Yoga for Climbers: How to Stretch, Strengthen and Climb Higher (2016)
AN INTRODUCTION TO YOGA
YOU HAVE PRACTICED YOGA, even if you didn’t know it. You experience yoga when silenced by a sunset—layers of gold, tangerine, and pink streaking across the sky. You feel it when a breeze brushes across your skin while you are climbing a route, as you become aware of both the bigness of the rock wall and focused on the detail of the holds that are the answer to your next move. You light up with yoga when held by someone you love deeply, be it a child, friend, or lover—so close and connected you do not need words.
The word yoga means “union,” a yoking of body and mind; it is a state of being, a state of unity. Yoga is an ancient, internal practice most widely known for the physical practice of yoga poses, or asana (AH-sah-na). The goal of yoga is to achieve consciousness, or awakening, and the way to do so is in the present moment. How do you get there? Through your physical body, you discover yourself. In yourself, you learn all the answers you have ever needed.
It starts simply, with the connection to the sole of your foot on the floor, to your breath, to your spine. In those moments of awareness of your body, your mind arrives in the present. You may find after practicing, you notice how tight your hips are or become aware of an ache in your lower back. The more you practice, the easier it will be to determine what feels good physically, and what doesn’t. You’ll learn to differentiate between pain and intensity. You’ll understand if you tend to give up when you could instead push yourself—or discover you’re the type to push yourself into injury.
With a few basic tools, you can practice anywhere—at home or on the road. Props are essential to supporting your practice; even experienced yogis rely on them.
» Mat: Yoga mats are widely available, ranging from affordable to higher end; the latter tend to offer more padding and grip and are likely to last for years. Mats vary in weight. Most higher-end manufacturers produce lighter mats for travel.
» Yoga block: A basic foam or cork block supports your alignment in poses. It also is helpful for seated postures. Note that a block can be used at three different heights.
» Strap: A six- or eight-foot strap is useful for multiple poses. For tight shoulders, you can use a strap to bind your hands. A strap can be used to support full relaxation or to intensify some poses.
» Blanket: A cozy covering is helpful for a meditation setup and for keeping you warm during savasana, or final rest.
» Bolster: A soft bolster is a nice alternative to a block during seated postures.
» Comfortable, stretchy clothes: Wear comfortable, stretchy clothes to keep from feeling restricted during your practice.
Through poses, your awareness expands: You notice when you struggle to keep your gaze focused (drishti). You see when your mind cries out for you to get out of an intense pose like Frog, a deep hip opener. You find you can last far longer in Warrior 2 than you originally thought—and you realize that you think a lot in this quiet standing power pose!
JUST LIKE EVERY ROUTE or problem is different, dependent on the weather, your climbing buddy, how you feel that day, and your mental state, a yoga practice is the same—a path of exploration, with as many soaring summits and curious valleys as any climb you may encounter. Be playful as you practice, just as you are when you climb. Laugh along the way if you fall over in a balance pose. Instead of being frustrated if you can’t get a pose, shrug and smile. There is always another day and another pose. Or slow down to appreciate your own strength, just like how you pause on the wall to puzzle out your next move. See your body for what it is—a powerful vessel to carry you in life and the best teacher you’ll ever know.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF YOGA
The spiritual and life-instructive elements of yoga can be found in ancient Indian teachings dating back 5000 years. Patañjali formalized these teachings into the Yoga-Sutras about 2000 years ago, creating the seminal text that remains the foundation for yoga. Author Chip Hartranft writes in The Yoga-Sūtra of Patañjali, the work “stands as a testament to heroic self-awareness, defining yoga for all time.”
Modern yoga bears little resemblance to yoga during Patañjali’s time, when postures were focused on seated ones, rather than the athletic poses practiced in gyms and yoga studios today. Yet the study of the Eight Limbs as written in the Yoga-Sūtras is the root for today’s modern yoga practice, even as the physical practice and presentation has evolved with Western culture. The teachings of yoga, or union, are still alive because the ancient teachings apply to—and are perhaps needed even more urgently—in modern life.
CREATING A SPACE FOR YOGA AT HOME
Create a calm, peaceful environment for yourself at home.
» Use a quiet space that is empty of distractions—no television.
» Shut the door, if you can.
» Let others know not to interrupt you for a set period of time.
» Turn off your cell phone.
» Commit to a set period of time to practice, no matter how short, and stick to it.
» If you prefer to practice with music, keep it in the background.
THE EIGHT LIMBS
The Eight Limbs outlined in the Yoga-Sūtras include a practice with eight components. The limbs most familiar to modern day yogis are asana, or postures, and breath work. Combined, these two limbs form a powerful foundation.
Most people are drawn initially to the physical part of the practice, the asana, for various reasons from health to strength to flexibility. The physical practice is initially the easier part to understand and is a potent component of yoga that gives access to experience the entirety of the practice. Yet the physical practice is only one part of the whole.
BUT THERE ARE MANY elegant ways to approach other elements of the Eight Limbs, as shared by Hartranft. You practice some of them on the wall. Climbers intuitively understand concentration, or dharana. By staying present to the challenge of your body and the next move on the rock, you know you can persevere to make the next challenging leap and to climb a route that has eluded you.
THE EIGHT LIMBS
ADAPTED FROM HARTRANFT’S YOGA-SŪTRAS OF PATAÑJALI
1. Yamas (five external disciplines, or ethical standards)
» ahimsa (nonharming)
» satya (truthfulness)
» asteya (nonstealing)
» bramacharya (right use of energy, including sexual)
» aparigraha (being nonacquisitive)
2. Niyamas (five internal disciplines)
» saucha (purity)
» santosha (contentment)
» tapas (intense discipline or zeal)
» svadhyaya (self-study)
» isvara pranidhana (devotion or surrender to pure awareness, or god)
3. Asana (sitting postures)
4. Pranayama (breath regulation)
5. Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses)
6. Dharana (concentration)
7. Dhyana (meditation or absorption)
8. Samadhi (bliss, self-realization)
The first four limbs emphasize behavior, the physical body, and the development of energetic awareness. The five external disciplines, or the yamas, include nonharming, truthfulness, nonstealing, right use of energy (including sexual), and being non-acquisitive. You can practice being truthful at any time, by being honest with yourself and your body on a climb, knowing when you can take on a particularly tough boulder, for example, or listening to your body to know when you need to rein it in. Another limb encompasses the five internal disciplines, or the niyamas—purity, contentment, intense discipline, self-study, and devotion to pure awareness, or god. You may have experienced contentment when taking off your climbing shoes, stretching out your toes at the end of a long multipitch day, and kicking back with a giant meal at a local diner.
The latter four limbs address the mind and a higher state of consciousness. You may have accessed the practice to withdraw the senses, your mind focused on one move at a time, without attachment to the climb, your performance, or the wall. You observe movement and the climb “without desire or judgment,” as B. K. S. Iyengar explains in his book, Light on Life.
“How can you move toward something that, like Divinity, is already by definition everywhere? A better image might be that if we tidy and clean our houses enough, we might one day notice that Divinity has been sitting in them all along.”
—B. K. S. Iyengar, Light on Life
There is a limb focused on a meditative experience, or absorption, that you may have felt when you climb. When you are on the wall, transfixed by what it will take for you to turn one hip, lift your foot, and stretch your fingertips to the next micro hold above, there is nothing but the wall—you are relaxed, aware, and hypertuned to your body and the experience, like its own meditation. Then there is the limb samadhi, the practice of experiencing no distance between you and what is around you, whether it’s people or nature, that everyone and everything is the Divine. It’s one reason so many of us love being out in nature.
As you focus on yoga poses and breath work, observing your body in new ways, also notice how the practice relates back to all of the Eight Limbs. The practices are a roadmap for the way you approach any aspect of life—the next climb, an upcoming project at work, or even whether you express appreciation for the people you love. Through the exploration of your physical body and your mind, compassion, gentleness, or joy may arise. Observe the shifts, and see what else is possible.
Yoga starts with awareness. The first layer is the physical one. Through awareness of how your body does basic functions like breath or balance upright during yoga poses, you begin to practice the Eight Limbs.
Sometimes, on a hard route, on a hard day, when the next move on the wall feels impossible, you realize you aren’t breathing. As you cling by your fingertips to the rock, your breath is the faintest whisper in the background. You realize how tense your face is, how furrowed your brow as you stare at the next hold. You pause, take a full breath in, and exhale it all the way out, trust your feet, and make your move.
Breath is an automatic body function: respiration happens all day long, whether you are awake or asleep. Breath also is a natural filtration system. When you inhale, you draw in fresh air and oxygen; when you exhale, you release carbon dioxide and other toxins.
You don’t need to pay attention to it. But what happens when you do? Even right now, you may have started to notice your breath. When you do intentional breath work, you connect your conscious mind to a primitive function. In doing so, you activate your parasympathetic nervous system, slowing your heart rate, among other internal functions. After a particularly hard stretch on the wall, breath can make all the difference to take down your heart rate and clear your mind.
Try it for a moment. Take a deep full breath in, pause, then exhale all the air out. Do it three times. You may notice stress or anxiety dissipating. Your heart rate slows; your body relaxes.
Practice breathing off the wall and you’ll be more likely to breathe at the moments you need it most. Climber Jay Wyatt says he doesn’t always remember to breathe. The constant reminders during yoga teach him to bring it into his sport. “When you’re tense on the wall, a couple deep breaths go a long way,” he says.
Breath (pranayama) is a fundamental element in yoga. The main breath practice is an ancient one known as ujjayi (oo-JAI), or victorious breath. As well-known anatomy expert Leslie Kaminoff writes in Yoga Anatomy, “If you take care of the exhalation, the inhalation takes care of itself.”
ELEMENTS OF UJJAYI
Enter any room where people are practicing yoga and you will hear ujjayi breath. It’s a low, lovely background sound to a practice. The technique requires you to breathe through your nose while constricting your throat. It creates a sound akin to the lapping of ocean waves at the beach. The sound keeps you focused on breathing. Ujjayi also physically directs your breath into the ribs in your back, stretching the intercostal muscles that connect your ribs. Engaging your core lock—addressed later in this chapter—also supports your ujjayi breath.
Breathing is an inherently energetic practice (and there are other styles of breath work beyond ujjayi). You can direct it even more by breathing in an intention that supports you, such as joy or calm, and exhaling something you are ready to shed, like stress or anxiety.
Ujjayi contracts the muscles in your throat and helps you control the speed and depth of your breath—and generates heat. Controlling your breath helps you breathe deeper and more fully. When you first learn ujjayi, you may find either your exhalation or your inhalation is longer than the other. During the practice below, focus on gently balancing them.
» Find a comfortable seated position, either in a chair or on the floor atop a cushion.
» Sit up straight, and pull your belly button in toward your mid-spine.
» Lift your shoulders to your ears, then relax them down.
» Place your hands around your ribs (fingers in front), circling the front and back of your body.
» Take a deep breath in through your nose until you feel your ribs expand, open your mouth and exhale with an extended “haaaaa” sound. Keep your belly engaged as you exhale.
» Take another deep breath in through your nose. This time, keeping your mouth closed for the exhale, repeat the “haaaaa” sound (it will come from your throat) and keep your core engaged. This is ujjayi breath.
» Repeat. Don’t force your breath; let the sound be a whisper, while still breathing deeply.
» If you need to, gently smooth out your breath until you are breathing evenly in and out. Count to five for each round of inhale and exhale. Do this for one minute.
» Sit quietly, and observe any shifts in what you feel in your body or your state of mind.
YOUR UJJAYI BREATH IN PRACTICE
When you exert yourself and find it difficult to stay upright in a pose—let alone breathe—you may revert to old breathing patterns and pant through your mouth. Close your mouth! And try again. If you notice you are unable to recover your ujjayi breath, relax into Child’s Pose: close your mouth and breathe through your nose until you recover enough to come back to your practice.
“Pranayama is thus the science of breath. It is the hub round which the wheel of life revolves.”
—B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Yoga
Your feet carry you many thousands of steps a day, and on the wall, they are essential to completing your route. Akin to a climb, in yoga, there is so much more to be discovered in your feet, which connect you to the ground you are walking on, and your hands, which guide you up a wall. Focusing on your feet and hands in your yoga practice will not only stretch and strengthen feet frequently squished by climbing shoes and hands used to gripping rock, it will open up a new appreciation for the connection points between you and the earth.
A yoga practice builds from the ground up. Since many poses start from standing, that means your feet. Yogis practice barefoot to keep the connection of feet to the floor. Notice how sensitive your feet are to sensation by paying attention to the texture of your mat or the floor under the soles of your feet. By practicing barefoot and challenging balance in poses, you will strengthen the muscles deep in your feet and gain more balance and stability.
Wiggle your toes on the floor or inside your shoes. Notice how it brings your attention to your feet. When you do the same with your feet in a yoga practice, standing tall in Mountain Pose, your entire posture changes. You activate new muscles in your legs, and become strong and connected in your lower body. Keep applying the same intention and focus to every part of your body, and you’ll soon build up a strong and centered Mountain Pose, the foundational pose of all yoga poses.
In a yoga practice, you spend a significant amount of time on your hands. In Downward-Facing Dog, for example, when you flatten your palms and press the knuckles at the base of your pointer and middle fingers to the floor, your arms straighten and take the stress of the pose out of your elbow joints. It’s a small move with a big impact.
Bring one of your hands in front of you. Stretch out your fingers. Notice the space between your fingers. Look at your palm. Look at the back of your hand. Put this book down for a moment and bring your palms together. Press your knuckles at the base of your fingers together and tune in to the sensitivity of your fingertips. Observe the warmth of your skin. Are your palms rough or callused from climbing? Your body senses all of these things without needing your thoughts.
Your hands may be strong from the tight grip needed on the wall. Yoga will teach you to stretch your hands fully. The practice will help you get more mobile in your hands and wrists, as well as your feet, giving you more freedom to move comfortably on and off the wall. Pay attention to your hands and feet throughout the practice, connect them to the ground, and restore their natural energy and strength.
Foundation Feet Practice
Set a timer for one minute, and walk barefoot. Walk mindfully, noticing every part of your foot that comes into contact with the floor. Pay attention to which part of your foot strikes the floor first. Does the entire sole of your foot touch the floor with each step? Observe your toes and how they keep you from falling forward. Notice how your feet hold you up, how sensitive they are to every step. Feel the texture of the floor under your feet. Do your feet tend to rotate in or out? Does your stride change when you pay close attention?
» After one minute, stop and stand with your feet hip-width apart and flat on the floor. Bend from your hips, knees soft, and bring your hands to your feet.
» Bring your thumbs on top of the knuckle at the base of your big toe and press. Keep your thumbs on your big toe knuckle and press your little toe knuckle with your fingers until both knuckles feel evenly connected to the floor.
» Lift the arch of your foot up toward your shins without lifting your big toe knuckle off the ground. Press down into the solidness of your heels.
» Lift your toes up and stretch them out as wide as possible; notice what it feels like to stretch your toes and toe knuckles.
» Keeping space between your toes, settle them back down on the floor. Stand for a moment. Note the texture of the floor, and how the soles of your feet feel.
» Set a timer again. Walk again for one minute with active feet. Observe shifts in your body as you walk.
Foundation Hand Practice
» Come to the floor on your hands and your knees.
» Point your index fingers toward the front edge of your mat. Spread out your hands wide so there is a gap between every finger.
» Lift your fingertips off the floor. Ground the knuckles in your palms flat to the floor; focus on the knuckles under your first and middle finger. Soften your fingers down to the floor. Lift the heels of your hands off the floor so they are vertical to the floor; keep your fingers on the floor. Repeat ten times.
» Turn your hands so your fingers point in toward your knees, thumbs out and palms down toward the floor. Stretch your fingers as wide as they will go. Press the knuckles at the base of your fingers into the floor as deeply as possible. Lift the heels of your hands off the floor. Press them back down to the floor; it’s OK if the heels of your hands don’t come all the way down. Repeat ten times.
» Keep your hands turned in toward your knees. Flip to the top sides of your hands, palms facing up with thumbs facing inside of your hands. Keep your fingers on the floor and lift the palms vertically, fingers still on the floor. Press them back down. Repeat ten times.
» Keep your hands in the same position. Curl your fingers in toward your palms as deeply as you can. Release your fingers back to the floor. Repeat ten times.
Your core is your silent buddy on a climb. When you work from your center, the rest of your body follows, your upper limbs radiating strength from your trunk. You move smoothly and with more control from hold to hold. Your torso contains the key to your climbs, and building endurance will help with stability, mobility, and injury prevention overall.
Luckily, a yoga practice addresses your core strength basically throughout the entire practice. In yoga, uddhiyana bandha, or “upward-lifting lock,” is used in all poses in the practice. Using your core lock (pulling your belly in toward your spine and up toward your shoulder blades—see the core and root lock sidebar below) supports your lower back, elevates your spine, and engages your back muscles. When using uddhiyana bandha throughout a yoga practice, you are conditioning your belly muscles. Get your core used to engaging, and it will be quicker to engage on the wall.
UDDHIYANA BANDHA ALSO SUPPORTS a deep breath practice. If you are having trouble with your ujjayi breath, engage your core and focus again, extending your inhales and your exhales and breathing into your back ribs.
As the central connecting point in your body, your trunk transfers force from your lower to upper body. Your core works from all sides to protect your spine. If you are struggling with injuries, your trunk is a vital area to take a look. Specific poses will strengthen your trunk. Your oblique muscles along the sides of your abdomen grow stronger in Plank; your lower back and spine builds in belly backbends and your mid-back muscles develop during twists. If you suffer from a sore lower back, a yoga practice will strengthen key muscles in your trunk to help alleviate pain. And no matter how strong your core gets, you will always feel it in poses like Boat!
CORE AND ROOT LOCK
To engage your Core Lock, pull your belly button in like you are buttoning a tight pair of pants. Now, lift your belly upward toward your back ribs until your chest lifts. Keep breathing and shift your focus to your front ribs. If the muscles where your front ribs meet are not engaged, your front ribs will pop out. Imagine a little kid sticking their belly forward—cute, but not what you want. When you flare your ribs, you also drop into your middle and lower back.
Wrap your hands around your front rib cage. Pull your fingertips toward each other until the front tips of your ribs squeeze toward each other. Keep your core engaged, and lift your chest up toward the ceiling again. Notice your posture and energy when your belly muscles are fully engaged.
Another less visible action when engaging your core is a lock known as mula bandha, your root lock. It is your pelvic floor, and it supports the lift of your core. Essentially, you lift your anus in toward your body similar to the action you take to keep from wetting your pants. Try to lift it without squeezing your inner thighs or butt cheeks.
Mula bandha lifts from the base of your pelvis, pulling in toward the centerline. Since it works from the bottom of your pelvis, the fulcrum for the body, it creates stability energetically and physically, with a calming effect on your nervous system.
Core Strength Practice
» Position yourself on your hands and knees to set yourself up for a push-up. Stack your hands right under your shoulders with your fingers spread and your index finger pointed toward the front of your mat.
» Keep your hips just below the height of your shoulders. Pull your belly button in toward your spine, and tip your tailbone toward your feet. Press your hands into the floor. Tuck your toes under, and press your heels firmly away from your body.
» Squeeze your thigh muscles and glutes. Stretch your chest forward akin to sitting up straight. Roll your shoulder blades toward your spine. Lift your gaze toward the front of your mat so that your head is even with your spine. To modify, keep your knees on the floor and lower your hips so your body is level from shoulders to knees.
» Set a timer. Build up to hold for sixty seconds.
Your body has a plumb line that keeps you centered when you walk. It uses this centerline to navigate its balance. When you wear a heavy pack or carry a crash pad, your body adjusts to balance itself with this additional weight making your centerline shift—sometimes for the worse when you hopscotch across a stream on your way to a boulder.
During your yoga practice, your body recalibrates balance and strength according to the shape of each pose. Awareness of and understanding of your centerline will give you more access to stability and the natural alignment of each pose. Most of the cues for the poses move your body toward your centerline and your spine to hug your bones in toward your midline. Your spine is where stability lives in your body. The more you access the centerline, the more ease you’ll experience in your practice and while climbing.
EQUIPMENT: TWO BLOCKS
» Come to your hands and knees on a mat. Turn a block to the narrowest width and put it between your inner thighs up as high as you can toward your pelvis and squeeze. Place the other block on the floor in front of you, wide and flat. Bring your thumbs to the bottom edge of the block, and the corners of the block into the crease between your thumb and index finger. Your index fingers will point straight ahead.
» Come to Plank, keeping your hands in place at the block. Stack your shoulders over your hands. Lift your legs off the floor. Lower your hips just under your shoulders. Ground your palms into the mat. Lift your head so it’s even with your shoulders. Set your gaze in front of your block on the floor.
» Sag your hips and soften your legs, almost to the point of dropping the block. Notice what happens when you lose your centerline.
» Lift your hips again just below your shoulders. Squeeze your block between your inner thighs firmly. Hug your hands and upper arm bones in toward the block on the floor. Notice the shift in energy through your core and your legs when you hug in toward the center. Do your limbs feel lighter, more aligned, and in sync with your body?
For three years, I’ve taught yoga to kids at the White House Easter Egg Roll. Every year, it feels like more kids say they do yoga at school, or know breathing techniques they learned from their teachers. One year, another yoga teacher filmed a conversation with a kid named Elijah, who said his teachers taught him to practice looking at one spot for one minute at a time. She asked him why he does that. “It helps you concentrate on stuff,” he replied. “Like when you’re with your friends and you’re trying to do your homework. You have to concentrate on your homework.”
Well said, Elijah. The same applies to a climb. Have you ever been on a climb where you noticed your mind wandered? It’s possible you fell, or got tense, or spent extra energy on a move you could have executed easily otherwise.
Focus and concentration require practice. Yoga poses rely on drishti (a simple, focused gaze) to keep your concentration in a pose. Gaze is a foundational part of a yoga practice, and a powerful way to bring concentration into your day. Setting your gaze over and over is a reminder to stay in the present.
You will see cues for your drishti throughout the poses found in this book. By adding drishti and concentration into your life, you may become more productive, plus your mindfulness and your ability to stay present while in conversation may grow exponentially. When combined with breath, drishti also offers release from stress and anxiety.
Drishti Candle Practice
» Light a candle. Set a timer for one minute. Set your gaze on the flame and stay with it. Notice the movement of the flame, what impacts it, how it flickers, flares, and settles. Soften your eyes. Stay focused. Notice if you are tempted to move, and keep your drishti in one spot.
Vinyasa is the combination of breath and poses, moving in a flow and rhythm with the body. When you connect poses to an inhale or an exhale, you can notice how the inhale supports lengthening and the exhale connects you to the empty space in your lungs and body. Like your drishti, staying focused on your breath requires a certain amount of rigor and discipline. When you get the flow, it’s akin to the days you feel ease and grace while climbing. Your feet move smoothly, you waste no energy fumbling for the next move, there is no drama, only transitions from hold to hold with focused power and attention.
I love simple Sun Salutations A and B to open my practice. When I first connect to my breath and my body, I often feel tired, and I move slowly. But as my body warms up, my focus sharpens. I tune into my core, my hands on my mat, and the sound of my breath—much like on a climb, when you start to flex the muscles in your hands and forearms, and your hands remember the sensation of pulling on rock. You might feel stiff and wonder if you were too ambitious about the day ahead. But as you test out the first few moves to warm up, your body remembers what it is like to climb. You examine holds, you reach for them, and your confidence grows. Your body is ready for what is ahead.
Olivia Hsu has been doing yoga almost as long as she has been climbing. Like many climbers, she started to practice because of an injury.
Hsu practices Ashtanga, an intense form of vinyasa flow that requires extraordinary strength and flexibility in the body. Climbing and yoga are similar in that you need both strength and flexibility, she says. If you are flexible enough for a high step but not strong enough to do anything with it, your flexibility doesn’t mean anything. The same applies to challenging yoga poses.
Hsu, a professional climber who has been featured on the cover of national magazine Yoga Journal, practices five or six days a week. Her twohour yoga practice is built into her day, like brushing her teeth.
Yoga is so deeply ingrained in her body, she naturally applies it to climbing. Yoga and climbing have a similar rhythm, Hsu says, a cadence that moves between intensity and relaxation. When she is on a difficult stretch of a climb and at her maximum heart rate, she breathes to slow her heart rate down—a technique she applies during difficult yoga poses. “It’s like trying but not trying at the same time,” Hsu says. “What a paradox.”
Many climbers look at yoga as a technique for recovery, but Hsu considers it an excellent training tool. She can drop out of climbing intensely for a month and focus on yoga, and return in relatively good shape, she said. It would not work if she did the opposite, choosing climbing and foregoing her yoga practice.
Yoga has taught her to listen to her body and not be attached to how it feels on any particular day. Some days, she wakes up feeling good and she feels stiff throughout her practice. Other days, she feels sore and her practice is strong. The same applies to climbing. “I’ve sent projects really tired,” she says. “It’s like that idea of not being attached to something, not having that expectation.”
Hsu started doing yoga for the physical aspect, but over time, the philosophy has settled into her body by application—practicing over and over again. “You just have to do it,” she says. “When we practice, our bodies are like a metaphor of our mind.”
A flow practice builds heat. Moving through poses in a vinyasa builds strength and also reminds your muscles how to do the poses. The flow requires you to notice when you are lagging with your breath or adding in superfluous movements that take away from the essential combination of pose, inhale, and pose, exhale.
For new practitioners, the art of linking movement and breath can feel elusive. Not all yoga styles include flow, and if you are new to it, vinyasa can feel messy. It may lead to uncertainty about whether you are doing the alignment properly when holding each pose for “one breath,” or if you are flowing in sync. It takes time to develop the breath work and the physical strength to move through the poses with alignment and coordination. Be playful with it, notice when you get perfectionist. Stay in the intention of moving with your breath. It will come eventually.
Once you get accustomed to a flow practice and to tapping into your body’s strength, a quiet rhythm and peace will come with vinyasa. Your breath begins to enhance each pose as you become experienced. Inhales create space in your physical body, allow you to deepen into your core, and focus on alignment. They are timed for poses that lengthen the spine or expand your energy out like Halfway Lift or stretching your fingers to the ceiling in Warrior.
An exhale creates space by pushing the air out of your lungs for a Forward Fold or to sustain your focus on your Core Lock (see sidebar above). Exhales also allow you to soften and deepen into a pose, supporting your body to stay in a challenging pose longer. Stay in the practice of breath by keeping your focus on how your body moves with your breath.
Basic Vinyasa Practices
» Seated Vinyasa: Take a comfortable seat. Rest your hands in your lap. Inhale and circle your arms out wide and up to the ceiling until your palms touch. Exhale and draw your palms down through your centerline to your chest. Repeat this cycle for ten breaths.
» Cat-Cow: Come to all fours on your hands and knees. Stack your hands underneath your shoulders, with your index fingers pointing to the front of the mat and palms pressed flat into the floor (see photos and instructions on pp. 190-192). Stack your knees underneath your hips. Pull your belly button in, engaging your core. On your inhale, slowly lift your chest forward and up. Tilt your tailbone up toward the ceiling and squeeze your shoulder blades toward each other, keeping your core engaged as your belly dips like a cow. On your exhale, round your spine and your shoulders, pulling your belly up toward the sky and lowering your head and gaze at the floor, like a cat. Move back to Cow on an inhale, and repeat Cat on the exhale. Do this sequence for ten breaths.
Growing up in the Midwest, I remember the first time I saw the stark peaks of the Rockies. I was in high school, and my parents took me to Colorado. I couldn’t believe the sheer size and height of the snowy peaks. I craned my neck out the car window, and experienced a scale I didn’t know existed until that moment.
Similar to the experience of realizing there is something so much bigger than yourself is Mountain Pose—it connects you to the scale and inspiration of your own physical form. Through the pose, you feel the foundation of your own feet, your strength, your spine, your energy.
All poses wire your body up for healthy, neutral alignment, which supports you as you access your body’s full potential. It makes you healthier for long climbs, alerts you to when your body isn’t feeling right, and also gives you a better understanding of how to recreate a feeling of alignment and freedom. Like a long, multipitch climb that pushes you to your limit, in Mountain Pose, you can tap into the experience that you are stronger than you can possibly know. You realize how amazing the human body is, and in particular, how strong and powerful you are.
Mountain Pose starts in your feet, stretched broadly on the floor. Once your feet are aligned in a neutral position, your legs connect in, strong and grounded. From there, observe the tilt of your pelvis. You now have a foundation to move it into neutral, with the front and back of your pelvis even. Your belly now has more space to squeeze in and lengthen your spine. Pull your shoulder blades toward your spine to lift your chest even higher. Your head can now reach up the same way a mountain peak juts into the clouds. Your breath has more room to expand into your lungs. Practice the pose to experience the shift in energy and perspective possible from such a simple, essential place.
Mountain Pose Practice
Each of the cues in this pose builds upon another; layer them in one by one.
» Stand on a mat with your bare feet directly under your hips, your arms loose by your sides.
» Point your toes straight ahead, and bring the outer edges of your feet parallel with the edges of your mat; you may observe a slight pigeontoe. Lift your toes and connect with the four corners of your feet to the mat. Soften your toes back to the floor.
» Lift the arches of your feet, and with all four corners of your feet evenly grounded, press your outer shins out until you feel your legs engage, then spiral your inner ankles toward the back of your mat. Energetically, drive your outer ankles down to the floor.
» Squeeze your thigh muscles to the bone. If your knees became stiff, soften the joints slightly.
» Tilt your tailbone down toward the floor. Gently pull in your belly button to engage your core. Squeeze your front ribs toward each other.
» Roll your shoulders up to your ears, then soften them down away from your ears. Pull your upper arm bones toward your shoulder blades to engage your shoulders.
» Send breath into your ribs in your mid-back.
» Let your hands relax by your sides, and spin your palms to face forward.
» Lift the crown of your head up toward the sky to lengthen your neck. Soften your jaw.
» Set your gaze on one point.
» Take ten deep ujjayi breaths.
» Observe what it feels like to ground your feet and notice the rise of energy along your spine and center. Experience how it radiates from your center out through your fingers and up through the crown of your head. Note what it is like to connect to your physical body and the present moment through Mountain Pose.
INTEGRATE: WORK FROM THE BONES
In climbing, you learned early on to rely on your skeleton. You figured out quickly that hanging with your arms halfway bent tired out your arms. You learned to rely on straight arms and your ligaments and tendons rather than muscles that fatigue quickly.
Integration in yoga works the same way. Mountain Pose teaches you to work from your bones. When you stack your ankles, knees, and hips over the four corners of your feet, your foundation becomes more stable. When you pull your belly in and lower your tailbone toward the earth, your thigh bones pull into your pelvis. Your deep psoas muscle and glutes work together to keep your lower body balanced. Rather than working the superficial muscles, you learn to work in an integrated way into your body’s center—ideal for both yoga and for climbing.
You also want to work into the bones in your upper body where it can be easy for climbers to lose integration. When you hug your shoulder blades toward each other, you fire the lower part of your trapezius muscles, which draws the shoulders down and lifts your chest. That same movement has your upper arm bones pulling in to your shoulder blade, which works into the muscles that connect your shoulder blades to your spinal column.
The alignment cues in yoga teach you how to work from your bones and into your centerline, which will deepen your understanding of integration. By challenging your body to access integration in various directions through the poses, your understanding of how to work from your body’s skeleton will expand not only in yoga practice but in direct translation to how you tackle the wall, offering new freedom and strength as you climb.
Meditation is a practice to train your mind to be present. There are many techniques, and meditation and contemplative practices are found in almost all spiritual traditions, including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, although it is probably most closely associated with Buddhism.
Like yoga, meditation requires practice. The goal isn’t necessarily to relax, but the benefits can be experienced that way. Studies have shown that when you meditate, you lower your blood pressure, blood cortisol levels, and your heart rate. You improve your blood circulation, sweat less, have less anxiety … the list goes on.
More people than ever are curious about the benefit of a meditation practice. Meditation’s growing popularity has led to robust scientific studies focused on the impact it has on the brain and the body. Various recent studies have shown it has cognitive and mental benefits. The magazine Scientific American devoted a cover story to the topic called “Mind of the Meditator” in November 2014. In it, the writers noted that brain scans of experienced meditators demonstrated that the practice has a noticeable impact on how their brains are wired. Like a person learning to play an instrument, experienced meditators are able to develop new areas of their brains. They can achieve a focused state of mind with little effort, much like an expert musician or athlete can immerse in a performance with ease.
The studies discuss various types of meditations—such as focused-attention meditation that brings awareness to a physical action like breath; mindfulness or open-awareness meditation that might focus on sight or sound, and not becoming attached to any particular perception or thought; and compassion meditation, when the meditator focuses on feelings of unconditional love and compassion toward others. Meditation has four distinct cycles identified by researchers—time when the mind wanders, a moment when you become aware of the distraction, a period when you reorient your attention, and then the period you resume focused attention.
A study on focused-attention meditators showed they were less likely to react or get distracted when interrupted; they were more able to stay vigilant. Those who focused on openawareness meditation had improved perception, with depressed patients better managing negative thoughts or feelings and a reduced chance of relapse in some. The compassion meditation helped meditators share the feelings of other people without becoming emotionally overwhelmed, particularly helpful for people in caregiver roles.
Meditation also brings lasting change to brain function, from the levels of stress people experience and an ability to stay calm in the face of stress to an improved immune system and resilient brain cells. Observing an eight-week study of active meditators, Harvard researchers found that brain matter grew in regions of the brain associated with learning, cognition, memory, emotional regulation, empathy, and compassion.
LEARNING TO MEDITATE
A daily meditation practice is a powerful point of connection and is key to understanding some of the deeper qualities of yoga. In Patañjali’s time, yoga consisted of mostly seated poses, with a focus on meditation.
Be kind to yourself when starting out, and playful too. Start with five minutes in the morning as soon as you wake up, and sit for five minutes again before you go to bed. Once you are in the routine of bookending your day with meditation, increase the time up to thirty minutes morning and night. Give yourself thirty days to create a meditation practice and see the results.
When you start this practice, your mind will wander. That’s OK. Part of the practice is to notice your thoughts. You will not empty your mind, per se. You will initially notice you are thinking, rather than present. Meditation is a practice of return, and even when it does not feel like it is working, trust that it is. Just as your climbing gets stronger with every return to the wall, the more frequently you sit in meditation, the more you will experience greater ease, focus, and less reactivity throughout your day.
“However beautifully we carry out an asana, however flexible our body may be, if we do not achieve the integration of body, breath, and mind, we can hardly claim that what we are doing is yoga. What is yoga after all? It is something that we experience inside, deep within our being.”
—T. K. V. Desikachar, The Heart of Yoga
CREATING A SPACE FOR MEDITATION
Creating a comfortable setup for your meditation practice is important for making it a routine. Find a quiet space in your home where you won’t be disturbed. Set yourself up with the following props:
» Meditation cushion: There are many suppliers of meditation cushions, but you can use any cushion in your house. Use a large cushion for the base to support your ankles, with a smaller cushion set on top that elevates your hips above your knees and makes it easier to sit for longer stretches. You can sit with your legs crossed or with your shins on either side of your smaller cushion.
» Chair: If it is challenging for you to sit on a low cushion, sit on a chair. Sit on the front half of the chair away from the back in an upright posture. Prop your feet up if the chair cuts into the back of your legs. Place a cushion or other support behind your back as needed.
» More props: During meditation, you may prefer to fold your hands in your lap. One option is to place a cushion or blanket in your lap to keep your hands propped up comfortably. Wrap a blanket around your shoulders for warmth for longer meditations.
» Altar: Adding an altar can create a sense of ritual around your meditation practice. Use a small table or get creative. Place treasured items, such as small tokens from loved ones, a candle, or fresh flowers, on the altar.
Lastly, do not underestimate the importance and clarity provided by the daily ritual of meditation. By creating and establishing a ritual to support your own health—and returning to the ritual even if you miss a day—you put your wellbeing first. Just as you must commit to repeatedly working on a climb that challenges your skill and technique, commit to the practice of meditation. Experience for yourself its impact on you and those around you.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO MEDITATE?
Meditation is traditionally practiced in the early morning right when you wake up, and in the evening before you go to bed. Meditating both morning and night bookends your day with a contemplative, quiet space. That said, if you need to squeeze it in, meditating midday is better than skipping out completely!
Breath Meditation Practice
» Sit on a cushion or in a chair. Set a timer for five minutes.
» Close your eyes. Note the feeling of your feet and ankles against the floor. Walk your awareness up your legs to your hips. Stack your vertebrae and sit up straight. Tilt your chin parallel to the floor to lengthen the back of your neck. Bring your awareness to your nose.
» Notice the in and out of your breath over your upper lip. Do not try to control your breath. Pay attention to the natural state of how your body breathes.
» Note how your breath may be cool on the way in and warm on the way out. Focus on the feeling of air passing through your nostrils.
» When you notice your mind wandering, note you have wandered and bring your attention back to your breath. Focus again on your breath coming in and out.
Walking Meditation Practice
If all this talk about sitting sounds uncomfortable, consider a walking meditation practice, most closely associated with the Buddhist tradition. While you will be moving no farther than the distance across your living room, it is a powerful mindfulness practice. (Hint: It’s also a practice you can fit in on your way to your next outdoor climb or bouldering session!)
» Find a spot in your home where you can walk ten paces in one direction without any obstacles. Set a timer for ten minutes.
» You can do this practice with or without shoes. Stand still for a moment and close your eyes. Feel the weight of your body over your feet. Notice the bones of your feet.
» Start to walk, focusing lightly on each step. Observe the muscles your body uses to take a step. Pay attention to your feet as you walk. Move slowly, feeling every part of your body as you go.
» When your mind wanders, bring it back to your feet. When you turn around, note what has to happen in your body to turn. Continue your mindful focus on walking.
Mantra Meditation Practice
In a mantra meditation, you focus your mind on a phrase. So hum is a basic mantra meditation—it means “I am that” in Sanskrit.
» Sit on a cushion or in a chair. Set a timer for five minutes.
» Close your eyes. For five rounds of breath, notice the natural inhales and exhales of your breath.
» Focusing on your inhale, say the word “so” to yourself. On your exhale, say “hum.” Repeat. Observe if your mind wanders to your body or other thoughts, and return to the mantra.