Backpacking and Yoga

Updated: Dec 16, 2021

I wrote this back in 2016 and have updated a few timelines throughout the story to make it more accurate to todays date. I wanted to share this piece of work as my first blog because it a foundational piece to my character development and my life story... As I write these words in the spring of 2021, I can see the beginning of a very therapeutic journey of self discovery through sharing my writing. That, as well as building a foundation for wellness and self-care for those people in my life. There is nothing more I want out of this life, than to share the things I have come to find most sacred. Yoga, Shamanism, Self-care, Self-work and Self-discovery... I look forward to sharing this journey with YOU!!! Be steady, my friends.

As the journier journies on his journey

He ventures through and through

Through thick and thin

Through high and low

The journier keeps on journying

Redundant, but simple. It still brings the memories of the trail flooding back. I wrote this poem after a camping trip some time around 8th grade and it still comes back to me. Quite often in fact. I can tell you what I meant when I wrote this, it was my attempt to relate life’s many obstacles of struggle and strife to be overcome with a balanced and steady mind. The journier symbolizes the observer, that place inside us that does not change and is infinite and eternal, the atman. It is that indomitable spirit that I learned about in martial arts. It is that guiding force that can turn life’s roadblocks into stepping stones. The journier is a symbol, a culmination of hard work and persistencey paying off. But not to the popular belief that there is a reward waiting ahead at some unforeseen finish line… No, the reward is in the now, it’s in the journey. These struggles are real, and they only add to the color of the story. It is up to you in how you tell it. Choose your path wisely.

I often think of Joseph Campbell and “The Hero’s Tale” as I have started writing my own story of self exploration and discovery. He made an interesting point that I feel has impacted the way I view the world and society. He points out that every story told, every culture, every tradition, every religion, every race, every continent has something in common with their documented stories of myth and lore. It is up to the reader of course, what they resonate with, but it is that everything outside of ourselves that we resonate with, is because we are reading our own story. We are the hero, we are the main character in this book. And here I am, sharing my story. And I am saying this to myself, as well as you, but that this is a reminder, that every time you speak, every time you decide to make a decision, it is being burned into the records of time as a part of your story. So tell it fresh and new every day. Every little bend and turn will make all the difference, so let’s allow the story to unfold one step at a time and we will inevitably turn our hurdles from road blocks in to stepping stones.

So tonight’s presentation, my plan is to make some connections between yoga and backpacking. The beauty of yoga, is that it really can be applied to just about anything and will prove to be beneficial after a persistent effort of application. I often reflect, that there is a lot of people who do yoga, without having ever consciously been doing yoga. The chef in the kitchen, completely immersed in the preparation of his masterpiece, making every little detail matter. The swimmer, focused on breath awareness and the deep sea diver too, consumyed by the moment. Sure, these people aren’t studying scriptures or practicing the eight limbs of Ashtanga, but there is something so simple that it is inherently our birthright to experience, it is that awareness of being completely one with the moment to moment and being conscious of it. That, my friends, is yoga.

I would like to get started by taking you through a guided visualization, so let us first find a comfortable posture, bring your awareness to your breath, and relax your bodies from head to toe. Then begin to sink, sink your mind’s awareness into a deep comfort of lush summer smells and fresh lake superior air. You are in the north woods, deep deep in the forest. A place where cell phone service is absent, almost non-existent. Your map and compass are the most valuable tools you possess. You know right where you are and where you are headed and you feel completely at one with it. Every breath, every step filled with purpose, your backpack and all. Every ounce you carry, you have thought long and hard whether it was worth carrying or not.

As you carry yourself deeper into the woods, you start to feel both connected to your environment, yet strangely detached from the life you left behind for a short while. It's a humbling feeling to be this far out away from a paved road, and as your distance from civilization grows, you are starting to feel the despair and longing for your comforts you have back at home. You take a breath and nature lures you in, comforting and caressing you. She tells you of her majestic beauty that you can only see by taking the time to reflect and appreciate it. Otherwise you miss it. In each breath, there is this magnitude of gratefulness. The impermanence of things. Nature sacrifices everything to share her beauty but she can just as quickly snatch it away from you in an instant... Nature will surely let you know that you are never really alone. But in order to feel her support, you have to first surrender into her caress.

The cool tingle of cedar in the air, the moistness of morning dew saturating your skin and clothes and the rushing sound of the river and the breeze in the trees. It is then in that moment, that you are completely one, nurtured in mother nature’s arms.

As you continue down the trail, the majesty fades, the clouds roll in and you are left with those heavy thoughts of all the things waiting for you back at home. This ominous weather you feel straight to your core… Those “job” things, those “relationship” things, those “financial things.” All those “things” that get in the way of your free flowing present moment. It is important to reflect on these things to gain clarity and sometimes taking a little time away to be in nature can bring out just what you were looking for. Just what you needed, and you might not have even known you were looking for it. You might not have even known that you felt this way. The trail lures you back in. You bring in some breath awareness as you journey on down the trail and life unfolds… one breath at a time.

Backpacking lead me to the meditation center. It’s true. I had already found yoga but I knew I wanted something more and I wasn’t getting it at Lifetime Fitness which is where my yoga journey started. It was at a critical turning point in my life and I was still very unsure of where I was going. I was literally obsessed with rock climbing at that time and I was working a job where I was traveling around the country building rock climbing walls. I know, it sounds too good to be true… It wasn’t. It sounds prestigious, I know. But trust me it wasn’t anything that special. The eloquence wore off pretty fast and soon, that job was no more than a job that was full of inconsistencies. It kept me away from home and everything I knew... But that was exactly what I needed at that time. I took the job thinking I would get to do a lot more rock climbing but ironically it wasn’t accessible. We were put up in hotels, we shared a single vehicle, we settled for shopping at gas stations and eating fast food all the time. The lifestyle wore on me and I knew after working this job for one year, I needed to get my life back and center myself. So at that time, I was in Newark, New Jersey and I had decided I was done with this job once we finished that project and after a little thinking and knowing I wanted to do some serious soul searching, something inside me clicked. It was yoga. I decided I wanted to do a yoga teacher training program. I didn’t know where it was going to take me but I knew that it would help me get back on course for the better part of the rest of my life.

I need to back up a few steps now, to fill in the pieces here. A few months prior to this life changing revelation, over the 4th of July weekend of 2012, I was in between jobs and waiting to get called out to the next job in Newark. I had time off so I did what any other outdoorsman would do. I hit the trail. The superior hiking trail. It, along with lake superior, is like a pilgrimage for me. A feeling of coming home.

I wasn't able to align my plans or ambitions for the weekend with any of my climber friends, so I hit the trail by myself. It wasn't unusual for me to seek solitude on the trail. It can be a very overwhelming experience to be distanced from cell phone service and the modern man. But to the initiated, there is great comfort in that feeling. I have always felt at home on the trail.

So I was up for the weekend and the plan was to do what we call an “out and back” where I am never really that far from my car. I hike in, set up camp, and hike out back to my car. Pretty simple, and it’s a great way to build experience for longer adventures. At this point, I didn’t have that much experience and barely had all the gear I needed... I spent a night on a scenic overlook viewing bean and bear lake in the superior national wilderness. The night was crisp, the sky was clear, the view of the water reflected its rippling glitter of the moon's presence. It was breathtaking. The stars filled the night and I felt so blissful, content and at peace with myself and my place in the universe. I wasn’t thinking of the past or anticipating the future. I was just completely immersed in the moment. Experiencing yoga, before I knew I was experiencing yoga...

That night I slept like a dream. However, I awoke to a gentle rain the next morning and packed everything up nice and wet, tent and all. I was trail blazing before the sun was up with the plan to have breakfast back at my vehicle. The forecast predicted the weather would clear and sure enough, by the time I trekked the 2 miles to my truck, there was already signs of the sun breaking up the clouds and Mr. blue sky showing his face.

I get to my truck and I pull all of my gear out to dry in the parking area, a dirt lot off the side of a small county road near silver bay. I'm having my oatmeal and looking at my trail map trying to figure out a plan for my day ahead and where I want to stay. I'm pretty focused in my own little bubble but here comes another backpacker, fresh off the trail who is parked next to me. He's following suit and airing out his tent from the rain and we strike conversation talking about our gear. We are giving our little reviews of what we think works best for certain situations and what brands are more practical, more durable and lightweight. I told him I have never been concerned about my pack weighing less, if it fits in my pack, then it serves its purpose. He had a different perspective. One that most backpackers, the smart ones anyways, shave off any and all possible extra weight. We really admired each other and struck a common bond. A passion for life on the trail. We conversed over breakfast of our plans for the weekend, where we came from and where we planned to camp the next night and after getting to know each other for the matter of a half an hour, we decided we would hike together for the day and share camp for a night.

So we set off to a trailhead parking area at the split rock lighthouse state park and shared the day trailblazing together. Now that night at our campfire, I witnessed something remarkable. I had never seen anything like it before in person. Only on TV or reading about it, but once everything was done for the night, dinner was digesting, dishes were done, our water was pumped and filtered, it was just time to relax and without mentioning, without bringing anything up, when our conversation dwindled to the sounds of nature and the crackling fire, I see my new friend take a meditation posture. I'm thinking cool, I'll try to sit for a meditation with him for a little bit. I've always wanted to get in the habit of meditating. I was familiar with zen practice since my teen years, but I had no previous training or understanding of what one is to do in meditation. My mind racing, nature distracting me, I managed maybe 5 minutes and I opened my eyes. He still sits stoic, frozen in space. I'm already impressed. My ego wants that. I make another attempt. Another 5 minutes of time which felt much longer, he still remains, unmoved, unwavered. So I sit and reflect by the fire for a while and figure we would have a little more chatting and story telling but I decide I best not wait for him and I crawl into my tent and call it a night. He struck a fire in me that night. I wanted to know more about meditation. I heard him shuffling about an hour after he started and I'm thinking wow, here is a guy with discipline. I admire his devotion to his practice.

The next morning I took the opportunity to ask him about his practice and I tell him how inspired I was to witness that first hand and I wanted to learn more. That is when I first heard about the Meditation Center. He told me of Swami Rama and the Himalayan Yoga Tradition and he invited me to come with him the following Thursday for satsang and I am thinking… Alright! Stars are aligning here…

I had been looking for something like this in my life. The space, the magnitude, the energy that the meditation center holds. It was something that was very foreign to me, but it felt very natural. It was a feeling reminiscent of being at grandmas house. Ma Gita invited me in just as if I were her grandchild. I knew from that moment forward, the Meditation Center was going to be a part of my life.

To pick up where I started, I didn’t know that the Meditation Center had Yoga Teacher Training programs at that time so when I was in Newark, working my last project building climbing walls, I found the Yoga Center of Minneapolis. That was what I found on my google search and that was it, I signed up for their fall program and upon completing our project in Newark, I moved back to Minneapolis to ground myself. I went back to the Meditation Center and started doing seva and cleaning and attending the Thursday satsangs. Everything seemed to be falling into place.

It has been over 10 years now since I found the meditation center and the Himalayan yoga tradition and my life has changed immensely. The tools that you learn here are valuable assets on the journey towards self discovery. It is not a path to be tread lightly though, Sadhana is hard work. There are no breaks or vacations, there is no taking time off. Your practice is always waiting for you. Sri Krishna macharya said it himself, practice and all is coming. When you begin to embark on the yoga journey, it might at first just be a casual encounter. You somehow feel inspired but might be uncertain what more there is to it. Then you find yourself really diving into it, digging deep inside yourself, submersed in self inquiry... there is yoga, nature, inner silence just beyond that wild mind.

The mind can be a wilderness. It's a wild place if you miss the moments to breath in the fresh air around you. There is a native american saying “nature isn’t wild at all, it is man that is wild.” And that couldn’t be more accurate. So yoga is the journey into the wilderness within. The ultimate goal, is to become one with it, no longer is anything wild, but simply just free. Liberated, liberated by the bondage to the material impermanence of things and we can live out our birthright. Our story, our journey, our yoga.

Now that I have shared my story of finding the meditation center and my process of discovering the deeper meanings of yoga, I wanted to continue by sharing another story which I planned a backpacking trip the summer of 2013 as an opportunity to culminate my recent studies and to reflect on and absorb what I learned from my yoga teacher training program.

I grew up car camping which is so convenient, it has earned the nic name “glamping” Don’t get me wrong I enjoy car camping, but I always wanted to try something more challenging. I was always intrigued by backpacking. After all, I inherited the nic name tortoise and one of their traits is carrying their home on their back. I was destined for it. So since highschool, I had slowly been acquiring all the gear I would need for backpacking and it wasn’t until after highschool that I started exploring a little more further down the road less traveled. For years, all I managed was keeping it simple and doing those “out and backs” like I had mentioned previously. But now, after the culmination of my yoga teacher training program, I decided I wanted to do something to really challenge myself.

I always wanted to through hike the entire 280+ mile Superior HIking Trail but it wasn’t in the cards quite yet. What I managed to put together for myself was a 160 mile section that I planned conveniently with meeting some friends at my 80 mile point.

I had just spent the previous nine months focusing on my teacher training program and building my own personal yoga practice and I wanted to plan something to really help me absorb everything I had just learned. I even carried Swami Rama’s “Living with the Himalayan Master’s” which is a rather large book, considering I’ll be carrying it for 160 miles. And on top of that, I wasn’t going light… I had never done any treks for more than a night or two up to this point so I was in over my head a little.

I had a friend drop me off at Judge C.R. Magney state park where I had a site reserved for the night. The plan was to hit the trail with the sun rise the following day. I had everything pre packed and enough food to last me for 6 days/ 80 miles.

That very first night being alone, I started to let fear creep in… I had a nice dinner and did some journaling before I started to get a little nervous for the trek ahead. It was a wake up experience for me that very first night. I learned a very valuable lesson. The lesson to check and test your gear before your trip! And to get a accurate read out of the weather and temperature forecasts…

Here I am, miles away from anyone I know, I am still at a state park so I could easily back out and there wouldn’t be any regret. Ok, maybe there would be… But here I am, blowing up my air mattress on my very first night, and there is a hole in it… I don’t have anything to patch it so already I am forced to face some real tapas here without any ground cushion… And on top of that, I didn’t even pack a sleeping bag, thinking my sleeping bag liner would be warm enough, after all it is the middle of summer… Wrong, I was in the north woods and it gets cold at night…

Thankfully I had a emergency blanket… So now what. What else could possibly go wrong. I have persevered through these obstacles, I think I’ll manage just fine for these 80 miles.

The next day comes and I pack up camp at the break of dawn, probably 430am. And I am on the trail. I had a moment where I considered not going but then I decided, I at least have to follow through with these 80 miles to meet my friends. The weather was not in my favor, either… The only pair of boots I had were my steel toed work boots from landscaping. I figured it would serve as some tapas, but after a day of hiking in them, in the rain, I was really starting to miss the creature comforts of home. What did I get myself into here? I managed through that first day, logged maybe 20 miles, got camp set up in the rain, read some Swami Rama and called it a night. There is no real reason to have a campfire when you are all by yourself on the trail, and the weather wasn’t cooperating for it anyways. All the time is best spent shedding miles.

My objective became getting to my friends as soon as possible. My original goal was 80 miles in 6 days but I did it in 4. Between the air mattress, the sleeping bag, the water logged steel toed boots, and my tent leaking rain water… I also managed to break the main buckle on my pack because I had it over loaded… Other than avoiding any catastrophes, maintaining my health and not getting hurt, I think everything else that could have gone wrong, did… I was pretty beaten down by the 4th day on the trail but I was determined to push the 20 miles to get to where my friends were camped. It rained every day intermittently and I was growing increasingly crabby and tired. I had about 2 liters of filtered water that morning and I didn’t want to stop to filter more in the rain so I decided I was just going to make it to my friends no matter what. And they weren’t expecting me for another two days.

I made it most of the way, 15 or so miles, and I realise I am all out of water… “It’s ok Jesse, don’t panic. You are almost there.” And I finally get off the trail and I have what I thought was a mile to hike down this road to their camp, but it ended up being a miscalculation… I was desperate for water, even though it was raining. I wave down a car going the opposite direction and ask if they would be willing to share any water. The driver offers me a diet pepsi and I politely decline, sorry that would just add to my dehydration. But they had about 10 ounces of water they offer and I politely accept, it was better than nothing. I didn’t want to ask for a ride since they were going the opposite direction and the other cars I waved down, no one stopped for me. At this point I was really starting to get nervous and I was feeding some negative thoughts as to if I was even on the right road where they are camped. I was yelling at the top of my lungs and I was on the verge of collapsing to my knees, with my heavy 50 pound pack on my back.

I had a fire in me though. That inherent tapas of the journier. I was going to make it. And there it was, as if all of a sudden, their site appeared to me off the road side about 3 miles further than I anticipated. But I had made it. I had friends excited to see me. A warm embrace, some dry clothes and some hot tea and I was in heaven.

I was so fatigued though, it was hard to enjoy their company. I was just so grateful to be alive and to have made it to them. They were all so surprised to see me two days ahead of schedule. They were of course all curious about how it all went and I had then decided, I was content and not prepared to push for another 80 miles. I accepted a small defeat, but in the process, gained all kinds of little victories. The biggest one of all, was of course, to be blessed to have had this opportunity. I intended on reflecting on yoga and Swami Rama and journaling about the yamas and niyamas but what I did the most was I lived inside my head, feeding the fears. I was almost paralyzed by them. I ended up in a state of survival and I set aside all other ambitions. The wilderness really got the best of me that trip, but it wasn’t the wilderness outside myself, that was pure beauty and synchronicity. It was the wilderness within me that I had to navigate through. And thanks to my inner fire, my will to live, I lived to see another day and it has made all the difference.

I haven’t embarked on any journey as long as that one since, but I have gained so much experience since then. Not just pertaining to backpacking, but I have gained so much life experience. Yoga has served as that governing force within me, as I reflect on my journies from day to day. I take every little opportunity I can to do some trail blazing, and I am now more prepared and I am always ready for more adventure.

I am grateful I was always inherently an outdoorsman. But for yoga, the experiential science and practice of becoming one with nature and the universe, that is a gift that I had inherited from my love for nature. Nature shares her breath of fresh air, and it continues to serve me as I journey on down the trail.

There is no greater journey than the one you must take to discover all of the mysteries that lie within you.

This journier keeps on journying...

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