I meant to train and prepare myself for the inca trail. It was my son's childhood dream and I did not want to disappoint. But, with yoga teacher training, building a home, waking up at 5 am to drive my son to a school an hour away, and a young baby in the mix I just did not have the time. So at the end, I was left with an impromptu test: Would my yoga practice single handedly prepare my body to face the grueling 42km of the inca trail? It is important to note that the yoga practice I refer to in this article is a 6 day a week practice of Ashtanga yoga, which I had performed solely for the 2 years previous to this trip. For those of you who are not familiar with Ashtanga, it is an arduous yoga practice developed by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois based on an ancient text called Yoga Kornuta. It is composed of 6 series that are introduced to the student as they become proficient on each of the initial poses. When I went on the inca trail I was practicing the primary series of ashtanga yoga.
So going back to my original question: Can ashtanga yoga single handedly prepare you for the inca trail? Here's my day to day account explaining the many ways in which my daily practice prepared my body for what many consider the ultimate trekking trip.
Day 1: As we did this trip over my son's spring break, we only had one day in Cusco to acclimatize. In retrospect, this was a terrible idea and made the hike even more difficult. I underestimated my acclimatization as I had gone skiing in Colorado and never had a problem. But Cusco is higher than Colorado and that slight difference greatly affected my body. Even though in the first day we were presented with the easiest terrain, it was by far the hardest one for me because of the thin air. I often felt out of air while hiking, and had to focus on my breathing. Instinctively copying my yoga practice I started taking really deep inhales and exhaled all of the air so that I could bring in new oxygen. This small breathing exercise helped me get through the day. After seeing some beautiful places on the first day of hike and trying Chicha (corn beer) for the first time, we slept on the backyard of a local's house with the most beautiful starry sky I had ever seen.
Day 2: If you are doing the Classic Inca trail, the second day is supposed to be the hardest day. It is 7 hours uphill in the Andes to the dead woman's pass then an hour downhill to the campsite. Even though it was the hardest day, my body began acclimatizing so I only felt a slight headache once we reached the dead woman's pass (the highest point of that day). I feel like my pranayama practice yesterday helped me oxygenate my body and as a consequence I acclimatized quicker. Pranayama can increase the amount of oxygen in the blood helping attenuate the effects of altitude sickness. Once we passed the dead woman's pass, a torrential downpour started. This coincided with the downhill part of the day which meant slipping on the rocks and falling 3 or 4 times. Thanks to the flexibility I gained in my daily practice, the falls did not cause any injuries. That night, we camped in a huge camp site and had an unfortunate mishap. I woke up with a guy nearly on top of me looking for something in our tent. I started screaming like a mad woman waking up my son and the people on the tents next to us. The man fled. Needless to say, my son and I were agitated for the rest of the night and could not sleep. My son had a mini panic attack. Trying to calm him down, I taught him Vishama-vritti or unequal breathing to help him sleep. Then I walked him through a short meditation. At the end, he was sleeping like a baby. It was like magic. I attempted the same on me. I did calm down and eventually took a few cat naps, but I was too scared to completely fall asleep that night.
Day 3: On the third day everyone was complaining about being sore. I, on the other hand, was not. I was feeling great despite not having slept the previous night. Usually our muscles become sore when we challenge them with more strenuous activity than it is accustomed to, so it is likely that my yoga practice is challenging enough to make two days of grueling hiking not a cause for muscle soreness. Despite our best attempts to remain calm and stay another night with our group, my son and I decided to hike the remaining 20 km of the inca trail on that same day and spend the night in a hotel in the closest town, Aguas Calientes. This meant another 6 hours of downhill hiking which really put our knees to the test. At the end of the day, Gabe and I were super tired, but happy we had accomplished that feat. We hiked the entire inca trail in just 3 days! We ended the day with an amazing peruvian massage and a hot shower!
Day 4: On the next day we took a bus to Machu Picchu to meet our group who had hiked there that morning. Machu Picchu was one of the most incredible and beautiful sights I had ever seen. It is so grandiose, it leaves you speechless. After walking around the sites, my son and I just sat down, closed our eyes and imagined what it must have been like to live at the apex of Incan civilization.
Final Verdict: My daily practice of Ashtanga yoga prepared my body for more than just physically facing the inca trail. It also gave me skills to deal with the challenges and problems I encountered. I utilized pranayama techniques I learned to fight altitude sickness, and even to keep calm in the midst of chaos. Even without formal cardiovascular training, I had the endurance and the fitness necessary to finish the 42 km in 3 days (one day less than the classic inca trail). My muscles were not sore, despite the 7 hours uphill trekk in one of the days. I had always heard that Ashtanga is a strength and a cardiovascular exercise, but I have to say I was extremely surprised at how well it prepared my body to face such an arduous task. After using pranayama, meditation, and muscular endurance in the trail I can attest that a 6 day a week practice of ashtanga indeed prepares you for the challenge of the inca trail.