For those of you who know me, or anything about what I represent, I have never been one to promote intense, vigorous exercise for prolonged periods of time. Why? It is because most of my life has been spent in “fight or flight” mode as I have run from the proverbial bear in every aspect of my existence. From escaping Africa at the tender age of 9 months to surviving medical school while suffering with chronic insomnia, I have always lived in a frenetic state of mind. Due to this, my practice, life, and teachings have focused on resetting the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis with yoga, meditation, a positive mindset, removal of toxicity, and healthy eating.
This spring, it became clear that my “How I spent my summer vacation” essay was going to be different from any other I had ever written: I was planning a 4-day hike up and down the rugged Andean mountainside. Yet, how was I to prepare for this once-in-a-lifetime “vacation”? I am thrilled to share with you that I successfully accomplished this goal and am quite surprised with how much of my teachings truly helped my ability to not only survive but THRIVE along this arduous journey.
I will start by giving a short explanation of the hike to Machu Picchu. I was naïve as I asked friends to tell me about their experiences to this sacred land. I heard so many heartfelt and lovely stories about the magic of this section of the world and the Incan civilization that I got caught up with wonder and stunning views and forgot to ask specific facts, such as: “Did you HIKE up to Machu Picchu or TAKE A TRAIN there?”
BIG DIFFERENCE. I guess I missed the train option and assumed that all who I spoke with over the years ascended to this beautiful location in the same way. Since I am married to an Iron Man athlete, it was no question for him to have our family conduct a 4-day hike and forego the luxurious, but less adventurous, train ride up. This decision was encouraged by some very close, equally athletic and adventurous friends, who joined us on the trip, and they agreed that 4 days was the best option for our families.
I was vaguely aware that some of the members of our travel group decided on a 2-day option. Somehow I was oblivious to the intensity of the 4-day option and thus went with the decision. It was only after I learned that we chose an arduous 4-day option that I started to panic mildly. I began searching videos on YouTube, calling friends who actually did the 4-day hike, and read articles of those who accomplished this goal.
Recommendations such as “make sure you train well for this experience” and “this isn’t for the faint-of-heart” circled through my head as experienced hikers shared their stories. Blissfully unaware, my life had been so busy with speaking engagements, family, and my clinical practice, that I only realized the details of our trip about a month before our departure. All along, I had been concentrating on practicing restorative yoga and partaking in massages, rather than working on my cardio. As it was too late to switch to another option to reach this destination, as my husband, daughter (age 13), and son (age 11) were all signed up for this experience, I decided to use that fear to fuel me to successfully accomplish this challenge.
From all that I had learned and read, there were a few key things that allowed me to survive this hike:
1) Wear layers
The temperature would fluctuate from the mid 20’s (yes, Fahrenheit) to the low 80’s based on the day of the hike.
Day 1 was mild to moderate in intensity and started at 9500 ft elevation. Day 2 was the day to fear. This was the day that kept me shaking for a month. It was this day that one ascends from 9500 ft to 13,500 ft and crosses an area called Dead Woman Lying… Nice, huh? Living in Chicago, it is quite challenging to find any elevation of a decent amount to train for this incredible, breath-taking experience.
2) Have a PMA
Before we even started the race, my husband, who loves adventure and recently completed an Iron Man triathlon, said to the group, “Everyone, be prepared for at least 2 things to go wrong today.” I thought, how pessimistic is that? Well, it began raining that morning so the fact that we all needed to pull out our ponchos, was, to me, Wrong #1. Who wants to hike in the rain? Then, as we attempted to enter the trail, we were held back due to passport issues. After waiting 45 minutes, I thought, this was Wrong #2 and we hadn’t even started the trail yet!
As we embarked on the journey, our guide reminded us that the key to getting through the experience was to have PMA, a positive mental attitude. Little did I realize that accepting that things may go wrong and graciously getting through the challenges is part of the PMA that gives one the strength to handle adversity. Let’s not forget I had young children hiking with us and much of the hike was mountainside.
3) Remember to Breathe
The beauty of this trail is the majestic mountains and unique landscape. Hiking through the Andes and shifting from cold to tropical weather is beyond words. Day 2 of the hike truly brought out the inner warrior in all of us. What I realized was the ability to gently and rhythmically breathe in and out of my nose was the key to keeping up with the challenge. Not only do you need to have the PMA “I can do it” mantra in your head, you need to really take long, deep breaths through your nose as you ascend. The oxygen saturation drops and breathing becomes one of the most relevant tools to helping get through the challenge.
I recommend practicing simply walking and breathing in for 2 counts and exhaling for 4 counts, through your nose, as you keep your pace. If you are getting out of breath, slow down your pace.
4) Have Solid Digestion
As many of you know, the key to health is a solid digestive system. After practicing ancient medicine for about a decade now, I have become obsessed with doing all I can to keep my digestion healthy. My favorite supplement to keep my system regular is an ancient blend of three fruits known as Triphala. Taken daily, it is an amazing tonic for the colon and promotes detoxification. On a trek like this, you will not have a luxurious potty but a hole in the ground to do your morning business. Plus, the smell from the rare bathrooms is enough to turn you away. Having a strong digestion will allow ease of daily movements; thus, you will feel more vibrant and energetic on the hike.
5) Smile and Enjoy the Journey
Last but not least, enjoy the journey. Places like Machu Picchu offer so much wonder and amazement. I recommend you take time to look around and enjoy the beautiful mountains, native plants, the stars, and the serenity of nature. This was one of the most challenging, exhilarating trips I will likely ever take. To be able to not only survive, but thrive on this type of a journey is the key. I hope that many of you will allow yourself to explore the beauty of Peru and enjoy the journey to the sacred land of Machu Picchu.