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The Power of Breath: Practicing Presence On Mount Kilimanjaro

When my bus came to a stop outside a locked gate, I became flooded with mind chatter. Maybe it’s not too late to turn back. 

All of a sudden, what had seemed like the perfect end to my trip-of-a-lifetime to Africa, felt like a terrible idea. What was I thinking signing up to climb Africa’s highest peak? How will I ever get up that? 

From thirty miles away, Mt. Kili, as the locals referred to the majestic Mount Kilimanjaro, made her presence known. She stood fearless, standing strong in all her glory. 

The closer we got, the more daunting her presence was. Looking at her gave me a new understanding of why in ten years of leading yoga classes, I have always begun with Mountain Pose. 

Silence fell over the entire bus as we rolled through the gate that was opened just for us. Then it closed behind us, and I felt like a kid getting on a roller coaster for the first time. 

Once you’re in the car, all locked in, there’s no turning back. Now it’s time to take the ride, or in my case, the hike. 

Kili stood firm, rooted and confident as hell. And I, just a mere human, was gulping at the idea of us becoming friends. 

As we walked closer and closer to begin the climb, my mind could not comprehend the huge challenge of reaching the top of this great mountain. 

Her presence became more intimidating. I was all in my feelings, the ego setting in. My eyes dilated, my heart fluttered, and my palms began to sweat, I started to become aware of my body. 

My body. Wait! This is exactly what I’ve taught for years. Becoming aware of the body’s fight or flight response is what I teach best! 

With that thought, I began to give myself the same teaching I’ve used to help countless people through challenging times. Begin with the breath. It’s the first step to building coherence in any stressful situation. And the second is to feel and listen to your body. 

So, with my eyes closed, I placed one hand over my heart and the other on my belly. I began to inhale for four counts and exhale for four counts. Then I inhaled for three, and exhaled for three, and on down to one. Breathe, Cherrie, Breathe. 

As I started to tap out and tune in, my mind and body began to align. I was able to breathe, feel, and listen. 

I was remembering my intention for backpacking up one of the most challenging mountains in the world: Truly soul-searching for something higher than myself. I’m right where I am supposed to be. And I can do this! 

So instead of turning around or asking to be let out of the roller coaster car, I began—step by step, and breath by breath. But then, by the end of Day One, I felt defeated. It was much harder than I had ever imagined and I still had six more days to go! 

I started spinning, inner gremlins crawling all over my mind, and I knew that the fear had the power to overtake my ability to climb. 

At the dawn of Day Two, I awakened to the sound of people unzipping tents, plates clinking and the howling wind. I stepped out of the tent, and there she was, the mountain looking right at me. 

In that moment, I decided to stretch and meditate. I visualized Kili and me supporting each other on the journey, her holding me when I needed it the most, us laughing and pushing through to the very end. 

And as I consoled the fear and doubt, I saw Kili and I standing tall, grounded and owning who we were together in all our glory. 

Along with the power of breath, this meditation carried me through my fear, and every night before I laid my head down, I allowed myself time for reflection to revisit my intention. 

Every morning, before I unzipped my sleeping bag, before the cold winds of Kili enveloped my body, I prayed and mumbled my version of a Navajo Prayer, Walk in Beauty. 

By Day Four (the halfway point of the hiking journey), I had surpassed what my mind or body could grasp. My legs were completely jelly, and I could not feel my body from pure physical exhaustion. 

Freezing cold fingers and toes were the norm by now. Due to the steep incline and lack of oxygen, the only things keeping me going were the African songs of the porters encouraging us to place one foot in front of the next. 

I would tap into the spirit of breath and repeat the Navajo Prayer over and over again: 

Beauty before me, beauty behind me, beauty above me, beauty below me, beauty to right of me, beauty to the left of me, I walk in beauty. 

Day Six was the mother of all nights of climbing. My ascension transcended time, space, and fear. We had to begin at midnight in the dark to reach the summit. 

My only light was my headlamp shining just enough to take the next step. Before and behind me, amid vast darkness on either side, was a line of white lights dancing to the sound of the wind. 

We would later discover that this night was one of the harshest they had seen on the mountain in years. The combination of rain, wind, cold, snow and hail was as unwelcome as it was unexpected. 

When I looked up and tried to gaze before me to see in the dark, there was only vastness. A true abyss. The message of the mountain on the dark early morning of climbing was clear: You are limitless. We were so high, I could reach up to grab a star. 

After several hours summiting in the dark, Kili gifted us with a peek of the sun. As I stood in the light, the mountain now visible, I felt the great honor of being so surrounded by beauty.

Whatever was happening back at home was smaller than a grain of sand in light of this grand picture, sharing in the glory of standing tall on Mt. Kili. 

As I hiked back down, I felt Kili and I were now on a first-name basis like she was wishing me well. And there was nothing more gratifying than having her approval and blessing for the new year and beyond. 

Completing the climb made me realize what it is to live beyond the threshold of life, go to the edge, and be uncomfortable with the unknown. 

I crossed over the threshold of my own greatness, I embraced my sacred potential. I went in search of clarity for supposedly life’s most pressing questions and came down with a better understanding of myself. 

I have understood for a long time that there is power of breath. In yoga, the word for breath (pranayama) translates into life force. But now I fully know what it means to have a superhuman power. 

I was able to turn down the noise from my life and fully show up to the wonder and beauty of infinite human potential. And it all began with the breath.

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