Yoga Practice: Working with Pain
My motto for those grueling hours became, "Pain is in the Mind". I whispered it under my breath, as I patiently took one step at a time, bearing most my weight on the hiking poles and lightly stepping down each rock, each stone, each what seemed forever descending pathway to the bottom of the majestic Colorado peak.
It didn't start this way. In fact, it started out completely different.
It was a beautiful day. We, my partner James, our one and half year old puppy, Remi and I, woke early anticipating the long trek ahead of us. We were prepared. Our packs were prepped with food, layers of clothing, headlamps, sunscreen, emergency goods, plenty of water and of course our phones for capturing pictures. Our goal that day was to summit Mt. Shavano, one of Colorado's 58 peaks above 14,000'. If you are unaware, these are called 14er's. Mt. Shavano is located in the Sawatch Range which host 15 of the 58 14er's in the state.
Living in Salida, we are surrounded by all these breathtaking peaks. It is such a sweet reminder of how insignificant so much of the everyday "mind chatter" really is. From our house we see the top of Mt. Shavano, as well as Mt. Antero and several other amazing peaks like Ouray, Chipeta and Paron, which top out just above 13,000' and work their way down to just under 12,000'. Since we moved to this adorable little mountain town, it has been our goal to summit Mt. Shavano as our first 14er of the summer. We have summited several 14er's before when we resided in the Eagle County of the state so we knew what to expect. We knew this would be a long, exhausting and incredibly rewarding day ahead.
We hit the trailhead at 5:52am. The sun was just starting to appear through the trees as we began in the thick of the mountain. Mt. Shavano's trailhead begins at 9,750' and gains 4,600' in elevation topping out at 14,229'. The start of the hike is beautiful especially this time of year. The wild flowers native to the western slopes were in full bloom. It was so lovely to see Indian Paintbrush, Lupine, Sulphur, Yarrow and fresh moss on the rocks paint the tapestry of the earth with such vivid colors.
James and I are active people and in good shape. It would be Remi, our dog's, first 14er and we were mindful of his journey along the way. We wanted to enjoy our time and weren't on a mission to summit by anytime. We arrived above treeline around 8am. The views of the valley floor beneath us were breathtaking. The Hayden Pass Fire has been in full force since last week and from up at this height, you could really see the haze and horrible air quality we have been living in.
For me, my body has this way of going through surges of endurance when I hike. I am a turtle, slow and steady wins my hikes :) At about 11,700' exposed to the elements of wind and sun now, the true essence of hiking began. My breath started to shorten and my mind began to hone in on my steps focusing on the wobbly rock and shale path as we ascended to the saddle. All the while, Remi, is leading with a happy grin across his face, doing laps around us. It was good to see his joy!
As we reached the saddle, we decided to sit and enjoy the views. A snack was in order and some hydration. I kept hearing, "the hills are alive with the sound of music" play in my head as I watched the wind dance over the natural landscape. Pausing here, we sat and enjoyed the beauty all around. Peering up was the summit. I could tell we would need to scramble a bit and I wondered how Remi would do.
He ended up doing great! In fact, we all did. The ascend was actually a lot easier than I anticipated. My body felt great and so too did my lungs. At 10:20am we reached the summit. Not that fast and that was okay with us. We found a cozy spot - as cozy as one can find at the top of a jagged rock - and took it all in. We could see nearly all the peaks of Colorado. We even spotted Monumental Peak which sits behind our lodge we just purchased in April of 2016. It was amazing!
After about an hour of eating, snapping photos, chatting with other hikers and resting we decided it was time to descend. This is where the fun really begins. Any hiker will tell you that the descent is where most accidents happen. We knew this. We took it slow. In fact, we had to take it slower than usual due to the exuberant gusts of wind coming over the saddle from the west. Neither James nor I had ever been in winds that intense before. A few times I would look up and see him fall over, only to catch himself and look back at me with a goofy smile of complete dis-belief. I had to just stop and sit down and wait from time to time for larger winds to pass.
Eventually we got out of the saddle and the wind wasn't as bad. From here on out it was all down hill. Rubble of stones, dirt and rocks greeted each footstep like a test to see if you could avoid falling. It wasn't the most fun to be honest.
As we neared the re-entry of the treeline, I felt my spirits lift. I adore being immersed in trees. I love the way the sunlight flickers between leaves as the wind rustles the branches. The smells from the pine and sage and flowers makes my heart happy. As I thought about how wonderful this day has been, I stepped over a large rock and didn't see the second rock in my landing. I rolled my left ankle inward and a very sharp pain shot up my leg to my outer knee. I stopped, took a deep inhale and let out a small cry. Waiting a few moments, I regained my senses and took a step forward. Sharp pain surged up from my ankle to my knee. Damn! James turned around and asked if I was okay. I said, "I don't know. I just rolled my ankle". We waited a moment as I stretched and found what felt good and what hurt it more so. Eventually my ankle began to feel a little better but it set off my knee in a bad way.
I have always had an interesting relationship with my knees, since middle school to be exact. I have had some surgery on them both and work hard to keep the muscles around them strong to protect
my knees. Somehow the way in which my ankle rolled shifted something in my knee and I realized I haven't felt this type of knee pain since high school before my surgery. It hurt and really bad.
Regardless, we had to get down the mountain. I wasn't bleeding. Nothing was broken. My mind was healthy and I gratefully had hiking poles. "I must keep moving", I told myself. So, we kept moving but at a much slower pace.
To give you an idea at this point we were just under 12,000', meaning we still had to descend 2,300' down the mountain. I will admit the first hour of our very slow (slower than my turtle wins the hike pace here) I was not practicing my yoga. I was totally letting my negative thoughts consume my mind. I was very much embracing the pain with every wincing yelp and over-working of my breath to move. It was pathetic to be honest.
We were in tree line now and I could feel the breeze. The breeze soothed my soul for it was no longer a battle against the wind to stand or to take a safe step. The leaves whistled their song and the smells of the earth filled my nose. My movements were like that of someone on crutches just with two hiking poles (okay, I'll be honest, 1980's ski poles we found from our lodge). Hey, they worked. I would step both poles in front of me, placing them strategically between the rumble of rocks a foot or two below, apply pressure from my arms and then place my right foot and then my left. Pause. Breath. Do it again.
At one point, I looked up and knew where we were and how much further we had to go. I felt anger well up inside my belly. It hit my chest and then my heart and I placed my head down on my hand, leaning against my ski poles and sensed a deep sobbing want to take over me. This sucked. I didn't want to be here. My knee was aching so bad just standing here and every time I applied pressure a massive burning surge of pain shot up my leg. As time would have it, I began to compensate in my somatic movements to relieve the pain. This produced more pressure onto my right toes and ankle. It felt like a complete shit show!
A tear dropped from my eye to the dry earth beneath. I stared at it for a moment and heard a voice say to me, "pain is in the mind". As I listened, something began to shift inside. I heard it again. "Pain is in the mind". I whispered it aloud to myself. "Pain is in the mind". I stood up straight "Pain is in the mind". I took a breath. "Pain is in the mind". I took a step. "Pain is in the mind". I took another breath. "Pain is in the mind". I took another step. "Pain is in the mind".
20 minutes later, I was in a meditative state. I moved slow but with my breath. I kept whispering this mantra over and over with a rhythmical flow. One breath, one step, mantra. One breath, one step, mantra. Repeat.
James stopped to check on me and as he waited I felt so in the flow state, I wobbled my way past him with my mantra still working away. He took two steps and passed me, but I didn't care. I had something to take my mind away from the pain in my body. I was focused. I was determined. I was beyond myself.
Several hikers we passed hours ago, came by. They weren't too happy about the descent as they grunted and complained. Some were kind enough to be concerned for my crippled strides. I felt for James. He was so patient, stopping to wait for me. I felt for Remi, who was starting to feel the long hike as well in his youthful puppy bones.
It took us nearly four hours to get down. A normal descent would have easily been two or two and a half hours, maybe less. It was indeed trying and challenging, both physically and mentally. And though, James said, I looked like Frankenstein and moved like a snail, we did it. I did it.
My yoga practice got me through that descent. There was no way without it I could have done it. It was amazing to watch my mind work with the physical pain in which I was enduring. It was more amazing to be the witness and to move past the bodily pain, dropping into the flow state, meditating my way down that majestic mountain.
Yoga practice anywhere, anytime awaits us. With whatever arises, may we choose to observe and breathe into it. I know if I had not, this day could have turned out so much different.
I am home and in between bouts of icing my knee and applying the healing essential oils and herbs of Deep Blue muscle rub. I learned more about myself this trip than I anticipated. I surprised myself and I think maybe James too.
I am really grateful to have this ancient and wise practice as a part of my daily life. It is so much more than what we do on our mats or what studio we go to or what yoga poses we do or clothes we wear. This practice is abundant and all we have to do is show up and embrace it.