Off the Beaten Path: On Yoga and Hiking
A few years ago I had the opportunity to teach in Amman, Jordan. After the workshop was over I visited Petra, where a Bedouin guide took me to the top of a mountainous park into areas often closed to the public. After hiking around ruins, the sun began to set rapidly and darkness fell; we made our way down the un-groomed slopes at the back of the parkland. It was quite dark, the slopes were steep and slippery. I was, admittedly, pretty scared. My guide was practically barefoot and the way his feet conformed to the rocks and debris was unlike anything I had ever seen. He was completely at ease. As it became totally dark he took hold of my arm; and swiftly and adeptly lead me down what seemed like some very treacherous terrain.
The next day the muscles in my lower legs and feet ached in such a way that every muscle and every track of connective tissue felt as clear and vivid as if I were looking at a highly detailed anatomy book. Though our asana practice takes our body through a wide variety of joint configurations, they are often quite predictable and repetitive. The unusual variety of positions that the bones of my feet, lower legs, hips, and whole body were subjected to as we navigated the rocks, required a whole body presence, as well as agility and adaptability. My feet became my eyes. I had to see with my body—and trust its capacity to do so. Did I mention how sore I was?
Yoga asana practice, like hiking, can really challenge our capacity to balance, stabilize, and adapt to unexpected variables in the
environment, which is immensely important, especially as we age. To better experience the interplay between the two, try practicing poses that really challenge your ability to balance on a daily basis. Include in your daily practice poses that require you to stand on one leg. Use the support of the wall if you must, gradually learning to be your own support. If you want to increase the challenge, try these poses on a variety of surfaces. This can help prepare your body and nervous system for the diverse and unpredictable surfaces you might encounter when hiking in nature, or just moving about on icy, snow-laden sidewalks.
Try moving your arms in different ways; turn your head to the right or left, or look up to the ceiling while standing on one leg. Try closing your eyes. Bend and straighten the leg you are balancing on, or rise up on the ball of your foot. If you really want to
have fun, sandwich a blanket between two sticky mats. This type of experiment mimics the way the topsoil displaces itself relative to the bottom, especially when going downhill. All of these variations will increase the balance challenge, sharpen your reflexes, and help increase proprioception.
This type of practice is also playful. It is a fun and creative way to add little doses of adversity to your routine so that your body can make new and valuable connections, and be better to adapt and absorb the stresses of living in a dynamic and unpredictable world.