No, it’s really not what you think, nor is it what you’re about to think, so bear with me. Afghan walking is described as a nomadic style of walking touted as ‘meditative walking’ with certain similarities to some yoga techniques. My experience, however, was somewhat different.
With snowshoes strapped to my feet and ski poles in my hands, I’m one of a small, animated and possibly skeptical group standing in a snow-covered forest above Samoëns village on a foggy day. We’re in a line and the girl behind me is anxious about her next cigarette while our guide, Claire, explains what we’re about to do. I’m keen to get moving on this cold day.
Alas, this is not snowshoeing as I know it. Nor is Afghan walking typically done in snowshoes. We just happen to need snowshoes to walk at this snowy altitude, and that’s what Afghan walking is all about — high-altitude walking. Afghan walking involves breathing techniques that aid stamina, particularly over long distances in mountainous terrain. Claire explains that being mindful of our breathing and following a certain rhythm allows us to walk longer and faster than usual. I instantly wonder if this might be useful for ski touring and short off-piste powder hunts.
We start on a flat trial with a basic rhythm of breathing in for four steps, then out for four steps. Most of us are still getting used to the sensation of the snowshoes, and the conversation starts flowing at the rear, where we forget all about our breathing. Claire possesses the ultimate zen attitude and gently reminds us to focus. We reach the base of an incline, so we change to breathing in for three steps and out for three steps, then two/two, and as things get even steeper, one/one. When we reach the peak, we’re all thoroughly warm — and acutely aware of our breathing even though we’ve stopped.
Claire explains that the fog is good: it helps us concentrate on our inner balance without the distraction of glorious views and any movement in the forest. Indeed, we’re all much more focused than when we started. Downhill snowshoeing and breathing proves more challenging on the co-ordination front, and breathing while walking down is a different pattern. Five breaths in and three breaths out, Claire explains, will help keep the oxygen in our lungs longer, saturating us with more oxygen than normal. I feel a little bit light-headed with the extra supply. We mix up the breathing some more and I’m impressed with how effective it is.
When we’re back on flat ground, we perform some mind and body challenges. One is to try to push each other over. Nobody falls, but there’s a lot of pushing and pulling going on.
Claire teaches us a new technique involving imagination and concentration. We try again, and this time, there’s very little movement no matter how hard our partner pushes. The results surprise us all and we’re back to being chatty and forgetting all about the concentration techniques we just learnt.
Claire pulls out cups and a thermos of warm, herbal tea for all of us, as well as a bag of dried fruit and nuts — far healthier than our fizzy drinks and sweets.
As we sip the liquid warmth, I realise I still have some way to go before enlightenment, but Claire’s teachings have already made their impact. In just two hours, we discovered the basics of Afghan walking, and I’m looking forward to practicing the technique and putting it to the test on longer walks.
Afghan walking classes are available year-round in Samoëns. Contact Claire via www.nature-quintessence.fr to book (the site is in French but she speaks English). Options include:
- half day (€24 per person – snowshoes not included for winter sessions)
- full day (€40 per person – snowshoes not included for winter sessions)