Yoga for Climbers: How to Stretch, Strengthen and Climb Higher (2016)
THE BENEFITS OF YOGA
“Yoga says we must deal with the outer or most manifest first, i.e., legs, arms, spine, eyes, tongue, touch, in order to develop the sensitivity to move inward. This is why asana opens the whole spectrum of yoga’s possibilities.”
—B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life
AT ITS HEART, YOGA is a multidimensional and transformative practice. It has immense physical benefits, and those are the ones you learn first. Yoga poses help you become strong, flexible, and graceful. Your body awareness expands, while your endurance builds, which comes in handy while contemplating how to arrange your hips and limbs for your next move on the wall.
The physical lessons also are the gateway to the deeper mental ones, which is what ultimately change lives. It’s why I practice and teach yoga.
In this chapter, you will learn more about the physical strength, balance, and stability available through a regular yoga practice, in addition to the ways it can support you mentally to sort through whatever challenges life decides to throw your way that day. You’ll learn new ways to look at injury and how a yoga practice can help you manage and prevent injury as well as rehabilitate.
THE PHYSICAL BENEFITS
A strong, focused practice can echo a long, arduous day of climbing and the reward of exhausted delight that comes from testing your body’s physical limits. You may start your climb distracted, thinking about how hard the route ahead may be. But after hours of moving your body up and across a rock wall, you have forgotten about your earlier concerns; you can feel your feet, hands, and breath.
In yoga, your attention is similarly focused on the feeling of the mat under you, the experience of inhaling and exhaling, with your drishti focused on one point. You can experience the potent mix of physical work and a sense of calm and connection to something bigger than yourself, much like the experience of being on the wall.
Yoga also brings your attention to your thoughts more readily. You notice you are babbling to yourself, and you rely on your breath, gaze, and physical alignment to turn your focus instead to the present. You’ve likely figured this out when climbing. Climbing is multidirectional, requiring twists, open hips, and good body awareness. When you are strong and mobile, with a deep understanding of how your body moves in space, you are freed up to take on more technical routes. You know that if you don’t stay present with your body and what’s happening, that’s when you miscalculate, and perhaps fall.
Above all other types of movement, yoga opens me to a deep, physical awareness. When I am nursing an injury, I go to yoga. There, I can breathe, observe rather than push through, and settle the panicked thoughts that launch when something doesn’t feel right physically. If I need to take my practice down a notch, I do. Yoga taught me that pushing constantly does not always take me where I need to go, and it’s the place I return when I need to get grounded.
Listening to your body is important for anyone, but particularly athletes. Your body endures wear and tear from intense climbs, not to mention arduous approaches with packs loaded with ropes and the gear needed for climbing. Effort is your middle name. Yoga will build more balance into your body with deep layers of stability in your core and long holds that stabilize your joints. A yoga practice also can teach you the importance of lowering the physical intensity and how to add in a restorative yoga practice to serve your body’s need to soften and relax rather than muscle through.
Plus, it can be hard to make enough time to climb every day. A yoga practice is another way to access the layered benefits experienced on a climb.
The following physical benefits range from the ones you may know, such as flexibility, to ones you haven’t considered, like deeper body awareness.
THE HAZARDS OF SITTING
The first time I observed adults squatting was in Beijing, China. It was the mid-1990s, and people squatted everywhere—street corners, Tiananmen Square, the Great Wall of China. Their squat was deep, their heels stayed on the ground. They looked relaxed. My American friends and I tried to emulate them, but after just a few moments, we would grimace and stand up.
Many years of yoga and fitness later, I know the squat is a natural and essential resting position (and movement) for the human body. Observe toddlers. They squat to look at something on the ground, or to communicate with a friend—it doesn’t occur to them that it is uncomfortable, because for them, it is not.
Many Americans spend the day with their hips in a static 90-degree position, either in a chair or in a car. Once you hit your school years, where you spend the day at a desk, most of you lost your squat or no longer felt comfortable in it. That also may mean you lose some strength for standing up, and mobility in your hips and lower back. If you struggle to get out of a chair, you most likely end up staying there, a perpetual challenge as people age.
According to a report from the Washington Post about the health hazards of sitting, your brain function slows down when you don’t have fresh blood moving through it from physical activity. Sitting leads to a strained neck, sore shoulders and back, tight chest, tight hip flexors, and a weak core and glutes. It can lead to a weak spine and bad back, to poor circulation and soft bones from a lack of activity. Extended sitting can lead to high blood pressure, a greater risk of heart disease, and an overproductive pancreas, which can lead to diabetes and a greater risk of colon, breast, and endometrial cancer. Are you convinced yet?
It’s important to take breaks from sitting by standing periodically and changing position. Some people set timers every twenty to thirty minutes at work to remind them to stand up and get blood flowing back into their legs. It’s also worth noting that your body is completely capable of reclaiming its squat. Follow the Thirty-Day Squat Challenge below!
THIRTY-DAY SQUAT CHALLENGE
Created by movement leader Ido Portal, this challenge is to bring back your squat. You don’t need to do all ten minutes in one stretch, but set out to squat ten minutes a day for thirty days. Set a timer to keep track throughout the day. When it gets too intense, stand up. See how you feel about your body, mobility, and squat ability by the end of the month.
Note: If you have trouble getting into a full squat, you can practice lowering into a chair without sitting all the way onto the seat, hovering until you get strong and open enough to go into a full squat. Or, place a mat or blanket under your heels.
When I meet someone new and tell him I teach yoga, it often prompts a confession—he doesn’t do yoga. Often, he will follow up with a second confession, brow furrowed, that he is terribly inflexible. I counter the confession with my own—I was barely able to touch my toes when I started practicing, but I can now.
You could too (if you can’t yet), if you were to practice and access your body’s natural ability. The heavens will not open up when you touch your toes, but when your joints move in all the ways available to your body, and your muscles become more pliable, your body is capable of movements including squats, twists, flexing, or extending to touch your toes. Access all of these directions, and you can step higher to the next hold, rotate your hips with ease while climbing, and perhaps even squat easily.
Certain kinds of repetitive movement naturally tighten up your body. Take hiking (which many climbers do if only to get to a favorite wall): It requires your body to move in a similar direction, often for a long time. Your body largely moves in one plane of motion. When you carry a heavy pack loaded with ropes and other gear, or your crash pad, the impact is even more intense. And climbing itself tends to work certain muscles repetitively. If you don’t vary the way you move, your hip flexors and hamstrings get tighter. Your lower back and hips take the brunt of your pack weight. Stress and anxiety also accumulate in your physical body, showing up for most people as tightness in their shoulders, and furthering issues with your lower back and hips.
More than that, if you don’t challenge your body to do all it is capable of, you limit both your understanding and your range of possibility. The goal with a yoga practice, or any kind of movement, truly should be to experience your body at its optimal, its healthiest, and most energetic.
The key is listening to your body. If you’re tight, that means being kind and working slowly into stretches. If you’re very open, that means not becoming dependent on your flexibility in poses. You can overstretch, especially if you’re stretching where the muscle begins, which pulls on tendons and other connective tissue. “Pay attention to stretch into the target muscle itself,” says Leslie Kaminoff in Yoga Anatomy.
Mobility is key to restoring your body from the intensity of a climb. A yoga practice supports multiple approaches toward mobility. Most people associate flexibility with static stretching. During Half Pigeon, it takes a full minute before the muscles around the piriformis, a deep hip muscle, relax and the piriformis begins to lengthen, Kaminoff writes. The experience can bounce back and forth between intensity and a deep release.
Yoga poses also include active stretches, known as dynamic stretches, when you contract an opposing muscle to open your muscles safely. For example, engaging your thigh muscles will support flexibility in your hamstrings, opening them more effectively. You also lengthen muscles by contracting in moves like lifting one leg off the floor while in Downward-Facing Dog. In a vinyasa practice, when you repeatedly move through similar poses, muscles stretch over time as they warm up. Your body is doing constant active stretches at the beginning of your practice, contracting some muscles to lengthen other tissue.
Many people experience some form of tightness in their hips and their shoulders. Sitting is a major factor for both. Slumping while sitting also puts pressure on the trapezius, the muscle that connects your neck and shoulders. Your chest curls forward and muscles contract. Also, for people who only ever walk or run, their muscles become accustomed to that same motion and direction.
You may be surprised by how many parts of your body open up through a yoga practice. Your ankles become more flexible with Downward-Facing Dog and squats. Your feet strengthen during balancing poses, translating to greater stability when balancing on your big toe on a hold. You learn to engage your shoulders even more on the wall, tapping into the various muscles in your back rather than relying on your chest, shoulders, and arms to pull yourself up. Yoga poses also include twists to relax tight muscles in your trunk and keep your spine healthy. Backbends open up your chest and heart area, teaching you to release tension that accumulates in your shoulders from climbing.
Your body can release tension through a regular breath practice, which ultimately allows your body to open up. When you work into mobility, you can experience the full freedom of range of motion for climbing and life.
STRENGTH AND STABILITY
The physicality of a yoga practice offers you insight into where your strengths reside, and where you can focus to build needed strength. Holding poses, in particular, requires your body to adapt to what’s happening in the moment. Staying in Warrior poses strengthens stabilizer muscles around your hips, knees and ankles, while pausing in Plank stabilizes your wrists, hands, shoulders, and core.
Creating stability in a yoga practice begins at your foundation—your feet. Activate your feet, and your leg muscles will light up, stabilizing your knee and hip joints. Move into your core and shoulders, and you create stability throughout. The more you practice, the more you strengthen different muscles. Your body loves to cheat, and will depend upon the strongest muscle in the body rather than engaging the proper muscle for good alignment. In the standing pose Warrior 2, for example, people often let their front knee cave in and hip jut out, allowing their stronger thigh muscle to compensate for weak glutes or tight hips. By centering your front knee over your ankle and pulling your front thigh bone into your hip socket, you strengthen your outer hip and butt muscles and create more stability around your hip.
All yoga poses call for core engagement throughout the practice and doing so supports your lower back, elevates your spine, and engages your back muscles, all of which you use on a climb.
Yoga also varies the type of movement your body is accustomed to. Rather than the constant emphasis on pulling yourself up the wall in climbing, you focus more on pushing in yoga, which strengthens your bones. With a regular practice, you will notice over time as you get stronger in your core and shoulders, holding Plank—the beginning of a push-up—will not be as hard as it once was, though I can’t promise it will ever be easy.
You’ll learn to access and stabilize your shoulders so you can access the strong muscles of your back instead of relying on the ligaments in your shoulders. You’ll feel your ankles and feet get stronger. You’ll experience release and freedom in locked-up hands and wrists. You’ll learn to open your chest, relieving years of built-up tightness.
When a practitioner, Marie, first came to me at age seventy-seven, she had trouble standing on one foot. During balancing poses, she would grit her teeth, a look of determination in her eyes. She wanted to do them over and over, occasionally ignoring me when I gently suggested we move on. She taught me a thing or two about discipline—she stopped wearing shoes at home to help her feet get stronger; she practiced Tree while she brushed her teeth; she requested balancing poses every week so she could show me how much she was improving.
After a couple months of weekly yoga sessions combined with her daily regimen, she came in one day and told me that for the first time in years, she was able to pull her pants on, one leg at a time—while standing on one foot. The smallest triumphs can be the biggest breakthroughs, and it was huge for her.
Your body’s ability to balance is based on an intricate system including vision, inner balance function in your ears, your core, and legs. Balance is a critical function that runs in the background all day. You don’t notice, but your eyes take in the horizon, your ears calculate when your head moves, and your core and feet adjust to movement. Your brain is the coordinator, syncing all of this to keep you upright. It knows how to adjust when you shift your weight from one foot to another to reach for the next hold.
Proprioception is your brain’s understanding of where your body is in space. Your body learns balance sensing where your body parts are in relation to each other and gauging strength and movement through muscles, tendons, and your joints.
When you learn a new skill, your body picks up new elements of movement. The more you ask of your body, the more your brain forms circuits between existing neurons to meet the new demands. Proprioception is what allows you to walk in the woods after dusk with a headlamp. It’s how you can run without looking at your feet. It’s why we feel awkward doing a new, unfamiliar activity—remember clinging anxiously to holds on the easiest route the first time you tried to climb? Over time, your body has adapted to climbing, understanding intuitively how to shift weight over your feet as you move up a wall.
Challenge your body’s sense of space with new activities that are out of your comfort zone. If you don’t dance, try a new dance class. If you’re not a trained dancer, you might notice how tough it is to coordinate your hands, feet, and torso to the beat. It might feel nearly impossible. But if you keep going back to the class, and practicing the steps over and over, your body starts to learn them. Suddenly, the spin on one foot combined with the stomp of another, is possible. You have just built new circuits for your brain and body.
If you don’t challenge your body’s ability to balance, you lose it, says Chris Morrow, a physical therapist. The older you get, the less likely you are to test your balance out of fear of falling; one-third of people older than 65 fall every year.
One simple strategy anyone can do to improve balance is to take away one of the essential systems, like sight, Morrow recommends. You can practice your balance in a Tree pose in chapter 3. Another is to focus on the parts of your body that coordinate balance. Notice your feet. See what happens when you scrunch your toes, and your foot arches. Practice lifting all of your toes and setting them back on the floor. Rise up onto the balls of your feet and balance there, then walk. Lift the balls of your feet above your heels, balance, and walk. All of these small movements bring attention to our feet, and you’ll notice how the parts work together.
Climbers constantly challenge their body’s ability to shift weight from one foot to the next and stay balanced; your body becomes adept at weight transfer. A yoga practice challenges balance in other ways, including playing with sight and inner ear balance by moving your head in different directions. It develops your core, a critical element of balance that will only improve your agility on the wall. But even doing simple standing poses, where you place your feet on the ground at various distances, will deepen your body awareness and challenge your center of gravity.
Many poses strengthen your butt muscles and outer hips, which play a major role in balance. Balancing poses where you stand on one leg shift a key element of your foundation. When your center of gravity moves over one foot instead of two, your body adapts, and you strengthen both your grounded foot and your core. The more you do it on the ground, the simpler it will feel when you are balancing on a tiny foothold.
You might find that your standing foot cramps as it relies on deeper ligaments and tendons that keep your foot stable. With different positions for your upper leg, torso, and arms, your body must figure out new ways to keep you upright.
You also can play with taking away sight in your yoga practice. Start out in a standing Mountain Pose, your eyes closed. Notice how your body sways, adjusting to balance until your pelvis centers itself over your feet. Next, close your eyes in Warrior 2 (see Strength Practice I). Your awareness of your feet grows, and you notice how important it is to engage your core so you don’t fall over.
Experiment with eyes closed during Tree pose, and see how much you rely on your eyes to stay upright. Next, observe how your inner ear balance works. Stand in Mountain Pose and turn your head slowly side to side, and notice what happens as your body adjusts. The longer you practice and the more stable your balance gets, the more playful you can be.
Steph Davis started doing yoga out of necessity. Her back had seized up from climbing and trail running, and she had pulled a tight hamstring on a heel hook. When her hamstring healed, she knew she had to change something. “Dammit, I’ll have to stretch,” she remembers thinking. “It will be terrible.”
It was the mid-1990s. She picked up Light on Yoga, a foundational text by master teacher B. K. S. Iyengar that outlines the essential elements of the practice and poses.
She did yoga at home, holding poses to see what would happen. She noticed the poses often felt difficult at first, but if she held one long enough, her muscles would release. She could translate that directly to climbing: as her body relaxed in uncomfortable yoga poses, it would do the same in a resting stance on the wall. Her back stopped hurting.
Her muscles are now used to relaxing in the middle of an awkward resting stance. “Like anything, if you train something, it just happens,” she said.
One day, she read the introduction to Light on Yoga. She realized yoga poses were a pathway and training to meditate. The philosophy resonated with her approach to climbing, and her search for a feeling of flow and expansion. Yoga helped her find her direction, she says.
Davis has been climbing for more than twenty years, and climber culture can feel focused on sending the hardest possible route. But that is not why Davis climbs, despite the fact that she is one of the most famous names in climbing as the first woman to free climb the Salathe Wall on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park and the second woman to free climb El Capitan in under twenty-four hours. “I couldn't really care less what I ‘achieve,’ ” she says. “It’s more I want to be experiencing these ideas in a physical way that I have.”
Like other climbers, she has given in to thinking she doesn’t have enough time to do yoga. Early on, her practice sometimes lasted one minute. Now, she might practice for six minutes, or thirty.
Some days, she is motivated to practice to keep her lower back healthy. Other times, she meditates. “The fact you’re going through physical motion, your brain is going to go into more meditative state—really the idea of yoga,” she said. “It’s not just exercise.”
EASE AND RECOVERY
One of the essential yoga teachings is ease. In the Yoga-Sūtras, there’s a teaching called sthira sukham asanam (STEE-rah SOO-kum AH-sa-nam). Basically, it means combining steadiness and ease.
Fun and laughter is a surefire way to invoke ease, especially when students are cursing me under their breath during a long Warrior 2. I often tease my students for being Type A (it takes one to know one), and ask them to observe if they are being overzealous. I can spot those students from across the room—their arms and legs shake, their gaze is like a laser beam drilling a hole into the wall, and they avert their eyes when I suggest they soften their shoulders or jaw to relax into a pose.
But once those students learn to soften, they are often surprised. That is the moment when you can hold a pose longer than you thought. When you take a Chair pose, and you feel your feet, legs, hips, and core resisting gravity, you may still wish for nothing else on this earth but for the pose to end. You also notice that it’s possible to deepen your breath, set your gaze, and stay focused. Like the moment when you think you’re almost there on a multipitch climb, and then realize you still have another pitch to go—instead of thinking grimly that you’ll never make it, you take a deep breath, let go of thinking about how much longer you’ve got, and you keep going. You practice being present with your body.
The more you relax in a pose and the more your brain can focus on the muscles that hold you there, the better your body understands which muscles to engage and which ones to relax. You don’t need to knit your eyebrows in any pose, trust me. This softer approach will serve you everywhere, particularly in your approach to climbing. Treat each climb as a moment-by-moment practice. Notice where you can soften and relax as you puzzle through the next move. In the big picture, notice the impact of a relentless drive to reach the next level. It may take you far, but it can come at a great cost as well, in the form of injury or never allowing your body and brain time to come down from an intense adrenaline high.
The next level of ease is supporting your body in release and recovery. If you spend most of your time in intense activity, your nervous system stays in a constant state of stress and tension. Physical therapist Chris Morrow advises that people take on calming exercises for overall health and balance. If your body feels happy, safe, and secure, rather than stressed and anxious, it will perform better.
Adding in a yoga practice dedicated to recovery is important for everyone. In practices designed to help your body relax, and stretch out tight hips and shoulders, you may notice earlier if something is not working properly. Recovery and ease is the path to understanding your body and giving it space to heal and bounce back for the next weekend on the wall.
Understanding your body starts at the granular level—the sensation of your feet on the floor, the feeling of your ribs expanding and contracting while you breathe. The more you focus on feeling the sensations in your body, the more you will understand how your body moves in space, or proprioception (see sidebar above).
Yoga poses deepen your understanding of where your body is in space and how to maneuver on a microlevel of awareness. Alignment teaches you to feel the difference between pitching your pelvis, shaped like a bowl, forward and a neutral pelvis, where the front and back are even. You might notice you always stand with your pelvis tipped forward, your core slack, contributing to a sore lower back.
The better you know your body and how it moves in space, the deeper your understanding of poses and alignment will be, and the more it will serve you in life anywhere. You’ll notice which muscles are strong, and which ones could use some work. You’ll trust your body to do what you ask it to do, essential for any climber. You’ll feel free to rotate more, using your hips in new ways to keep yourself close to the wall and access different holds. You’ll know how to keep your body healthy, safe, and strong.
Thirty years into climbing, Mike Papciak takes a slower view of climbing than he once did. In his twenties, when he was a competitive climber, his climbing was impatient. Now, he looks at a route as an opportunity to study the way his body moves. He calls his climbing “yoga bouldering.”
Rather than doing a crux move where he falls into connective tissue in his funky shoulder and hopes it doesn’t tear, he says, he focuses on moving safely and well. “My climbing has become this beautiful way to relax,” he says. “Let me go out and feel good in my body, feel correct in my body, and use climbing as my tool to knit my shoulder together even better.”
He was no longer climbing professionally, and he had an office job and a kid. His body was aching and felt stiff, and he wanted that to change. His wife was going to yoga, and he decided to try it out.
Papciak was mesmerized by the Iyengar practice, which focuses on holding poses for long periods, and he liked the attention teachers and practitioners applied to their bodies. He appreciated the absence of music and the slower pace.
Now in his late forties, Papciak still practices yoga for ten minutes a day. His practice consists of four poses that he has learned from private sessions over the years—a twist, a forward fold, a traditional headstand, and Downward Facing Dog, which he calls an excellent education in shoulder rotation. He likes spending time in a pose, investigating how his body feels, and seeing what shifts.
Now a bodyworker doing massage therapy, he calls really good yoga with an experienced teacher “one of the best medicines for the body I have seen.” Yoga is excellent cross-training for athletes, he says, and while some of his climbing buddies say they don’t have time for yoga, he thinks one day all climbers will consider it indispensable, like fingerboard training.
Papciak says good bodywork is like taking out the garbage, working the rotation of joints and mechanics to wipe your body’s chalkboard clean. Pulling as hard as you can with your shoulders at crazy angles is “scribble.” Yoga, however, teaches you to move in healthy ways and in good alignment. “If you leave my office with a clear chalkboard, go take a really good yoga class and get some good penmanship on the chalkboard,” he says.
A STUDY BY RESEARCHERS at the University of Miami, Florida, discovered that instructors and advanced yoga practitioners engage different muscles than do newcomers to yoga or even practitioners with three years of experience or more. In some poses, for example, instructors used the deltoid muscles in their back in standing forward folds, Downward-Facing Dog, and in Warrior poses. Your deltoids stabilize your shoulders, and those with experience have learned over years of practice to engage while folding to deepen the fold. Newer practitioners struggled to use those muscles. More experienced yogis also were more likely to engage their calf muscles during Halfway Lift and Warrior 1, which stabilizes the ankle, and allows for deeper forward folds and deeper knee bends—an important area of strength for your climbing foundation.
As you practice and focus on alignment, your body will understand how to connect to the bigger, stronger muscles that best support a pose. With deeper body awareness, you also will notice when something feels off and realize it’s time to modify until your body heals, rather than pushing through. A consistent yoga practice teaches you the difference between pain and potential injury, and an intense, challenging practice pushes you to the edge of your strength.
MANAGING AND PREVENTING INJURY
An injury can happen before you know it. One of my biggest lessons happened at a rock climbing gym. I lifted my foot for the next hold, and my hip did a little pop. I ignored it—against my own intuition and everything I knew about moving in an integrated, stable way. I stepped onto the next hold and pressed down into my foot with all of my weight. The sudden pain in my groin shocked me. I spent one full week on the couch, barely moving. Even after a couple of weeks, I couldn’t practice most yoga poses. It took three weeks before I began to recover.
As you push your body’s limits, you may injure yourself. Elite athletes in particular may push through pain that is signaling them to slow down. The real learning comes in how you handle the aftermath.
Deepening body awareness will help you prevent injury. But another important element in a yoga practice is learning the difference between intensity and pain. In an intense pose, your legs may tremble or you may want to give up. Instead, breathe deeply to build endurance. Sharp, shooting pain, a snap or a pop or feeling like you pulled something, however, indicates it is time to stop.
The first step in assessing your injury is to ask yourself where it bothers you. Pick out the activity where it bothers you, and get down to the details. Does it hurt when I push off my heel, or is it in my knee in a lunge or when I go down the stairs? Does it hurt every time, or only when I move in certain directions? Does it hurt when I’m not moving at all?
If you’re really curious, you can go online and find out a common compensation for someone, say, in a lunge with knee pain. You might find out you’re not using your butt muscles. If you can stop the compensation, you can come back from the injury once you let the acute injury heal, according to Seattle physical therapist Mark Trombold. If you are uncertain on any level about an injury, go see a professional.
Sometimes you may find that you’re not injured, but instead facing a strength deficit. Your body may compensate for a weakness, and that can cause an injury. It will use the strongest muscles rather than the key muscles.
A yoga practice can help you discover your physical weaknesses. When you understand the deficit, you can target particular poses to work on. Once your injury feels better, gradually ease back into activity. Modify your poses or practice as you need to, and spend the time focusing on your breath and listening to your body to know if it’s sharp, shooting pain or the shaky intensity that comes with building strength.
THE MENTAL BENEFITS
“Problems are just places where we have been separated from our authentic selves… . When you change your focus from limitations to boundless possibilities, from doubt and fear to love and confidence, you open your world in entirely new ways. You stop worrying about fixing what’s wrong with you and start living from all that’s right within you.”
—Baron Baptiste, Journey into Power
After her fall, sometimes when Rannveig Aamodt climbed, something would trigger in her. She would freeze, her body paralyzed. She couldn’t move. Aamodt would flash back to Turkey in April 2012, the day she tumbled fifty feet to the ground and broke both ankles and her elbow, and fractured her pelvis and three vertebrae. (Learn more about her in her profile below.)
It’s natural to be afraid of falling, and climbers constantly face fear. Even before the accident, Aamodt says being comfortable with falling and trusting that her equipment would catch her was a process for her. But after the fall, after the slow excruciating work to get back on her feet, the fear felt different, deeper.
Yoga, a practice she had done for years, helped her to climb again. Before Aamodt could walk again, she did yoga in a chair. Once she could stand, yoga helped her observe unevenness in her body. When she thought about making the return to climbing, yoga helped her tap into her own strength to do just that. And now, if her own body betrays her, she breathes. “Yoga teaches me to take control over my breath,” she says. “Even if you’re scared, you can at least take control of breath.”
Overcoming limitations is built into a climber’s bones. When staring up at a 12-pitch climb, you have felt fear of the unknown. You’ve triplechecked your and your partner’s gear, given yourself a little pep talk, and stepped up to the rock. When your arms are pumped and you feel like you can’t hang on any longer, you have more than once paused, shaken out your arms, recommitted to your climb, and continued. When you send a boulder problem you once thought impossible, you have felt triumph surge through your veins. You know what it’s like to move beyond your limits.
Estes Park, Colorado
In 2012, Rannveig Aamodt fell fifty feet. She broke her talus bones in her ankles, her pelvis, her lower back, and one of her elbows. She didn’t know if she would climb again. But she wanted to.
While in her hospital bed, she would visualize climbing, the magic of the flow, and how it felt to make her way up a wall. But if she thought about all the steps it would take to walk again, let alone climb, she would tailspin, feeling overwhelmed by all the work it would take to get there. She reminded herself to focus instead on the goal for that day, like touching her nose.
“It would be too much,” she said. “Yoga helped me to be present in every day.” She did yoga in a chair when she still couldn’t use her feet. As she grew stronger, yoga helped her observe unevenness in her body. Slowly, she moved into standing poses.
Aamodt is stronger now and climbs harder routes than she did before the fall. But it took her a long time to feel comfortable climbing—and falling—again. Yoga breathing helped her slow down her breath again, stop sweating, and calm her mind.
She is still surprised sometimes when she gets triggered while climbing—it’s unlike anything she experienced before the fall. Aamodt’s body freezes; she describes it as “I just stop working.” It scares her. Through yoga, breathing is now a tool she knows she can rely on when she needs it.
“Even if I can still get into those situations, it’s easier to get out of them,” she said. Climbing is so active that she likes yoga as a way to slow down, and she does some yoga every morning to wake her mind and body. Yoga also helps her handle the pressure that comes with being a sponsored climber.
“Yoga helps me to think that I’m good enough anyway,” she said. “Even if I’m not the best climber in the world, I have other qualities that can inspire people.”
The fall has given her perspective, and helps her prioritize and focus on where she is today rather than thinking about what she has no control over. Like anything, people can make climbing what they want: recreational, fun, or competitive, Aamodt says. Yoga has taught her how she gets to live the way she wants. She can make her own definition of success. “It’s helped me to have a healthy view of life,” she says.
You also have felt the other end of the spectrum—the days when you feel boxed in by pressure. You doubt you can send the next climb. You feel pressure to climb harder. You have the sense that no matter what you do in climbing or in your life, it will never be good enough. You struggle to focus; you can’t shake the sense something is off.
Yoga can give you more than a higher heel hook. It also provides tools to understand the powerful nature of climbing and how to apply it to other areas of your life. Through breath and focus in a yoga practice, you can recall the days you are present, note how you got there, and learn to transfer it to life. In yoga, instead of concentrating on the roughness of rock under your fingertips and navigating the next move, you feel your palms on the floor. You observe without attachment if you feel strong or not. You pay attention to your body’s signals. You notice when you feel anxious. You bring your attention inward, and you learn to breathe through tough moments in climbing or in your life.
DISCOVER INNER STRENGTH
Every year, I lead a “40 Days to Personal Revolution” program, designed by my yoga teacher Baron Baptiste. Participants do six days a week of yoga, twice-daily meditation, and focus on nutrition. My studio includes a nutrition challenge for the program, and participants have the option to give up caffeine, alcohol, tobacco, or sugar for the six weeks. You can choose one—or all.
At the end of the program, one participant, Ellen, came up to me. In the first meeting, Ellen told the group she was giving up sugar, but she shared with me she also had secretly pledged to her program buddy she would quit smoking.
Ellen had smoked off and on for twenty-one years. She gave up cigarettes when she was pregnant, but picked it up again once her kids were toddlers. Right before starting the “40 Days” program, she completed a yoga teacher training, smoking all the way through it. She started most days with one cigarette and lit one or two more at night.
At fifty-two, Ellen knew smoking was the source of something amiss in her life. But she couldn’t identify it. When she signed up for “40 Days,” she knew she had the option to give up smoking, but she was undecided at that first meeting.
One theme in the first meeting is integrity, or keeping your word. I remind the students that they—not I—benefit from staying true to their word to practice yoga and meditation. It’s the first moment in years some people have taken steps to prioritize their health and well-being over the needs of their kids, spouses, or careers. No matter how much they may want it, they are often resistant to changing their ingrained habits.
It was during that first meeting that Ellen realized she had to quit smoking, if only to prove to herself she could. A regular yoga practice had already taught her she was physically stronger than she thought. She knew somewhere inside, she was mentally stronger than her cigarette habit.
The first two weeks were hard, she says. She was accustomed to looking forward to her evening cigarette when things got tough at work. The thought of that cigarette helped her hang on during the day. When she struggled, she had to find other ways to feel better. She would go to the bathroom at work and do deep breathing or cry as a release.
Ellen occasionally broke on sugar during the six weeks, and she missed some meditation practices. But she didn’t light a cigarette. “It was acknowledging I was strong enough to be without,” she told me.
During that period, Ellen realized what she had been stuffing down with cigarettes—her angst over her secure corporate job. She had known for years she was unhappy. Instead of making a change, she smoked. With smoking gone, she realized it was time to do something different. Three months after the end of “40 Days,” Ellen gave notice at her job. She’s taking a road trip, and she says she’ll see what’s next.
REDUCE STRESS AND ANXIETY
Yoga and meditation help combat stress and give you more tools to listen to your body and improve your overall health. The majority of Americans live with moderate to high stress, the American Psychological Association (APA) has found. The most common reason people don’t do more to manage their stress is they say they are too busy. But estimates claim that seventy-five to ninety percent of all primary care doctor visits are stress-related.
Stress takes an immense toll on your body. Our bodies developed the fight-or-flight response to handle genuine emergencies, like an animal attacking. Even though many people no longer live in a dangerous environment, our bodies still experience the fight-or-flight response in reaction to ordinary challenges, like getting stuck in traffic, meeting a project deadline, or managing our finances, the APA says.
Basically, people spend half the day acting like a bear is chasing them around. Any climber knows that moment of panic on a wall, afraid you can’t make the next move, that precipitates a fall. If you don’t work through your anxiety, that tough move gets even harder and success becomes less likely. Physically, your adrenal glands flood your body with stress hormones. Your muscles grow tense, your pupils dilate, your sense of smell and hearing heighten, your breathing and heart rate ramp up, and you start to sweat.
React like that every day, and the stress shows up in your body—in tight shoulders, tension in your jaw from grinding your teeth, or an aching in your lower back. The physical focus on strength and mobility in yoga helps you function day to day. But layered underneath those physical benefits are critical practices that lessen stress and anxiety, and help you to move through challenging situations.
A technique as simple as looking at a tree can reduce stress. A frequently cited study published in the journal Science in 1984 by environmental psychologist Roger Ulrich, showed that hospital patients had shorter hospital stays, took fewer painkillers, and recovered more quickly overall from surgery when they could see a tree out their window. This study is a literal window into why people often feel more at ease in the wilderness: being outside reduces stress. You can take it to another level by bringing in a mindfulness practice when headed to your next outdoor climb. When you pause to gaze at layers of rock exposed by a steady patient river, or halt in your tracks to spot an eagle soaring overhead, something in your mind and body shifts. You forget about your latest project at work, the bothersome neighbor, or long to-do list. Your mind clears. You are present.
Meditation, its own mindfulness practice, produces a state of restful alertness in your body, according to The Chopra Center, a wellness center founded by Drs. Deepak Chopra and David Simon. When in a state of restful response, your heart rate slows down, your blood pressure normalizes, your breathing calms down, you sweat less, the Chopra Center says. Your body also produces less adrenaline and cortisol, your pituitary gland releases more growth hormone, and your immune function improves. A growing body of evidence suggests the amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for fight-or-flight, shrinks with just eight weeks of mindfulness training.
LEARN TO PAUSE
Studies have suggested yoga can have an effect on the brain similar to that of antidepressants and psychotherapy. One study by Duke University researchers published in Frontiers in Psychotherapy showed that yoga plays a role in treating depression, sleep challenges, and even in schizophrenia and attention deficit disorder (ADD). Your quality of life also may improve. Free safety Earl Thomas of the Seattle Seahawks told Mindful magazine a meditation and mindfulness practice has changed the way he looks at the world. “It’s an inner thing,” he said. “When you’re quiet and don’t say anything, you start to see the unseen. That’s why people need to be observant and listen. When I turned my ears to listening, I improved personally and in everything.”
I’ve seen it happen over and over. Take my student Brian. He came every Saturday to my yoga class, riding his bike no matter the weather and smiling a shy hello each week.
I later learned Brian was an alcoholic. He took up yoga at age thirty-one to help him with his sobriety. Yoga helped him feel better physically—and he can now touch his toes. An old shoulder injury healed, allowing him to throw a baseball again. His sciatica eased up. He met his girlfriend at the studio.
The practice was also a window for him to understand why he smoked pot and drank so much—to numb his anxiety. “I had an incredible amount of tension,” he says. “I doused it with alcohol.”
Through yoga and breathing, he learned to be with his emotions. After class, his mind no longer raced, looping the same repetitive thoughts. He realized if he was feeling angry or stressed or irritable, he could zoom out of his head, ask himself what was going on, and realize that he didn’t have to feel that way. In the early days, he got emotional during final rest. “Yoga in a lot of ways is about observing self and being with challenge, not necessarily trying to make it go away,” he says.
Once you use the tools consistently, yoga filters into every layer of life. New possibilities emerge through the practices of presence and listening.
TRANSFORMATION AND CHOICE
Yoga teaches you to observe yourself. Perhaps you’re obsessed with climbing as a way of checking out because the wall is the only place you feel grounded, and you don’t know how to access those feelings of peace at home. A yoga practice can help you figure that out.
At my first yoga teacher training, I sat across from another trainee and repeated my sob story over and over, crying as I talked: My editors at the newspaper had moved me from my dream job to one I didn’t want. I listed all of my misery, including layoffs, departures of dear mentors, an unfruitful job search, and what I considered unreasonable demands at work.
Every time I told her the story, her job was to respond, “Blah blah, blah blah.” The idea was to repeat the story until I no longer felt suffering. The first few times she blah-blah’d me, I felt anger through my tears. By the eighth telling, the words started to lose their meaning. By the twelfth, I could recount my tale without feeling intense pain, and I noticed how much drama I’d created about my career. It was only a job.
At the training, I set a goal to leave the paper in a year to teach yoga. When I returned from the training, work felt OK. Nothing changed, on the surface. My responsibilities and requests from my editor didn’t change. But I did. I went with the flow. I didn’t take it personally when I was assigned a story or my editor gave me feedback. I sometimes worked late on deadline, but unlike before, I didn’t get angry or resentful. I even thought cheerily for the next few months that I could teach yoga on the side and be content. And for a few months, I felt good.
But when I was honest with myself, I knew the truth—my best self was not thriving at the newspaper. I wasn’t aligned to the work any more. I was practicing contentment (santosha), a yoga teaching, but I had not been honest (satya), another teaching. I was terrified about giving up health insurance and retirement savings to run a business entirely dependent on one person—me. But those reasonable concerns were holding me back. I had to try a life teaching yoga.
I saved more money, plotted, and stressed constantly. A dear friend and mentor advised me to be less Western and deadline-oriented. “Set an intention,” she said. Four months later—a year and four months after saying I would leave the newspaper to teach yoga full-time—I did.
When I wonder what I am supposed to do, who I am supposed to be with, what is next, or why am I here on this planet, I have learned that I must first stop spinning out on my thoughts. Anxiety, fear, and doubt feel heavy in my head, stomach, and face. When I am present, I am excited, energized, and ready for what’s next. I let my intuition guide me.
I go to yoga, or I meditate, or I pause in the midst of what I am doing. I see what is true about myself and what I can do. Instead of questioning myself, I have tackled harder climbs than I give myself credit for. Instead of being afraid of the response, I said “I love you” first to my partner. When I wondered if I was certifiably insane each time I quit financially stable jobs to follow a dream, I still did it—first, to teach yoga, and second, to write a book.
Each time that I had fear or doubt, I stopped, listened to my body, identified fear and doubt—and moved forward. When I don’t know what is next, I practice. When I am struggling, I practice. When I use the tools consistently, yoga filters into every layer of life. Deep down, the practice of presence may be what drew you to climbing—now, consider how to bring that practice everywhere else.