There’s a stillness up here.
The air is thin. I feel light.
All of this perseverance has paid off.
I have a high from exhilaration.
This is the highest mountain trail in the contiguous United States, now I’m standing at 14,496 feet above sea level.
Hmm…I remember reading, during my flight attendant training, that the oxygen masks are supposed to be deployed at 14,000 if an airplane loses cabin pressure.
Considering that the only animals around are transient, a parnassius phoebus butterly and the gray-crowned rosy finch, I think we’ve overstayed our welcome on this 45-minute break on the peak.
In August of 2010, a small group of us started on our trek up to the top of this daunting beast. At the base of the mountain, we witnessed thunderstorms in 100 degree heat. We started late in the day and camped at the base camp, Whitney Portal, at 12,000 ft, in a rocky, often windy, alpine basin with snow patches surrounding us.
Most hikers do the trip in two days which is still considered a strenuous endeavor. We had been through heat, rain, and now snow in the last 8 hours. On day two, we summited and completed this 22-mile hike through 6,100 feet of ascension and descention.
When I reflect back on the peak of Mt. Whitney, I’m reminded of the Element of Air.
It’s something we take for granted here at sea level in San Diego.
At the peak of Mount Everest, 29,029 feet, the partial pressure of oxygen is just 43 mmHg, whereas at sea level the partial pressure is 150 mmHg. For this reason, cabin pressure in aircraft is maintained in the middle at 7,000 to 8,000 feet.
The Element of Air represents wind and things that grow, expand, and enjoy freedom of movement, such as butterflies and birds. It can be associated with "open-minded" attitude and carefree feeling.
The Element of Air also represents breathing, and the internal processes associated with respiration.
The 4th Chakra, near our heart, is also ruled by the Air Element. It is associated with our respiratory system. Physically, our lungs rest around our heart, protecting and cleansing as we take deep full breaths. When it is in balance, we can feel vigilance, trusting nature, clarity, lightness, independence, and joy.
When this energy point is out of balance we often feel inconsistency, anxiety, or a lack of hope or perseverance. Further, we may have physical problems like shallow breathing or lung disease.
Pranayama means the measuring, control, and directing of the breath. Pranyama is the 4th Limb or Petal of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra philosophy path. When the in-flowing breath is neutralized or joined with the out-flowing breath, then perfect relaxation and balance of the body functions are realized. In yoga, we are concerned with balancing the flows of vital forces, then directing them inward to the Chakra system.
Pranayama is considered to be one of the highest forms of purification and self-discipline for the mind and the body.
According to William J.D. Doran, “As the yogi follows the proper rhythmic patterns of slow deep breathing the patterns strengthen the respiratory system, soothe the nervous system and reduce craving. As desires and cravings diminish, the mind is set free and becomes a fit vehicle for concentration." (Expressions of Spirit.com)
I wish I knew all of this on Mount Whitney. These were my pre-yoga days. I wasn't aware of these respiratory strengthening exercises. Unfortunately, I had to learn the hard way.
Mt. Whitney Painting by Hannah Faulkner
At the top of the highest peak in the contiguous U.S., I began to feel pressure in my head as a headache was coming on.
As we descended, I was feeling increasingly weaker. When we got back to the base camp, I decided to stop and try to nap for 30-45 minutes, but I couldn’t sleep. Then the group insisted that we should get going.
I began to feel nauseous.
This combination of symptoms sounds like altitude sickness. I was the only one in the group feeling this way.
According to statistics, it is hard to determine who will be affected by altitude sickness, as there are no specific factors that correlate with a susceptibility to altitude sickness. Dehydration, due to the higher rate of water vapor lost from the lungs at higher altitudes, may contribute to the symptoms. Further, the rate of ascent, altitude attained, amount of physical activity at high altitude, as well as individual susceptibility, are contributing factors to the onset and severity of high-altitude illness.
Altitude sickness is an effect, caused by serious exposure to low partial pressure of oxygen at high altitude. The oxygen levels are also low because Mount Whitney is above the tree line very few plants grow near the summit to breathe oxygen out. Severe altitude illness occurs most commonly in this high range. It presents itself as a collection of nonspecific symptoms, resembling a case of "flu, or a hangover.
I wasn't taking in enough Oxygen.
A headache occurring at an altitude above 7,900 feet, combined with any one or more of the following symptoms, may indicate altitude sickness: lack of appetite, nausea, or vomiting, fatigue or weakness, dizziness or lightheadedness, peripheral edema (swelling of hands, feet, and face), insomnia, shortness of breath upon exertion, and drowsiness.
Unfortunately, I was experiencing all of these.
To make matters worse, my WAG bag was pretty full with unpleasant smells after nearly 24 hours now on the trail. In 2006, the Inyo National Forest instituted a mandatory "pack it out" program because human waste management was a major problem at Mount Whitney considering all of the rocks and lack of greenery towards the upper portion of the mountain. At permit check-in, the Forest Service began issuing "WAG Bags" (Waste Alleviation and Gelling) to trail users for human waste.
Since we were not allowed to leave any waste on the trail, I had to open up my bag each time that I needed to vomit. This made matters even worse as I was ridding myself of valuable water intake as well.
Luckily, as we descended quickly, I wasn’t showing symptoms that may indicate life-threatening altitude sickness: pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), fever, cerebral edema (swelling of the brain), unsteady gait, gradual loss of consciousness, and retinal hemorrhage.
Fortunately, I had enough positive balance in my 4th Chakra that activated perseverance and vigilance as I trudged on one weak step after another and finally made it back to the bottom. After eating dinner at a Lone Pine diner, I felt restored and rested on the drive back.
I’ve been thinking about the Element of Air lately, as I’m planning a trip to Peru to hike the Salkantay trail to Machu Picchu. I will be hiking between 10,000 to 15,000 feet throughout 5 days. This time I want to be prepared with mindfulness and pranayama exercises to take-in the amount of oxygen necessary to remain healthy and balanced in my 4th Chakra.
Pre-acclimatization is when the body develops tolerance to low oxygen concentrations before ascending to an altitude. It significantly reduces risk because less time has to be spent at altitude to acclimatize in the traditional way. Avoiding strenuous activity such as hiking, in the first 24 hours at high altitude reduces the symptoms. Ascending slowly is the best way to avoid altitude sickness.
This time, I'm going to spend my first 2 days chilling in Cusco, at 10,000 feet, to pre-acclimate and lengthen my breath.
4th Chakra Lung Meditation and Pranayama
"As you inhale, feel the coolness of the breath as it enters the body…
Feel the warmth of the exhale as it leaves the body.
Visualize the breath traveling through the nostrils down the throat and into the lungs.
As you take your next few breaths, now imagine the breath moving through the nostrils,
Then the throat and the lungs as illuminated by emerald green light–the color of the heart chakra.
As you take each inhale draw emerald green light into the body
and as you exhale imagine stagnate energy in the body and lungs leaving the body as black, grey or brown light.
Each inhale draws in vibrant green light, each exhale cleanses the body and the lungs."
Yoga Poses for Lung-Opening and Easier Breathing:
Hannah seeks to find relationships between nature, cultures, yoga, and art through her writing.
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Fun Yoga in the Park
Travel the world with me through yoga!
These themed lessons are fun for all ages and levels at Mission Bay Park.
See the page, Park Yoga, for more information!
Lessons from Abroad