A yoga pose for carrying loads – chest opener for backpackers

By Luca Williams

As I plan my annual backpack trip, I think about what lured me to backpacking in the first place. Yes, I loved planning trips and the beauty that I saw every step of the way. I loved the friendships that grew after miles of walking and talking. But most of all I loved the simplicity. An experienced backpacker carries only the most essential items for food, water and a dry, warm place to sleep and leaves everything else behind (except maybe an amazing novel, wine and chocolate). But now backpacking feels so complicated and I keep wondering why.

I haven’t been out on a trail for more than an overnight in years. Life got more complicated with C-sections, kids (all-consuming football practice and games), sickness, aging parents, house projects, work, and many other unpredictable events. Or maybe these are all excuses and my head just got out of the game? Regardless, I found that every year since 2010, I backpacked less and less until an integral part of my life was on the back burner.

In the last couple of years, I decided to contain the chaos and simplify my life. Just as in backpacking, I decided to carry only the essential items and ditch the ones that were just too heavy – physically and mentally. As I have crossed hobbies, businesses and an extra house off my list, my pack got lighter and my chest felt freer.

Another of my other hobbies that took the back burner during those chaotic years was yoga. As my life got busier, finding time for an hour-long yoga session stopped feeling attainable. Fortunately, stretching and yoga are so simple they require no gear at all. All you need is a 3-by-7-foot area and a minute here and there.

I started thinking about wild animals and the way they stretch; cougars and bears don’t stretch for an hour straight, they stretch all through the day. Stretching is part of their lives and their routine. When they wake up they stretch, when they play with their cubs they stretch, after they eat they stretch. Identifying this helped me simplify stretching in a way that makes it more engrained in my life. At times of injury or stress I find myself stretching more, but ordinarily my stretching routine is simple and peppered throughout my day so that I can feel limber and get everything else done on my list.

Stretching through the day helps us open our chests, which have collapsed from texting, driving and working at computers. I wish I would have known about stretching my chest and arms when I was backpacking for work as a wilderness ranger and trail crew worker. It would have saved me from years of neck pain and finger numbness.

One of the most useful stretches for backpackers is the cactus stretch. Try it in your daily life or during a backpacking trip. After you ditch your pack for a break, walk around a little and do some simple backwards arm circles and shoulder rolls. After you are loosened up a little, stand with your core engaged by bringing your belly to your spine. Gently contract your upper abdominal muscles to pull the front of your rib cage downward and inward, which lengthens and straightens your lower back.

Do this movement while exhaling and feel how your deeper abdominal muscles subtly draw together. From this gentle core engagement, bring your arms up into a cactus position (see photo).

For some of you, after years at a desk, or a shoulder or arm injury, this may be difficult, but do your best. Do not let go of that core, but keep breathing out your nose. By doing cactus stretches, you stretch your chest while “knitting” your shoulder blades back together.

If the stretch feels too difficult, come in and out of it, holding it for 3-5 seconds. Otherwise, hold it for 15 seconds at a time and repeat three times. It is crucial that you have your core engaged lightly for this stretch to be effective. If you feel that you are arching your back, start over and engage your core again. You should not be arching your back in order to get your arms up.

I am hoping that this year’s backpacking trip will help me identify the essentials of my present life so that I can simplify, simplify, simplify, and get rid of the excess baggage that weighs me down, allowing me to breathe easier and really enjoy the important things.

Luca Williams is a Certified Rolfer in Glacier. She helps snowboarders, skiers, and other outdoor enthusiasts to get aligned and out of pain. Website: lucasrolfing.com blog: movingwithgravity.wordpress.com. Originally published in the fall 2018 issue of Mount Baker Experience.

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