July 10, 2009

Wild Diversity: Women of Color Backpack and Practice Yoga in Yosemite ~ via Arin Trook

The Balanced Rock Foundation

A Yoga and Hiking Retreat for Women of Color

via Arin Trook

“Come to the edge,” the voices said.
“We can’t, we’re scared.”
“Come to the edge,” the voices said.
“We can’t, we’re scared.”
“Come to the edge,”
They came.
They were pushed…
And they flew.

The group of women head off along the Kibbie Lake trail in the wilderness of Yosemite National Park, pondering that brief story. Opal, an ER doctor, just finished her last shift of patching and stitching patients in Oakland at 3 am the night before. Kara, a young medical student at UC Davis, is intrigued and a bit intimidated by the stories Opal shares as they move slowly through the incense cedars and Jeffery pines of this Sierra forest. Packs for the four-day expedition are heavy, and rain is threatening, but a brief introduction into walking meditation practice helps the miles move by a bit more gently.

This group of vibrant, young Black, Hispanic, and Asian-American women are engaged in the Balanced Rock Foundation’s eighth annual Women of Color Backpack and Yoga course. “When I told friends and family I was going to be exploring the vast wilderness of Yosemite with a group of women of color who shared similar interests as me,” said Kara later, “they comically replied, ‘Wow. I thought you were the only one!’”

Come to the edge…
“Are you kidding me?” says each woman as she lifts the pack onto her back for the first time. “You expect me to walk with this thing on?” All of these women are new to this type of expedition. Several have never car-camped before, let alone hauled 40 pounds of food and gear over 20 miles and four days of deep wilderness adventuring. They have come to the edge, standing at the boundary of Yosemite National Park’s wilderness, standing at the edge of their own fears and inhibitions and excitement.

We can’t, we’re scared…
A black woman in the wilderness is a bit of a rarity in the USA. There are many thoughts around why this is. There are economic and cultural challenges—outdoor recreation often involves expensive gear and specialized clothing, not to mention the energy and expense of travel to trailheads, national parks, and climbing areas. Looking to our country’s pre-Civil War past, the wilderness has been a threatening place for people of color—the hidden landscape of lynching and race-based violence. And today, many women, regardless of race, still hold a fear not of wild animals but of aggressive men in the remote places of our world.

And yet, there is a growing recognition that the beauty and power of the wild world is a valuable resource for all people. “I will not allow anybody to deny me my right to go out and enjoy the outdoors” says Hank Williams Jr., big game hunter and Black cowboy profiled in Dudley Edmondson’s The Black and Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places. “It’s like denying me the right to vote; it is that important to me.”

Edmondson’s book also discusses this divide between wilderness fashion and wilderness exploration. “It seems odd to me that today we have stylish urban youths wearing Timberland boots and North Face parkas,” writes Edmondson, “with no intention of ever using them in the outdoor adventure experiences for which they were designed.”

They were pushed…
“Can I camp in the back country if I wear contacts?” asked Kara in her journal reflections on facing the fears of this wilderness expedition. “What if my allergies act up? How do you wipe in the mountains? Will I have access to everything that I need? Will I be safe? Will I survive? I don’t really know all that much about yoga! Why am I doing this?”

“It’s just not a part of the culture where I’m from,” said Kara. “So 5 days and 4 nights in the wilderness of Yosemite was like jumping off into the deep end instead of cautiously wading in.”

And they flew…
High on a granite stone dome over Kibbie Creek, the group moves into yoga practice before the sun has risen. Surya Namaskar, the series of poses also called “Salute to the Sun,” takes on a vibrant power when actually performed at sunrise, outside in the wild beauty of granite peaks, wildflower blooms, and sierra juniper trees. Yoga, in its literal definition from the Sanskrit, means “union.” In that spirit the women join together, diving into partner stretching, “flying” each other in balance and strength.

This union extends also into day to day interactions. “As a small group of women of color in the Yosemite wilderness, there is an intimacy and closeness that permeates all of what happens here,” writes another participant in reflection on the experience. “There is an excitement in conversation as we explore what it means to be a woman of color in the world today, discuss how to use these tools of mindful meditation, yoga practice, even a deep connection to the natural world as way to stay alive and thrive within a dominant culture that can often be heavy with oppression, racial bias, and fear.”

These women have learned to use essential tools to manage and succeed in this wilderness adventure—map and compass reading, tent and shelter construction and back country gourmet meals, to name a few. Beyond this, there is a daily yoga practice, instruction in walking meditation and morning “attunement” ritual to bring this small community of women together in body, heart, and spirit. Perhaps these are not the standard back country skills and tools of other outdoor guide services, but they are skills that will expand well beyond the wilderness for these women. “Re-integrating into my reality has been tough,” said Opal after the course, “but I’ve heard more birds in the bushes of Oakland and seen more gorgeous flowers than I did before.”

The Balanced Rock Foundation offers “mindfulness journeys” throughout the year in Yosemite National Park, weaving yoga, creative art expression, and meditation into adventures and expeditions in the wild beauty of the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Courses include “Connecting Art and Nature: Yosemite in Watercolor,” “Jivamukti Yoga and Thai Massage in the Backcountry,” porter-assisted backpacking and yoga programs for women and many others. Visit their website for a full course calendar.

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