O ur founder Arjun Majumdar, gave a TEDx talk at the venerable Laxmi Vilas Palace in Vadodara on June 10, 2018.
Here is the official video of the TEDxTalk.
How Trekking Impacts Your Mind, Body, And Spirit
Two years ago, I was on a Himalayan trek to Chandrashila.
I reached the summit early enough to catch a brilliant sunrise as it snaked through the mountains bringing an entire Himalayan range alive.
Behind me, one by one, trekkers made it to the summit.
On that day at Chandrashila when almost everyone had come up, I turned my attention to the mountain views around me. Here were the greatest mountains of our country at my eye level. It is one of those views that stay in your mind for a very long time.
It must have been a good ten minutes when I was shaken out of my stupor. I could hear someone coming up from below. I was somewhat surprised. Whoever I had expected was at the summit. I quickly went to the edge to look down.
To my surprise, Sushila, a trekker who I had instructed to turn around was making her way to the summit. There was a reason why I had asked her to turn around. Sushila was absolutely unprepared and unfit for the trek. Yet, there she was, hardly 15-20 feet below, laboriously making her way to the summit.
When Sushila got to the summit she walked past me and went straight to the little shrine at the top. She stood there with folded hands in a deep prayer of gratitude. As I watched her from a distance I noticed tears streaming down her face. Little by little the tears turned to sobs and within minutes she was weeping uncontrollably. It took a friend on the trek to embrace her in a warm hug to calm her down.
Later that evening, back at camp, when we were reflecting on the trek, I brought up the topic with Sushila.
The emotions that Sushila had poured out at the summit had a deeper past.
Susheela was in her mid-thirties, almost getting to her forties. She worked in a German company and was recently promoted to a project manager.
Sushila did not think she was capable of being a project manager. She always thought of herself as someone who did routine jobs in the background. She was soft spoken, hardly drew attention to herself.
With her husband and kids, Sushila was the typical image of someone who was under confident with low self belief.
Climbing to the summit of Chandrashila had a profound effect on her.
Despite her unpreparedness, Sushila discovered that she had an inner resolve, an inner strength much beyond what she had imagined. The climb showed that she could overcome obstacles much larger than herself. And she could do it alone without anyone’s support.
The climb to Chandrashila changed her mind in an irreversible way. Sushila discovered a new person within her. The trek filled her mind with positivity that no amount of pep talk or counselling could. The positivity stayed for long. She returned to work a changed person.
Sushila’s story is not a stray incident. We see these stories unfolding before us everyday.
I can say this with some authority because we run Indiahikes, India’s largest trekking organisation. Around 20,000 people trek with us every year. This large number of people trekking gives us repeated confirmation of studies that scientists have been doing for quite some time.
Trekking impacts our mind, body and spirit. It does so far deeper than we imagine.
How treks impact the mind
On a trek, without the distractions of our regular world, the mind automatically starts to feel better. Even if we want to, there is nothing to distract us. It is just us and nature.
We are constantly looking at picture-perfect sceneries — mountains and hills, jungles and forests, flowers and birds, snow, clear streams, rivers and waterfalls, sunrises and sunsets, moon rises and stars.
Every hour on the trek these constant positive images are around us.
Over days, this constant immersion in positivity removes negative thoughts (actually any thoughts) from our minds. We even forget what day and time it is. It is almost miraculous what it does to our minds.
It has an immediate calming effect. The buzz that is in our heads begin to fade away. Our nerves start soothing. Laughter flows easily. There is a spring in our step.
There is a science behind these feelings. It is to do with hormones.
When we trek, our body releases large doses of endorphins, the hormone that makes us happy. Added to that there is a boost of serotonin that relaxes us. We get strong doses of Dopamine (which makes us feel accomplished, it triggers our reward centres). And there’s also a good amount of oxytocin (that gives us a sense of tranquility and love).
These hormones make us feel good, calm, connected, happy and energised.
The idea that nature helps our mental state goes back hundreds of years if not thousands. Yet, in the modern world, we ignore this.
How treks impact the body
One hour of trekking in the Himalayas can burn between 450 and 550 calories from your body. Imagine what a six-hour trek can do – which is our usual trek duration. I have seen on a 5-day trek trekkers usually lose between 3-4 kgs of their body weight. Suddenly, they are looking leaner, fitter and better toned.
But there is more to trekking than weight loss.
Trekking uphill is a lot like stair climbing or doing lunges. You are working on your glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves. When you do this over and over again your muscles get strengthened.
Your abs and lower back muscles are constantly working. If you are carrying a backpack, then it is even better. It is weight resistance training. This workout is building your core.
It gets better when we are descending. Against the force of gravity, your glutes and quads have to do slow controlled work. It is heavy work but the benefits are enormous. The body toning that you get is terrific.
Trekking is never like walking on a road. You are constantly navigating the terrain, making micro adjustments every second and minute. No two steps are the same.
Scientists say that building your core strength is essential for a longer, fitter body. Core strength leads to better balance and stability. On a trek, you are constantly making conscious and unconscious movements to keep your body balanced and stable. Your core is getting stronger.
At the end of the trek, almost everyone feels stronger, yet nimble and light-footed.
I was on a trek to Devkyara in Uttarakhand in April this year. The terrain was rough, with lots of boulders, rocks and streams to hop over.
Considering I have been trekking for decades, you would think me to be pretty experienced. But here is what I observed.
On the first two days of the trek, I was somewhat tentative with my footing. On a sharp descent, I would be extra careful.
However, on the fifth day of the trek, when I was returning, on sections where I was tentative earlier, I was more sure footed. My body knew unconsciously where to put the foot and for how long. My mind-body coordination was better.
Even over these 5 days my core had got stronger.
How treks impact the spirit
But more than anything else trekking has the biggest impact on the spirit of a person.
Spirit is the core of our human nature. It is the person that we are or the person we become.
A trek helps us to rediscover our relationships. We make strong friendships, we become better human beings.
It is not the shared interest of trekking that brings us together. It is something else that works here.
On a trek we talk uninterrupted with deep focus. Nothing disturbs us. There aren’t any electronic disturbances. We talk openly and frankly, because after a while, the mask of the city wears off.
In this modern world where acquaintances are fleeting, friendships fickle, the opportunity to bond so deeply on a trek is something that we cannot ignore.
Living together in tents, doing chores, solving problems, participating in a shared adventure only brings us closer.
We are able to reveal ourselves, we become vulnerable, the conversations are honest and frank.
In one week we talk more intimately with our trek mates than we do with friends who are with us for years.
Out of these conversations emerge a deep connection that we form with another human being. This connect stays intact and we make friendships that last for life.
But there is more to this.
Trekking helps people who are struggling, who are unable to get past their self-imposed boundaries. It makes us more resilient.
Getting to the mountains, trekking to a high point, overcoming difficulties, achieving success, makes us more tough and determined.
It is almost like if I can do this trek, I can do anything. This is extremely empowering. It helps people fight odds and difficulties of everyday life easier.
We feel more confident. We have greater self belief.
We also begin to think creatively and clearly. What was limiting earlier becomes a possibility.
I remember, there was a time at Indiahikes when we ran out of money.
In our second year of running, when we were still very young, unseasonal rains wiped out our entire September/October season of trekking.
We had invested a lot in getting our team, gear, food and ration ready. But day after day, unseasonal rains did not allow us to conduct any trek.
We had to refund every trekker. Yet, staff had to be paid, and all the food and ration had to be given away.
At the end of this we had wiped out our bank balance.
We asked our staff if they were willing to work for half salary for sometime until things got better. Surprisingly, some of them agreed. We thought the upcoming winter camp that was coming up would help us tide over this crisis.
Yet, things did not get better. The response to our winter camp in the second year was very weak (though in the first year it had done very well).
September October turned to November and December. We would wait for days for new registrations to come, but they would not. The next big season was only in May/June next year.
One by one, even those who had agreed to work for half pay left, until one day there was only two of us left at Indiahikes. My partner Sandhya and I.
With no money left, with no staff, with very few registrations, we were in a very frayed state of mind.
We wondered if there was a future for Indiahikes.
In December that year, when we were at our lowest, my partner and I went on a winter trek that we had decided to explore.
Along with us were 18 other trekkers who had registered much earlier for the exploration.
On the trek, my partner and I thought over our situation and we realised we were so worried about our existence that we had forgotten the basic reason why we had started Indiahikes.
On our return, we went back to the core of Indiahikes – to build a website where you found credible, golden information about trekking in India. We left behind our fears of survival or waiting for registrations.
In a month or two, the website traffic built up – people started visiting our website for the information they could find. This increased the registrations for our treks. The summer treks started to fill up. We slowly limped back in business.
Trekking helps the mind to think clearly. To be more creative and imaginative. On the winter trek it helped us to see things clearer.
In our experience of growing Indiahikes, most of our innovative solutions about the world of trekking have come while we were on treks.
This is just not our personal experience. Data that we have also point to the same thing.
We have seen our trekkers change professions, careers or start a new life after a trek. They get into or get out of relationships. They start new projects. These are all life-changing experiences.
Treks change lives, it changes our thinking and it changes how we deal with difficulties. It makes us more focused, creative and sensitive. It builds our bodies, makes us healthier.
We take 20,000 people on treks every year. We constantly observe people at close range. Our database of observations is large and clear: The impact of trekking on the human mind, body and spirit is enormous. It is not something that can be ignored.
If you have not started trekking, then perhaps you must.
Considering you’re a trekker, we’d love to hear your thoughts about this topic! Do drop in a comment below with your thoughts.
What you should do now
1. If you’re inspired by this story and are looking for treks to do: Then head over to our upcoming treks page. You’ll find all our Himalayan treks there.
2. If you want to work with us: Head over to our careers page. We have lots of positions open. We also have lots of applications coming in. So the sooner you apply, the better.
3. If you want to see the 13 best treks of India: Then get our guide here.