Throw Backs and Forwards – The Swamp and the Horses and Namaste

So this weekend has had enough unusual experiences to delay, yet again, my stories of Delhi. Because how often does one revisit activities that were very important in years gone by – and then push them forward into the future?

That was this weekend. It started last week, when my long time Bikram yoga teacher Joe posted he was going to be teaching at a local studio on Friday afternoon, following his most recent trip to Australia. I hadn’t taken a Bikram class for at least 18 months. I left work early on Friday just to get there.

And oh how I’d missed it! You talk about mindfulness. When you are in a Bikram class your entire mind and body is focused on following the dialogue and moving each muscle in accordance. There’s nothing else there but that moment in time, in the hot sticky sweaty spot that is an interstices between the then and the future – the now.

The next day started with our raincheck horseback riding experience. A few weeks ago, husband J and I realized we’d ridden horses – poorly and only on trail rides – in places ranging from Hawaii to the Caucasus Mountains, but never in Florida, where we’ve lived for the past 29 years or so. Time to change that.

So we ventured off, a good 55 miles away, to Forever Florida, a combination cattle ranch and ecotourism preserve. There are zip lines, horseback riding, and lots of alligators. It’s truly a throwback to old Florida. Lots of the horses are Florida cracker horses who have to be DNA tested to show they really are descendants of those brought by Ponce deLeon. But the first date there was for a 2 pm ride. We should have known better. It’s Florida in the summer for heaven’s sake, in the days of global warming. We were totally rained out.

Hence, our trip back yesterday on one of those beautiful Florida bluebird days – an azure sky decorated with white puffy clouds, like mounds of whipped cream splattered onto the sky.

But what we didn’t know about the ride was that a lot of it was underwater – it was truly swamp. We went through multiple Florida ecosystems- prairie to slash pine forest to palm hammock – and into the Bull Creek slough. That’s where my very short horse and I got quite wet – water up to my thighs and his chest. I suppose I could have pulled my feet out of the stirrups and pulled them up high as others did – but I felt a lot more balanced staying in the stirrups – and frankly, the dank brown water felt remarkably refreshing in the 90 percent humidity. It wasn’t that hot – but, boy, it was humid.

It was probably 2014 when I was last on a horse – way back when I started this blog.   Horseback riding in Russia, following the Mt. Elbrus ascent. https://fromswamptosummit.com/2014/07/11/a-wild-card-day-or-summits-dont-end/

That was Saturday. Sunday was supposed to just be my regular – as in 15 years or so regular – 2 pm yoga class at the Downtown Y. But as I walked in, I was told that teacher E (she’s ok) had just gotten into a car accident and wouldn’t make it and there was no instructor but we could have the space. So I was going to practice regardless – about 20 of us were still there and someone asked if I would lead the class. So I did. We all got into a circle (or a version thereof) because I didn’t feel qualified to act as though I were a teacher and somehow a circle is less authoritarian. But I must say – the dialogue from my Bikram class on Friday and the many years of yoga kicked in and I was amazed at how natural and good it felt to lead a class. Not sure how everyone else felt but I’m hoping it was ok. I’ve frequently considered taking teacher training but most recently have thought I should just recognize I’ll only be a participant. But now I’m wondering if my initial instinct was right – and I really should do the teacher training. Some food for thought on a Sunday.

Pretty wild weekend of revisits and moving forwards. Namaste.

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Back to the Beginning – Our Journey to Leh, Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir, India

This title sounds a bit like “Trinity Park, Durham, North Carolina, United States, Earth, Milky Way, Universe,” which I found very amusing to list as my address in middle school. My travel diary for our Stok Kangri adventure – which was indeed to such a remarkably named location – starts this way: “My Fitbit claims it is 10 am but by now we having been traveling long enough I only have the vaguest idea. I believe it’s about 2 am Sunday in Orlando after I woke up on Saturday morning at 2:15 am.”

Kira the cat is uncertain about the backpacks

2:15 am was our planned wake up time. Yes, we were very paranoid about all that could go wrong between our house and the airport for a 6 am flight, not to mention the packing that remained to be done before we boarded our Uber. What? You don’t think it’s a good idea to go to a cocktail party the night before a big trip?

After quite a long wait at the airport – because nothing did go wrong – we made it to JFK, and boarded the same Emirates flight to Dubai that we took last year on our way to Nepal. It was probably the same plane. The flight was full, lots of Indian families traveling back to visit relatives over the summer holidays. I read; watched two movies, including The Shape of Water; and crossed Northern Europe and Russia on the way to the UAE. Fortunately we didn’t have to change terminals this time, although it was still quite a substantial walk to the gate. We boarded our next flight in good time and were on our way to Delhi. Turns out New Delhi is really just a portion of the ancient city of Delhi. Hence the use of both names. For those of you who have asked.

The views upon the takeoff from Dubai are so strange. Canals carved in the desert resembling tattoos.

Once we arrived in Delhi we knew to look for the e-visa line thanks to our travel companion S who’d arrived a day before and encountered no queues there. We were duly met by our Delhi group leader and transported to the Ashok Country House hotel. We passed numerous chain stores (like Benetton), all closed as it was Sunday. “Normal” looking stores were interspersed with carts and people selling anything you could imagine. The hotel was dated and a little quirky but perfectly nice, and we went off to the pool to meet our fellow trekkers. It was 112 degrees Fahrenheit. Our group ranged from two 61 year olds down to two 27 and 28 year olds. Four from the US and seven from the U.K. All of us seemed quite compatible and we shared a few Indian beers. We all found it remarkable that the alcohol content was given as a range – a “light,” which was “up to 5%” or a “strong,” which was between 5.2 and 8%.” Did that mean a light could have 0?

Our wake up call the next day was 4:30 am and we were off to the domestic airport in Delhi for the hour and a half flight to Leh. In contrast to Katmandu, there weren’t any monkeys at the airport, though. See Leaving for Lukla or Monkeys in the Airport. I think we were the only westerners in the entire plane. At the Leh airport we met our guide, R, who was from Ladakh. There is a big military presence – soldiers with scary looking guns everywhere and signs warning if you violated the rules you would not just be shot, but shot dead. You could tell we were near disputed borders. Ladakh was its own kingdom until 1834 and its residents are very conscious of having a separate identity from India. It’s largely Buddhist, and shares a lot culturally with Tibet. The Dalai Lama was to visit while we were in India, over his birthday, no less, and his was cause for great celebration.

Ladakh is very barren, a high plateau landscape. A few planted fields separated by poplar trees. Our hotel, the Hotel Mogol, had a rooftop cafe, a restaurant, and our room was large. It worked.

Our first day in Leh – which is at around 11,000 feet – was supposed to be spent acclimatizing. One reason we picked this particular guide company was a really good acclimatization plan. We were to have several days hiking around Leh before starting the trek and climb. Day 1 involved lunch, beers, a nap, and a yoga class at the Mahabodhi Yoga Center for several of us. It was remarkably similar to a US yoga class and felt very familiar.

Mahabodhi Yoga Center

Afterwards, we met R for a very rapid stroll to the “market” and the “local market.” Streets were covered with rocks, mud, motorcycles, people, mangy dogs, all vying for a spot. Lots of cafes and guest houses. Leh is bigger than you would think from its population figures, and we were there during the tourist season for visitors from the rest of India. According to R, after Ladakh was featured in a 2009 movie called “3 Idiots,” it became a popular tourist destination – which has brought benefits but also increased trash, not to mention the noise pollution of hundreds of rental motorcycles cycles revving their way along the main streets.

The hotel served dinner at 8 pm. There was hot water in our rooms between 6 and 8 am and 6 and 8 pm. We had another couple of days ahead of us to explore monasteries and visit the second highest drivable pass in the world at 17,500 feet.

Life was good. And, as you’ll see soon, there was to be an oracle in our future.

20,000 Feet of Fear – Stok Kangri and Other People’s Blogs

IMG_0069We leave for India, more specifically Stok Kangri, in just under 4 weeks and it’s time to stop. Time to stop reading other people’s blogs and trip reviews.

You know you’ve read too many over the top accounts of bad weather, deep snow and almost vertical walls when you find yourself repeatedly googling whether the steepest gradient is really 40 degrees (according to the one and only detailed trekking guide I’ve found) or 75 degrees (according to anecdotal accounts by multiple trekkers at varying levels of inexperience). The next clue you’ve gone too far in internet research is when you start googling all the mountains you’ve previously climbed for comparison purposes to see where they rank in this doubtless highly imaginary world of guessing gradients to try to determine if that will give you a clue as to whether you can do this. And that is followed by a good dose of wondering just how good your training can actually be when you live in Florida and a feeing you better rapidly add even more stairs to the stair climb in the office, not to mention increase the distance of your runs.

I guess fear can be a great motivator – for a bit. But I think I’ve hit the point where reading more about this trek/climb is about to backfire. I need to spend these few last weeks getting my head ready to focus on the present moment and the here and now. That’s what it’s going to take get up that mountain. One foot in front of the other; one at a time.

It’s the opposite of the planning and strategizing and analyzing I have to do in my day job lawyering. Sure, there are the logistics – the gear check, travel arrangements, picking out your GU selections – those are fine. But trying to psych out the mountain beyond a certain point – that’s no good. On a trek, typically the guides will not even tell you what the next day holds until the evening before. I’ve figured out the reason for that. You need to focus on where you are and what you’re doing – not where you’re going to be and whether you can make it.

Right now should be a yoga practice. I need to take the space created on the mat…and let that sense of the present be my guide for these last three weeks. And not read any more first hand versions of “how I survived Stok Kangri.” Namaste.

Holiday Mountain Part 2

 

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Last year at this time, I wrote a post called  “journey up holiday mountain,” not anticipating there’d be a part two. Yet, here I am. And not just at a part two of a blog – a fairly innocuous activity -but also just over 30 days before our next attempt to scale an 18,000 foot moutain. Some may wonder why I do this. Oh, and did I mention that in addition to an extremely busy work schedule I am giving a party for probably close to 100 people next weekend and I am apparently inherently incapable of using a caterer? Somehow I feel it doesn’t count if you (and Costco) haven’t made all the food yourself. Sometimes I feel if you didn’t have to sleep life would be much easier.

No mind. Each time we are preparing for a high altitude climb I feel I must hike at least a few miles in my mountaineering boots just so I remember what they feel like. Today was that day. Just a three mile walk back from the Y following yoga – the day, hot, steamy and sticky. Anyone want to question global warming who lives in Florida? And, as readers of his blog know, I observe coincidences. Last time I did this walk with mountaineering boots, I slipped on the sidewalk, fell,  and cracked my iPhone screen. Today, exiting the Y, the phone slipped from my hand and I did the same thing. At least I had a screen guard and I might be able to glean a few more months of use out of it.

I think that cracked screen is a reminder – we do occasionally need put our iPhones down and just enjoy some of the bright lights around us. Happy Holidays, y’all!

The Weekly Summit

The saddle of Mt. Elbrus, Caucasus, Russia
The saddle of Mt. Elbrus, Caucasus, Russia

I’ve been practicing yoga on Wednesday nights now for at least ten years. Each time I enter the yoga studio at 7:30 I’m struck by the feeling that now I know I’ll make it through the rest of the week. That old “it’s all downhill from here” saying. (Of course, climbing down a mountain can be the hardest part, but somehow that’s not true for surviving Thursdays and Fridays.)

That hour and 15 minute carve out on Wednesdays marks having reached the summit of the week. And it’s interesting how time has a way of recreating those mountain patterns for us, peaks and valleys and traverses – even when we’re not aware of it.

Yesterday I went to go buy a new pair of running shoes. When the very nice person at the store looked me up on the computer he did a double take – it was exactly one year ago to the day since I’d bought my last pair of running shoes. I had no idea. It must have been some internal clock thing. (Or just really worn out shoes.)  I can prove it was a year ago too – just look at https://fromswamptosummit.com/2014/11/02/training-and-the-power-of-the-shoe/ , published on this blog on November 2, 2014! A lot of miles on those shoes, and a lot of highs and lows.

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I also managed to find a Bikram yoga class to go to yesterday – the first in several months since the studio closed. And you know where it was? In the very same location where I took my very first Bikram class some 10 or so years ago. That was before the new fancy studio, back in the somewhat dingy location down by the expressway, in a terribly humid room – but oh how good the class felt. It almost felt like a full circle….

And finally, another ritual that marks the pattern of time – dear friends whom we met in Lamaze classes (we regarded ourselves as the only normal people in the class!) have been spending Halloween with us for at least the last 22 or 23 years. The four children between us have now moved on, but the Halloween tradition remains, marking the point each year that starts us up the steep incline toward the holidays.

It’s reassuring to sense those patterns. One thing about mountains is that they are predictable in one way. There’s always an up and there’s always a down. As I train for Pico de Orizaba the first week in January 2016, I keep thinking about that.

Yoga and the Art of Climbing

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I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time. Certainly, when I have been training for various climbs and treks, adding cardio to my work out was an essential component of success. But much of climbing or trekking is the sheer grit of simply keeping on going even when every part of you is saying stop right now. And that’s where yoga has made all the difference – and here’s a shout out to my many, many yoga instructors over the years, whose voices were in my head on so many of these hikes. Elbrus on the long slushy slog on the way down. Mt. Hood, where the 60 mile an hour winds were blowing me into the mountain and I couldn’t see because the blinding snow had totally occluded all vision.

I remember my first Bikram yoga class in 2007 or so. At that time, Bikram Yoga Orlando was located next to an elevated expressway in an small old strip center (and I mean old – circa 1960s) next to a pet grooming place. That’s the reason I had seen it – I had dropped off the dogs (who are now 14!) and picked up a schedule from the pile outside the door. I’d been doing yoga for a long time and had heard of Bikram, but had never tried it. But I was then working long hours on an arbitration – the precise contours of which have long escaped me – and I thought, maybe this is just what I need as a break.

Bikram is supposed to be practiced at 105 degrees and 40% humidity – and at the new studio it is. But at that old place down on South Street I swear you could see clouds forming overhead and I am sure there were a couple of times rain drops actually came down.

After my first class – and I didn’t leave the room nor did I lie down, despite the heat – I thought – Ok, I’ll try this every other week. But the next week I was back. And, although I’ve kept “regular” Wednesday and Sunday yoga classes, pretty much every week I’m also at Bikram. For someone whose job is comprised of making decisions, to be in an environment where there is no decision except the one to go on is an incredible luxury. I follow what the instructors say; I know the dialogue; and each class I feel my body respond and become stronger. And there is a particular moment where listening to the dialogue and your own physical presence merge and become one – and for once, you can be in the present – no decisions to make except for the one to keep going.

And I don’t want to dismiss my so-called “regular” yoga classes either. Where else have I learned the ability to literally stretch my body into shapes and places it wouldn’t normally go. The beauty of Bikram is that it’s the same every week – but the beauty of the other yoga is that I’m challenged to see where I can move my body in space and create that extra last dimension around me and fill it with movement.

So why does this relate to summits? I’ve learned to control my breathing. On the mountain, I think – breathe normally, in slowly and out even longer. On Elbrus I recited the Bikram dialogue in my head. I went into that quiet place of the present that allows you to take those last few steps that lead to the summit – and just as importantly – that allow you to descend.