I just got back from 4 days in the backcountry of Ojai, California in the Sespe Wilderness. It was the first time I ever backpacked without the backup of someone with more experience than me. A dear friend and I went alone and it was hard and amazing. We hiked almost 40 miles in 3 days, covering the entire exit on the final day so we could recover and relax in a motel in town. Though I limped out leaning on my poles like a walker, it was soooo worth it!
I learned so much on that trip, but one of the most powerful moments was when we got lost. We were more than halfway in and nearing our goal of the Sespe Hotsprings, but we were running low on light. It was about 2:30 or 3pm when we realized we had spent 45 minutes hiking in a circle. I had been feeling so confident we could do the entire 19 miles in in one push and have an entire day at Sespe. I didn’t even realize we had made a circle. My mind, so disoriented didn’t recognize I had just seen these rocks and this part of the river and the man on the other side of the river 45 minutes before until my friend with whom I was hiking said so.
While we were lost, I felt my stomach drop and my confidence deflating like the air leaving a tire. Once we had completed the circle, I had no confidence at all. The experience of having not remembered correctly made me fearful of pushing forward the last 8 miles as the sun was beginning to crest. Since we were hiking East and in the Los Padres mountains, reliable light started to wane just after 4pm.
Some fellow hikers helped us orient and gave us an idea of how far it was until the Sespe and what we could expect. They encouraged us to hike for another hour or so to a sweet Oak Tree and camp there for the night, completing the rest in the morning. We did this and it was lovely, but the experience was a huge blow to the trust in myself and thus our safety.
Until that moment I felt so oriented. I knew where I was, I could visualize via the map where we were going. I felt we could do it. After getting spun around, I no longer trusted my senses or my memory and so I felt fearful pressing onward so cavalierly.
This of course is the beauty of Nature. It is why people so often describe it as humbling – because it really orients you. It really shows you where you fit in the larger scheme and who is in charge – not You, but Nature. It reminds you that you need to be able to read exactly what is going on within it to be safe. Misreading or being over-confident is a really dangerous thing.
Staying True on the Yogic Path
If we practice any of these processes “the way someone once told us” but do not use our own Yukti (internalized wisdom through experience), then eventually when it is time to adjust these practices because we have matured past them or our needs have changed, we will have missed this opportunity. This is because by attaching to the tools of our practice, our identity starts to mold around the activities rather than the purpose of the activities! This causes us to use Yogic Practices to take us off the path of Yoga!
The same is true if we use Yogic Practices without actually understanding them – this includes practicing āsanas but not understanding Prāṇa – or only equating Prāṇa to breath – but not a certain kind of breath.
When we do this, we again identify with the practices we are choosing as part of our identity. Doing any posture or breath series to accomplish goals as worthwhile as “relaxation,” “strength building” etc without understanding how they relate to the complete goals of Yoga is also a means of attachment and starts to adjust our orientation to the practice in ways that can sneakily lead us off the path! We become attached to them & thus do them for this reason, rather than to aid us on it. An example of this is sayig, this postures does this thing – like this twist detoxes or balances Pitta or this supine position balanced emotions and calms Vāta. This can be true and also cannot be true. One posture never does only One thing. Same with the breath.
Staying true indicates orientation.
It means that there is a proper direction and an improper one. Even a slight 1-degree rotation off True, will eventually lead a person very far away from their intended goal. This is what happened on the trail. We were at first on the path, and then we took a right where we should have taken a left and ended up off the route. (This of course would be a 180-degree rotation, but…semantics!)
Smṛti – Memory
This brings us to the concept of Smṛti. Smṛti is responsible for orientation because memory synthesizes our experiences from before with the now. This has a lot to do with our future since we make decisions based on the relationship between what happened before, how we feel now, and where we want to go.
Our senses (Jñana + Karma Indriyas) take in and store memories. If they do so improperly – like what happened with me on the trail – our sense of direction will be incorrect and will lead us astray while we think we are on the right path! We will think we are heading East as I did, but actually, be going West. Oy!
In general as well, often we will be upset when we are corrected because our sense of identity is built around this orientation. Think about times when a Yoga teacher has adjusted you? Or remember the feelings you may have had when you learned that what you once knew was incorrect? Or what about the sense you had when you learned that a renowned Yoga Teacher under whom you may have studied was revealed to be a shyster? Their folly impacts our sense of balance and….Orientation.
We sometimes get defensive when we are wrong because the path we are on feels so close to who we are.
Yoga + Course Correction
Yoga is built to continuously refine our senses through the 8 Limbs. This imbues Smṛti with more power & trustworthiness. The complete practice of Yoga will ensure that we will know when to adapt our practices & how. It will allow us to maintain our sense of direction, which will keep us surely on the path, feeling confident, having lively Yukti, and feeling like a participant rather than a blind follower.
The Hike Home
The hike home from Sespe Hotsprings went a lot faster. We made better time and were in really good spirits. We did the entire 19-mile hike, which had taken us 2 days previously, in 1 day. We applied everything we had learned on the way in. All the course-correcting we had gathered had strengthened our Yukti. We knew we had to get on the trail between 7-8am at the latest. We knew how to cross the rivers more efficiently. And also, after having hiked the entire trail once, we had empowered our Smṛti tremendously because we were able to visualize the entire process. Not knowing exactly where we were going – and then getting lost – made it really difficult to discern how much energy to expend and when. Since we had gained so much experience and were not attached to repeating our mistakes, the walk home had a different vibe.
We can apply this technique off-trail too. And we should. This is actually the practice of Yoga!