Ain’t No Mountain High Enough
When I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis seven years ago, at the age of 28, it felt like my life was sent spinning downhill. My fear of how this disease would weigh on me, drag me down into inevitable disability, was echoed by the concerned family and friends who cautioned me to be careful, not to take risks, to take drugs, to abandon my dream of having children. How would I cope with one day being in a wheelchair and not being able to work? Who would take care of me?
At the time, I was a longtime heavy smoker, in a toxic relationship, and my feeble attempts at exercise consisted of the occasional yoga class or visit to the gym where I’d putter around on the machines, uninspired and ignorant of how my body actually worked.
The MS diagnosis was a lightning bolt, propelling me into instant action. Leaving the doctor’s office that day, I made a decision to change my life, to embrace a path of healing and empowerment. I quit smoking on the spot (and have never smoked since). I radically changed my diet to eat more organic foods, visited acupuncturists and massage therapists, chiropractors and colonists; I got a personal trainer and went to the gym regularly and started running. The next evolution of my newfound body awareness was to take my growing yoga practice to the next level, and I attended a year-long yoga training program and became a certified Kundalini yoga teacher. Sat Nam!
Yet something was missing. I still thought of myself as a victim, a sick person, at best just slowing down the disease train that was going to smack me into submission, someday.
Then, after a long meditation one day, I got an inspiration, asking myself: What does a strong, fit, powerful healthy person do? Who did I believe I could be, in my wildest dreams? At the top of my brainstorm list was “climb Mount Everest!” Well, I was sane enough to know that wasn’t a short-term option, so instead I decided on a modified plan – I would spend a month trekking in the Himalayas in Nepal, to get myself to the basecamp of the tallest mountain on Earth. That certainly didn’t seem like something a “sick person” would do!
Soon after, I found myself climbing steadily uphill, rising every day, step by step, toward “Chomolungma,” the sacred mountain the Nepalese call “Mother Goddess of the World.” At 15,500 feet above sea level, life takes on a different perspective. The oxygen levels were 40 percent lower, yet every breath was deep and pure, as I appreciated the pristine mountain air. After three weeks of hiking from dawn to dusk every day, I felt blessed by a new awareness and appreciation of my body, the rhythm of my own power to move my life, upwards, higher and higher, into what seemed like heaven on earth. One morning, I woke at sunrise and watched the daylight fan across the top of Mount Everest, and I knew I was connected to a light that would rise for me every day if I woke to greet it.
After that journey, I realized the healing power that I was seeking could be found in immersing myself in nature. I began to explore the wilderness in my own backyard, in Canada. I began to hike regularly and practice yoga outdoors, in the mountains, on the beach, in remote fields of wildflowers. I paddled canoes along backcountry lakes and swam nude in secluded rivers under the moonlight. I felt healthier and more vibrant than I ever had in my entire life! So much so, that I decided to dedicate my energy to helping other women discover their wild side and natural vitality, changing my job from an urban office worker to becoming the director of Wild Women Expeditions, an outdoor adventure travel company, and moving from the city to living on the edge of a National Park surrounded by forest, mountains and ocean.
The medicine I needed more than anything was to fall (rise!) in love with life again. To love my body and trust its infinite resilience. To love and cherish the land and the water, and let it hold me and wash over me, like a nurturing mother. Synchronicity would have it that the love of my life, who is now my husband, is a holistic life coach and personal fitness trainer at Holistic Fitness Guru, as well as a wilderness guide. We are now getting ready to welcome our first child into the world!
There have been so many lessons in the adventure of moving through the healing path, and in every way I am more alive because of the disease I chose to make a tool, not an obstacle. I have found that living more naturally is about deeply engaging in the world around you, connecting with the land and the lifecycles that bring us nourishment, daring to get our hands dirty and our feet wet.
Many scientific studies have been conducted to validate that physically and psychologically, getting outdoors and being active in nature is beneficial for our health. And intuitively, we know this to be true. Spend an afternoon walking in the woods, swim bare breasted under a waterfall, push yourself through waves in the ocean or sing your heart out around a campfire. Feel yourself wild and powerful and a precious part of the life that grows all around you.
I am continually inspired and reinforced by the words of the poet Mary Oliver, who wrote the compelling challenge to us all: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
Jennifer Haddow is the director of Wild Women Expeditions, Canada’s Outdoor Adventure Company for Women. She is a certified yoga teacher and believes strongly in the rejuvenating powers of nature and that wilderness immersion is essential to good health, life balance and human happiness.