When Yoga Intersects Real LifeJuly 2, 2018
A few days prior to leaving on a short, childless vacation my husband enlightens me on what he’s looking forward to the most- the Narrows. This infamous hike within Zion National Park takes place solely in a river that is prone to flash floods. In a state of shock I realize he’s completely serious. He presents the ultimatum to either attempt it together or do separate hikes.
Our flight early Tuesday turns out is complete with an hour and a half delay after we had already boarded the plane. I do not do well sitting still for 5.5 hours straight with my head pushed forward in a cramped economy seat only to hop in a car and drive 3 hours from Las Vegas to Springdale, UT. My back was killing me. As I unfurled from our rental car in the 103 degree heat of Snow Canyon I felt my sacrum ripple a crack of glass breaking pain up my mid back.
My mind cannot stop racing about how much pain I’m in at the start of our vacation. It has been a year since Todd and I had done something together as a couple longer than 4 hours in Chicago. Self loathing was choking me as I struggled internally with “enjoying myself” and wanting to crawl out of my skin with every single breath. My body hurt so bad.
The entire point of our trip was to do long day-hikes that we can’t do yet with our kids. Well, we could but it is not the same to go 3 miles in 4 hours schlepping along extra snacks, clothing, water bottles, crayons and stop every 5 minutes to dole out the snack, water or extra clothing. Hiking with 3 and 6 year old kids is amazing and terrible at the same time. We were attempting to get a break to scamper up mountains! Why was my back out?!
Day 2 I woke up feeling awful but make the time to do my adduction and abduction hip exercises, root my thighs with a strap in ardha parsvakonasana but pop some Advil just in case. We stand in line like a roller coaster at Great America to get on the shuttle heading towards Weeping Rock to hike Observation Point for the morning. It nagged at me my back hurt but I knew sitting wasn’t an option. I had to walk to recover. I had to walk to not ruin my husband’s getaway. I had to walk to prove to myself that yoga worked and I’d be doing the yoga of walking meditation.
Every step up the steep 2,000 ft incline was indeed a meditation on observing my patience, observing my breath and observing my movements. It was a slow and thoughtful assent. Remembering to tone my pelvic floor while walking (as many women who have undergone pelvic trauma, gained significant weight and bared children do) changed the experience for the better each time I did it. Turns out those slow twitch muscle fibers that are always working to uphold the bowel, bladder, and uterus in women trigger other core muscles to help stabilize the lumbar for impact like walking. By the time we hit the half way point I was already mentioning that hiking the Narrows was out of the question. Now it wasn’t just too dangerous for all the obvious environmental reasons but this time too dangerous for my back. He’d have to budge, right?
Wrong. Without any remorse he simply stated we’d be going our separate ways on Thursday if I wasn’t up for the big hike. I took this as a challenge to my ability to endure and test my mind over matter yogic powers, see if I had any. But since I completed the 8 mile Observation Point hike in half the time the guide recommended I figured it was time to rent hiking poles and see what I could do the following day.
When you finally get to the trail head of the Narrows you’ve already walked over a mile of winding trail alongside the Virgin River you’re about to hike. You get to see these beautiful clear pools followed by broad, slick waterfalls and water pouncing over different size boulders. The canyon walls tower over you and the sound of rushing water captures your senses. It’s absolutely breathtakingly beautiful.
How was I going to do this? My over the counter pain meds at this point either worked for an hour or not at all. I felt sore but no longer felt each step was going to break me. I carried my hiking poles, my small pack, secured my coat and sunhat all along praying that I didn’t kill my husband for insisting we do this.
We entered the water around 7am in the shade accompanied by few other hikers. Weather report was clear for the danger of any flash floods which really brought my anxiety down. The water was cold but my smartwool socks kept my feet warm. However my bare legs took some adjusting to the constant splashing from my shoes and poles. As the water level grew to consistently hover my mid shin I no longer lifted my feet out of the water but rather pushed myself forward. Repeating this for a straight 90 minutes turns out was medicine.
As I moved against the current hiking upstream I wondered in the words of the Double Rainbow Guy, “what did it mean?”. In life and work I’m famous for stirring the pot. Leaving no rock upturned, rooting around for the truth at every bend, I’m wired for curiosity beyond belief which tends to unintentionally lead me to work in opposition with others. Since my big mouth and lack of filter has gotten me in ruts in the past I’m painfully aware that I swim upstream a lot. Here I was on the river physically confronted with the direction my life naturally flows.
With each step I had to establish security in my hiking pole and lurch my legs through the stream. The use of the poles and resistance of the water activated what felt like my transverse abonminus. I visualized my psoas major scooping up each thigh and swinging it forward against the current. To gain confidence in my step my foot grazed over large stones one at a time as my arms pulled me through the poles. Step, pull, push. Step, pull, push. Step, pull, push. My quads ached in a good way and a way they wouldn’t have had I not walked against the rushing water.
Once we passed the side canyon and the Virgin River canyon narrowed, it was just us, the hike upstream and wavy walls of sandstone covered in moss, ferns and blooming columbine. We had made it to the portion of the hike known as Wall Street which was about 2 miles in. As we attempted to trek further the water became less shallow and started grazing the bottoms of my shorts. My back felt amazing.
After snapping a bunch of photos we decided to turn back. The hike goes another 12 miles and requires a special shuttle out which we were not interested in doing. I kept advocating to keep my underwear dry.
In turning to go back a new challenge arouse. Hiking with the current. Hiking downstream will take your feet right out from under you if you aren’t paying attention. Literally every step I had to carefully wedge my poles and my feet to brace myself from being swept up with the flow. The water levels fluctuated throughout the hike and I had to keep my mind on the task at hand. Step, dig, pull. Step, dig, pull.
Now I could feel my posterior light up with my core. Each “pull” of the body against the rocks and hiking poles included bracing myself from impact of the current coming down on my backside. There was now strong engagement of my hamstrings, glutes and core muscles. I practiced letting go and releasing downstream what I no longer needed and had been carrying far too long while traversing alongside the current of the river. Part of the way back the masses of tourists came at us like the walking dead but my pelvis that had felt unhinged only hours prior now felt secure and trustworthy. My back never hurt again for the rest of the trip.
In the yoga tradition is the concept of Anuloma and Pratiloma. You might come across it in learning different pranayama techniques. Loma means “hair”, Anu means “alongside” and Prati means “reversed”. Meaning here refers to either going with the hair or against the hair, with the flow or against the current. It is a way of being agreeable and accommodating or causing friction.
Hiking the Narrows was a mental and physical assessment of what crossing both currents could mean. Pratiloma, or trekking upstream, might feel like an arduous and overwhelming direction to create a flow. But perhaps that little bit of resistance to the direction life is headed and traversing the path that is out of alignment with what is easy and dull, literally in my case, becomes the medicine needed to overcome my pain. Anuloma, trekking downstream or alongside the hair, might come across as the likely path to traverse because it is “going with the flow” but it too comes with it’s own work and set of skills in self reflection. You know the adage about jumping off the bridge just because someone says so? When is being agreeable more or less just complacency? Practicing both sharpens the mind and creates dexterity. Here in my case it physically adjusted me and I had to be a full participant of my own experience. I got to live my yoga off the mat.