108 Steps

Sage Rountree comes back to her yoga practice—intention, form, breath, and staying present—to get through a fearful situation.
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Sage Rountree comes back to her yoga practice—intention, form, breath, and staying present—to get through a fearful situation.

On a week’s vacation to Bald Head Island, off the coast of North Carolina, my yoga practice included handstand attempts on the beach, some lovely time on the mat on the screened porch in the maritime forest, and most intensely, climbing to the top of Old Baldy, North Carolina’s oldest standing lighthouse. The lighthouse was built in 1817 to mark the mouth of the Cape Fear River.

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Though I’d done the climb once before and remembered the view from the top being impressive, I’d forgotten how daunting the old stairs were. Spiraling up the inner walls of the 110-foot structure, they are steep and narrow, and the thin banisters feel thinner with each progressive step. My daughters, eleven and eight, scampered up; my husband and I made it to the first landing and froze. Eventually, we picked our way back down the stairs and hurried outside. The girls came out to retrieve us.

“Come on, Mommy!” one said. “Face your fear,” encouraged the other, as she took my hand and led me back inside. Knowing I’d regret not making an honest effort, I followed my daughters up the 108 stairs. The auspiciousness of the number 108 wasn’t lost on me—it's the number of beads in a mala. I’ve raced Ironman, I’ve run 40 miles, I can surely climb this lighthouse, I told myself. I’ll do it one bead at a time.

Breath by breath, step by step, I continued to the top landing. In that shadowy space, we waited for another family to descend the ladder from the summit room with its panoramic windows. The wait was hard. I held tight to the stucco wall. How many times have I stood on one leg? On two hands? Why was the perspective shift so hard, I wondered.

Just as when things get tough in a workout or a race, I came back to intention, form, and breath, to stay present in the moment. My intention was to get to the top, up the steep ladder and through the trap door, and to share the experience with my daughters. Realizing I was using much more physical energy than I needed, I relaxed my form, moving my shoulders away from my ears and my jaws away from each other, lowering my hands from the stucco. And I came to a good full breath, easy and complete. When it was our turn, the girls and I climbed through the trap door and relished the view.

The climb was an extension of my yoga practice—as is my training. Both prepare me for life. In yoga, we put ourselves into intentionally challenging situations, either in the poses or in meditation, and we practice being present in the face of the challenge. Thus, we sharpen the skill we need to show up and be useful in life’s involuntary challenges.