A few years ago I had the opportunity to teach in Amman, Jordan. After the workshop was over I visited Petra, where a Bedouin guide took me up to the top of the mountainous park and into areas often closed to the public. It was mid November and, after hiking around ruins, the sun began to set rapidly and darkness fell; we made our way down the un-groomed slopes at the back of the parkland. It was quite dark, the slopes were steep and slippery and I was, admittedly, pretty scared. My guide was practically barefoot and the way his feet conformed to the rocks and debris was unlike anything I had ever seen. He was completely at ease. As it became totally dark he took hold of my arm and swiftly and adeptly lead me down what seemed like some very treacherous terrain.
The next day the muscles in my lower legs and feet ached in such a way that every muscle and every track of connective tissue felt as clear and vivid as if I were looking at a highly detailed anatomy book. Though our asana practice takes our body through a wide variety of joint configurations, they are often quite predictable and repetitive. The unusual variety of positions and deformations that the bones of my feet, lower legs, hips, and whole body were subjected to as we navigated the rocks, brush, and all manner of natural debris was unique, constantly changing, requiring not only a whole body presence, but agility and adaptability. My feet became my eyes. I had to see with my body—and trust its capacity to do so. Did I mention how sore I was?
I live in NYC now. Though I grew up hiking and wandering in the mountains of northern New Mexico, I have been a city dweller for more than half of my life. And though I love NYC, I miss the wilderness, the wildness, and the diversity of the natural terrain that goes along with it. In NYC we have parks. Some offer variations in grade (slopes) and the opportunity to get off the beaten path and onto some un-manicured ground. Riverside Park, which stretches along the Hudson River on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, is where I go for a daily dose of daylight and natural terrain when I am in NYC. Fortunately, I travel frequently and this often gives me the opportunity to find natural habitats of variable terrain in which to wander. It feels so important, essential even, to get off the smooth and sterile surfaces and into the rough, the bumpy, and the unpredictable.
Life is unpredictable. It is full of curve balls and random events and encounters that we hope we can navigate with grace and ease. These wonderful variables, these "obstacles," are not problems; they are required if we are interested in cultivating resilience and adaptability. These encounters force us to wake up and make new connections within ourselves, and develop a fluid mind-state that recognizes the dynamic nature of stability. We learn not to waste vital energy on trying to control all the particularities within our immediate environment and are better able to devote our energy toward developing greater levels of awareness and presence.
Hiking, walking, or exploring in natural, unpredictable, and obstacle-laden environments provides a rich landscape of proprioceptive stimuli that is like food for our complex organism. The unevenness, randomness, and inconsistencies of such a landscape require an alert responsive nervous system. We must adapt and change our movements moment by moment, constantly responding and adapting to the diversity presenting itself.
Hiking in nature is also an integrative experience. The crisp scent of pine and wet rotting wood are as important for our sense of smell as the constantly changing dance of leaves, light and shadow are for our eyes. When I am out in nature, it sometimes feels as if every part of me is merging with the surrounding environment. It feels like a homecoming. When practicing yoga I have similar feelings of coming home to myself and experience a deep sense of belonging. In those times, there is nothing to move away from or toward.
When I am hiking, I am, however, occasionally in pursuit of something. It might be a mountain lake described in a guidebook, or a summit of some sort. The same might be true in my yoga practice. Yet, what I enjoy most is simply the experience of the hike (or the walk, or the practice) itself. It really doesn't matter if I make it to the summit, to the lake, to the goal, whatever that might be. It is the act of moving, connecting, and being in nature, as my body adapts to the dents and deviations within and beneath me. During such experiences my body has a life of its own, and an innate intelligence. Getting off the beaten path (in the woods or in my practice) gives my cells the opportunity to express and develop this intelligence. And then there is the sheer joy of doing something purely for its own sake.
When out and about in a natural environment we are away from the constant din of man-made sounds, which is especially important for those of us who live in urban areas. In nature, our cells are not subjected to sirens, sledgehammers, and car horns of city life. The soundscape of crickets and birds, all the insect and animal noises are so soothing. It's the natural symphony that has accompanied our species for most of its evolution on this planet. Just listening to these sounds and the silences that punctuate them, feels therapeutic for my heart and brain.
Consider your eyes for a moment (which quite possibly spend way too much time staring at a computer screen). When hiking in nature they get the opportunity to look at things near, far, and everything in between. This is so good for the muscles of our eyes, and it is so good for our sense of perspective, both literally and figuratively.
Explore how you are using your eyes in Surya Namaskar, for instance, especially as you take your arms and eyes up to the ceiling, or as you take a standing back arch. Try standing in Vrksasana and relax your eyes as if looking over a wide horizon. Does this change your experience of the pose? Try closing your eyes. Are you still able to balance? Can you "see" without your eyes? Try practicing challenging poses in a dimly lit room sometimes. How did the low light affect your experience and the quality of your effort?
By witnessing my mother's loss of the majority of her vision due to macular degeneration, I have learned how important it is to practice seeing and sensing with the whole of my body. My mother had to learn new ways of seeing, moving about, and relating to the world and those in it. It was not easy. She sometimes felt isolated or separated from those around her because she could not see their facial expressions, and she often felt disoriented and fearful in unfamiliar environments.
I learned how critical it is to maintain one's capacity to balance after my father died from a head injury resulting from a fall. "Adversity will happen, rest assured," the late Mary Dunn used to say. We cannot prevent adversity. But we can practice for adversity by deviating from our habitual patterns here and there. We can add little bits of adversity, and uncertainty, and perhaps be better able to handle the big adversities as they arise. Something as simple as hiking or walking out in nature is a great way to add a little variability and diversity to our movement experiences.
If we only move about on flat unvarying surfaces or become too set in our routines, if we don't take time to try things differently—or expose ourselves to variables that will challenge our organism in some new or novel way—we can become less resilient and less adaptable. We may even become more fearful of change and of the unknown. This goes way beyond the physical. It can affect so many aspects of our lives.
Hiking, like yoga, can really challenge our capacity to balance, which is immensely important, especially as we age. To better experience the interplay between the two, try practicing poses that really challenge your ability to balance on a daily basis. Include in your daily practice poses that require you to stand on one leg. Use the support of the wall if you must, gradually learning to be your own support. If you want to increase the challenge, try these poses on a variety of surfaces. This can help prepare your body and nervous system for the diverse and unpredictable surfaces you might encounter when hiking in nature, or just moving about on icy, snow-laden sidewalks. Try moving your arms in different ways; turn your head to the right or left, or look up to the ceiling while standing on one leg. Try closing your eyes. Bend and straighten the leg you are balancing on, or rise up on the ball of your foot. All of these variations will increase the balance challenge, sharpen your reflexes, and help increase proprioception. Adding some variables to the practice of your standing balances can significantly improve your ability to balance, especially when you are in less predictable physical environments.
Isn't it wonderful how a classical standing pose sequence requires us to shift from two legs to one leg to one hand and one leg? These poses are great for developing the strong yet flexible feet, ankles, knees, and hips that we need when out on a hike. And adding a little variety to this sequence occasionally can be really helpful because nature is full of variety and often unpredictable. Try elevating one or both feet up on a block occasionally, or practice on a more dynamic surface such as three mats, placed one on top of one another. If you want to really have fun, sandwich a blanket between two sticky mats. This type of experiment mimics the way the topsoil displaces itself relative to the bottom, especially when going downhill. Add little doses of adversity so that your body can make new connections.
Have you ever found yourself on a more difficult hike than you anticipated? A friend and I found ourselves on one such hike when teaching together at a yoga festival in Squaw Valley a few summers ago. The granite rocks and cliffs we encountered while trying to make it up to a much talked about mountain lake were significantly more challenging than the arm balance class I had taught that morning! Eka pada Koundinyasana 2 on the rocks, anyone? Though the shapes our bodies made on the rocks were somewhat similar to those we made in the class, on our hike we had the additional requirement of a huge variety of unique joint configurations as our bodies continuously molded themselves to the ever-changing surfaces of the craggy, slippery surfaces. We utilized all the pushing, pulling, and reaching patterns we see our primate cousins access so effortlessly. Imagine for just a moment how many diverse angles your legs and arms (not to mention feet, knees, ankles, fingers, etc.) must accommodate on such rough and variable terrain. All of this while maintaining some semblance of stability. In this context our skin becomes one of the most important parts of our body, just as it is in yoga. Our skin must be supple yet strong, it must simultaneously protect us yet serve as our largest sensory organ. It is one of our greatest tools of bodily awareness. B.K.S. Iyengar articulated an aspect of this idea so clearly in Light on Life: "Awareness: Every Pore of the Skin Has to Become an Eye." (Aside: It is interesting how the rope work we do in Iyengar yoga might actually be a great way to strengthen the skin on our hands, and improve this vital connection between the hands and the whole body.)
There is also another oft-mentioned problem for many who want to hike or do yoga: pain in the knees. Many people complain that their knees hurt when hiking (or climbing stairs) and there can be many reasons for this. The way in which we are moving can dramatically affect how our joints experience our weight. Environmental variables exacerbate these tendencies. The slope or grade that one faces when going up or down hill can be hard on the knees, especially if our legs are not strong enough, or if the knee is traveling too far forward over our toes in its bent, or flexed position. This way of moving is not inherently bad, but it might increase the load experienced by our knee joints. This can also occur when climbing up or down stairs. The load is not our weight, per say, but how our various tissues experience our weight. If we can learn to keep our shinbone a bit more perpendicular as we are going uphill for example, we can better utilize the muscles of our buttocks and hamstrings. This, along with the action of our back leg and foot, can help save our knees from unnecessary wear and tear. This is not unlike the way we move from Virabhadrsana 1 to Virabhadrasana 3, or from Trikonasana to Ardha Chandrasana.
If we are in the habit of tucking our pelvis under excessively we might experience pain in our knees when we are going downhill. When we move this way, our quadriceps will tend to fatigue more quickly as they will be working very hard to help decelerate the mass of our body as we go downhill. Many people are not sufficiently conditioned to handle the loads created by this activity. Our ability to utilize the support of the muscles in our pelvic region can help our body move much more efficiently. Here, as in yoga, we are learning to distribute the work in such a way that we do not unnecessarily tax one particular region, while neglecting another. We become more efficient because we are inviting the entire orchestra to participate in the symphony.
Now back to the hike in Squaw Valley...as my friend and I began our descent down the mountain after finally making it to the illusive lake, we came across an older (much older) couple. They did not look as if they could have made it up those rocks, yet here they were remarking to each other about the genus of a particular mountain flower that one of them had stumbled upon. We said hello and sheepishly asked how they had managed that rock face and the climb up from the valley. The woman, looking up from the flower said laughingly, "We move.... in botanical time." They move in botanical time! Another wonderful way to get off of the beaten path.