Exercises to enhance breathing while backpacking
Story and photos by Luca Williams
This season I thought about backpacking Copper Lake Loop off Hannegan Pass, but the fire in North Cascades National Park changed my plans. It’s been years since I went there on a solo backpack trip and scared myself silly. I keep wondering if that trip and my early adult life would have been easier had I learned to breathe deeply when things were going wrong.
The first day of that trip so long ago was full of mountains and sky while hiking up the ridge to the Copper Lake campsites. The next day, I descended the zigzag path, winding slowly downward to the Chilliwack River. Grunting and ready for a rest, I swung my backpack down at the edge of the river and sat beside it with a thump.
Suddenly, I felt a sting. “Ow!” I screamed. Then another sting, “Ow!” I jumped up screaming, feeling sting after sting up my shorts, on my knee, my neck and my head. Slapping myself, I ran as fast as I could away from the angry insects. I kept running even when I heard my backpack fall into the river.
Finally, I slowed down and didn’t feel any new stings. My whole body buzzed and my right knee started to swell. How was I going to hike out 17 more miles with a swollen knee? I headed back to the river edge to retrieve my backpack, avoiding the hole in the ground where the bees still buzzed around.
Vibrating with bee stings, I grumbled to myself and began to beat feet out of the mountains while my monkey mind swirled faster and faster. Worrying about the possibility of having an allergic reaction to so many bee stings, I never noticed the sharp branch sticking out from the underbrush. But the stabbing pain in my right leg, the one that was already swollen with bee stings, stopped my stream of conscious negative thought. It felt like a dagger had stabbed me.
Even with that pain, I didn’t turn to my breath to calm down. I poured water on the gash, cleaning it out as best as I could, then taped it together with Band-Aids, and wrapped it with a bandana, knowing that it needed stitches. But I still had another night and miles to go and still I worried while I walked, never allowing myself to breathe or notice the beauty of the forest.
While I made it out of the woods, today I wonder if the trip would have gone better if I had remembered to breathe. Obviously, I was breathing, I just didn’t turn to my breath to help me calm down. Since then, thankfully, none of my backpack trips have been as exciting. But still I know that stress, backpacking, driving, texting, reading and sitting at a computer have an impact on breathing. So breathing is something I work with to help both my mind and my posture. Here are a couple of exercises that can be done nearly anywhere to improve the way you breathe.
When most people breathe, they think about filling up the front of their bellies and chest. Yet by breathing into your back and the sides of the rib cage you are able to take in a larger breath and more oxygen. One thing you can do to remind yourself to breathe deeply is to:
1) Wrap your hands around your lower ribs and back (See picture to the left).
2) Fill the area between your hands on inhale.
3) While exhaling, use your hands to imagine that you are wearing an inner corset that draws your belly toward your back, lengthening your spine and shrinking your waist.
4) Try about 10 of these breaths.
5) Notice now after exhaling this way, the next inhale feels more free.
The next exercise is great for breathing and walking. All you need is a wall or a tree.
1) Stretch the arm that is farthest from the tree into the sky then side bend toward the tree.
2) Imagine stretching between each and every rib. If you find most of the stretch coming from your underarm, then use your other hand to make space between each rib.
3) Now take an inhale and fill the space between the ribs with your inhale. Do this gently but feel how your breath improves the stretch.
4) After stretching both sides, walk around and see how you feel.
More importantly than doing these exercises is just remembering to breathe. At least that’s what I keep telling myself. x
Luca Williams is a certified rolfer in Glacier. She helps snowboarders, skiers and other outdoor enthusiasts get aligned and out of pain. Website: lucasrolfing.com Blog: movingwithgravity.wordpress.com