The Inca Trail in Peru is a walk of about 37 kilometres, starting at an altitude of 3,400 metres and rising to 4,200 metres, including three mountain passes. Although reasonably fit, before attempting this walk in August 2004, I went into 'training' for about one month in advance I increased the number of rounds of surya namaskara and the number of breaths holding each position. I also included pada sanchalanasana (cycling) stage 2 from the Pawanmuktasana 2 series, 108 rounds in each direction to strengthen the legs for the downhill walking and give some aerobic exercise in preparation for the uphill walking.
At high altitude the breath becomes shallow and fast. This causes dehydration, so one needs to drink plenty of water. When resting, the breath does not necessarily return to normal and one can quickly become cold when sitting or standing still at these heights. So I thought of various ways that pranayama would help. My normal daily practice included three rounds of 108 kapalbhati with maha bandha and nauli. I continued with this while training.
My theory for coping with trekking at altitude was that a 1:1:1 ratio of breath would develop a good rhythm of walking and breathing. From here there was the potential to experiment and discover the optimum time to hold the breath internally to get the maximum amount of oxygen from the rarefied air; and maybe moving on to 1:1:2 or 1:2:2 ratio. Swamiji suggested 'plenty of abdominal breathing'. I thought that during the resting periods abdominal breathing and ujjayi (due to its heating quality) would be helpful. So I felt well prepared.
The unknown quantity was the effects that the altitude would have. Altitude sickness can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender or physical fitness. The symptoms can range from headache, nausea, loss of appetite, to aching and flu-like symptoms. The remedy is to chew cocoa leaves or take cocoa tea or homeopathic cocoa or cactus, but most importantly acclimatisation.
It is recommended that you spend several days in Cusco, where the trek begins to acclimatise to the altitude. Cusco is approximately 3,400 metres above sea level. On arriving at the airport the effect of the altitude was felt immediately; it was like wearing a rather tight hat. After taking some cocoa leaves no other effects were noticed that day, but I woke up the next morning with a slight headache and feeling nauseous. Undaunted I continued with my usual morning practice. But after only one round of kapalbhati I found myself flat on the floor and realised that external breath retention was not appropriate at this altitude.
After a couple of days of adjustment, as a trial run, we took a taxi up to 3,700 metres for a half-day trek back into Cusco. This was mostly downhill walking at a gentle pace with a light daypack. Abdominal breathing worked very well. Then after four days in Cusco we felt ready to begin the trek to Macchu Picchu.
Day one is categorised, by Peruvian standards, as easy and flat. Travelling light with our porters, cook and guide, I checked my swara, stepped forward with the appropriate foot, and with the attitude that the next four days would be a walking meditation.
It was a beautiful sunny day, and all around were high mountain peaks, some covered with snow standing out dramatically against the clear blue sky like images in a yoga nidra. After beginning on fairly flat, open ground, the path gradually began to rise. Abdominal breathing became difficult, but I was determined to try out my theories and continued to breathe through the nose. I arrived at the first 'summit' panting and exhausted. The others in the group had already reached the top and were recovering. I asked how they had found the ascent and how they were breathing. Hard and through the mouth, they replied.
The most challenging part, which continued throughout the next few days, was the irregularity of the steps we were climbing. Some were a few inches deep while others could be up to 18 inches. As they were also unevenly spaced any kind of rhythm of movement and breath was impossible.
As we continued uphill I abandoned yogic breathing and decided just to breathe as it came - rapid, shallow and through the mouth. When the uphill path was smooth, one could establish a rhythm of breath and pace, inhaling through the mouth and exhaling through pursed lips. But as soon as there were steps, it became a matter of just getting the air in and out, while hauling the body to the next resting spot. Abdominal breathing worked well during resting periods, as did ujjayi.
We kept rising till we reached the top of our first mountain and looked down onto terraced Inca ruins below. Then it was downhill till lunch. The rest of that afternoon was uphill, and it began to rain. It continued to rain as we climbed above the tree line, finally reaching our campsite.
The second day was described as challenging. We woke to the sound of rain on the tents and feeling a little nervous as we had all found day 1 more difficult than we had expected. Day 2 is all uphill to a height of 4,200 metres. As it became more difficult I set myself more short-term goals. The steps were again irregular and varying in height. I started with 108 steps between rests; then reduced to 54 steps before allowing myself to stop; then 27, until close to the top when it became 3 steps, stop, rest, breathe! The altitude was getting to me and I felt dizzy and nauseous. Chanting my mantra and with the image of Swamiji in mind I eventually made it to the second pass. Then it was all downhill to lunch and a rest at this camp for the rest of the day. After warm food and rest the struggle of the day seemed distant and we felt the worst was over, but it rained heavily all night.
With more rain and all uphill, this turned out to be the worst day for all of us, as the climb seemed steeper than the previous two days. The rain turned to hail, to sleet and then to snow. By the time we reached the third pass we were all exhausted, frozen and extremely bad-tempered. Any thoughts of this being a walking meditation had vanished. It was turning out to be probably the biggest physical challenge of my life. Recovering, we began the descent. Going downhill requires great focus and attention, a good dharana practice. By this time the mantra 'I am not this body' had kicked in, like a mantra. A form of pratyahara had been achieved - at least temporarily. The views all around were spectacular when the clouds parted and with the cloud cover below us, it was quite magical. After more downhill climbing we finally reached camp three where hot showers were available. We were able to wash away the coldness and began to feel excited as we neared the climax of the trek. Again it rained all night.
We left camp in the rain at about 4.00am for the mostly flat trek to the Sun Gate and the glimpse of Macchu Picchu. The walking was easier and so was the breathing. After about two hours and a short, steep, stepped ascent we arrived at the Sun Gate. Miraculously the clouds parted and we had a perfect view of the ancient city. Built into the side of the mountain and surrounded by mountains, it is the most amazing feat of human achievement. The personal challenges of the last few days paled into insignificance.