It's kind of like our whole life has threads that are intimately connected to how we breathe. And so breathing sits at the crossroads of so much of our life. And, and sometimes if you sit at a crossroads, everything comes in there sooner or later. Or to change the analogy, it's said that if you're a nature photographer, in the plains of Africa, and you want to take pictures of a lot of animals, that one really good way to do that is just sit at the watering hole and wait. And all the animals sooner or later have to come to the watering hole, so you get to see them. And it's a lot easier than going around searching through the plains for the animals.
I spent 6 days, 70 miles, day hiking the Lower Dungeness Valley area of the Buckhorn Wilderness in the Olympic National Forest for my 55th birthday this past April. Yes, I had a fantastic vacation. But what I really want to write about is the week of day hiking (we didn’t camp, rather rented a house nearby) that gave me hours of practice with posture, breathing, self-identification and internal dialogue.
Is what I practiced those 6 days yoga? Is it meditation? Well, everybody has a nose, everyone has an opinion. I’m sure there would be a lot of views and positions regarding that. But, for my purposes the answer is Yes, and I’m going to tell you why in this month’s newsletter.
Body: many (not all) schools of yoga and meditation begin with the body. Here’s the aspect of strength, endurance, resilience. The body is not just muscle and bone, blood and nerves. The body is our senses: touch, hearing, balance, smell, taste and the scene stealer, vision. If you decide to “take a yoga class” or “practice yoga”, the odds are pretty good that you are intending to move your body. Surprise- you dive into yoga and it’s not just moving your body but being asked to do it “Mindfully”. Place your attention on the movement of your body. Keep it there for the duration.
Breathing: That’s Exhaling AND the pause AND Inhaling. Why pay attention to the breath? Everything of you- action, emotion, thought affects breathing and breathing affects thinking, emotions and actions. That includes sleep- breathing affects sleep and sleep affects breathing. Breathing is the Indicator Species of your quality of life.
The Big “I Am” and “You Are”: the means and the ends of yoga and meditation are both to discover you are not who or what you think and believe you are. This goes for your fellow humans, too- the ones you are intimate with and the ones who you’ve only seen on media. They are not who are what you think, either. However, the only way to know that is to either for the “Universe” to shove you out of the labeled box you are in or for you, yourself to get to the edge of who and what you think you are and then go a bit further. The work is to Pay Attention when you are outside of the box or past the edge. This is a different you for you to get to know! Don’t run back to safety- take a deep breath (again, that’s exhale, pause, inhale), smile, say Hi, nice to meet you to this other “you” you don’t yet know.
Hours of practice with:
Posture: The tilt of the pelvis, the strength of the back and rib muscles, the position of the head in relation to the shoulders and pelvis, what part of the foot predominated in each step- it all came to primary importance what I have learned over the years about alignment in motion.
I’ve been keeping myself oh-so busy trying out different activations and engagements while I brush my teeth, put my jeans on, drive to work, walk up and down the stairs, stand, sit and hike with a pack up and down hills, across flat land. The constant-ness of trying out creasing hips, engaging side rib muscles, flattening out the back triangle between the shoulder blades and base of the skull has given me boundless opportunities to observe. When and where and for how long can I maintain? When I stop moving, did I arrive with the same posture I began? When I’m struggling to find “the feeling” of it all being aligned, have I checked all the patterns I am habituated to?
It made an immense difference of energy and endurance that I stay with the changes I want to engage the entire hike, the entire week. How much foot soreness, how much leg strength, and the central issue for all of us, how well my body could breath depended upon postural practice, attention and awareness.
Breathing: What affects breathing and what does breathing affect? Oh- ONLY EVERYTHING. Let’s see, the nervous system, brain function, emotion, digestion and nutritional process, heat regulation, and of course, oxygen and carbon dioxide- fueling the blood stream and muscle activation.
Add 4 bouts of pneumonia to an acute stress response of freeze or faint (rather than fight or flight). I have spent so many years barely breathing that it’s really just my default baseline. When I do get a good breath, even better a series of good breaths, it’s better than chocolate or ice cream. I’ve been on a years-long quest to breath better.
The six sequential days of hiking, pumping legs and arms, whether moving at one mile an hour up a steep grade or 3 miles an hours across a level trail gave my body six sequential days of breathing much more completely. 3- 8 hours on the trail, there’s not just trying to stay with the breath for 10 counts- there’s hill climbs and foot fall after foot fall of counting: step, step (inhale) step, step, step, step (exhale). One, two (inhale), one, two, three, four (exhale). It’s the extended opportunity to really practice keeping the mouth shut, breathing only through the nose for as long as possible. It’s very hard to hold one’s breath or breath shallow when going up or down a 7 ½% grade.
Wow, what a difference. Thoughts relaxed their multi-tasking. It seemed even during the most physically stressful periods of the hike, there was calm around the thoughts and physical sensations. The digestion process became more regular- most of the edema disappeared. The body became warm, sleeping with the windows open (in April, a first for me). Rest stops along the hikes came farther apart and shorter as recovery happened faster.
Self-identification: how do I define myself? Consider the definition of “define”: outline, delineate, demarcate, circumscribe, mark, classify, label, et al. These are all about creating limits. Limits give the invitation of "fixed-ness"- permanence.
But I’m not happy when I get put in a box - whether because of gender, age, or background. I have to note that as much as I stand up to those who want to define and limit me by those definitions, not defining and limiting myself is equally important. Every one of those 6 day hikes I maintained the attitude of “Let’s see what I can do”. Each moment is the opportunity to investigate possibility.
This was especially important for days 4, 5 and 6 of our hikes. Day 4 we arrived at our first break much further down the trail than anticipated. The trail had less elevation challenge than anticipated, and I was hiking much faster than days 1 and 2. We looked at the map and opted to take the long way, making the day a total of 18 miles (not much elevation change that day). I knew I could do it, but John wasn’t sure I could. I didn’t know how fast I could do it, but having read and listened and trained and practiced, I put it all together for 7 hours and 50 minutes.
Internal dialogue: My best strategy for most of my life has come from knowing that someone I admire did something hard or changed their life. If they could do it, I can do it, too. I have never found evidence that supports “terminal uniqueness”. (Terminal uniqueness is the belief that the situation a person is facing is somehow fundamentally different from the situations others have experienced. In other words, people with this condition believe that no one else has ever encountered what they are facing and therefore, no one can understand what they're going through.)
April 17, Day 6: We went into the day with a planned easy hike along the river. We checked the over-all elevation change and the mileage. But we didn’t know all the elevation change is all at once- until we got into the hike. My body was already very fatigued. I was feeling drained, but really wanted to keep going. “It’s got to level out soon, just this little bit more”, I kept telling myself. “This is really hard, but I don’t want to quit because I know it has to flatten out”, “I’ll get to just the next point on the map, and then maybe I’ll turn around.” “My body just is struggling to get into rhythm of the uphill- it’ll adjust in about 20 minutes.”
I’ve read, listened and learned from countless others of how they have persevered through adversities, minor and major. There’s no way to know whether what they did would work for me without trying them. I’m human, they are human. Bodies are bodies and minds are minds. On this trail I was calling up all the hikers who shared not quitting. I called up all the scientific evidence that we can do so much more past when we fatigue. I called up the trainers who coached me “You can do this!” I did- all the while wondering if this was “The Wall” I have heard marathon runners hit, push past and actually feel okay after (which I did).
Well, truthfully, I felt GREAT!
I had never thought that I was good enough, fast enough, strong enough, thin enough, pretty enough, smart enough, or any other 'enough.' Nothing I did had ever met my own unattainable expectations of what 'enough' was. Is that why I threw myself into the hardest physical endeavor I could think of? Was I simply desperate to do something that would make me approve of myself?”