Zen Summits: Yoga at Over 6,000m

The idea to organize a yoga class in altitude, while also reaching a summit, is something that occurred to me a few years ago. Every time we would travel to the mountains, I always found a spot and moment to practice yoga and meditation. I always felt a strong connection in the mountains, not only with the peaceful atmosphere but also with myself. Last year, when we traveled to Mt. Elbrus, Europe’s highest mountain with our dear mountaineer friend Richard Hidalgo, we had a guide who is also a yoga teacher. After our journey to the top, we arrived and we were blessed with a quiet atmosphere. We spent about 45 minutes just the four of us, taking pictures and admiring the scenery. With the guide, I started playing around with yoga poses and the next thing I know, he is doing a headstand with his crampons and all his gear on. I started thinking about how magical it was to be on the top of the continent and practicing yoga. That’s when I realized something like this could be organized: combining a mountain summit and yoga.

When I started organizing and preparing everything at first, in my mind, there was no way that I would not make it to the top, especially since I had done this particular mountain before. I was working out and preparing myself to avoid having to go back down. This mentality shifted the moment I found out that I was pregnant. Although I didn’t feel many changes or physical symptoms during my pregnancy, I knew that in altitude, things could be different. I did not find much information or research that could help me prepare or help me with what I should be watching out for while pregnant in high altitude. So, at this point, I knew that not making it to the summit could be a possibility. Since everything was already organized and the logistics were confirmed, I decided that the most important thing was to make this project happen, whether I made it to the top or not. When I spoke with Cathy Madeo, a teacher from the United States that joined our journey, I told her about my pregnancy and maybe needing her to take on the class at the top, and she answered: “Don’t worry girl, I got your back”. After a while, two other yoga teachers decided to take on the challenge: Alfredo Yong and Ismery Galavis.

At this point, I knew deep down that this was becoming something far bigger and much more collective. The word “yoga” in Sanskrit means union. And for us, this was true in so many ways: union with nature, with people from different backgrounds and from different parts of the world, and the union with oneself. For me, this was key: it wasn’t about me at all, but about the whole team. During our yoga classes at 4400m and 5150m, the other teachers and myself taught in twos. It was beautiful to share the practice with everyone and to involve them in the process. We even shared some ideas of poses we could do, using our walking poles to help balance for example. On summit day, when I had to turn around and go back down, the others continued and the other teachers made the highest yoga class possible: at 6,039m.

On that morning of November 23rd, when I reached 5800m, I felt strong heart pain. I have experience in altitude and I knew this was not a normal sensation. When I told my husband and the lead guide about it, they told me I had to go back down, not even giving me the option to try and continue to see if the pain would stop. And deep down, I knew that this was what I had to do. The dream and illusion of going up to the top and teaching the class started to dissolve as my steps went downward. I had worked so hard to get here and now, just like that, here I was walking in the opposite direction. These are the key situations that make you realize the importance of listening to your body, even when your mind wants something else. This is one of the most important lessons that yoga and mountaineering teach you: to know when to let go of your ego and make decisions that are safe and more important. These practices also teach you perseverance: whether you are trying a pose for the thousandth time or trying to reach the summit again.

“In yoga and in the mountains, the most important lessons are the ones your learn along the way”

Everyone has their story: participants arrived at the expedition with personal issues, important life events, and many life changes happening. For some, being in nature and disconnecting from social media and their daily life was enough and meant much more than reaching the top. Others, wanted to give themselves a gift: some time alone. And for those that did not make it to the top, although they might have had mixed feelings about their journey, they learnt to deal with situations that they had imagined a certain way, that changed, and had to accept and adapt to their new circumstances. It is like this in the mountains, but also in life.

This 4-day journey in the mountains did not dissipate the internal storms that some might have had upon arrival, but the experience gave each and every one of them important lessons, new perspectives, acceptation, and compassion. There were ties made between complete strangers but that all had something in common: wanting to challenge themselves and open their minds to the infinite possibilities that life presents them. And that is why mountains are a symbol of strength, because on your way to the top, each and everyone’s internal strength is what comes truly out and what is reinforced.

 

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