Yoga for Hikers: Stretch, Strengthen, and Climb Higher by Nicole Tsong (2016)
AN INTRODUCTION TO YOGA
YOU HAVE PRACTICED YOGA, even if you didn’t know it. You experience yoga when silenced by a sunset—layers of gold, tangerine, and pink streaking across the sky. You feel it when you climb past the last false peak to the summit, and look up from your muddy boots to see what was unknowable on the way up—a view of crystal blue sky and soaring, tree-topped peaks, a cascade of water tumbling down massive boulders and an azure alpine lake below. You light up with yoga when held by someone you love deeply, be it a child, friend, or lover—so close and connected you do not need words.
The word yoga means “union,” a yoking of body and mind; it is a state of being, a state of unity. Yoga is an ancient, internal practice most widely known for the physical practice of yoga poses, or asana (AH-sah-na). The goal of yoga is to achieve consciousness, or awakening, and the way to do so is in the present moment. How do you get there? Through your physical body, you discover yourself. In yourself, you learn all the answers you have ever needed.
It starts simply, with the connection to the sole of your foot on the floor, to your breath, to your spine. In those moments of awareness of your body, your mind arrives in the present. You may find after practicing, you notice how tight your hips are or you become aware of an ache in your lower back. The more you practice, the easier it will be to determine what feels good physically, and what doesn’t. You’ll learn to differentiate between pain and intensity. You’ll understand if you tend to give up when you could instead push yourself—or discover that you’re the type to push yourself into injury.
With a few basic tools, you can practice anywhere—at home or on the road. Props are essential to supporting your practice; experienced yogis rely on them.
»Mat: Yoga mats are widely available, ranging from affordable to higher end; the latter tend to offer more padding and grip and are likely to last for years. Mats vary in weight. Most higher-end manufacturers produce lighter mats for travel.
»Yoga block: A basic foam or cork block supports your alignment in poses. It also is helpful for seated postures. Note that a block can be used at three different heights.
»Strap: A six- or eight-foot strap is useful for multiple poses. For tight shoulders, you can use a strap to bind your hands. A strap can be used to support full relaxation or to intensify some poses.
»Blanket: A cozy covering is helpful for a meditation setup and for keeping you warm during savasana, or final rest.
»Bolster: A soft bolster is a nice alternative to a block during seated postures.
»Comfortable, stretchy clothes: Wear comfortable, stretchy clothes to keep from feeling restricted during your practice.
Through poses, your awareness of your body expands: You notice when you struggle to keep your gaze focused (drishti). You see when your mind cries out for you to get out of an intense pose like Frog, a deep hip opener. You find you can last far longer in Warrior 2 than you originally thought—and you realize you think a lot in this quiet standing power pose!
A YOGA PRACTICE IS a path of exploration, with as many soaring summits and curious valleys as any trail you may encounter. Be playful as you practice, just as you are when you hike. Laugh if you fall over in a balance pose, just like the day you fell off a log into a stream. Or slow down to appreciate your own strength, just as you pause at the sound of a squeaking marmot. See your body for what it is—a powerful vessel to carry you in life and the best teacher you’ll ever know.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF YOGA
The spiritual and life-instructive elements of yoga can be found in ancient Indian teachings dating back 5000 years. Patañjali formalized these teachings into the Yoga Sūtras about 2000 years ago, creating the seminal text that remains the foundation for yoga. Author Chip Hartranft writes in The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali, the work “stands as a testament to heroic self-awareness, defining yoga for all time.”
Modern yoga bears little resemblance to yoga during Patañjali’s time, when postures were focused on seated ones, rather than the athletic poses practiced in gyms and yoga studios today. Yet the study of the Eight Limbs as written in the Yoga Sūtras is the root for modern yoga practice, even as the physical practice and presentation has evolved with Western culture. The teachings of yoga, or union, are still alive because the ancient teachings apply to—and are perhaps needed even more urgently—in modern life.
BUT THERE ARE MANY elegant ways to approach other elements of the Eight Limbs, as shared by Hartranft. You practice some of them on the hiking trail. Concentration, for example, shows up when you focus on putting one foot in front of the other or listen to the sound of birds as you walk up the trail.
The first four limbs, which include poses and breath work, emphasize behavior, the physical body, and developing energetic awareness. The five external disciplines, or the yamas, include nonharming, truthfulness, nonstealing, right use of energy (including sexual), and being nonacquisitive. You can practice being truthful at any time, by being honest with yourself on a hike, knowing when you can take on a particularly tough trail, for example, or listening to your body, say a nagging knee injury, to know when you need to rein it in. Another limb encompasses the five internal disciplines, or the niyamas—purity, contentment, intense discipline, self-study, and devotion to pure awareness, or god. You may have experienced contentment when taking off your hiking boots and sweaty socks at the end of a long day, and wiggling your toes, with a sigh of great satisfaction.
CREATING A SPACE FOR YOGA AT HOME
Create a calm, peaceful environment for yourself at home.
»Use a quiet space that is empty of distractions—no television.
»Shut the door, if you can.
»Let others know not to interrupt you for a set period of time.
»Turn off your cell phone.
»Commit to a set period of time to practice, no matter how short, and stick to it.
»If you prefer to practice with music, keep it in the background.
The latter four limbs address the mind and a higher state of consciousness. You may have also accessed the practice to withdraw the senses, focusing on one step at a time without attachment to distance, elevation, weather, or how you feel. During 100-mile races, ultra marathoner Buzz Burrell says yoga has helped him stay present and focused. “You really don’t want to fall off the cliff or in the river,” he says. “Yet you’re going on for long periods of time. You have to be relaxed and aware at the same time for hours and hours. Yoga trains you to do that, no question.”
There is a limb focused on a meditative experience, or absorption, that you may have felt when you have fallen into a steady rhythm on the trail. You do not have to think to navigate a stream. Your body relaxes, your thoughts melt away, and your attention is immersed in the continuous movement forward. Then there is the limb samadhi, the practice of experiencing no distance between you and what is around you, whether it’s people or nature. You are at one with everything around you, with no separation in your mind from your physical surroundings or other people. It’s one reason so many of us head for the hills.
Yoga poses, or asana, and breath work, or pranayama, occupy their own limbs. As you focus on poses and breath work, observing your body in new ways, also notice how the practice relates back to all of the Eight Limbs. The practices are a road map for the way you approach any aspect of life—the next hike, an upcoming project at work, or even whether you express appreciation for the people you love. Through the exploration of your body and your mind, compassion, gentleness, or joy may arise. Observe the shifts, and see what else is possible.
“How can you move toward something that, like Divinity, is already by definition everywhere? A better image might be that if we tidy and clean our houses enough, we might one day notice that Divinity has been sitting in them all along.”
—B. K. S. Iyengar, Light on Life
THE EIGHT LIMBS
ADAPTED FROM HARTRANFT’S YOGA-SŪTRAS OF PATAÑJALI
1.Yamas (five external disciplines, or ethical standards)
(right use of energy, including sexual)
»aparigraha (being nonacquisitive)
2.Niyamas (five internal disciplines)
»tapas (intense discipline or zeal)
»isvara pranidhana (devotion or surrender to pure awareness, or god)
3.Asana (sitting postures)
4.Pranayama (breath regulation)
5.Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
7.Dhyana (meditation or absorption)
8.Samadhi (bliss, self-realization)
Yoga starts with awareness. The first layer is the physical one. Through awareness of how your body does basic functions like breathe or balance upright during yoga poses, you begin to practice the Eight Limbs.
Sometimes, on the steepest stretch of a trail, your breath announces itself. You realize sweat is dripping down your back, your legs are burning, and you are panting heavily. You pause, take a deep breath in and out, and swallow some water. Onward.
Breath is an automatic body function: respiration happens all day long, whether you are awake or asleep. Breath also is a natural filtration system. When you inhale, you draw in fresh air and oxygen; when you exhale, you release carbon dioxide and other toxins.
You don’t need to pay attention to your breath. But what happens when you do? Even right now, you may have started to notice your breath. When you do intentional breath work, you connect your conscious mind to a primitive function. In doing so, you activate your parasympathetic nervous system, slowing your heart rate, among other internal functions.
Try it for a moment. Take a deep full breath in, pause, then exhale all the air out. Do it three times. You may notice stress or anxiety dissipating. Your heart rate slows; your body relaxes. Breathing clears your mind.
Breath (pranayama) is a fundamental element in yoga. The main breath practice is an ancient one known as ujjayi (oo-JAI), or victorious breath. As well-known anatomy expert Leslie Kaminoff writes in Yoga Anatomy, “If you take care of the exhalation, the inhalation takes care of itself.”
ELEMENTS OF UJJAYI
Enter any room where people are practicing yoga and you will hear ujjayi breath. It’s a low, lovely background sound to a practice. The technique requires you to breathe through your nose while constricting your throat. It creates a sound akin to the lapping of ocean waves at the beach. The sound keeps you focused on breathing—if it goes away, you’ve let go of your breath. Ujjayi also physically directs your breath into the ribs in your back, stretching the intercostal muscles that connect your ribs. Engaging your core lock—addressed later in this chapter—also supports your ujjayi breath.
Breathing is an energetic practice. You can direct it more by breathing in an energy or intention that supports you, such as joy or calm, and exhaling what you don’t need, like stress or anxiety.
Ujjayi contracts the muscles in your throat and helps you control the speed and depth of your breath—and generates heat. Controlling your breath helps you breathe deeper and more fully. When you first learn ujjayi, you may find either your exhalation or your inhalation is longer than the other. During the practice below, focus on evening out your inhales and exhales.
»Find a comfortable seated position, either in a chair or on the floor atop a cushion.
»Sit up straight, and pull your belly button in toward your spine.
»Lift your shoulders up to your ears, then relax them down.
Q: Why did you start practicing yoga?
A: I was young, and yoga was cool.
Q: Why do you still do yoga?
A: I stuck with it because I am a very physical person, and I am a mind-body person. Yoga has that mind-body aspect. For me, doing yoga and hiking and running go hand in hand.
Q: What’s been hard for you about the practice?
A: What I’ve always been challenged by in yoga is lack of movement, or minimal movement. That was the real learning experience and the growing edge for me because movement is a way of not being with ourselves. Running or hiking, you’re moving.
Q: How has yoga helped you with races or other outdoor pursuits?
A: There’s the internal one, which I call poise—being comfortable, balanced, and present with what you’re doing right now. If you’re running a mile, it’s not like that at all. You’re looking at that finish line. Yoga asana is intended to help you be in that moment. I think that’s a terrific practice.
»Place your hands around your ribs (fingers in front), circling the front and back of your body.
»Take a deep breath in through your nose until you feel your ribs expand, open your mouth and exhale with an extended “haaaaa” sound. Keep your belly engaged as you exhale.
»Take another deep breath in through your nose. This time, keeping your mouth closed for the exhale, repeat the “haaaaa” sound (it will come from your throat) and keep your core engaged. This is ujjayi breath.
»Repeat. Don’t force your breath; let the sound be a whisper, while still breathing deeply into your lungs.
»If you need to, gently smooth out your breath until you are breathing evenly in and out. Count to five for each round of inhale and exhale. Do this for one minute.
»Sit quietly, and observe any shifts in what you feel in your body or your state of mind.
YOUR UJJAYI BREATH IN PRACTICE
For new practitioners, breathing through your nose consistently may be challenging. When you exert yourself and find it difficult to stay upright in a pose—let alone breathe—you may revert to old breathing patterns and pant through your mouth. Close your mouth! And try again. Or, if you notice you are unable to recover your ujjayi breath, relax into Child’s Pose: close your mouth and breathe through your nose until you recover enough to come back to your practice.
“Pranayama is thus the science of breath. It is the hub round which the wheel of life revolves.”
—B. K. S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga
Your feet carry you many thousands of steps a day—even more so on a hike. Your concern for your feet may only go as far as avoiding blisters from a new pair of boots. But there is so much more to be discovered. Focusing on your feet in your yoga practice will not only strengthen your body, it also opens a new appreciation for the connection points between you and the earth.
A yoga practice builds from the ground up. Since many poses start from standing, that means your feet. Yogis practice barefoot to keep the connection of feet to the floor. Notice how sensitive your feet are to sensation by paying attention to the texture of your mat or the floor under the soles of your feet. By practicing barefoot and challenging your balance through various placements of your feet in poses, you will strengthen the muscles deep in your feet and gain more balance and stability.
Wiggle your toes on the floor or inside your shoes. Notice how it brings your attention to your feet. When you do the same with your feet in a yoga practice, standing tall in Mountain Pose, your entire posture changes. You activate new muscles in your legs, and become strong and connected in your lower body. Keep applying the same intention and focus to every part of your body, and you’ll soon build up a strong and centered Mountain Pose, the foundational pose of all yoga poses.
In a yoga practice, you spend a significant amount of time on your hands. Your hands are sensitive, with a concentrated number of nerve endings. Connecting your hands to the ground creates grounding and ensures good alignment in poses. In Downward-Facing Dog, for example, when you flatten your palms and connect the knuckles at the base of your pointer and middle fingers to the floor, your arms straighten and take the stress of the pose out of your elbow joints. It’s a small move with a big effect.
Bring one of your hands in front of you. Stretch out your fingers. Notice the space between your fingers. Look at your palm. Look at the back of your hand. Put this book down for a moment and bring your palms together. Press your knuckles at the base of your fingers together, and tune in to the sensitivity of your fingertips. Observe the warmth of your skin. Are your palms rough or smooth? Your body senses all of these things without needing your thoughts.
Your hands and feet need time to develop strength. Culturally, most people wear shoes, and spend little time putting weight on their hands. Your yoga practice strengthens your hands, wrists, ankles, and feet, and from there, creates a strong foundation for your poses and your hikes. Pay attention to your hands and feet throughout the practice, connect them to the ground, and restore their natural energy and strength.
»Set a timer for one minute, and walk barefoot. Walk mindfully, noticing every part of your foot that comes into contact with the floor. Pay attention to which part of your foot strikes the floor first. Does the entire sole of your foot touch the floor with each step? Observe your toes and how they keep you from falling forward. Notice how your feet hold you up, how sensitive they are to every step. Feel the texture of the floor under your feet. Do your feet tend to rotate in or out? Does your stride change when you pay close attention?
»After one minute, stop and stand with your feet hip-width apart and flat on the floor. Bend from your hips, knees soft, and bring your hands to your feet.
»Press your fingertips on top of the knuckle at the base of your big toe. Do the same for your little toe knuckle.
»Lift the arch of your foot up toward your shins without overpronating onto the outer edge of your foot. Press down into the solidness of your heels.
»Lift your toes up and stretch them out as wide as possible; notice what it feels like to stretch your toes and toe knuckles.
»Keeping space between your toes, settle them back down on the floor. Stand for a moment. Note the texture of the floor, and how the soles of your feet feel.
»Set a timer again. Walk again for one minute with active feet. Observe shifts in your body as you walk.
Your core muscles are your silent buddies on a hike. They hold your upper body upright against gravity as you head up the trail, and connect down to your legs and hips, which tend to chatter loudly about how much work they are doing on long treks. Your torso (trunk) holds its own for hours at a time, so building endurance will help with stability, mobility, and injury avoidance on the trail.
Luckily, a yoga practice addresses your core strength basically throughout the entire practice. In yoga, uddhiyana bandha, or “upward-lifting lock,” is used in all poses in the practice. Using your core lock (pulling your belly in toward your spine and up toward your shoulder blades—see the core and root lock sidebar above) supports your lower back, elevates your spine, and engages your back muscles. When using uddhiyana bandha throughout a yoga practice, you are conditioning your belly muscles. Get your core used to engaging, and it will be quicker to activate on the trail.
CORE AND ROOT LOCK
To engage your Core Lock, pull your belly button in like you are buttoning a tight pair of pants. Now, lift your belly upward toward your back ribs until your chest lifts. Keep breathing and shift your focus to your front ribs. If the muscles where your front ribs meet are not engaged, your front ribs will pop out. Imagine a little kid sticking their belly forward—cute, but not what you want. When you flare your ribs, you also drop into your middle and lower back.
Wrap your hands around your front rib cage. Pull your fingertips toward each other until the front tips of your ribs squeeze toward each other. Keep your core engaged, and lift your chest up toward the ceiling again. Notice your posture and energy when your belly muscles are fully engaged.
Another less visible action when engaging your core is a lock known as mula bandha, your root lock. It is your pelvic floor, and it supports the lift of your core. Essentially, you lift your anus in toward your body in sync with the action you take to keep from wetting your pants when you really have to go. Try to lift it without squeezing your inner thighs or butt cheeks. (No one said it was easy.)
Mula bandha lifts from the base of your pelvis, pulling in toward the centerline. Since it works from the bottom of your pelvis, the body’s fulcrum, it creates stability energetically and physically, with a calming effect on your nervous system. Like your core lock, engage root lock throughout your practice.
UDDHIYANA BANDHA ALSO SUPPORTS a deep breath practice. If you are having trouble with your ujjayi breath, engage your core and focus again, extending your inhales and your exhales and breathing into your back ribs.
As the central connecting point in your body, your trunk transfers force from your lower to upper body. Your core works from all sides to protect your spine. If you are struggling with injuries, your trunk is a vital area to take a look. Specific poses will strengthen your trunk. Your oblique muscles along the sides of your abdomen grow stronger in Plank; your lower back and spine builds in belly backbends and your mid-back muscles develop during twists. If you suffer from a sore lower back, a yoga practice will strengthen key muscles in your trunk to help alleviate pain. And no matter how strong your core gets, you will always feel it in poses like Boat!
Core Strength Practice
»Position yourself on your hands and knees to set yourself up for a push-up. Stack your hands right under your shoulders with your fingers spread and your index finger pointed toward the front of your mat.
»Keep your hips just below the height of your shoulders. Pull your belly button in toward your spine. Press your hands into the floor. Tuck your toes under, and press your heels firmly away from your body.
»Squeeze your thigh muscles and glutes. Stretch your chest forward akin to sitting up straight. Roll your shoulder blades toward your spine. Lift your gaze toward the front of your mat so that your head is even with your spine. To modify, keep your knees on the floor and lower your hips so your body is level from shoulders to knees.
»Set a timer. Build up to holding for sixty seconds at a time.
Your body has a plumb line that keeps you centered when you walk. Your body uses this centerline to navigate its balance. When you wear a heavy pack, your body adjusts to balance itself with this additional weight making your centerline shift—sometimes for the worse when you hopscotch across a stream.
During your yoga practice, your body recalibrates balance and strength, according to the shape of each pose. Becoming aware of and understanding your centerline will give you more access to stability and the natural alignment of each pose. Most of the cues for the poses move your body toward your centerline and your spine to hug your bones in toward your midline. Your spine is where stability lives in your body. The more you access the centerline, the more ease you’ll experience in your practice and out in the wilderness.
EQUIPMENT: TWO BLOCKS
»Come to your knees on a mat.
»Turn a block to the narrowest width and put it between your inner thighs up as high as you can toward your pelvis.
»Place the other block on the floor in front of you, wide and flat. Bring your thumbs to the bottom edge of the block, and put the corners of the block into the crease between your thumb and index finger. Your index fingers will point straight ahead.
»Come to Plank (see pose instructions on p.74), keeping your hands in place at the block. Lift your legs off the floor. Lower your hips just under your shoulders. Ground your palms into the mat. Lift your head so it’s even with your shoulders. Set your gaze in front of your block on the floor.
»Sag your hips and soften your legs, almost to the point of dropping the block. Notice what happens when you lose your centerline.
»Lift your hips again just below your shoulders. Squeeze your block between your inner thighs firmly. Hug your hands and upper arm bones in toward the block on the floor. Notice the shift in energy through your core and leg when you hug in toward the center. Do your limbs feel lighter, more aligned, and in sync with your body?
For three years, I’ve taught yoga to kids at the White House Easter Egg Roll. Every year, it feels like more kids say they do yoga at school, or know breathing techniques they learned from their teachers. One year, another yoga teacher filmed a conversation with a kid named Elijah, who said his teachers taught him to practice looking at one spot for one minute at a time. She asked him why he does that. “It helps you concentrate on stuff,” he replied. “Like when you’re with your friends and you’re trying to do your homework. You have to concentrate on your homework.”
Well said, Elijah. The same applies to a hike. Have you ever walked along a wooded path, the weather crisp and clear with a light breeze sending puffy clouds scudding across the sky? All trail reports are a go. You’re with your favorite people in one of your favorite places. But you are thinking about an email you forgot to send at work. You think seriously about pulling out your phone to send that message right now. Suddenly, a half hour has passed and you don’t remember a single curve of the trail.
Western culture is one of constant distraction—from kids, partners, or coworkers, by the television, or by cell phones. Focus and concentration require practice.
Yoga poses rely on drishti (a simple, focused gaze) to keep your concentration in a pose. Gaze is a foundational part of a yoga practice, and a powerful way to bring concentration into your day. Setting your gaze over and over is a reminder to stay in the present.
You will see cues for your drishti throughout the poses found in this book. Get specific—look at one unmoving spot on the wall or ground. By adding drishti and concentration into your life, you may become more productive, plus your mindfulness and your ability to stay present while in conversation may grow exponentially. When combined with breath, drishti also offers release from stress and anxiety.
Drishti Candle Practice
»Light a candle. Set a timer for one minute. Set your gaze on the flame and stay with it. Notice the movement of the flame, what affects it, how it flickers, flares, and settles. Soften your eyes. Stay focused. Notice if you are tempted to move, and keep your drishti in one spot.
Vinyasa is the combination of breath and poses, moving in a flow and rhythm with the body. When you connect poses to an inhale or an exhale, you can notice how the inhale supports lengthening and the exhale connects you to the empty space in your lungs and body. Like your drishti, staying focused on your breath requires a certain amount of rigor and discipline.
I love simple Sun Salutations A and B to open my practice. When I first connect to my breath and my body, I often feel tired, and I move slowly. But as my body warms up, my focus sharpens. I tune into my core, my hands on my mat, and the sound of my breath. In this way, it’s much like a hike. For the first steep uphill, I notice my body adapting to the terrain. I sometimes feel terribly stiff and wonder if I was a little too ambitious when choosing the hike. But as I walk, I warm up and get into the rhythm of my feet pounding against the earth. I move with the trail’s flow, shortening my stride when it gets steep, picking up my pace when it evens out, and moving smoothly around roots and rocks.
A flow practice builds heat. Moving through poses in a vinyasa builds strength and also reminds your muscles of the last time you did these same poses. The flow often requires you to notice when you are lagging with your breath or adding in superfluous movements that take away from the essential combination of pose, inhale, and exhale.
For new practitioners, the art of linking movement and breath can feel elusive. Not all yoga styles include flow, and if you are new to it, vinyasa can feel messy. It may lead to uncertainty about whether you are doing the alignment properly when holding each pose for “one breath,” or if you are flowing in sync. It takes time to develop the breath work and the physical strength to move through the poses with alignment and coordination. Be playful with it, notice when you are trying too hard to perfect your moves. Stay in the intention of moving with your breath. It will come eventually.
Once you get accustomed to a flow practice, a quiet rhythm and peace will come with vinyasa. Your breath begins to enhance each pose. Inhales create space in your physical body, allow you to deepen into your core, and focus on alignment. They are timed for poses that lengthen the spine or expand your energy out like Halfway Lift or stretching your fingers to the ceiling in Warrior.
An exhale creates space by pushing the air out of your lungs for a Forward Fold or to sustain your focus on your Core Lock (see sidebar above). Exhales also allow you to soften and deepen into a pose, supporting your body so that you can stay in a challenging pose longer. In vinyasa, focus on how your body moves with your breath.
Basic Vinyasa Practices
»Seated Vinyasa: Take a comfortable seat. Rest your hands in your lap. Inhale and circle your arms out wide and up to the ceiling until your palms touch. Exhale and draw your palms down through your centerline to your chest. Repeat this cycle for ten breaths.
»Cat-Cow: Come to all fours on your hands and knees. Stack your hands underneath your shoulders, with index finger pointing to the front of the mat and palms pressed flat into the floor (see photos and instructions on pp. 184- 185). Stack your knees underneath your hips. Pull your belly button in, engaging your core. On your inhale, slowly lift your chest forward and up. Tilt your tailbone up toward the ceiling and squeeze your shoulder blades toward each other, keeping your core engaged as your belly dips like a cow. On your exhale, round your spine and your shoulders, pulling your belly up toward the sky and lowering your head and gaze at the floor, like a cat. Move back to Cow on an inhale, and repeat Cat on an exhale. Do this sequence for ten breaths.
Growing up in the Midwest, I remember the first time I saw the stark peaks of the Rockies. I was in high school, and my parents took me to Colorado. I had never seen mountains like that. I couldn’t believe the sheer size and height of the snowy peaks. I craned my neck out the car window, and experienced a scale I didn’t know existed until that moment.
Mountain Pose is similar to the experience of realizing there is something so much bigger than yourself—it connects you to the scale and inspiration of your own physical form. Through the pose, you feel the foundation of your own feet, your strength, spine, and energy.
All poses wire your body up for healthy, neutral alignment, which supports you as you access your body’s full potential. It makes you healthier for long hiking trips, alerts you to when your body isn’t feeling right, and also gives you a better understanding of how to recreate a feeling of alignment and freedom. Like a long hike that pushes you to your edge, in Mountain Pose, you can tap into the experience that you are stronger than you can possibly know. You realize how amazing the human body is, and in particular, how strong and powerful you are.
Mountain Pose starts in your feet, stretched broadly on the floor. Once your feet are aligned in a neutral position, your legs connect in, strong and grounded. From there, observe the tilt of your pelvis. You now have a foundation to move it into neutral, with the front and back of your pelvis even. Your belly now has more space to squeeze in and lengthen your spine. Pull your shoulder blades toward your spine to lift your chest even higher. Your head can now reach up the same way a mountain peak juts into the clouds. Your breath has more room to expand into your lungs. Practice the pose to experience the shift in energy and perspective possible from such a simple, essential place.
Mountain Pose Practice
Each of the cues in this pose builds upon another; layer them in one by one.
»Stand on a mat with your bare feet directly under your hips, your arms loose by your sides.
»Point your toes straight ahead, and bring the outer edges of your feet parallel with the edges of your mat; this position may make you slightly pigeon-toed. Lift your toes and connect with the four corners of your feet to the mat. Soften your toes back to the floor.
»Lift the arches of your feet, and with your feet grounded, press your outer shins out until you feel your legs engage, then spiral your inner ankles toward the back of your mat. Energetically, drive your outer ankles down to the floor.
»Squeeze your thigh muscles to the bone. If your knees became stiff, soften the joints slightly.
»Tilt your tailbone down toward the floor. Gently pull in your belly button to engage your core. Squeeze your front ribs toward each other.
»Roll your shoulders up to your ears, then soften them down away from your ears. Pull your upper arm bones toward your shoulder blades to engage your shoulders.
»Send breath into your ribs in your mid-back.
»Let your hands relax by your sides, and spin your palms to face forward.
»Lift the crown of your head up toward the sky to lengthen your neck. Soften your jaw.
»Set your gaze on one point.
»Take ten deep ujjayi breaths.
»Observe what it feels like to ground your feet, and notice the rise of energy along your spine and center. Experience how it radiates from your center out through your fingers and up through the crown of your head. Note what it is like to connect to your physical body and the present moment through Mountain Pose.
Meditation is a practice to train your mind to be present. There are many techniques, and meditation and contemplative practices are found in almost all spiritual traditions, including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, although it is probably most closely associated with Buddhism.
Like yoga, meditation requires practice. The goal isn’t necessarily to relax, but the benefits can be experienced that way. Studies have shown that when you meditate, you lower your blood pressure, blood cortisol levels, and your heart rate. You improve your blood circulation, sweat less, have less anxiety … the list goes on.
More people than ever are curious about the benefits of a meditation practice. Meditation’s growing popularity has led to robust scientific studies focused on the effect it has on the brain and the body. Various recent studies have shown it has cognitive and mental benefits. The magazine Scientific American devoted a cover story to the topic called “Mind of the Meditator” in November 2014. In it, the writers noted that brain scans of experienced meditators demonstrated that the practice has a noticeable effect on how their brains are wired. Like a person learning to play an instrument, experienced meditators are able to develop new areas of their brains. They can achieve a focused state of mind with little effort, much like an expert musician or athlete can become immersed in a performance with ease.
The studies discuss types of meditations—focused-attention meditation that brings awareness to a physical action like breath; mindfulness or open-awareness meditation that might focus on sight or sound, and not becoming attached to any particular perception or thought; and compassion meditation, when the meditator focuses on feelings of unconditional love and compassion toward others. Meditation has four distinct cycles identified by researchers—time when the mind wanders, a moment when you become aware of the distraction, a period when you reorient your attention, and then the period you resume focused attention.
A study on focused-attention meditators showed they were less likely to react or get distracted when interrupted; they were more able to stay vigilant. Those who focused on openawareness meditation had improved perception, with depressed patients better managing negative thoughts or feelings and a reduced chance of relapse in some. The compassion meditation helped meditators share the feelings of other people without becoming emotionally overwhelmed, particularly helpful for people in caregiver roles.
Meditation also brings lasting change to brain function, from the levels of stress people experience and an ability to stay calm in the face of stress to an improved immune system and resilient brain cells. Observing an eight-week study of active meditators, Harvard researchers found that brain matter grew in regions of the brain associated with learning, cognition, memory, emotional regulation, empathy, and compassion.
LEARNING TO MEDITATE
A daily meditation practice is a powerful point of connection and is key to understanding some of the deeper qualities of yoga. In Patañjali’s time, yoga was comprised of mostly seated poses, with a focus on meditation.
Be kind to yourself when starting out, and playful too. Start with five minutes in the morning as soon as you wake up, and sit for five minutes again before you go to bed. Once you are in the routine of bookending your day with meditation, increase the time up to thirty minutes morning and night. Give yourself thirty days to create a meditation practice and see the results.
CREATING A SPACE FOR MEDITATION
Creating a comfortable setup for your meditation practice is important for making it a routine. Find a quiet space in your home where you won’t be disturbed. Set yourself up with the following props:
»Meditation cushion: There are many suppliers of meditation cushions, but you can use any cushion in your house. Use a large cushion for the base to support your ankles, with a smaller cushion set on top that elevates your hips above your knees and makes it easier to sit for longer stretches. You can sit with your legs crossed or with your shins on either side of your smaller cushion.
»Chair: If it is challenging for you to sit on a low cushion, sit on a chair. Sit on the front half of the chair away from the back in an upright posture. Prop your feet up if the chair cuts into the back of your legs. Place a cushion or other support behind your back as needed.
»More props: During meditation, you may prefer to fold your hands in your lap. One option is to place a cushion or blanket in your lap to keep your hands propped up comfortably. Wrap a blanket around your shoulders for warmth for longer meditations.
»Altar: Adding an altar can create a sense of ritual around your meditation practice. Use a small table or get creative. Place treasured items, such as small tokens from loved ones, a candle, or fresh flowers, on the altar.
When you start this practice, your mind will wander. That’s OK. Part of the practice is to notice your thoughts. You will not empty your mind, per se. You will initially notice you are thinking. Meditation is a practice of return, and even when it does not feel like it is working, trust that it is. Just as hiking gets easier through the summer as your endurance builds for longer excursions, the more frequently you sit in meditation, the more you will find you not only can sit, but that you experience greater ease, focus, and less reactivity throughout your day.
Lastly, do not underestimate the importance and clarity provided by the daily ritual of meditation. By creating and establishing a ritual to support your own health—and returning to the ritual even if you miss a day—you put your well-being first. Just as you must commit to experience a hike you have heard is awe-inspiring but have not experienced yourself, commit to the practice of meditation. Experience for yourself its effect on you and those around you.
“However beautifully we carry out an asana, however flexible our body may be, if we do not achieve the integration of body, breath, and mind, we can hardly claim that what we are doing is yoga. What is yoga after all? It is something that we experience inside, deep within our being.”
—T. K. V. Desikachar, The Heart of Yoga
Breath Meditation Practice
»Sit on a cushion or in a chair. Set a timer for five minutes.
»Close your eyes. Note the feeling of your feet and ankles against the floor. Walk your awareness up your legs to your hips. Stack your vertebrae and sit up straight. Tilt your chin parallel to the floor to lengthen the back of your neck. Bring your awareness to your nose.
»Notice the in and out of your breath. Do not try to control your breath. Pay attention to the natural state of how your body breathes. Note how your breath may be cool on the way in and warm on the way out. Focus on the feeling of air passing through your nostrils.
»When you notice your mind wandering, note you have wandered and bring your attention back to your breath. Focus again on your breath coming in and out.
Walking Meditation Practice
If all this talk about sitting sounds uncomfortable, consider a walking meditation practice, most closely associated with the Buddhist tradition. While you will be moving no farther than the distance across your living room, it is a powerful mindfulness practice. (Hint: It’s also a practice you can layer into your next hike.)
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO MEDITATE?
Meditation is traditionally practiced in the early morning right when you wake up, and in the evening before you go to bed. Meditating both morning and night bookends your day with a contemplative, quiet space. That said, if you need to squeeze it in, meditating midday is better than skipping out completely!
»Find a spot in your home where you can walk ten paces in one direction without any obstacles. Set a timer for ten minutes.
»You can do this practice with or without shoes. Stand still for a moment and close your eyes. Feel the weight of your body over your feet. Notice the bones of your feet.
»Start to walk, focusing lightly on each step. Observe the muscles required for your body to take a step forward. Pay attention to your feet as you walk. Move slowly, feeling every part of your body as you go.
»When your mind wanders, bring it back to your feet. When you turn around, note what has to happen in your body to turn. Continue your mindful focus on walking.
Mantra Meditation Practice
In a mantra meditation, you focus your mind on a phrase. So hum is a basic mantra meditation—it means “I am that” in Sanskrit.
»Sit on a cushion or in a chair. Set a timer for five minutes.
»Close your eyes. For a five rounds of breath, notice the natural inhales and exhales of your breath.
»Focusing on your inhale, say the word “so” to yourself. On your exhale, say “hum.” Repeat. Observe if your mind wanders to your body or other thoughts, and return to the mantra.