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.