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Backpacker Magazine – June 2013

Nirvana Now!

Is hiking and yoga the ultimate path to rejuvenation? Our man takes his bad back and troubled soul to Yosemite to find out.

by: Steve Friedman

Illustration by Morgan Schweitzer
Illustration by Morgan Schweitzer

In the morning, after a night in Tuolomne Meadows, where—except for the fact that the Ogden gals left an apple core in the fire pit next to my tent (why didn’t they just slather my tent stakes with honey?) and the fact that I woke up gasping for oxygen at 2 a.m., and the fact that my back throbbed—I slept well, we gathered to pack for our 6-mile, 2,100-foot climb to Young Lake.
Heather laid out the group gear that we all would carry—bear canisters filled with food, cooking utensils, tents, and the like—and said, “I don’t want anyone to worry. We’ll manage everything. We’re not here to suffer. If something hurts, let us know.”
Then she warned us that our packs might feel uncomfortable at first, but that we would hopefully reach “pack nirvana.” She showed us how to distribute items and assured us that even if our packs seemed full, we’d manage to get everything in. “Our motto here is ‘it will fit.’”
I come from a family whose packing mottos are “Mine is already loaded!” and “You’re bigger than me!” and “I’ve had a hard year!” and “You want to eat raspberry-filled chocolate bars, then you carry the raspberry-filled chocolate bars, Piggy!” and “Will you stop your whining and just man the f#*& up?!”
We packed. We hit the trail.
As I sought pack nirvana, I gasped and sweated a lot. I thought—and Authentic Steve agreed—that this seemed like a particularly brutal climb, considering we were supposed to be relaxing and not suffering.
The brochure suggested that today would be dedicated to “talking about self-care along the way and soaking up the incredible scenery,” and while there was incredible scenery (endless alpine meadows, looming peaks, wildflowers) and while there was conversation among the group about how happy everyone was to be away from computers and deadlines and how peaceful it was to do yoga outdoors with mule deer watching, and while my back did seem looser, and while Heather did suggest ways we could relax, even in our non-wilderness lives, with yoga and meditation, I was still struggling. So I reverted to my usual mantra when hiking up steep trails with a heavy pack or otherwise encountering life’s difficulties (one which my shrink has suggested I cease and desist).
“F#*&,” I said. “F#*&. F#*&. F#*&.”
Authentic Steve didn’t mind his screaming muscles and burning lungs, because Authentic Steve knew that exercise was good for him. Also, he knew about the studies that showed that social interaction improves mental health, and that experiencing wilderness lowers the heart rate and increases one’s sense of well-being, and that yoga has been shown to help with ailments ranging from anxiety to arthritis. Heather reminded us of these things, and she encouraged us throughout the trip to focus on the moment, to open ourselves to the beauty surrounding us, to practice yoga with attention and free from competition, to embrace all that the universe offered.
Authentic Steve loved all that stuff. I, on the other hand, bitched and moaned a little bit.
My fellow Yoga and Wellness Trekkers apparently noticed.
“Dude,” Ogden Angela had said at breakfast, after I had pointed out to her that she had endangered my life by leaving the apple core in the fire pit. “You need to really concentrate on the yoga. Either that, or take a chill pill.” (When I asked if it was okay for Mormons to have tattoos, as she and Nikki did, they both merely stared at me. It turned out Angela isn’t Mormon.)
“You seem unbalanced,” had suggested Stephanie from Berkeley, who “practices healing arts,” when I pulled into the campsite, then took my backpacking stool out of my rental car, then put it back in, then took it back out, then put it back in. (I’ve been conflicted about my camper’s stool ever since the day, a decade earlier, that I first took it into the mountains. Yes, my compatriots had laughed at it then, and mocked it, then envied it, then told me I was a selfish sloth. My three-legged camping stool and I share a complicated relationship and I have discussed it at length with my shrink. She suggests I need to let the stool go. She suggests a lot of things.)
After six hours, we arrived at Young Lake at 10,000 feet, a shimmering jewel surrounded by woods and meadows.
I watched the Balanced Rock brain trust gather and look at us panting and gasping and setting up our tents. They announced we would skip yoga that evening. Just as well, as our group was soon preoccupied with an anxiety you won’t find in many yoga studios.
A scream rent the air.
“Jeff! Jeff!”
It was Jennifer, of the San Francisco couple. It was twilight, and she had been in the woods, dealing with some digestive issues of her own, when a large bear had approached. Jennifer’s experience seemed to shake the group, and in spite of promises from Heather and crew that we were safe and that the bear wouldn’t hurt anybody, and some exhortations to be aware of the natural beauty, a lot of the yoga and trekking spiritual ease seemed to have dissipated. The brochure had promised that evenings “may include…fireside stories, music, or gazing at the Milky Way,” but none of that was happening. What was happening was a lot of nervous talk about bears. Authentic Steve decided that it would be within the letter of the group mission to tell some fireside stories of his own.
So after dinner and shortly after dark, I snuck up on the Ogden tent and made growling bear noises and Angela and Nikki screamed, and after that I told them tales of “The Weeping Man of The Sierras” and “The Liverless Grandmother of Young Lake” and a few other classics.
Research shows that yoga can ameliorate depression, as well as help people deal with pain. I also tend to believe that a good ghost story, delivered 6 miles from civilization, can help people deal with deep-seated fears, bring a group closer together, and serve as a way of facing archetypal demons. So I didn’t take it personally when Petrina yelled from the next tent, “Shut the hell up. You’re freaking me out!”
I took a few deep breaths, or Pranayama, which I now knew did not mean “bowel movement,” but “good breathing.” I slept well that night, and my back didn’t hurt, and except for some nightmares about slavering bears with red eyes doing Downward Facing Dog, I woke up refreshed.



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READERS COMMENTS

Star Star Star Star Star
Anonymous
Jan 09, 2014

Haven't read a multi-page article all the way through in a while. Thanks for taking us along the journey with you; great writing.

Star Star Star Star Star
Anonymous
Jul 13, 2013

Fantastic story! This makes me want to take a similar journey; perhaps with a little less cynicism =P

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