Yoga for Hikers: Stretch, Strengthen, and Climb Higher by Nicole Tsong (2016)
FINDING A YOGA CLASS
I WAS MINDING MY own practice in class. My sister was with me; we were there to move, breathe, and get a break from the family vacation we were on in Taiwan. I was content to be in a challenging yoga class under the watchful eye of Patrick Creelman, an experienced teacher for the Pure Yoga franchise.
The class was up in Wheel pose. Patrick came over to me. “Move your feet closer together,” he said. I was annoyed. I knew that would make the pose harder. He used his feet to inch mine closer together. I went up. Yep, harder. I also felt the backbend go deeper. My legs were shaking from the intensity.
We came down, and he called for another. Out of habit or rebelliousness, I can’t say for sure, I inched my feet out wider. He came back to me and said, “Bring your feet closer together.” I got the message. You’re strong enough. You can do this.
You can learn many things about yourself in a home yoga practice. With breath, a focus on your feet and alignment, and a quiet space, you can move through a deeper understanding of your body, and shift your energy and mental space. It’s the same energy you might feel if you love to hike solo. You focus, you breathe, and you are one with the trail.
But at some point, everyone needs to get checked, as Patrick told the class that day. A teacher is like your hardcore friend who encourages you to go on a more difficult hike than you feel up for, or the one who says it’s time to plan a backpacking trip, even though you swore those days were behind you.
When I encounter a yoga teacher like Patrick, I remember why it’s so important to be held accountable. If I practice alone, I can’t always see the next step in my practice. Or, even if I do see it, I talk myself out of doing it. Without someone there to keep an eye on me, I might give up on myself. Practicing with a great teacher is a way of giving back to yourself. You will learn new poses, see new possibilities in your practice, and become immersed in a new community—all effective reasons to take a class.
I have practiced with hundreds of people at trainings. The words of my teachers landed in my body and chest, and opened me up in ways I had never felt before, physically and energetically. At times in final rest I remember feeling a deep sense of freedom; contentment; and true, uplifted joy akin to a hike on a cool, perfect day summiting a peak with the people I love most in the world.
A guided practice also offers a different kind of freedom: You don’t have to think about the next pose or where to move your feet or hands. A teacher leads the way.
As you take on the practices in this book and get stronger, the next step will be finding a place to elevate your practice. While it is useful to understand the basics of the types of yoga available, it is more important to find a place that fits with your overall intention for your practice. With so many options available, the search can feel challenging. Start with the easiest options, such as a nearby community center, your office, or the classes at your gym. If none of those feel quite right, take advantage of a yoga studio’s introductory offer, lasting from one week to one month, giving you a chance to take classes from multiple instructors and see if the studio community is a fit.
If one doesn’t work out, try another. It’s important to find one that suits you. Follow the four steps below to define what you want to get from a yoga class. Stay open to the process!
STEP 1: CHOOSE AN ENVIRONMENT
Identify what kind of environment you want to practice in. For some people, the convenience of a workplace class counterbalances the absurdity of practicing in a conference room! For others, the gym is perfectly acceptable. For those of you looking for a deeper quiet with like-minded people, a yoga studio may be the best fit. No matter where you go, try more than one teacher at a location, particularly if the place offers different styles.
Some workplaces now offer their employees yoga classes. These classes are frequently subsidized and so may be offered at a lower drop-in rate than they would be at a yoga studio. You will also get to know your coworkers in a different space. I taught a corporate class where the CEO showed up every week. You never know who will be practicing next to you!
Most classes are included in your gym membership, so it’s a convenient, low-cost way to experience a guided class with a teacher who can check your form. Drawbacks may include a louder environment than you’d like, with people coming and going during the session.
Yoga studios offer more daily classes and likely more variety in style than the gym or your workplace, although some specialize. The environment is designed to be clear and calming with an intention to create community. The best yoga studios foster powerful communities where teachers and students know one another, connect on a personal level, and are part of each other’s daily lives. If you are looking to deepen your practice, a studio also generally offers workshops and trainings to give you more guidance.
STEP 2: IDENTIFY A STYLE THAT SPEAKS TO YOU
As yoga has exploded in popularity in the United States, the number of styles continues to expand. From a gentle yin practice to relax your body to flow practices where people pop upside down into handstands at every opportunity, the choices are vast. The following broad guidelines will get you started. The styles are listed roughly in order from more vigorous practices to gentler, though that varies depending on your idea of challenge!
HEATED VERSUS NOT HEATED
Heated yoga rooms are fairly common, particularly in yoga studios. There’s a wide variety in approach. Bikram or Hot Hatha practices generally reach temperatures of at least 100 degrees. Most power or vinyasa flow practices, such as the ones in this book, are taught with some heat, generally in the mid-80s to mid-90s. Unheated classes are taught at room temperature.
The idea behind heat is that it opens your body and helps you sweat to detoxify. Some people love the intense rinse of a heated class. Others prefer to build heat internally through the practice. You may discover that you love a big, sweaty practice. Or you may find you need a balance between the two. Keep in mind that some people’s bodies do not tolerate heat well.
Ashtanga is the original flow practice. Sun Salutation A and B as you have learned in this book are rooted in this style, as is vinyasa flow, or connecting poses with breath. Many teachers credit Ashtanga for teaching them discipline and flow—it is considered an extremely rigorous practice.
Many descriptions of practices will use the word “flow,” but they all are likely to rely on a connection of breath and poses moving together. Some work with one breath per movement throughout the entire practice, while other practices encourage students to hold poses longer, more common in “power yoga” classes. Some types of practices work with a set sequence, such as Ashtanga and Baptiste Power Yoga, while others will sequence to work different areas of the body and build up to different poses.
All yoga is a hatha practice, but these days hatha usually indicates a nonflow practice; the best known of these, Bikram, founded by Bikram Choudhury, features classes held in intense heat. The studios use mirrors for you to focus your gaze, and the Bikram sequence is a set series of the same twenty-six poses.
Iyengar, created by yoga master B. K. S. Iyengar, is another nonflow practice that moves from pose to pose, working deeply and precisely into alignment with a focus on healing the body and mind through poses. An Iyengar practice uses many props and fine-tunes alignment with long holds.
Southwest Field Editor, Backpacker magazine Author, Resurrection: Glen Canyon and a New Vision for the American West and Leave No Trace: A Guide to Wilderness Etiquette
Q: Why did you start practicing yoga?
A: I had done enough trips with packs that were too heavy. I started having problems with my knees. My doctor said I might need to have surgery for torn cartilage. I went to the Flagstaff Athletic Club, which had some yoga classes, and started doing that.
Q: How did yoga help?
A: I didn’t end up having knee surgery. It made me aware of my body in a way I had not been up to that point. Yoga made me use my body in a way that felt really good. I thought I had to run to get the emotional high that I needed or to hike to get my heart rate up. I was able to learn practicing yoga also would give me that sense of well-being.
Q: Has yoga helped your backpacking and other outdoor pursuits?
A: It has made me a better backpacker as far as sense of center of gravity and balance. If I’m carrying a 40-pound pack down a crazy steep drop-off in the Grand Canyon, I’m a better hiker and more stable.
Q: What else do you get from yoga?
A: Yoga also gives me that sense of grounded-ness, being connected to my body and being connected to the earth. You can do it anywhere. You can have that connection in your living room. When I’m hiking, I’m out there. I’m surrounded by trees, I’m part of the outside world. When I’m practicing yoga, I have that same connection, but it’s this hyperawareness of my own body. It’s an inner world instead of the outer world. It makes me tune into my hips and breathe into that space. That makes me feel whole, the way hiking to the top of a hill and breathing hard and getting there and looking at the view makes me feel whole also.
Kundalini means “serpent power” and is an energetic practice that might include waving your hands or closing and opening your hands over and over. It also includes meditation, poses, mantra, and breathing techniques.
GENTLE OR YIN
Also known as restorative yoga, this style is geared toward restoring your body from intense athletic days, or for people with injuries or other physical challenges who want to breathe and move at a slower, modified pace. A yin practice will take you through long deep holds, while a gentle class could show up as a modified flow practice or moving from pose to pose.
STEP 3: IDENTIFY TEACHERS WHO ELEVATE YOU
A great teacher inspires me to hold a pose longer or pop into an extra Wheel, especially when I don’t want to. If a teacher is great and funny, she can make me laugh. I love those classes. When it comes to your yoga practice, a great teacher can be the difference between staying committed and giving up.
The first step to looking for a teacher is looking at her credentials. Make sure she comes from an established yoga training program. In addition to training, experience is a helpful indicator. The more time a teacher has spent understanding the body, how to read a class of different body types and experiences, and how to speak to the body in a way that makes sense to you, the more effective she will be for you and your practice. Most yoga teachers also assist in poses to support your alignment, and a great assist can make the difference between struggle and freedom in a pose.
Beyond that, a great teacher resonates with you personally. You may find you prefer the sequences taught by a particular teacher. You may find you need a funny teacher to get through a challenging class. You may be drawn to a gentle teacher who gives you space to grow, or you may find yourself going back to a teacher who has heart and passion to challenge you to explore new depths in your poses.
Lastly, find more than one teacher. Every teacher, whether at a community center near your home or at a yoga studio, has something to share. You may be surprised when a teacher you initially didn’t like grows on you. Listen and learn along the way, and you will find new teachers to support you and learn something about yourself.
STEP 4: CREATE YOUR YOGA COMMUNITY
Like a hiking buddy who checks in on you regularly and gets you out on the trails more than you might venture out on your own, a community can help you stick with your yoga practice. As you search for a place to practice, observe the community. Do people chat before and after class? Does the person at the front desk know your name? Does the teacher ask people to introduce themselves to each other?
You may be tempted to isolate yourself in practice, particularly when you are new. But practicing with a teacher means practicing with other people, and community is a powerful element of yoga. Like the people you meet on the trail who become instant friends because they were in the same place at the same time with the same idea of fun, a class full of like-minded people may be just what you need to thrive.