barnet that attempts to bring these contrasting images together in a weekend of meditation, yoga, and mountain biking. This novel blend is the brainchild of Michael McLellan, a former mountain-bike racer who teaches yoga and meditation; Bernie Flynn, also an ex-racer, longtime Buddhist, and owner of Boston's Trident Booksellers & Cafe; and Bob Taylor, an avid road cyclist and mountain biker and a member of the Shambhala Buddhist community for 22 years. Bernie and Michael have been active with the Karm Chling community for 28 and 30 years, respectively.
The program devoted mornings to yoga and meditation, and afternoons to guided mountain biking through the Kingdom Trails, a network of scenic backwoods paths through the pristine woods of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom in East Burke. Though originally planned as a weeklong retreat, the pilot program was limited to a weekend, with 12 participants and three leaders.
The group arrived at Karm Chling on a Friday night. After dinner, we gathered in the summer pavilion, a recently renovated dairy barn, to introduce ourselves. Most participants were from the Boston area and either had some connection to the Boston Shambhala Center in Brookline or knew one of the group leaders through mountain biking.
The introductions drew a clear distinction. There were some serious mountain bikers and there were some serious meditators; except for the three leaders, no one could claim expertise in both. I was the only novice in both activities. Though I am an avid road cyclist, my days of mountain biking ended years ago when my bike was stolen from my South End apartment. And my days of meditation were even further away. After hearing about the program from Flynn while chatting about cycling at his bookstore, I decided the combination might be a good way to get back to both.
Katherine Adams of Brookline, who practices Buddhism at the Boston Shambhala Center, thought meditation might decrease some of the bragging that goes on in the mountain-biking community.
''Meditation encourages modesty," Adams said, ''so you don't have to hear everyone's one-up story at the end of every ride."
Others had simpler reasons for attending. Howard Burke of Arlington wasn't very interested in the yoga or meditation; he saw it as ''a cheap weekend in Vermont riding with some great guys."
Saturday began with breakfast at 8 a.m. (no early rising for our group) followed by a discussion about Shambhala Buddhism led by Gaylon Ferguson, a senior teacher at the Karm Chling Center. Ferguson explained the basics of shamatha meditation and the fundamentals of Buddhism. Listening to this discussion, I was able to draw some clear parallels between Buddhism and mountain biking.
Buddhism embraces samsara -- the endless cycle of suffering -- while mountain biking consists of endlessly suffering while you cycle.
In Buddhism, one tries to end samsara by losing one's fear of death. In mountain biking, you also to have lose that fear of death when you tackle steep trails, barely wider than your handlebars. Both emphasize the importance of mindfulness: staying in the moment with focused awareness.
Sitting meditation requires a mind that is stable and calm. Tense up while climbing a steep muddy trail and you will lose your balance and end up covered in mud, something I did several times on our first day out.
Though meditation entails sitting still and doing nothing, it is difficult to concentrate on nothing for very long. Ferguson took it easy on us that first day; we spent only about 45 minutes meditating. We alternated between sitting, standing, and walking meditation, giving everyone's back a much-needed break. We followed meditation with yoga, led by Michael McLellan. It was the first time I took a yoga class that included push-ups. We dubbed it boot-camp yoga and told McLellan he should have capitalized on his blend of calisthenics and yoga, which he has been practicing for 25 years, before it became all the rage in health clubs. We broke for lunch and changed from our loose-fitting clothes into Lycra and spandex. The line between the two activities was being drawn.
It was a short car ride to the village of East Burke, where we entered the trails. The area is well known for mountain biking; people come from all over to tackle the 100 miles of single-track and double-track trails. The trail network is on private land and is maintained by the nonprofit Kingdom Trail Association. There is a $6 daily fee, or $25 per season (April 1-Oct. 31), to use the trails. Most of them are traditional New England terrain: lots of rocks, roots, and fallen trees, endless ups and downs, and plenty of mud.
Once the riders checked their gear (bikes, power bars, water, first-aid kits), the group headed out for the shakedown ride. We stayed together for most of the ride, but after a few grueling hours, the difference between the cyclists and the meditators became apparent. Several went back to town, while the rest rode on. Toward the end of the day, the group had dwindled to about a third its original size. I tried to keep up with the advanced group as long as I could, but I gave in to the final uphill trail and headed back to East Burke to meet up with the others. There is a stream running through town where we all washed the mud and blood off our bodies.
The second day's meditation session was led by Gail Flynn, who showed me that meditating for an hour could be harder than mountain biking for three hours -- but without the bruises. Gail (whose husband is Bernie) said that just as mountain biking is about training the body, meditation is about training the mind. And training is hard work. There is nothing physically difficult about it -- sitting upright with crossed legs is relatively easy -- but concentrating on one thing without letting other thoughts drift in is demanding. After a short break, we were treated to a relaxing yoga class led by Chris McCorkindale, one of the participants and also an excellent cyclist.
We waited for about an hour for a rainstorm to pass and then we hit the muddy trails. The Saturday ride had given everyone a better sense of their skills. We split into two groups: advanced and beginner. The trails were marked with the traditional shapes and colors familiar to skiers: Black diamonds were the hardest and green circles indicated the novice sections. Bob Taylor said you could tell the difficulty by the names of the trails; on one hand, there was Cupcake and on the other, there was Poundcake. Maybe it was the previous day's punishing ride or maybe the meditation was already helping us tame our egos, but the majority of riders opted for Cupcake, and I was right there with them. On occasion, when the trails ran close to one another, the Cupcakes could watch the Poundcakes narrowly escape disaster as they attempted difficult terrain. It was like being back in day camp and watching the older kids play ''Kill the Guy with the Ball" while you played ''Red Rover." Nevertheless, it was still three hours of keeping your heart rate near max and your mind focused on the treacherous trail.
The food, for the most part, was simply fuel, though the first night was a welcome exception. I expected simple fare, but was surprised to find fresh vegetarian spring rolls, salmon fillets, and broccoli rabe. I was relieved that this was not to be a weekend of asceticism with meals of rice, beans, and tofu. By the following night, however, I realized I had been unintentionally deceived. My group's first night coincided with the last night of a two-week program called the Warrior Assembly, in which students study the Shambhala text, ''The Golden Sun of the Great East," and receive instruction in meditation techniques. The program concluded with a fine meal.
Our second night coincided with the start of another program -- Simplicity: Cutting Though Spiritual Materialism -- and the food reflected this theme. We had Hungarian mushroom soup, salad, and bread. Adequate for those sitting around and meditating all day, but not exactly how you want to end 3 hours of biking difficult trails. After multiple helpings and one person's raid on the kitchen (which netted a large plate of peanut butter cookies), we were finally sated.
On the final night, most of the group decided to go out for burgers and beer at a local pub.
By the end of the weekend, I wasn't sure if meditation enhances mountain biking or if the program is just a good excuse to combine two interesting activities. My mountain biking had improved, certainly. On the second day, I wasn't bleeding. But I can't conclusively say this had anything to do with the meditation sessions. It was probably too short a time for either activity to have any effect on the other.
Participants were of mixed minds. Some saw it as a nice balance, mixing hard work with relaxing and chilling out. Others saw it as more interrelated, the meditation and yoga leading to the right mind-set for the trails.
Susan Brennan of Arlington, who had been concerned about getting injured, said, ''I've ridden tough trails where I got hurt, but meditating before made me peaceful, and when you're peaceful, you ride better."
Carol Pinot of Norton, one of the best riders of the group, had a similar view, only it fit her more extreme riding style.
''When you are on the edge and in the moment," Pinot said, ''you can exceed what you actually think you can do, and that's what meditation and mountain biking is about to me."
Some, like McCorkindale, simply took a more practical view: ''Being in the right gear on a mountain bike is half the battle, focusing on being so in the moment that you know what is coming up next. If you come to a big hill and don't shift in time before you get there, you will not make it up."
Regardless of the net effect, all the participants agreed they would do it again. Though the leaders have no immediate plan for another mountain-bike retreat, they are planning a meditation and ski retreat Jan. 14-16. If that is successful, then meditation combined with snowshoeing, hiking, rock climbing, and other outdoor activities may follow.
Kipp Lynch is a freelance writer in Great Barrington.