Into the Wild
About half a mile into Yosemite National Park's Porcupine Creek Trail, just moments after we've crossed a narrow creek, a speckled doe appears. She doesn't hide or run away. Instead, she lets onlookers just a few feet away take in her beauty. It's a sweet moment and the first of many stops along a steady four-mile hike down to a secluded clearing, where our group of 14 will spend the next three days meditating, practicing yoga, swimming, and sleeping under the stars.
We're on a backpacking-yoga trip led by Back to Earth, a San Francisco Bay Area outdoor retreat company that created these trips to give people the opportunity to practice yoga in the stillness of nature, away from the crowds and the comforts of civilization—and to enjoy a backpacking experience sans sore backs and stiff hips.
The trips are designed for the novice backpacker, so we've been advised by our group leaders on how to pack for our time in the back country. We'll carry in everything we'll need, including our food (along with a protective container to keep it safe from bears), water, tents, and sleeping bags. Sock liners, sunscreen, and moisture-wicking clothing are deemed worth the weight they add to our packs. "Nonessential" items like shampoo, a pillow, and even extra underwear, are not.
These tips help, but once we're on the trail in the warm sun, I feel the weight of my pack and wish I'd brought even less. The straps dig into my hips, my balance feels compromised, and I'm having a hard time catching my breath at 7,000 feet above sea level. Watching the doe stay so calm among strangers, however, encourages a kind of ease. My exhalations slow down, and my mind becomes still and present.
Spending time in the woods has always been a source of calm, connection, and wonder for me. The same could be said of my yoga practice, and I was eager to bring the two experiences together. The underlying gesture of backpacking and yoga is simply being. Sure, there's movement, but the physical actions are simple, repetitive, even meditative. Yoga asks that you devote yourself fully to the moment, no matter how challenging a pose may be. To be fully present during practice is to stay with all of the sensations until it's time to come out of a pose or finish with Savasana. On a backpacking trip, the meditation is much the same. There may be a great distance between you and your destination, and there's only one way to get there. There's no avoiding climbing over boulders, no cutting through switchbacks, no jumping to the finish line. Being present means continuing down the trail, enjoying the journey as much as, if not more than, the promise of the destination.
But I'll be honest: None of this hit me until later into our hike, when our teacher, Ashtanga instructor Deborah Burkman, announced it was time for a few minutes of asana. Relief swept over the group as 14 packs smacked the forest floor with a thud, breaking the quiet of the late-spring morning. My body suddenly felt incredibly light—kind of like when you pick up an empty mug that you expect to be full. We started with some standing side stretches, a few Sun Salutations, Wide-Legged Forward Bends, and Half Downward-Facing Dogs against whatever trees or boulders we could find.
Practice closed with a grounding Om, and then, in silence, we strapped on our packs. Burkman asked us to remain in silence as we continued in a kind of walking meditation until we reached a waterfall, where we cooled off and enjoyed lunch.
Pose Among the Trees
Later that afternoon, the land opened up to a cliff-side clearing looking out onto Half Dome, Yosemite's awe-inspiring 8,842-foot mountain that is the park's most popular natural wonder. This spectacular setting was to be our home for the next few days. After some how-tos for camp life from one of the leaders, we settled in for a vigorous sunset yoga practice. During the hike, I hadn't been too happy about having to carry my mat. But once in Warrior I, I was grateful I had brought it along to pad the pebbled earth.
Surprisingly, coming into Tree Pose outdoors proved the most difficult. There we were, gazing toward Half Dome—and with the endless expanse before me, I just couldn't find my balance. Then I spotted a short tree nearby, fixed my gaze on its branches, and lifted my arms and sides up toward the big blue sky.
The rising sun was a natural alarm clock, calling us out of our sleeping bags for a seated meditation and asana practice. After a gorgeous and satisfying breakfast of eggs, tempeh, sun-dried tomatoes, squash, feta, garlic bread, oatmeal, and tea, we distributed camp chores such as cleaning dishes and filtering water at the falls nearby. Those same falls were our baths and playground, and almost everyone spent the day lying lizardlike on the smooth, sun-warmed rocks and plunging into the cold water. I joined a few people for a walk, and we sat on a rock looking out over the green Yosemite Valley. One of the trip leaders drew body-paint designs on the couple of mosquito bites I had gotten overnight. And I sat alone writing in my journal. With nothing left to do, we were all quiet and content, just being.
That evening, we each chose a tree, rock, or plant—whatever object called out to us—and sat beside it for meditation. I easily found my little tree from the day before and noticed a circle of shrubs around it, leaving just enough room for me to sit between the shrubs and the tree. There, I meditated on all of the life supported by the shrubs and tree: ants, birds, a tiny flower. I felt part of it all, completely held, safe, and cared for.
The feeling carried over to our evening of Yin Yoga practice, a sequence of passive and long-held floor poses, and kirtan, devotional call-and-response singing. I must admit that in all my years of camping, I've never been one to "Kumbaya." But calling out ancient mantras around a fire with a group of yogis in nature had me singing with a full heart. That night, in my sleeping bag, the lingering buzz of the kirtan kept me awake long enough to watch two shooting stars perform the wildest light show I've ever seen. The stars almost seemed to dance to the music still playing in my mind, and eventually, the dance lulled me to sleep.
After two days spent in contemplation, it was time for the uphill hike out. Those few quiet days in nature had filled me with unexpected energy, which made the hike back feel easier. Also, we had eaten most of our food, which lightened our packs considerably. When we reached the top of the waterfalls for lunch, we took a break and stretched out with some partner AcroYoga and massages to relieve our aching backs and legs. It was a welcome respite from the hike and an opportunity to pause and appreciate the beauty of the outdoors as our trip was ending.
The final steps toward the main road were both exciting and unnerving. The peaceful simplicity of our stay in the woods had made time feel irrelevant; there was nowhere else we had to be, nothing else we needed to do. In just a few days, I had let go of my life in the city, and I wasn't sure I was ready to go back. I was already nostalgic about the intense connection with nature I'd experienced.
So I took each step, each breath, each moment with care, savoring the air, the light, even the weight on my back—and then suddenly, I hit the end of the trail. It was time to go home, I realized, and continue on my path.
Get Out There
Why Go?: An extended stay in the back country offers time, quiet, and space to meditate or do yoga at a moment's notice with an inspiring backdrop. And asana is a great reason to take a break during a long hike with a heavy pack.
What to Look for?: Group backpacking trips are more fun when everyone is at about the same experience and fitness level. Ask leaders about the trail to help gauge whether it's a good fit for you. A hike of five to eight miles on steady terrain is manageable for most. Also, make sure that the guides have lots of experience (look for ones with some kind of wilderness and emergency medical training).
Trip Rundown: Back to Earth leads at least four yoga backpacking trips in Northern California during the summer. A Thursday evening through Sunday evening adventure includes breakfast, lunch, dinner, four guides, camping permits, walking poles, tarps, and most group supplies. Transportation to Yosemite and individual gear like sleeping bags, boots, and backpacks are not included.