Yoga on the Trail: Having an Off-the-Mat Practice
I’ve been talking lately about the idea of a mantra, something I’ve used a lot during my hikes the past couple of weeks.
Week three was a tough one for me and I found it hard to simply be present and appreciate the passing moments. My mind would flutter to the most recent and fresh hiker pain, or how ready I was for that particular day to be over, or what life will be like after the trail. My mind was a constant whirling mess of thought.
In yoga, we talk about an “on the mat” and “off the mat” practice. An off the mat practice uses all of the values and philosophies gained through your physical practice in your every day life. So, for example, in meditation we learn to quiet the mind and off the mat we use the application of that to stay grounded in each moment.
My off the mat practice is where I tend to struggle. We call the constant whirling of the mind “vrittis”, and through meditation and yoga we try to calm those vrittis so that we can stay focused and in control. However, when things are tough and my body is exhausted, my ability to stay in control over constant thought decreases and I’m left with the ever fluttering influx of unfiltered thought.
While out here on the trail, I’ve been using a number of “tricks” to continue training my mind on staying focused. These off the mat practices have had their successes in keeping me in each moment and appreciating the experience of the trail.
A mantra is a phrase or sentence that you can create that holds some significant meaning to you, whether it be a reminder that you often need or an affirmation to yourself.
My mantra has become “living in gratitude”, and it often will come to me in the most opportune times to remind myself to simply be.
It began on a particularly negative day after realizing I had a UTI. I was in pain, and extremely frustrated that I couldn’t keep up my usual pace. All I craved was the end of the day, each day, and I found myself hardly even looking up to appreciate my surroundings.
Out on the trail, we’re surrounded by the potential for negative thought. Inevitably, something always hurts or the terrain isn’t always perfect or the trail is not perfectly maintained, or the sun is too hot or the wind too wild, or your shoes are too small or your pants don’t fit right anymore… the point is, there will always be something to distract you out here.
Having a mantra is a simple way to catch yourself in those “there’s always something” moments and pull your mind right back to the present moment. When I find myself spiraling into a negative thought pattern, it’s my mantra that helps remind me how incredible this experience is and to live in the present moment.
If a mantra isn’t for you, I’ve found mediation to also be a successful off the mat tool for keeping me grounded on the trail.
Mediation gets a bad reputation for being impractical. I’ve been told by a lot of people, “meditation seems ridiculous, I can’t sit and literally think of nothing.”
Meditation isn’t about having a completely clear mind. For me, meditation is being able to recognize when my mind is wandering and make the conscious decision to bring it back.
When I sit to meditate, I struggle to be still for long. My mind will begin to wander within a minute and I spend the remaining four minutes of my ritual working to bring my focus back to one thing. Out here in nature, the focus has been the sounds around me or my breath.
Meditation doesn’t need to be practiced while sitting. I’ve began adopting a moving meditation practice where I try to focus on one thing while hiking. I’ll listen to the calls of the birds without thought, and when I find my mind drifting away, I’ll gently remind myself to listen to the birds. It’s been a great test of diligence for me, training my mind to not constantly be planning the future or living in another moment.
If you choose to try meditation, I suggest taking small steps at first. Rather than dedicating yourself to a half hour of meditation, try a couple of minutes at a time, or try to adopt a moving meditation practice that fits your interests.
Chanting has by far been the most successful off the mat practice for me.
I’ve never been great at learning other languages, and Sanskrit was no exception. During my teacher training, we took a class on chanting, and each chant took every ounce of my focus. I found though that the more I had to focus on each individual work, the more pulsating energy I felt from the chant and the less my mind wandered.
While I’ve been out here, when moving meditation and mantras aren’t serving me, I’ll begin to chant a Sanskrit prayer we learned in teacher training. The complexity of each word keeps me focused and grounded, and within a couple of minutes I find it much easier to control the whirling of my thoughts.
For chants, it doesn’t need to be a complex Sanskrit song. If that doesn’t resonate with you, I suggest finding a song you love or a poem that you can repeat to yourself. Regardless of what it is, allowing your mind to stay focused on one thing will help you continue to train your mind to stay focused on one thing.
Practice Makes Perfect
Although some of these practices may not be for everyone, there’s very practical ways to transform each to fit various lifestyles. As I said earlier, instead of a chant one can easily use a poem, a prayer, or a song that resonates with them. Or instead of a mantra or meditation, you could make the conscious decision to not think about what distracts you for the day, allowing your mind to stay rooted in the present. With each effort, I’ve found my mind becoming more diligent and sharp, and I’ve appreciated being able to stay more fully in the moment. As always, practices makes perfect and patience goes a long way.
In Other News
We made it to the half way mark for the desert the other day, and we’re now in Wrightwood taking a day off (mile 369).
We’ll be leaving Wrightwood this afternoon with the hope of arriving in our next town in five days. Until then, happy hikes and thanks for tuning in!
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