A troubled traveler goes from grumbling to grateful thanks to a sunset shivasana half a world away from home.

"But I’m too tired,” I moan, drawing out each of my words while tripping over stray stones as we slog through the desert sand.

The sun has just begun its daily descent, but I have already spent 10 hours prior in its presence, trekking along labyrinthine trails and exploring the ancient Nabatean tombs of Jordan’s famous “Lost City” of Petra with an intrepid group of international journalists, photographers, and travel consultants.

We are on the fifth day of a six-day itinerary introducing us to the inner and outer adventures available in Jordan—an ambitious schedule that includes snorkeling in the Red Sea, soul-exploring with the guidance of horses, wandering the lunar landscapes of UNESCO World Heritage-recognized Wadi Rum, and marveling at the architectural phenomena of Petra.

We’re tramping toward the sunset from our tented Bedouin camp near Siq al-Barid, a Neolithic village north of Petra and one of the country’s oldest settlements (nicknamed “Little Petra” for the intricate structures sculpted from towering stones in the same style of the main archeological site).

Sacred Journeys Enlightenment on the Rocks by Sunny Fitzgerald

I am spent and speckled with more than my Irish freckles. I’ve been tarred and feathered by the desert—tiny grains of sand pepper every bit of my exposed skin, superglued with sweat.

I don’t need a yoga session—I need a hot shower and a long nap.

“Can’t we reschedule?” I whine into a disinterested stretch of sky, stopping alone in a huff to shift the heavy handwoven yoga mat I am begrudgingly balancing under my arm.

Our yoga instructor, a lean, wild-eyed Dutch woman with a crop of silver and coffee-colored hair bouncing freely around her bronze face, is several steps ahead and light on her feet—gliding across the sand as if she is Jesus himself walking on water. Meanwhile, my sandaled toes manage to find every thorn on our path.

“Ow! Damn it!” I wail. The pain of the prickers yanks me out of my petulant brain and into my aching body.

Get out of your head and into the moment, they seem to admonish.

Stumbling Along

Just as I finish pulling the thorns from my foot, I hear bells clanging and—for the first time—feel a refreshing early evening breeze brush across my face, tossing stray strands of hair in front of my eyes as it blows by. A haphazard herd of goats appear, clinking and clambering around a bend in the opening between the towering rocks ahead. They don’t so much as glance in our direction, despite the short distance between us.

If goats don’t see us, do we even exist? I wonder, somewhat amused and equally concerned by this existential observation.

I giggle at the absurdity of my musing and pick up my pace. I’m not about to be left alone with a patch of toe-pricking thorns and a group of indifferent goats. I put my head down—eyes to the ground, wondering what else might be growing, crawling, or slithering there—and push on.

The sand and shrubs soon give way to flat, solid rock. The space opens up, bound only by the curved contour of rock tops sketched unevenly on the desert horizon.

Shadows fall behind me and the sun shines in front, as if I’ve stepped beyond an unseen border into a separate time and place. The tender rays of the sinking sun swaddle the sandstone, and me with it, creating a soft glow so powerful in its placidity I can truly hear it humming gentle and steady.

The serene scene steals my breath and stalls my steps. I pause, eyes scanning, unblinking. 

My fellow travelers are forming a crescent on the rocks’ ledge, facing the instructor and the unknown beyond. The sun continues to hum.

Come. What are you afraid of? It beckons.

Well, for starters, everything, I think.

I adjust the mat under my arm and step toward the half-circle of yogis, half-considering that there is still time to turn back. But I have come this far—from Los Angeles to Little Petra—for something. I have also brought much more with me than a yoga mat.

Anxiety. Fear. Downright dread.

Stress-induced chest pains that landed me in a Los Angeles emergency room. A panic attack that imprisoned me in a South Indian hotel room. Depression so debilitating I couldn’t step outside my door on most days.

Wherever I went, self-doubt and fear followed. To be brutally honest, they took the lead—dragging me along with them.

I was drowning. Suffocating. Thrashing. Flailing.

I am now standing on the pale pink sandstone of Little Petra.

How desperate must you be to think the desert can save you? I wonder, instantly embarrassed by the audacity of having had an ephemeral optimism.

Stupid girl. Look around.

I lay down my mat and scan the scene. Rocks and dirt in front, behind, and under me.

They were here thousands of years before you, and they’ll be here long after you’re gone.

You are nothing.

I shrink in the vastness of the space as the sun slips lower still in the sky.

Into the Deep

Our yoga instructor begins with some simple breathing exercises, and I turn my attention inward. With each breath, I sink further into the earth. With each movement, I surrender to the sun above and the sandstone below.

Breathe. Flow. Move. Connect.

Warmth radiates from the rocks, and—like a parched desert plant desperate for water—my toes draw it up and in before sending it back out to the sun through my fingertips. My aching muscles are on fire, my soul a current that pulses in sync with the soft hum of the sun.

We move to our final shivasana (the corpse pose, intended to induce restoration and relaxation) and I close my eyes. My muscles throb, my breathing slows. I lay open, vulnerable, and unafraid.

Somewhere there in the dark, everything physical falls away. It feels as if I am floating peacefully—free, light, and alone.

But just as quickly as calm comes, so, too, follows a familiar despair. An unbearable heaviness swallows me, abrupt and all-consuming.

I am drowning. Suffocating. Thrashing. Flailing.

Am I truly alone?

The silence is deafening, so much so that I am certain none of my fellow travelers are still by my side.

I want to open my eyes to confirm that I am in the same place, on the same rocks, with the same people. But I am terrified I will open them only to find I am truly lying alone in the dark desert—or worse, in an unending black emptiness.

I don’t open my eyes.

Something opens up in me.

Just beyond the oppressive anxiety is something more, something new. As I consider that I may indeed be lying all alone in the Jordanian desert, I hear three words:

You’re not alone.

It isn’t a voice in the audible sense, but it’s a clear message. It’s meant for me. I hear it. I feel it. I believe it.

In that instant, the fear fades and I float on, weightless, bodiless, and blissful in the realization that I could not and had not ever been alone.

I am of the light, and I am the light.

No longer drowning in despair, I breathe in this truth.

When I finally open my eyes, it is indeed darker all around me. But my fellow travelers and our yoga instructor are still there on their mats, some chatting together softly.

I sit up, slowly returning to my body. Tilting my head back, I find the delicate glimmer of stars gently galvanizing the night sky. When I bring my gaze down to the horizon again, my eyes are met with the faint glow of candles dotting a camp in the distance.

How long was I gone?

The breeze playfully pushes my hair around my face, and I laugh aloud.

No matter. I am back. I am alive. I will never be the same.

Awakening

I glance toward the traveler seated on her mat next to me. Squinting in the twilight, I scan her face for any indication that she, too, had— unintentionally or otherwise— stumbled into the depths of the dark to discover the light.

I wish to grab hold of her and tell her everything. But I bite my tongue, realizing I know not what words will ever adequately convey the extraordinary journey I’ve just taken while my body lay silent and supine on the sandstone beside her.

I slide my sandals on and rise to my feet, rolling up my yoga mat and my secret in it.

My fellow travelers and our instructor start back in the direction of our camp, but I’m compelled to stay a brief moment more. I look to the stones under my feet then out once more toward the rock tops in the distance, now just smudged silhouettes barely distinguishable in the blue-black of afterlight.

I’ve come all the way round the world only to find my way back home.

“Thank you,” I whisper reverently to the darkness, my words carried swiftly away on the wind.

Gratitude pours over me— permeating every cell and crevice within, then spreads outward, interlacing me to the expansive desert landscape, the endless night sky, the stars above, the stones below, the air around me. I am anchored yet untethered. Insignificant yet immeasurable. Nothing and everything.


This article appeared inUnity Magazine® and received an honorable mention at the 2019 Folio Eddie and Ozzie awards.

About the Author

Sunny Fitzgerald is a freelance writer and travel specialist. Her work appears in National GeographicThe New York TimesBBC Travel, and more. She recently spent more than 40 days crossing Jordan on foot and is currently writing an autobiographical novel exploring trauma, connection, love, and memory. Visit thisissunny.com.

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