A Powerful Moment

Last Thursday, I went into Boston to take a yoga class and something extraordinary happened at the end. In the middle of an unusually long savasana, my teacher sat down next to me and put one hand on my belly and one hand on my heart. It felt deeply comforting and very heavy, as if the weight of a dark, velvety sky was gently pressing the weight of my body into the earth. The strong feeling of being held and assured that I was okay quickly turned into sadness as my body was reminded of how little touch and nurturing I had ever received over the course of my life. I didn’t want to feel sad at that moment, so I tried to return to my breath, instead. Self -judgment arose as I thought I wasn’t breathing deeply enough. “She’s not judging you,” I had to remind myself. “Just relax”. The weight of her hands was stronger than one person’s could be, and I felt that I was being looked after by spirits in the sky. I realized that in the past week of actively beginning to look for a source of employment, my anxiety about the future and how I will be able to make a living was causing me to become more ungrounded than I had realized. Panic arose in my chest as I took in the feelings of what I had been experiencing and worrying about, now confirmed by my teacher’s hands and the message it was returning to me. I am okay. Over and over, I had to remind myself to be calm as the feelings of sadness and panic rose to the surface of my being. I hadn’t been touched in a long time during a savasana and I was grateful for the time my teacher was spending on me.

After the class ended, I thanked Jojo and told her that was special. She told me that she had been lying on her mat with her own hands on her belly and heart and noticed how good it felt. Then, she said that she was suddenly and powerfully called to do the same for me. “Go to Wendy! Now! Put your hands on her!”.
“Okay!’ she thought and immediately scrambled over to me. I was amazed at her words! I’m always amazed to hear about people’s connection with something greater than ourselves.

For days after this experience, I was unable to process what had happened. Every time I tried to think about it, tears immediately streamed down my face. It was such a simple act, but the effects were profound and far-reaching. Immense gratitude co-mingled with deep, deep sadness.

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Back to the studio

On Monday, I drove down to my yoga studio in Boston and took my first two public yoga classes since before I started the trail. I was surprised at how well I did! I thought I was going to have to take a different spot in the room than my usual front row, in front of the teacher one, but I decided to set up in the same place as always and I had no problem fitting right in! It felt really good to be back in the same space as one of my strongest role models. At the end of the first class, I sat quietly with a little smile on my face and proudly thought, “I did it!”- “I successfully made it through my first class…And… I did it!…I walked from Mexico to Canada!”. I am surprised at how quickly my body has adapted within the course of one month from being barely able to do chaturunga or urdhva dhanurasana (lacking both strength and flexibility) to somehow not being so far off from where I left off six or so months ago!

At the end of my second class, my teacher read some words that he wanted us to repeat as a meditation:

I let go of other people’s stories about me
I let go of my stories about other people
I let go of my stories about myself
In letting go …I am free…to be who I actually am

He asked us who we would be without these stories?

I realized (well before this class) that my long hike allowed me a reprieve from being labeled by anyone and put into a box that is hard to escape. The trail provides a space for those who hike it to shed layers of anything that has been imposed on us. I feel fortunate that I was able to spend five months in a place where no one cared about anything other than who I was at that very moment that I was interacting with them. I don’t think there was a single person on the trail that wanted to know what my back story or my history was. No one wanted an explanation for any of my behavior or any of my characteristics. I met many people who accepted me upon meeting me and complimented me for my open-heartedness and easy laugh. I didn’t have to hide myself or pretend to be anything that I am not. As my hike progressed and I moved into new states with different weather, I reflected on the metaphor of the change in clothing as a dropping of the masks we often wear to hide our true selves. In the desert, we were all covered up in clothing to protect our skin, wide-brimmed hats, and sunglasses. In the Sierras, we allowed our skin to be exposed to the sun a little more. By the time we made it to Oregon and Washington, I found it interesting that I no longer needed to wear anything on my head at all. It felt like I was exposing myself and being more accepting of who I really was.

My teacher’s words seemed to have met a much greater need within the other students in the class. In life away from the trail, it is so easy to label and classify each other, to feel as if you know everything about someone, and to feel separate from them, just as it is easy to feel a certain way about yourself based on what other people know and have known about you. It’s hard to get out of the patterns that we find ourselves in- doing the same kind job and the same activities and interacting with the same people again and again.

Yesterday, I returned to the studio for another class, with the understanding that I will do as much as I am capable of at this time, with the strength and flexibility that I currently possess, knowing that this has to be built upon gradually. (My yoga injuries have already quickly returned!). Before class started, I saw a fellow student and friend for the first time since being back and she remarked about how strong I looked. I didn’t really believe her… I felt happy the first week I was back, but then fell into a very lonely and depressed state and assumed that what I had gained from my hike had already left me. But after class, my teacher said, “You changed so much!” Really? She said that I seemed much stronger! I found this so fascinating. They must see an energetic shift in me. I guess it wouldn’t be possible to come back from such an experience without more confidence and self-acceptance. Right now, it is my task to stay in an open space that is filled with hope for my future. It’s time to get to work on creating a life for myself that I want to live- one in which I am productive and living my purpose and sharing what I have to offer with others.

In November, I will return to my one yoga teaching job a week that I had before my hike. I offered the job to one of my favorite yoga teachers while I was away- someone who is very experienced, very skilled, and very confident. She is about to embark on her own traveling journey for three months and said that the students were asking if I was back. They want me back after having had her for a teacher? Wow…

Yoga and the Trail

I ran into a man that attended at least one of the yoga sessions I lead at kick-off one day in the Sierras. He had abandoned the idea of a thru-hike and was doing a section of the Sierras southbound instead. He recognized me and asked me if I was doing yoga along the trail. When I replied no, he scoffed at me as if I were a hypocrite. I had a similar encounter with another man in Washington (who also was only hiking parts of the trail). I knew before I ever set foot on the PCT that I would not be attempting to keep up my physical yoga practice, just as I knew I would not be able to keep up a journal during this hike. Hiking over 2,700 miles in five months is an extremely intense physical and mental endeavor and I only have so much energy. Every bit of it was used to get myself to Canada.

However, I realized some time after the first encounter, that walking 12-13 hours every day and living in nature for five months WAS my yoga. The meaning of the word ‘yoga’ is to yolk, bind, or unite. The practice (and there are many different ways to practice yoga) seeks to unite the practitioner with his or her true self- the part that is always whole and peaceful and content. It seeks to strip the masks we wear when we think we need to be something other than we are, as well as the chains we often feel that hold us back from achieving our true potential. There are many branches of yoga (karmic yoga, devotional yoga) and many different ways to practice yoga. The physical practice of yoga is only one part of it. There aren’t many ways to hide while walking this trail. People see you for who you are. It is also hard not to be living in the moment out there.  There is also ample time to practice letting go and surrendering on these long hikes. It is easy to see that we only have so much control over our lives, and that when you stop gripping and allow, things begin to happen for you without any strain. I applaud anyone who is able to maintain a regular stretching routine while hiking one of these long trails, just as I applaud anyone who is able to keep a regular journal. (They have much more energy than I do!).

While I now have a lot of stretching and physical recovering to do (my entire body is extremely tight and parts are inflamed), I feel that I have received the benefits of 5 months of full-time yoga on the trail! I was able to move my body for most of the day, freeing myself of extra weight and burdens from life in society and of working for others. And while my body is far from able to do the backbends and other postures I was regularly doing before this hike, it has given me the chance to look at and feel the physical practice of yoga through a beginner’s eye which will be invaluable for teaching those new to yoga when I eventually do go back to teaching. It is so easy to get caught up in the progression of more and more advanced postures, which I realize can be extremely intimidating to those new to the practice and are just looking for some gentle stretching. For these beginner eyes, I am grateful.

My long hike has left me feeling extremely peaceful and happy with myself, as well as feeling excited about new challenges and possibilities for my future. (Thru- hikes have the effect of pressing a re-set button on oneself!)   I am happy that I now have some time to devote to writing about the PCT and I have already ordered a copy of the guidebook for the Continental Divide Trail!

(However, I still need to figure out a way to fund this writing…)

Day 8: First yoga class!

Day 8
April 26
Kick-off

I woke up fairly early, went in search of a cup of coffee (I only found a bad one), went through my class plan, and then headed down to the lake, where the yoga session was supposed to be held. (Last night’s session was held in a much closer location to the campers.) It turned out to be quite a walk! Once I reached the lake, I searched out the most level area I could find and then waited and waited and waited… Where was everyone? Why was I the only one there? Finally, I saw a single-file line of people making their way down. I guess the class would just start later than it was supposed to. I had worried so much about my voice being able to carry outside, but it turned out to be just fine. Everyone seemed to be able to hear me and at the end of the class, I felt like it was one of the best classes I had ever taught! A few people came up to me afterwards to chat, which was nice.
Then, I headed back to the pavilion to listen to a panel talk on desert hiking techniques. I sat on the floor in the back where an infestation of ants had apparently found some leftover food. Eventually, I realized that I wasn’t learning anything new from this talk and went to see if Dr. Sole could take care of my shoulders and blisters. I had open, stinging blisters from wearing my crocs, which were too tight, around kick-off. Dr. Sole already had a line of people waiting for him, including the German who had been hiking southbound. When he saw me, he immediately began making snide remarks, telling me that I was going slow on the climb to third gate and asking if I was okay. Yes, I was fine… It was a very hot afternoon, and I was climbing! And I wasn’t going that slow. What was his purpose in saying that to me? I didn’t want to be near him after that interaction, so I walked back to the pavilion to listen to the “new way to walk and avoid injuries” talk. By this time, I was getting very hungry, but no lunch was being served! Luckily, I saw some people with hamburgers and was pointed in the direction of some trail angels who were serving burgers. I asked Dr. Sole if he would like one and brought one back for him.
Then, I returned to the pavilion to listen to the water and snow report, where I found Muk Muk! The water report was very, very boring, and something I also did not need to hear, so we went back to see if Dr. Sole could fit us in. I didn’t get a chance to soak my feet, but he washed out my stinging blisters, put a rainbow band-aid on it, and put some more goldbond powder on my shoulders. (I had been excited to wear my yoga outfits, but had forgotten about the unsightly sores that my backpack gives my shoulders! It was not a good look…)
Once again, I headed to the Pavilion to hear Kolby Kirk’s talk on journaling. I loved this talk! He is an incredible artist and journaler and it was nice to see his work! I then waited for Ned Tibbets’ snow and safety presentation to begin until someone informed us it was being held outside. So, I went to listen to this very confident, skilled, and knowledgeable man talk about hiking in the snow in the Sierras, how to use an ice axe, and how to ford the rivers of snowmelt. I tried to soak in as much of the information that he presented as I could. And then it was time for burritos! I couldn’t find anyone I knew, so I went back to Dr. Sole’s RV, where I met his son Boomer. Dr. Sole was still hard at work patching up injured feet!
I headed over to the short film festival and sat by myself in the crowd of people, laughing at the absurdity of some of the things that were being shown and then, once more, headed back to Dr. Sole and the fire he had going. Several people had gathered around. Finally, Muk- Muk showed up. She was very upset about being made to sit with the trail angel at the registration desk all evening (when no one was showing up and she obviously wasn’t needed), and listening to everyone laugh at the movies she couldn’t see. And all of this after having to sell someone else’s product all day! I told her that this kick-off weekend was meant as a celebration for her and that she should not be working! I encouraged her to tell the trail angel that she wanted to attend the events and deserved to do so. Dr. Sole agreed. Both of us could not stomach the idea of riding back to Warner Springs with him. We had to find another way back! Dr. Sole invited us over for coffee and breakfast burritos in the morning.
For having done no hiking, it was a tiring day!

51 Reasons Why I Love Yoga!

1. One of the first things that fascinated me about the practice of yoga was the realization that you can get a full body workout within a roughly 2 foot by 6 foot rectangular mat! You don’t need a large space in which to move around, nor do you need any equipment to work out every part of your body.

2. Using your entire body weight is much more effective in creating strength than isolating particular muscle groups, as is done with weights. The muscles of the body are interconnected and used together.

3. Your mat is your own private oasis. The edges of your mat mark an area that belongs entirely to you.

4. I love that in the style of yoga that I practice, each class is different and unique. Every class holds something new and inspirational.

5. You are given an opportunity to connect with your true self each time that you step onto your mat- not the self that you think you are, or the one that you have been told that you are, but your true, whole self, that is always waiting for you, filled with peace and patience.

6. Yoga is about so much more than exercising. The movements can be considered a full-body prayer.

7. You don’t need willpower to get through a yoga class. You may experience moments of struggle or discomfort while building strength, but those moments pass by so quickly, and then you find yourself in a resting pose, slowling down, and giving your body a chance to re-gain your energy. (I never see myself willfully pushing myself through a workout on a machine, where my ipod is needed to get me through that hour, ever again!)

8. Yoga teaches you to care for yourself. Before you can truly care for others, you need to take care of yourself first. Self-compassion naturally leads to compassion for others. You can’t spread what are you are not filled up with, yourself.

9. I no longer fight with my weight. Yoga allows a natural balance within my body, so that I can still still eat the sweets that I desire on a daily basis, while maintaining a steady weight. After finishing the Appalachian Trail and quickly gaining many extra pounds, I struggled so much to try to burn off the calories that I was consuming, always unhappy with the numbers that showed on the scale, always fighting. Now, I have no need to weigh myself. There is no struggle.

10. Yoga provides you with an opportunity to examine the self, to explore one’s strengths , weaknesses, and challenges. It gives one an opportunity to observe the mind when it is presented with a situation of discomfort, and gives options for dealing with situations that are uncomfortable, such as observing this state of mind, sitting with it, and returning to the focus of the breath.

11. In every class, you both strengthen and open different parts of the body, leaving you stronger and more flexible.

12. You are reminded of pieces of wisdom that help you make choices that lead to a happier, kinder, and healthier life.

13. You create space in your body and in your mind. New space always feels good. Space invites new possibilities. And creating space in a situation, gives you the opportunity to pause and respond in healthier and kinder ways to unexpected things that come toward you.

14. You learn to let go of the things you can not control.

15. Yoga classes are great places to be introduced to inspirational quotes and poems, and music.

16. There is room for plentiful intelligence and creativity in the sequencing of a yoga class.

17. I have found that a yoga class is one of the rare places in public where it is acceptable and even encouraged to cry and release emotions or things that you have been holding onto which have been holding you back.

18. You learn how to breathe effectively. Most of us breathe only from our upper lungs, inhaling and exhaling rapid, quick breaths, which keeps our sympathetic nervous system active and on alert. Breathing from the base of the spine, allows the body and mind to slow down, and increases the strength of the lungs.

19. You learn breathing techniques ,which help to warm the body when it is cold, cool the body when it is too warm, and which flood the body with energy.

20. You learn to increase your own balance and focus.

21. You learn to accept yourself completely.

22. You learn to stay in the present moment; to let go of all that came before and all that is to come.

23. You learn to connect with what can’t be seen.

24. Going upside down is fun.

25. Arm balances are fun! (I light up inside every time a teacher offers us the opportunity to try an arm balance!)

26. Twisting poses detoxify the body by squeezing out old blood and lymph and allowing fresh oxygen and nutrients to rush in.

27. You learn to set intentions for your practice, which you carry out into your life, reminding yourself of the things that are truly important to you.

28. You learn that you create your life with your thoughts, and start learning to replace negative self -talk with more positive talk.

29. A room full of people chanting and singing sounds beautiful.

30. You learn the parts of your body where you store tension, and by gradually working on relaxing these areas in class, you learn to start relaxing them outside of class as well.

31. Yoga improves your posture and the way you feel about yourself.

32. The practice gives you an arena to conquer your fears. (For me, it is inversions. I am scared about my body’s ability to hold the weight of my hips over my shoulders). Conquering your fears allows you to feel so much stronger and more relaxed with what life presents you.

33. Yoga gives you the opportunity to start undoing habits and patterns that do not serve you.

34. It teaches you that surrendering and softening are just as important (if not more so) than doing and achieving.

35. Teaching yoga allows me the opportunity to connect with others.

36. It turns out that practicing yoga is great preparation for backpacking! Before hiking the Colorado Trail, I did no training other than my regular yoga classes, and was able to start off hiking 17 miles a day with a heavy backpack at high altitude!

37. No one yells at you in yoga class. The practice is yours, and your body always knows much more about what it best for you than any teacher can tell you. Teachers offer you options, but it is always up to you to do what feels right.

38. Good assists feel amazing! We are touched so little nowadays, and touch is so important and healing. Yoga is one place where you receive loving touch that sometimes just feels good, and other times, allows you to move deeper into postures and places that you didn’t even think you could go!

39. Many people that do yoga like to give hugs! It is not unusual for me to receive four hugs when I go to a yoga class. (Whereas a hug at the place that I worked for 16 years seemed like the most foreign thing to my coworkers…)

40. You learn to open your heart in yoga and live your life from a place of openness and truth, as opposed to fear.

41. You meet other people who have opened their hearts and built a loving community.

42. You learn self-massage techniques.

43. Every practice concludes with lying down for several minutes in complete rest for the entire body and mind, giving the body a chance to integrate what was just done for it, as well as recharge for the rest of the day.

44. No one has ever regretted going to yoga class and going to two yoga classes per day allows you to feel even better than going to one!

45. You give your spine a chance to lengthen and bend in all possible directions, which is a very freeing feeling.

46. Every pose can be returned to over and over again as if it was the first time you did it, incorporating new knowledge and realizations!

47. There is no ceiling within this practice. This is one of my favorite things about yoga! You can always improve and reach new places!

48. The feeling of being able to do a new pose that you could not do before is indescribable! Something that was not accessible to you before is now within your realm.

49. The practice of yoga is thousands of years old. Its ability to transform lives has been proven again and again.

50. It feels like you are getting a giant hug from the universe! It makes you feel so happy and so good! One of my teachers often says, “Come and get your love!”.

51. The more I practice, the more reasons I discover why I love yoga so much! (It won’t be hard for me to turn this piece into “101 Reasons Why I Love Yoga!”…)