Esther Nagle is a yoga teacher and writer from South Wales. A single mother, she is happiest when on top of a mountain or on a beautiful coastline. Esther is passionate about the benefits of walking and Yoga for mental health, and loves to combine the two whenever possible. Esther has written about her journey from addiction to recovery through Yoga in her book, Bent Back into Shape, Beating Addiction Through Yoga, and has appeared in many publications, including The Prosperity Kitchen Podcast, where she talked about the benefits of walking and shared a ‘walking relaxation’.
As I gazed out at the stunning view from the top of the mountain, I couldn’t help but feel profound gratitude to my brother. It was down to him that I was able to discover that walking offered more joy than simply being a way to get to and from the pub without risking my driving licence.
Thanks to him, I now spent my Saturday afternoons with my backpack and walking boots on, meeting all sorts of interesting people, seeing sights I had only ever seen in photographs before, and challenging my ideas of what was possible and what was fun.
Unfortunately, I was unable to share that gratitude with my brother. He died quite unexpectedly in 2005, leaving a pain in me that I didn’t really know what to do with. He was just under two years younger than me, and the only one of my 3 brothers that I have no memory of meeting for the first time – he was just always there. We argued a lot growing up, of course. It was a typical sibling relationship, we would fight for each other and tear each other to shreds within minutes of each other. We were very different, and I used to find it funny to think that if we weren’t brother and sister, we would be unlikely to really know each other, and certainly wouldn’t have liked one another. And yet there was a strong bond and a great love between us.
When he died, my grief collided with my years of addiction and undiagnosed or unnoticed depression, and I didn’t know what to do. I might not have been able to acknowledge that I had an addiction, but I was well aware that my excessive drinking, smoking and drug use meant that if either of us should have died young, it would have been more likely to be me, not my strong, healthy, fit and active brother. My idea of good exercise was dancing at a club or a rock concert, pint and cigarette in hand, whereas he would spend his weekends hiking and climbing in the wilds.
In the months that followed his death, I became closer to my mother, and we depended heavily on one another for emotional support. One day, in what seemed like a moment of madness to my lazy legs, I suggest we walk the route that she had walked with my 3 brothers and my young son, but not me. We planned the walk for a weekend, and with backpacks filled with water and snacks to enjoy at the top, we set of, me, my mother and my ‘far fitter than me’ 9 year old son.
This route is not a long one, but to my untrained legs, it may as well have been the trek to Everest Base Camp. We live in the South wales valleys, where steep hills are the norm. My mother told me that my brother had said that the first 10 minutes of this walk were comparable to walking parts of Ben Nevis. That seemed about right to me, and I wondered several times why on earth I had thought this a good idea.
And then I saw it.
As we turned a corner, and the view opened up to my left, I almost wept with joy at the sheer beauty I saw. I had lived in this valley nearly all my life, and had no idea that it was beautiful. The lush greenery, the beauty of the trees swaying in the wind, and the curve of the hills that seemed suddenly expansive rather than suffocating invigorated me and I started to enjoy the walk. As we walked and talked, Richard was very much in our minds and our conversation, but I found that my mind was often overcome with delight and awe at seeing my home from such a new perspective. My body got used to the effort I was asking it to make, and I was able to really enjoy what I was experiencing. As we came to the open viewpoint that looks out over to the cemetery where he is buried, I looked over to where I know his grave is, did thumbs up with both my hands, and said, with tear soaked grin across my face ‘Look at me Rich, look what I have done!’. I shed a few tears here, and then moved on, happy that he would be really happy at what we were doing.
We got to the top where we ate sandwiches, drank coffee and got an icecream from the van that makes its trade in that spot. By the time we got back to my parents’ house, I was exhausted, with aching muscles, but I was hooked. I had discovered a new, true joy in life and one that was to help me through the pain of recovery from grief
Within weeks, I had proper walking boots, a new backpack, walking trousers, fleece and waterproofs. I spent every spare moment I could walking. The shape of my weekends changed, as I began staying in and staying sober on Friday nights so I could go and join a guided walk on Saturday mornings. We had walking holidays, and my son and I would often go for walks after school and work. If I had a difficult day at work, or when my emotions became too much for me, I would go for a walk, and come back in a different state – not healed, but calmer, more at peace, and better able to put life into perspective. Sometimes I would go out into the hills and scream abuse at a God I didn’t believe in for taking my brother from me. Sometimes I would cry and talk to myself, sometimes I would listen to music and dance. I always felt better for it, whatever I did.
Walking connected me to my body as I had not connected to it before, and I started to enjoy eating better and exercising more. I still drank a lot and smoked, but this move towards better physical health definitely improved my life. In addition to swimming, pilates, circuits and kettle bells, I started attending Yoga classes. This was to be a defining act for me, and one which would eventually lead me to full recovery from my addictions.
Walking is one of my favourite ways to spend spare time. It is the one thing I do that makes me feel truly alive and in awe of the beauty and majesty of the natural world. It helps me to see exactly what I am capable of when I put my mind to it. Long distances and steep climbs, while they seem daunting at the start, are well within my reach as long as I am well prepared, take one step at a time, enjoying the journey rather than focusing on the destination. I have had some amazing experiences and seen beautiful places that I would never have known about if not for walking.
Walking is a powerful medicine for the mind and the soul. I don’t know how I would have got through those years of grief and depression following my brother’s death if I hadn’t started walking. I suspect I might not have – I certainly had a huge self destructive streak that might not have been able to withstand the deep ‘survivor’s guilt’ I felt.
I am so grateful for the discovery that I can enjoy walking so much. It is a great reminder that even the most terrible things in life can bring gifts. I have no idea if I would have ever got into walking had it not been for my brother’s death, there was certainly no indication of it. I think of it as the greatest gift he ever gave me. I still miss him lots, and wish I could have shared this with him, but can always thank him for this legacy that has enriched my life so very much.
How has walking enriched your life?