Sunday, September 19, 2010

Is Hiking a Yoga Practice?

“In a forest, I have felt many times over that it was not I who looked at the forest. Some days I felt that the trees were looking at me, were speaking to me. . . . I was there, listening. . . . I think the painter must be penetrated by the universe and not want to penetrate it. . . . I expect to be inwardly submerged, buried. Perhaps I paint to break out.” Paul Klee

In the past few years I’ve begun to rediscover walking. I hiked a lot in high school and college. But then somewhere in my thirties, it just felt too tedious, up-down, down-up, staring at shoes and dirt. It just wasn’t enough for me I thought. Part of that had to do with living in the Midwest, and as an adrenaline junky, I needed more space and challenge to subdue a torturous inner life. I gravitated to running, long-distance swimming, and ashtanga yoga. I even did some triathlons. All I did was exhaust myself a bit more quickly, but my mind was no less calm, if anything it was just that much more wound up.
Then in my forties, friends moved to the southwest and I found myself hiking in the mountains and deserts, returning again and again. Something felt different. Often I went alone and it was as if I could walk for days and not get enough of the feeling of just being surrounded by the openness and endless primal rocks and sand. I felt absorbed and my chronic depressive moods and discursive inner voices seemed to disappear. Of course, it would take two long hard days of hiking, but I was purged and even happy.

Aravaipa Canyon, Arizona

Perhaps my return to hiking is simply age or the beauty of the Arizona deserts and Colorado mountains, but I think more is going on. I’ve begun to think quite a bit about how the mind works, reading what I can about neuroscience and cognitive science, but also paying a lot more attention to my body as I practice yoga, particularly felt sensations and energies arising in it from emotions. I’ve also returned to many of the great nature poets and writers to listen how they describe the relationship between the mind and nature.
Therefore am I still a lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of all that we behold
From this green earth; of all the mighty world
Of eye and ear, both what we half-create,
And what perceive; well pleased to recognize
In Nature and the language of the sense,
The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,
The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul
Of all my moral being. William Wordsworth,

My sense is that the deep calm that can come over the mind and body while hiking has a lot to do with the body both absorbing and being absorbed by nature, or as Klee states above, being penetrated by it. For perception to tranquilize and affect the mind and body though, we have to feel what is happening to us as we walk, in other words we have to be consciously aware.

Santa Catalina Mountains, Arizona

Brain waves have a lot to do with it, too. While hiking the brain goes through several states. First, beta waves dominate as you begin to hike and you body heats up and buzzes with all the new stimulation and oxygen. But eventually, the rhythm calms you down and you can enter into alpha or even theta waves.
Your pace, in fact, has a lot to do with why walking can be so therapeutic. Your conscious feeling of your pace, I should say. Feeling the feet, the muscles, and the bones in sync with each breath, you discover that your pace depends not only on your abilities but also on your body’s interaction with an environment. We don’t walk in space, we walk on earth. And often, those with us, they, too, affect our pace and experience. (See my last post about hiking with my mother.)
Hiking has begun to feel a lot like practicing yoga. And why wouldn’t it? In Hatha yoga you learn to observe and adjust your body in response to every action, feeling, movement, thought, memory, and emotion both consciously and unconsciously.
Many yoga practitioners will tell you that after several years of dedicated practice they find themselves moving differently, feeling more inside their body, aware of places and their feel. Once you learn to observe and explore sensations in your body suddenly everything gets a bit brighter and more intense. Now as I hike or even walk in the city, I find myself making adjustments in my posture, pulling in on my core, and lifting my chest. I observe and experiment: checking effort and breathe, focusing on the trail ahead and the feeling of my foot pushing off and my legs following through. Focus is not easy to maintain. But what a difference it makes to use your whole body instead of plodding along making certain muscles do all the work. How much lighter one feels when focused.
Of course, hikers, swimmers, climbers and all those who recreate in nature will say it’s not yoga necessarily that has opened my body, but simply the joy that comes with exercise out of doors. I agree. The language is the same as in yoga: focus, body awareness, breath, rhythm, and gratitude. It doesn’t matter how you find your body, the point is to be in it wherever it takes you. And if it wants to go into the desert or up a mountain, I suggest you follow it.

Appalachian Trail, Cherokee Nat. Forest, Georgia

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