Yoga and the Mountain – by Sarah, a brilliant yoga teacher in VITALITY’s 11th Yoga/Healing Touch Internship

A step and a breath, a step and a breath, a step and a breath –  a step and a breath and a pause –

I can’t do this – 

I stared up at the rocky mound above me and put my hands on my hips. We had stopped for the second time in at least as many minutes, and this time neither my “hiking buddy” O. nor I seemed in a hurry to move on.

“You think that’s the summit?” I asked her again, squinting up at the mountain skeptically.

She shrugged and leaned on her trekking poles, sucking wind.

“I don’t think so,” I said again for the third or fourth time, more to myself than to O. “There’s supposed to be two false summits.”

We had started with four other hiking companions and two had already turned back. The other two had pulled ahead of us, and we had generally lost sight of them since passing above the treeline thirty minutes or so ago. I was now the only lowlander in our group – the other three being Denverites – and I was feeling the altitude on Mt Elbert, Colorado’s high point, and the second highest mountain in the contiguous United States.

I can’t do this – came the voice again, silently gnawing at a place in the back of my head.

I swatted it away. I had been training for this, meditating on this, planning on this. I couldn’t Not do it. I had been to over 13,000 feet before when I summited Nevada’s highpoint, Boundary Peak, last year,  and I had planned this climb late into my Colorado vacation to ensure I acclimated to the altitude. Still, since crossing the treeline at a little under 12,000 feet, I was beginning to realize how truly high we were. The 14,440 foot mountain was a giant.

You don’t want to do this – tried the voice again, refusing to be reasoned away.

I rolled my eyes at myself and looked at O. who was playing with a rock under her boot toe, still not making any indication of readiness to continue.

Is that true? Do I really not want to make this climb?

After I’ve planned and trained, drug my friends to the middle of nowhere, told my family and colleagues about my planned  attempt? I wouldn’t be the first to quit in our group, but I wasn’t a quitter.  Not when it came to hiking, not when it came to mountains, not when I wasn’t close to my limit.

At this last thought, my body gave a little quiver. Would I know my limit? I breathed deeply again willing the oxygen to fill the entirety of the space within me.

It wasn’t a technical climb. In the event the altitude did get the best of me, I could be rescued easily enough…  – right? A train of worst case scenarios flooded into my head. I tried to shift my attention to my toned quads and well-worn hiking boots.

Have a little faith, I coached myself. Have a little faith in the universe… Have a little faith in you.

But why do you need the climb? For the Instagram photo? To feed your ego…  – the voice continued, digging into my darkness that it knew so well.

I sighed. Why was I doing this?

A deeper part of me rebounded with the answer. Because it was me, because I savored the challenge, because I wanted to know I was capable of difficult things, because I didn’t want friendships and experiences constructed of simple good times and easy living, because my father had nurtured the desire to climb within my spirit, and it craved to be at the top where it could look around.

Breathe, I told myself, and my body breathed.

I closed my eyes and tried to use the tools I’d been practicing in my kundalini yoga class. I willed my breath into a steady rhythm – up, down; in, out. up, 2, 3, 4, down, 2, 3, 4. I tried to hold the breath but couldn’t. Within a few seconds, I felt my chest seize and my body  start to panic as it noted the lack of oxygen. My heart pounded in an effort to process the same amount of oxygen it was accustomed to. I abandoned the measured full body breathing and forced myself into a pattern of more rapid intakes and outs, maintaining regularity.

We had been talking about breathing earlier in the journey while four of us still hiked together.

“You’re gonna run out of air up there,” warned the most experienced mountaineer among us. “You can try to focus on your breathing but it’s gonna let you down. The air’s just too thin up here, and your brain is going to know it. Focus on your legs – your muscles are strong – they can handle this. Just keep walking upward. If you’re not lightheaded at the top, you’re not doing it right.” He had smiled at this last part, and I had been reminded again of kundalini with its repetitive movements, hypnotic drum beats, and long breath holds. If you’re not lightheaded by the end, you’re not doing it right.

I dug my trekking poles into the gravel and dirt at my feet and agreed, my legs felt fine. I felt my heartbeat slow at this acknowledgment. This year I was grateful not to be dealing with a knee injury as well. I smiled at this fact and felt my heart slow its rate by another second.

An affirmation drifted into my heart – little movements. Time, energy, and little movements had healed my knee. A gentle reminder. A mantra stressed by my yoga instructor – little movements. 

I forced my gaze to meet the mountain again. My eyes caught sight of a large red and black rock about thirty yards up. “Let’s just try to make it up there,” I said pointing at the rock.

O. looked up as well. “Where?”

“There.” I pointed again and started up.

My breathing immediately intensified, but I let my lungs gasp and struggled onward. In a few minutes, we had reached the rock. We stopped and sucked air.

Another hiker was making his way down the ridge, wearing a smile, already finished with his summit, breathing easy with his downward descent. He greeted us as he passed.

“That’s not the summit is it?” I asked him, pointing to the peak directly above us.

He grinned mischievously and shook his head. “Not a chance – that’s a false one. But you’re getting there. Once you summit the second one, your work is done.” He waved and kept moving along.

The confirmation actually made me feel better. “I knew that wasn’t the summit,” I said under my breath. My breathing had slowed, and I savored the ease of it for a moment. I needed to move on – little movements.

I pointed to a pile of rocks. “See that – let’s go there next.” We pushed on.

I looked down at my watch a few minutes later and then down at the path we’d just traveled. It was 6:45 am, and we had just crested the first false summit. Time moves slow on the mountain, I reminded myself. The struggle made time move slow, but we had plenty of time. As long as we were off the mountain before the afternoon thunderstorms rolled in, we had all the time in the world.

The vertical drop of what lay below was dizzying – we had traveled so far. I turned and met the next false summit – high above and far away. I could see people moving over the rocks there – tiny dots.

Little by little, one travels far – I said to myself smiling. I couldn’t recall at that moment who the quote belonged to, but now in the middle of our journey, looking down at where we’d come and above at what we still had yet to do, I knew it was true.

“The altitude is bugging my stomach,” O. said with a grimace.

“Are you okay though?” I asked, and she nodded. “Okay good – cause we’re getting there.” I pointed to another stack of rocks. “Let’s go there next.”

We got to the second false summit around 8:15 am and officially summited Mt Elbert, the highpoint of Colorado, at 8:42 am. At the top, O. and I met our other two friends, and we shared giddy giggles, celebratory beers, and photo shoots in the cold mountain air. At that point, the self-doubt and mind games from below seemed unbelievable and distant. At the top, despite the thin air, I breathed in and felt full – I felt like myself. I gazed out across the snow covered peaks of the Rockies, and affirmed what I knew – I was not made for easy things. I was made to struggle, to suffer, to feel the pain and uncertainty of the current situation and to continue on in spite of it. Each day, each hike, each summit, after the end of that struggle, I had discovered a little more of myself.