Yoga for Hikers: Stretch, Strengthen, and Climb Higher by Nicole Tsong (2016)
YOGA POSES FOR HIKERS
DURING THE BEST MOMENTS of a hike while you are immersed in the landscape, the effort can feel like a side note. Heavy breathing becomes a backdrop to the panoramas of distant peaks that open up along the trail. You tune into the whistle of birdsong or the quick wooden thwack of a distant woodpecker hammering into a tree. Occasionally, your mind drifts to lunch and how much longer until you can dig in.
Then come the days you feel like nothing is harder than the hike at hand. Oblivious to the woodpecker, your attention tunes into the hammering thrum in your chest. Your glutes and calves scream—it’s all you can do to move forward one grueling step at a time. Water, extra clothing layers, and your delicious lunch turn into weighted bricks in your pack. You wonder if you could have left something—anything—behind. On the return, your quads protest if you descend too quickly, begging for mercy. You look past every hairpin turn, hoping to see the elusive trailhead.
On a challenging hike, your body goes full tilt, sweat pouring down your back. Your leg muscles work overtime. You notice right away whether you have spent enough time during the week focusing on cardiovascular conditioning.
First, take a few deep breaths! Then, consider that the trail is a mirror for your physical conditioning. While hiking, you might discover your ankles are prone to turning awkwardly, especially on the way down when you are tired. Or you wake up the next day with cramped quads or sore calves. Your aching shoulders holler.
A 10-mile walk is long; add in elevation gain, and the trail offers ruthless physical feedback. Repetitive movement taxes the affected muscles. It is essential, and some experts argue critical to your health, to push your body’s physical limits. Head out for a 10-mile hike and you will test your body. Building your endurance for long hikes through lower body and overall trunk strengthening will make your hike more enjoyable and lessen the effects you feel the next day. Supporting your body is essential, no matter if you hike daily or only escape to the wilderness occasionally.
This chapter covers major areas of the body a hike affects, from the soles of the feet to the spine. Each section highlights yoga poses that can support a specific area, especially if you are prone to injury, for example, in one of your knees. Please note that this is meant to be a glimpse into the poses and that they are most beneficial when included in a full practice with a warm-up and cool down. All poses in this chapter are included in the strength and recovery practices in chapter 4; photographs of each pose described below appear as part of those practice instructions in that chapter.
Figure 1. Full body musculature, front and back
Bring your feet together: This is a cue for neutral alignment in your feet. Yoga poses start with feet pointed straight ahead. For most people, it is big toe knuckles touching, with a slight gap at the heels so the outer edges of your feet are roughly parallel to each other.
Four corners of your feet: This refers to your big toe knuckle, pinky toe knuckle, and the two sides of your heels. Balance and your foundation start here by distributing your weight evenly among these four corners of your feet in all poses. If your foot is off the floor, stretch out your toes and continue to activate the four corners.
Core lock: Pull your belly button up and in toward your mid-back to stabilize your spine and trunk.
Hip-width distance: Make fists with your hands, fold forward and place them between your feet to set your feet at hip-width distance. In some cases, like Downward-Facing Dog, you will have to visualize it.
Sit bones: The bones at the base of your pelvis, which you might feel after sitting for a long time on a hard bleacher, are a reference point for alignment (see figure 4 below).
Pelvic bowl: Your pelvis is shaped like a bowl. Out of habit, most of us stand with it tilting slightly forward or back. Engage your core lock and tilt your tailbone toward the floor to move it into a neutral position. You can bring your hands to your hips to check your pelvic bowl position.
SUPPORT YOUR FEET
Your feet bear your weight throughout a hike and dig deep to support you for hours at a stretch, coping with constant changes underfoot from rocks to tree roots and squelching through puddles. Your feet have twenty-eight bones each, with four layers of musculature, a bottom layer called your plantar fascia (see figure 2), and the pads of your feet. When the bones and muscles work together, they create lift, balance, and movement in your foot, according to Leslie Kaminoff in Yoga Anatomy. Feet adapt incredibly well to uneven terrain, critical on a hike where the ground underfoot does not resemble the smooth, artificially even surfaces common in our modern world. Over time, if they are not challenged, the deeper muscles that support your feet weaken and only the surface layer, the plantar fascia, prevent collapse.
INDIVIDUAL POSES COVERED IN THIS CHAPTER
»Standing Leg Extension
»Rag Doll with a Bind
The good news is the roots and rocks woven throughout a trail force your feet to use the deeper muscles that support the three arches of your feet. While fitted, supportive boots are helpful, particularly on longer hikes where the strain on your feet is intense, performing yoga poses in bare feet will also condition and strengthen them.
COMMON INJURY: PLANTAR FASCIITIS
Many hikers suffer from plantar fasciitis, pain and inflammation on the band of tissue on the bottom of the foot, which occurs when the arches of a person’s foot are not strong enough to support their weight downhill. When your foot musculature is weak, explains Seattle physical therapist Mark Trombold, the surface layer of plantar fascia, which are like springy strings on the bottom of your foot, get smashed repeatedly, leading to plantar fasciitis.
Figure 2. Muscles of the feet and ankles
A foundational pose for your entire practice, Mountain Pose starts with awareness in your feet. It engages your whole foot and creates strength. The pose also illuminates weaknesses in your feet, allowing you to work that area.
»Stand with your feet directly underneath your hips with the outer edges of your feet parallel to your mat, arms relaxed by your sides.
»Lift and spread out your toes, creating gaps between every toe from your big toe to your pinky toe. Notice how this action lifts the arches of your feet.
»Soften your toes on the floor. Press the four corners of your feet into the floor.
»Keep your feet grounded and spin your inner ankles toward the back of your mat. Energetically draw your outer ankles down toward the floor.
»Fold forward toward your shins.
»Cross your wrists, palms facing away from each other, and bring your palms to your inner calves. Press opposite palms into opposite inner calves. Notice the action in your feet, calves, and inner thighs.
»Stand up slowly. Keep your awareness in your feet. Close your eyes and notice how your feet flex and balance to keep your body upright.
»To strengthen, stand straight in the pose with your arms at your sides. Rise to the balls of your feet and balance for five breaths.
A simple balancing pose, Tree focuses attention on your feet and ankles to engage microstabilizing muscles, which develops stability and strength. Your inner thigh muscles lengthen and your rear muscles engage. You also will open your hip on your lifted leg.
»Stand with your feet together. Feel the four corners of your feet on the floor or mat.
»Lift one foot to either your inner calf, or above your knee joint to your inner thigh. If balancing is challenging, prop the foot of your bent leg against the ankle of your standing foot with the ball of your foot on the floor.
»Pull your belly in toward your spine to engage your core. Look at a spot on the wall.
»Bring your palms together at the center of your chest. Stay for five breaths.
STRENGTHEN YOUR ANKLES
Your ankles allow your feet move in four directions—you can wiggle your feet side to side, and flex up and point down because of your ankle joint. On the trail, your ankles constantly flex up and down while you hike. Every hiker also knows that when your body and mind tire out, you are more prone to turn an ankle, particularly if your ankles are weak. Good, supportive boots protect your feet and ankles when you are carrying an overnight pack, but it is also essential to strengthen and mobilize your ankles so they are strong and robust for long excursions in the woods.
Point your toes toward the floor away from your knee. This is plantar flexion. Your feet spend a lot of time in this position. Most people sleep with their feet in plantar flexion under the weight of sheets and a comforter, says Trombold, and shoes tend to lift your heels in the same direction during the day. Now flex your toes toward your knee for dorsiflexion to lengthen your calves in the opposite direction—notice the stretch into your calves. Work your feet in both directions to develop strong, stable ankles.
Poses that are good for your feet also are good for your ankles, and vice versa. Tree pose, detailed above, supports stabilizing your ankle. The following poses will help you work more specifically on ankle flexibility.
COMMON INJURY: ACHILLES TENDINITIS
The Achilles tendon (see figure 2) connects your calf muscle at the back of your lower leg to your heel bone. Achilles tendinitis is caused by an extreme range of motion of your foot in dorsiflexion (foot flexed toward your shin) and plantar flexion (toes pointed away from your knee). With tendinitis, the connecting tissue becomes inflamed and tender, and can be exacerbated by carrying heavy loads while hiking. You can support your connective tissue by working on mobility and strengthening your ankle before your next hike.
Many people find this pose quite intense. Toes Pose opens your toes, and stretches both your Achilles tendon and the fascia in the soles of your feet. You may not have stretched your ankles and feet in this direction before. Work up toward holding this pose. You can modify Toes Pose by tucking a rolled-up blanket behind your knees. Do not stay in the pose if it is painful for you.
»Come to your knees on a mat. Tuck your toes underneath you until you are on the balls of your feet—tuck your pinky toes in if they escape.
»Sit up slowly and lift your chest over your hips until you feel the sensation in your feet.
»Breathe deeply for thirty seconds, or stay up to one minute.
»Counter pose: Shift forward onto your hands and knees. Release your toe tuck and point your toes on the floor. Bring your hands to the ground behind you and lean back on your feet to stretch into your shins, the front of your foot and your ankles in the opposite direction to counter the intensity.
A squat is a natural position for the body, but most adults lose their ability to stay in this pose comfortably if they don’t squat regularly. In addition to working ankle mobility and flexibility on the front side of your ankle, it strengthens the arches of your feet. A squat also opens your spine, lower back, and hips. You can modify this pose by placing a folded blanket under your heels to accommodate tight ankles. Move away from this modification as soon as you can in order to work toward more ankle flexibility.
»Stand with your legs as wide as a mat.
»Bend your knees to lower your hips toward the floor. If your heels lift off the floor, widen your stance until you can flatten your feet. Your toes can turn out wider than your heels.
»Lift the arches of your feet. Press your elbows into your knees and lift your chest up toward the ceiling. Don’t forget to pull your belly button in!
»Play with sitting in a passive squat, then engage your pelvic floor and lift your hips an inch out of the bottom of the squat into an active one.
PROTECT YOUR KNEES AND THIGHS
The uphill can feel like the hardest part of a steep hike, especially when you are hiking with chatty buddies who keep asking probing life questions! Thank goodness for lookouts where you can take a breather. But the toughest portion physically on steep hikes is the downhill. If your quads ache above all after a big hike, this section is for you.
When you come down an incline, the four muscles of your quadriceps slow your descent by resisting gravity. Add in a heavy pack, and the physical load is even greater. If you slam each foot down on the ground on the way down, your thighs and knees work even more to mitigate the brunt of your body weight and pack. Move slowly, your feet landing soft and ninjalike as you go downhill, and the load spreads throughout your legs.
Trekking poles can significantly reduce the load on your legs while moving downhill, particularly when carrying a lot of weight. The more you strengthen your quads and work on balance, the more likely you are to sneak up on a bear, rather than vice versa.
COMMON INJURY: PATELLAR TENDINITIS
The four quadricep muscles connect via tendons to your patella, or kneecap, to stabilize it. The patellar tendon begins underneath the kneecap and attaches to the shinbone (see figure 3). Weak or tight quadriceps and weak hips, combined with the constant jarring impact of walking steeply downhill, can lead to inflammation of the tendon. You can support your legs by doing poses that strengthen your quads and the tendons and ligaments around your knees.
A leg strengthening pose, Chair also develops foot and ankle stability, and requires you to use your core and activate your spine, all while engaging your thigh muscles to strengthen and support your knees. It may take time for Chair to win the entry for your favorite pose, but it surely is a useful pose to have on your side.
»Stand with your feet together on your mat. Spread out your toes, and lift the arches of your feet off the ground.
»Lower your hips toward the floor until you feel your legs engage. Keep your toes soft and in view just past your knees.
»Soften your shoulders down away from your ears. Engage your back to pull your shoulder blades to your spine.
»Pull your belly in to activate your core.
»Reach your arms up to the ceiling, parallel to your ears with palms facing toward each other.
Holding Crescent Lunge tests your balance, stabilizes your knees and ankles, and teaches you to breathe through challenge! It also strengthens your thighs, hamstrings, and glutes.
»Step into a long lunge with your right foot forward, left foot back. Stack your right knee over the ankle of your right foot. Lift your left heel so your toes are bent and the sole of your foot is perpendicular to the ground. Move your feet hip-width distance apart for stability.
»Lift your chest over your hips and extend your arms up to the ceiling.
»Squeeze your back hamstring straight.
»Pull your belly up and in to support your core.
»Square your pelvis toward the front of your mat.
»Reach your arms up parallel to your ears, pinky fingers forward.
»Stay for five breaths, then switch sides.
»To intensify, lower your back knee so it hovers two inches from the ground. Hold for five breaths. Straighten your back leg. Switch sides.
OPEN YOUR HAMSTRINGS
Your hamstrings are workhorses (see figure 3). When you walk, run, or hike, your hamstrings contract to propel you forward. They extend your leg behind you, flex your knees, and straighten your legs. Your hamstrings also sync with your quads to keep your pelvis stable.
You need strong thigh muscles for hiking but many people’s quads are a stronger muscle group than their hamstrings. Over time, if your quads dominate, your hamstrings can suffer and get overstretched. Tight hip flexors pull on your strong thighs to make your hamstrings overly long. Sitting all day with your hamstrings in one position doesn’t help either.
It’s healthy to give your hamstrings some love by building strength and engaging your thigh muscles to stretch deep into the belly of your hamstring muscle. But be mindful of how you stretch your hamstrings to avoid overdoing it; it’s important to breathe and focus on where you are stretching. When your hamstrings are opened properly, your legs will be more balanced in strength and openness, supporting you when going up and downhill on a hike and in other activities.
Figure 3. Muscles of the hips, glutes, and hamstrings
Downward-Facing Dog is a widely used pose for good reason—it has benefits for the whole body. An inverted V-shape, it lengthens your hamstrings, your calves, and your spine, and in the pose, you practice grounding into your hands and learning to open and strengthen your shoulders. This pose is a good place to pay attention to your sit bones, the bones at the base of your pelvis (see figure 4). If you bike, you are very familiar with this part of your anatomy! In Downward-Facing Dog, practice spinning your sit bones up to the ceiling to lengthen your spine and engage your core.
»Come to your hands and knees, with your hands positioned underneath your shoulders, index finger pointing straight forward.
»Tuck your toes underneath you, and lift your hips up to the ceiling. Walk your feet back about six inches.
»Bend your knees and lift your tailbone until your spine lengthens. Spin your sit bones to the wall behind you.
»Roll your shoulders up to your ears, then use your back muscles to pull your shoulders down your back and in toward your spine. Squeeze your upper arms toward each other.
»Drive your heels toward the floor (they don’t need to touch the floor).
»Pull your belly in toward your spine.
»Lift the muscles just above your knees to engage your thighs and open into your hamstrings. Stay for fifteen full breaths.
Rag Doll is a soft forward fold that works from your feet to open tenderly into your hamstrings. Gravity also gives your spine traction to release tension in your lower back, shoulders, and neck.
»Stand with your feet hip-width distance apart.
»Lift and spread out your toes, creating gaps between every toe from your big toe to your pinky toe. Notice how this lifts the arches of your feet.
»Soften your toes to the floor. Press the four corners of your feet into the floor.
»Spin your inner ankles toward the back of your mat and energetically draw your outer ankles toward the floor.
»Fold your chest toward the floor. Bend your knees until your belly touches the tops of your thighs to take pressure off your lower back and hamstrings. Squeeze your inner thighs up toward your pelvis.
»Hold your elbows and hang your upper body, letting go of your head. You will feel the release from your neck all along your upper back as well as in your hamstrings. Stay for five full breaths.
RELEASE YOUR HIPS AND GLUTES
Your pelvis grounds and stabilizes your body. You use the muscles attached to your pelvis daily, relying on the psoas muscle deep in your hip to get out of bed. Your gluteus maximus and gluteus medius, the big butt muscles, and hamstrings kick in when you walk (see figure 3). And yet most people don’t know how to engage their glutes. Weak glutes, a result of sitting and general underuse, can lead to an overreliance on your lower back (rather than using your meaty rear muscles and your core) when walking or twisting. Your hip flexors also get shorter from sitting at a 90-degree angle all day.
Your pelvis has big flat bones with lots of muscles attached. It’s easy for tension to get locked up in your hips, buried among all those muscles and connectors, and it takes time to release. Tension in your hips often works its way into your low back. Be mindful of the burden your hips and glutes take on every day, especially when asking more of your body during long treks with a lot of weight. Hip-release poses help your muscles relax and let go, while strengthening your glutes will provide more durability when you need the endurance.
Standing Leg Extension
Balancing poses challenge many elements of your lower body, from your feet up to your core. This variation on Hand-to-Knee Pose (presented in Strength Practice II) also strengthens your psoas and your butt muscles.
»Stand with your feet together, toes pointed toward the front of your mat. Press the four corners of your feet into the floor.
»Squeeze your thigh muscles and pull your belly in toward your spine to support your lower back.
»Lift your right knee into your chest. Hold your knee with your right hand.
»Extend your right leg forward, flexing your toes. Reach your arms to the ceiling, parallel to your ears. Keep your shoulders stacked over your hips, your core engaged.
»Stay for five breaths. Switch legs.
A balancing and strengthening pose, Half Moon works deeply into your butt muscles for both legs. Your glutes contract to balance your lower leg and lift your upper leg into the pose.
»Stand with your feet together.
»Line up a block (at its tallest height) underneath your right shoulder, just to the right of your standing pinky toe. Bring your right hand to the block.
»Shift your weight into your right foot. Lift your left leg and roll your left hip on top of your right hip. Lift your left arm to the ceiling.
»Press firmly into your standing foot with your toes pointing straight forward. Squeeze your thighs.
»Flex the toes of your lifted leg. Bring your lifted leg in line with your hip.
»Keep the weight on your lower hand light; rely on your standing leg for strength.
»Stay for ten breaths.
»Release: Fold forward.
»Do the other side.
After a long day on the trail, it is important to relax the muscles that support your pelvis. Half Pigeon works in your hip to release your piriformis, a hip stabilizer (not shown in figure 3), and also releases in your butt muscles. If you backpack frequently, it becomes particularly important to soften your hip area from the intensity of additional weight it bears over many miles.
»From a seated position, bend your right leg in front of you. Move your right thigh parallel to the outer edge of your mat with your right foot tucked in toward your pelvis. Flex your right foot to protect your knee.
»Extend your left leg straight behind you so that the top of your thigh is on the ground.
»Flex your toes on your back foot and come up to the ball of your foot.
»Roll up to center so your pelvis is squared toward the front of your mat. Place a block under your right hip if you have trouble staying centered.
»Lengthen your chest and lower your torso toward the floor. Stay here for twenty breaths. Switch sides.
TIGHTEN YOUR CORE
Your trunk holds you up—and together! During a hike, it carries you and your pack, whether you are going up and down a mountain or meandering through rolling meadows. Your trunk muscles keep your spine stable. Your back and shoulder muscles, including your latissimus dorsi (lats), connect into your glutes, so the stronger you keep your back muscles overall, the stronger you will feel during a hike.
Your core lock engages multiple levels of muscles that support your spine, including your rectus abdominis, the central washboard muscles seen on some and used by all, that play a role in forward folds and protects the lower spine (lumbar) in backbends. Your obliques along the side of your trunk contribute to twisting, while the transverse addominus, the deepest abdominal muscle, supports uddhiyana bandha.
Endurance is an important element to core stability. Hikes last far longer than the time most people spend working on strength, so focus on timed holds. Your body will be grateful for the extra support.
Figure 4. Muscles of the core
Plank pose is commonly used as a core strengthener. In yoga, the emphasis on doing a Plank on your hands rather than your elbows brings awareness to your palms as your foundation, and also strengthens your oblique muscles along the lateral sides of your torso. And you build shoulder and thigh strength.
»Come to your hands and knees on your mat. Stack your hands underneath your shoulders, index finger pointed straight ahead.
»Step your feet to the back of your mat. Tuck your toes and lift your knees off the floor, and squeeze your legs straight.
»Keep your hips just below level with your shoulders.
»Lift your head so your neck is level with your shoulders.
»Spiral your inner thighs up to the ceiling. Lengthen the backs of your knees and squeeze your thighs.
»Press your palms firmly into the floor. Squeeze your upper arm bones toward each other.
»Spin the inner eye of your elbows forward, and pull your shoulder blades together.
»Lift your belly in toward your spine and wrap your front ribs together. Tilt your tailbone toward your heels.
»Breathe and hold for one minute. If you can’t hold for one minute, build up to it. Repeat three times.
»To modify the pose, bring your knees to the floor. Keep your hips in one even plane between your shoulders and your knees, belly muscles fully engaged.
Side Plank challenges your external oblique muscles in your torso as well as other parts of your core. It works deep into your glutes and the lower arm and shoulder holding you up, firing up the muscles on half of your body. It also strengthens your hands and wrists. The goal is for your body to stabilize using neutral alignment of your spine and legs.
»From Plank pose (see above), bring your feet to touch. Roll onto the outer edge of your right foot with your left foot stacked on top.
»All your weight will be on your right hand. Your right hand faces the front of the mat and is stacked just a couple of inches forward of your shoulder.
»Lift your left hand up to the ceiling, palm facing the same direction as your chest.
»Flex your toes toward your knees and squeeze the muscles of your legs to the bone.
»Keep your body at one angled plane from shoulders to feet.
»Set your gaze and look up to the ceiling.
»Stay for five breaths. Switch to your left hand.
RELEASE YOUR SHOULDERS
When you walk, your arms swing easily, naturally—you don’t have to think about it. When your left foot steps forward, your right arm swings forward, and vice versa, keeping the two halves of your body balanced as you walk. The same rhythm applies while hiking. Your arms move in sync with the motion of your body. If you hike with poles, move them the same way, with opposite pole swinging forward from the leg that is moving forward.
Add endurance into the equation, and your natural rhythm gets disrupted. When you tire, your shoulders roll forward, your arms go limp, and you lose the natural cadence of your arm motion while walking. It makes walking heavier and harder. Spend time releasing your trapezius muscles, which get trapped up by your ears when you hunch on the trail or at a desk. Your deltoids in your shoulders (see figure 5) and your pectoral muscles in your chest (see figure 4) will also be giddy if you choose poses to counter and release a long day on the trail.
Rag Doll with a Bind
A bind adds shoulder opening to the grounding Rag Doll pose that already releases your legs and spine. If lifting your bound hands off your lower back is challenging, hold a strap or towel with your hands behind your back and fold forward from there.
»Stand with your feet hip-width distance apart (or wider). Stretch out your toes and activate your feet. Fold your chest toward the floor.
»Bring your hands to your lower back. Lift your chest and interlace your fingers, with your palms facing in.
»Bend your elbows and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Straighten your arms and fold forward over your legs.
»Turn your head side to side to release your neck.
»Stay for five breaths.
Reverse Tabletop deeply stretches your pectoral muscles, deltoids, and biceps, opening your chest, shoulders, and upper arms. It reverses the feeling of gravity pulling forward on your shoulders. Your triceps straighten your arms.
»From a seated position, place your hands behind you on the mat with your fingertips facing your body.
»Walk your feet so they are flat on the floor at hipwidth distance.
»Ground into the four corners of your feet, and lift your hips toward the ceiling.
»Press your palms into the ground.
»Lengthen the crown of your head behind you and look up. Gently release your head onto your shoulders.
»Stay for five breaths.
ALIGN YOUR SPINE
Your spine is the central pillar of your body, and you want to keep it supple and strong. But during a hike, your spine has little chance to twist or move in any direction other than holding your upper torso and head relatively vertical (see figure 5). Twists will rotate your spine, keeping it flexible by encouraging the muscles between vertebrae and around your spine to open up. Backbends strengthen the muscles that arch your back and keep your spine aligned and healthy.
Figure 5. Muscles of the spine and shoulders
A simple twist you can do anywhere, Seated Twist will offer release from long periods of sitting or from a big day outside.
»From a seated position, extend your right leg straight toward the front of your mat, toes flexed. Bend your left knee and walk your left foot in close to your hip.
»Place your left hand on the floor behind you. Reach your right arm up to the ceiling. Wrap your right arm around your bent leg.
»Stay for ten breaths. Switch sides.
Backbends build strength in your spine and also work deeply into the big back muscles in your torso that support your spine. Locust pose focuses on the muscles that arch the back and is helpful for strengthening your low back.
»Lie on your belly. Bring your feet to hip-width distance, toes pointed.
»Reach your hands alongside your body, hands down by your hips, palms facing down.
»Bring your feet to hip-width distance, toes pointed. Pull your belly in toward your spine.
»Press the tops of your feet into the floor, and lift your knees off the ground. Keep your upper legs engaged, and lift both legs off the floor.
»Lift your upper arm bones toward the ceiling, and float your hands above your hips.
»Set your gaze on a point on the ground below your nose. Stay for ten breaths.