Transition

This week marks a huge transition in the course of my life. The job that I have held for almost my entire existence since graduating from college is coming to an end. Due to continual budget constraints, my boss decided to eliminate my position. In truth, he did offer me the job of lab manager instead, telling me that if I did take that position, I would have to work more and stricter hours than I currently work, without equivalent financial compensation. At first, I was shocked to hear this news, as I had no forewarning, and asked him if I could think about it for a couple of days. In reality, however, I had no need to think about my decision for even a moment. I knew and had felt for more years than I care to admit, that there was no choice. A large part of me had died staying in this job, and because I did not know how to make my way out of it myself, the universe closed this door for me in order to open new doors. Here was my chance to hike the Pacific Crest Trail- something that I had been wanting to do ever since I finished the Appalachian Trail, and something that I would not be allowed to do if I accepted the role of lab manager. And here was a chance to begin a new life- one that can be shaped more by me and my own interests.

Because of who I am and the life that was given to me, I am not a person that can spend the majority of my days devoted to doing work that does not touch my heart or fulfill me. I have endured an incredible amount of pain and hardship, and have been left with the remnants of trying to make sense of what has happened. I need to be around people who are in touch with themselves, who share and give love freely, who are empathetic and compassionate and willing to give hugs. I need to be around people who inspire and uplift. I need to go to places that allow me to find my own freedom and sources of strength and my own well of hope. I need to find a way to support myself in a way that makes me feel happy and fulfilled, and where I can share my strengths.

I feel the most hopeful when I am outside and moving. I am friendlier and more open to people, and I even amaze myself with the optimism and encouragement that I can offer others (when not in a state of exhaustion). I also feel remarkably less fear when I am hiking alone, than when I am living in “ordinary” life. The most common comment that I receive when I am hiking alone is how brave I am (especially to be out there as a female on her own). Most people- even the men- said they would never even consider going out on trails alone. For me, I feel the opposite way. I feel much less afraid than I normally do, much stronger, more open, and more happy. There is no choice for me. It is what I must do.

I have begun to clear my desk, lab bench, and freezer full of tubes, and as more and more space opens up, more space arises in me as well. I feel more free and less encumbered by years of work that I was never meant to do. And while it is incredibly frightening to have no idea how I will support myself, how I will be able to fund my own future hikes, to lose my security, my access to benefits such as having a printer, my health insurance (I will no longer be able to get my chiropractic adjustments, which have become so important and useful to me), I also feel the sense of a new beginning emerging- one that can now stem from my core, one that can be shaped by love. My desire is to create a life from a place of love- doing the things that I love, sharing the love that is inside of me, and being open to receiving love in return. There is no time to do anything less.

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“Hike your own hike”

There’s a common saying among long-distance hikers to “hike your own hike.” It seems like a simple motto, but as with many things, it takes on more meaning the farther one gets into his/her hike, and the more one thinks about the saying. It’s so easy to get caught up in a competitive mode, or the herd mentality while on one of these hikes (just as it is in life). There are many hikers that start the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, with the goal of making it to Maine. Although there is a wide range of starting dates for this trail, it is easy to feel “behind” if hikers who were once in your vicinity break away, hiking at a faster rate, doing more miles per day, and taking less rest time. On the Appalachian Trail, there are notebooks in most of the shelters along the way where hikers can write down whatever is on their mind. While these notebooks provide some entertainment on breaks and knowledge of where fellow hikers might currently be, they also create a sense of comparison. “That person is a week ahead of me now. I am so slow. I’ll never catch up with them. I’ll never see them again.”

But that is their hike. And this is yours. Their backpacks are probably much lighter than yours and allow them to travel at a faster rate. Maybe they have to finish the hike by a certain deadline and are hiking much faster than what would be an enjoyable pace for them. Maybe they don’t have enough cash to take rest breaks in towns along the way.

I tried once, in New Jersey, to walk with a guy who I knew from the start of my hike. He was given the trail name, “Sir Richard”, as he came from England. For a long time, I had been hiking alone. I hadn’t met anyone that I “clicked” with like I did with the people I met in the first week of my hike, when we were all fresh and eager and on our own. (Most of them were now far ahead of me because I was taking longer stops in town to write a web journal). By this time in the hike, everyone had their hiking partners or groups, and there wasn’t a sense of others wanting to make friends. One day, alone again, I was putting on my pack after taking a side trail to collect water. I looked in the direction I had come from and to my great surprise, suddenly saw a familiar face! Sir Richard! I had thought he was weeks ahead of me by now! How on earth could he be behind me? It turned out that he was slowed down by painful shin splints by trying to hike too many miles, too fast. I happily walked with him and we caught each other up on our experiences so far. He said he was happy to have someone pace him so that he wasn’t overdoing it again.

Several days later, we hiked to an outdoor center, where I had some packages waiting for me. I usually only received my one maildrop with my food and supplies for the next section, but at this particular place, I received two extra care packages! It took some time to get everything sorted and packed away, and I sensed that Sir Richard was growing restless and frustrated. So, I quickly tried to throw everything into my pack. Only now it was a huge, very heavy, lopsided tower! And Sir Richard wanted to hike fast. My shoulders, back, and knees were protesting loudly. This was too much weight for them to bear. I couldn’t talk because I needed to conserve all of the energy I had in order to carry this huge beast of burden. We had at least 10 more miles to hike that afternoon. And now I felt like a lousy, silent, grumpy companion. At one point, I needed to cough and no matter what I did, I couldn’t clear my throat! When Sir Richard pointed out an old stone wall in the forest, I desperately wished that he wanted to go take a closer look at it in order to give me a chance to take a short break. However, he wanted no such thing. As usual, I had to take my pack off every 15-20 minutes to give my screaming shoulders and back a moment of reprieve, only now, a million mosquitoes swarmed us and started sucking our blood the moment we stopped. Sir Richard told me that he was going to move on. He said that he felt like he was pressuring me to keep up with him. I was now left to suffer all on my own. New blisters were forming on my heels, I was exhausted, in great physical pain, and dejected because I couldn’t keep up with the pace of my friend. I was not hiking my own hike.

In yoga, we are constantly being reminded that we shouldn’t compare ourselves with anyone else in the room, that we all are on our own journey, that we open up in our own time. We’ve all had different life experiences, inherited different genetic traits, and have treated our bodies differently during the course of our lives. The more that we try to do what we are told to do, or what we think we should be doing, or what others are doing, the more we move outside of our bodies, and away from our centers, which will almost also lead to injury or harm to ourselves. If instead, we begin to listen to our own inner wisdom and the guidance of our own body, our practice will evolve over time in a natural order. When we have built enough strength in one area of our body, a new pose will be attainable. When we have opened up another part of our body, another pose will be possible. We are always where we should be.

The way in which we live our lives only becomes meaningful if we live it in the same manner. We must follow our own heart and our own intuition. We must follow the places that joy leads us, share our strengths with others in order to make the world a better place, continue to work on our weaknesses, and live life at a pace that we are able to maintain without depleting ourselves.

We must remain true to ourselves. We must stay on our own paths- just as we must “hike our own hike”.

Beginning again

From a very early age, I learned to hold my breath, to tense my muscles, to clench my teeth, to fold in on my myself, to close down, and to live in fear.  Everything that I did was wrong according to my mother. Every sound I uttered, every movement that I made was criticized. I tried so hard to be “good”, to do what she wanted, to follow her rules, but nothing I did could ever be right, because her rules were constantly changing. I grew up in a world of hate. My mother only spoke badly of people- of me, my father, my siblings, our neighbors. She isolated us from her extended family and from my father’s family. We never had visitors at our house. I didn’t know there was anyone that I could reach out to for reassurance or love. I only knew that in order to survive, I had to become very, very small.

I yearned for the day when I was old enough to go to college and escape my mother and her toxic environment. I didn’t realize, however, that reaching out and connecting with others were skills I hadn’t yet had a chance to learn. And so, I remain isolated, burying myself in school work, and discovering what depression really was.

And then, I was forced out into the world with no school as my haven, no family to offer support or guidance. I had no feeling of self-worth and no idea that my life could be molded by me. I didn’t know what I wanted or what was possible for me. All I had known was suffering. And so, I accepted a job which paid minimally, and in which I worked to fulfill someone else’s dreams. My soul was suffocating and I had no idea how to find my way out.

Although I was at times paralyzed with depression, a silent strength somehow kept me going- even after the unexpected death of my brother when he was just 21 years old. Somewhere inside of me, there was a tiny part that knew there was a different way to live- a way that was much more fulfilling, a way in which I could feel happier…

The day that I set foot on the Appalachian Trail in Georgia, alone, with my thirty-five pound backpack was the most freeing day of my life. In 2009, I set everything that I had known aside and began a nearly six month trek up and down the Appalachian mountains- all the way to the end of the trail on top of Mt. Katahdin in Maine. I had never gone backpacking before the idea to do this had crystallized in me.

The following summer, due to the damage that long hike had incurred on my body and falling back to the same unhappy life that I had been living before the hike (now made worse with the knowledge that there was a life outside in which I was tremendously more happy), I found my way to my first yoga class. I loved it and haven’t stop going since. I even became certified to teach, which has been the best experience of my life so far. I began the process of learning how to breathe, to stretch, to open myself and my heart, to begin to connect with others, to share. I began to learn how it is that I add to my own suffering and how to detach myself from my past so that I can live more fully, vibrantly, and peacefully in the present. I am learning to trust that everything is and will be okay.

I am now planning my second long hike- this time on the Pacific Crest Trail, which begins at the border of Mexico in California, and finishes seven miles across the Canadian Border. It extends through California, Oregon, and Washington. It is more than 500 miles longer than the Appalachian Trail, has to be completed in a narrower time frame due to weather constraints, and consists of more extreme environments than the AT (beginning with 700 miles of desert).

Long distance hiking and yoga share many parallels in what they offer to one undertaking these two paths. They both allow one to feel his or her own inner strength and potential, allow a connection to something greater than themselves, and create a sense of grounding as well as freedom. (Coming from an abusive family with no place to ever call home and no one to reach out to for support, I never before felt a sense of grounding in my life. This is the base of a person’s existence. One can not rise and explore without a firm base). They are both centered around movement, stripping away anything external and unnecessary, exploring the self, and living fully in the present moment. In both activities, you learn to trust your instincts, to discover the source of your own happiness, and to appreciate all that you have and all that your body does for you. They both teach you that meaning is found in the journey (not in the destination), and that kindness does exist in humanity.

I hope to share some of what I have learned from both my yogic journey and long distance hikes and how they have helped me begin to find my own sense of self-worth, as well as the discovery that I am not alone in this world.