When I was in my twenties, I went trekking in the Himalayas. My friend and I hiked a two-week section of the Annapurna Circuit. The first ten days of the trek were up-hill steeply all the way, and for hours on end, because we had to walk all day to make sure that we reached the next village where we would spend the night in a villager’s lodging in return for a few American dollars. What amazed us, as we tried desperately to acclimatise to the altitude, and long steep up-hill walks, was that we were not fit, and had no stamina at all - it was hard hard going relieved only by the spectacular mountain scenery.
Yet, despite this, we noticed in amazement that the local Nepali people were often walking easefully up and down the mountain paths, with extremely heavy loads on their backs. Some of the men were porters, running up and down the mountain in bare feet, with baskets on their backs transporting heavy loads – grinning cheerfully as they passed us by. We were so frustrated with own rate of progress that we were glad to be stopped one day by one of these men who could speak English and taught us how to walk and breathe. After that everything changed and I have never forgotten the lesson he taught me, and I endeavour to share it with others whenever I get the chance.
The lesson was that when you are walking (or even running, which is more challenging but equally amazing) you should walk with your mouth closed and breathe through the nose only. This then means that the breath regulates the heart-beat, and you move at the pace your heart can manage, which then makes the walk itself manageable, enjoyable and physically sustainable. It also means that you become aware of your breath, and how the breath deepens and evens out as you walk. It also means that you can’t walk and talk, which is a waste of energy, but something else happens too – when you walk without talking to your companion/s, you start to go deeper into your own experience, noticing how the breath calms the busy mind by anchoring it in the body. You begin to notice your surroundings more, and as you begin to lose the urge to natter incessantly about who knows what, your perceptual experience enhances as you start to listen to the sounds around you, really see the environment you are walking through, smell the air and the earth and notice the fullness of the scenery. You also start to learn the art of companionship in a new way, walking along someone without having to talk, noticing and enjoying their presence without having to constantly talk, finding out what’s on your own mind and in your own heart, as you walk, without having to necessarily talk about your experience.
A lot about this walking-to-breathe lesson reminds me of the expanded state of awareness that the practice of yoga brings about. Through the growing awareness of the relationship between the breath and the experience of being in the body, a slowly changing experience arises of what it means to be in the world. That is why I decided to add a yoga hike to my class offerings at Studio Kooks in the beautiful surroundings of Beckenham Place Park. The park offers a beautiful environment for walking, and I wanted to share the experience of walking in silence with regulated breathing, as part of the exploration of what yoga has to offer. Everyone has a different personal experience on the walk and there is nothing prescriptive about it, just a chance to privately explore how it feels.
I donate the proceeds of each walk (£5 per person) to the charity Papyrus, which works to prevent youth suicide, because I lost my nephew to suicide in 2013, and youth suicide is now the biggest cause of death among young people in the UK under the age of 35. This is a terrible tragedy. It is also a national crisis. We need to do much more to raise awareness about mental health issues, and to explore how we can live more compassionately along side and supporting each other especially in the urban environment. I genuinely think yoga can play a part in supporting the challenge we all face to understand how best to live on the planet in the 21st Century. So, do join a yoga class, and join me on the first Saturday of each month for a yoga hike. This morning’s walk was beautiful – a misty moisty autumnal walk followed by a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea in the Mansion House café.