Reflections on Yoga and Climbing

Written by Lauren Abernathy

“¿Puede dime el lugar de la clase de yoga?” I asked the bartender in broken Spanish if he could me tell where the yoga was. Based on the poster that brought me here, I knew it was at this tiny bar and that I was almost late. He smiled knowingly and led me behind the restaurant to a pavilion where I met our teacher and the other students. We were a group of climbers about to practice yoga.

During my two week stay in Rodellar, Spain, this behind-the-bar yoga class became a rest day ritual. Between the cool breeze in the pavilion and the sweet speeches of our lovely German instructor, it was one of the most memorable parts of my trip.

Yoga and climbing seem to go together. Gyms offer it, many climbers do it, but why? How does it apply to climbing? Is it a waste of time from a training perspective? And what does meditation have to do with any of this?

If you want answers to these questions, make sure you listen carefully to Episode 124: Yoga and Meditation for Climbers with Susan Ashley Hunt. In this episode, Kris interviews Susan Ashley Hunt, a yoga instructor and expert in all things yoga, spiritual teaching, and Buddhism. She provides amazing insight into how climbing, meditation, and yoga can fit together in a climber’s life.

The Commercial Clientele

Kris and Ashley begin the interview discussing the commercialization of yoga. Ashley describes how she used to be bitter about the rising popularity of commercialized yoga but now she sees it as a gateway for people to become more involved in a meditation practice.

 
 
Commercial yoga is super interesting. We are starting to find out culture at large is very disembodied... Commercial yoga is opening up different avenues for people to get more involved in their body-mind relationship.
— Susan Ashley Hunt

Personally, I began practicing yoga in high school. The studio of my youth aligns with the commercial venue that Ashley describes, however, it introduced me to meditation practice. Class began with a brief, palatable meditation and ended similarly - it was my favorite part of the experience. Without this introduction through yoga, I would have never considered meditating. Now, the breathing techniques learned in my commercial yoga class have helped me focus while skiing, climbing, and when I get extremely overwhelmed with life. As someone with anxiety participating in some rather exciting sports, having a toolbox of techniques for calming down is critical.

 
My first bouldering venture outdoors. I’m attempting to deploy some yogic peace prior to figuring out exactly how you’re supposed to fall when there isn’t a rope to catch you. Photo by Josh Hafele

My first bouldering venture outdoors. I’m attempting to deploy some yogic peace prior to figuring out exactly how you’re supposed to fall when there isn’t a rope to catch you.
Photo by Josh Hafele

 

Starting a Meditation Practice

If you are looking for a way to ease into a meditation practice, I would highly recommend headspace. The app is free and they have a bunch of different meditations you can do. You can start out by meditating for as little as 3-5 minutes a day with their intro program, which I really enjoyed.

Another tip from Ashley is to pinpoint exactly where you can fit meditation into your day for maximum benefit:

 
 

She recommends writing in a Mood Journal for about a week, where you touch base with how you are feeling and how focused you feel about 5 times per day; entries can be very short - even just a few words or sentences. After you journal for a week, you ought to be able to select the part of your day in which you can optimally “sit” (the word for time spent meditating) with quality focus to optimize meditative practice. The best time to sit is when your attention span isn’t drained. For me, this is either first thing in the morning or immediately after I get home from work.

 
When I decide to get sendy while skiing, having my breath dialed is just as important as having my tricks dialed. Photo by Tim Spanagel

When I decide to get sendy while skiing, having my breath dialed is just as important as having my tricks dialed.
Photo by Tim Spanagel

 

Practical Applications: Meditation and Being XTREME

I want to point out that if you think that sitting silently for 5 minutes a day isn’t going to help you in any way, I invite you to think again. Here’s a brief excerpt from Stealing Fire, an interesting book about ecstasis and flow state.

“In 2009, psychologists at the University of North Carolina found that even four days of meditation produced significant improvement in attention, memory, vigilance, creativity, and cognitive flexibility… We now know that even a few days’ training in mindfulness can up the odds of a breakthrough considerably.”

- Stealing Fire by Steven Kotler & Jamie Wheal

Civilizations have been practicing meditation for thousands of years with measurable benefits. Here are some examples of how I plug meditation and breathing practices into adventurous pursuits. Consider trying these out for yourself:

  1. Split-second scariness
    See that picture above of me skiing? I knew in my heart that backflipping off the thing was within my wheelhouse, but my nerves were out of control. At the top of the in-run, I had to close my eyes and regulate my breathing. I had to get centered and quiet the voice in my head that was telling me that this was dangerous. Only then was I able to execute.

  2. Improving my visualization
    Maybe it’s just me, but when I have a project that’s really in my head, I tend to review it as I’m falling asleep at night. Although this isn’t the “clear your mind” meditation that we’re familiar with, I think meditation has helped me learn to focus on something inside of my mind, and thus allowing me to mentally rehearse my projects very effectively.

  3. Preparing for crux sequences
    The first 5.12 I sent had a few amazing rests that I used. These were perfect places to mentally prepare for the crux sequence using breathing techniques. I particularly enjoy using the “Box Breathing” technique, especially when resting on route before a crux. You breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for four seconds, breathe out for four seconds, and hold your breath again for four seconds. Repeat this until you feel ready to smash the crux (or until your forearms tell you to get going).

  4. Getting in the zone on the ground
    Another one of my favorite places to perform deep breathing is at the bottom of a route. Before any serious attempt on a route, I lean my head against the wall and breath deeply. For this, I use the breathing technique in which you count your breaths to focus. This is a great beginner meditation technique that I would highly recommend.

Now that we’ve covered the basics on some mental aspects of meditation and yoga, let’s touch on some of the physical aspects.

It’s Getting Hot in Here

When I began listening, I knew that Ashley was going to call out heated yoga for being exceptionally non-traditional. I assumed that my personal favorite style of yoga, the sweltering hot Baptiste Power Yoga, was a far cry from more traditional Eastern practice and I was right. What surprised me though, was that her biggest qualm with hot yoga was related to breath. Ashley notes that because of the heat, your heart rate is elevated making it exceedingly more difficult to correctly practice proper breathing techniques.

Another issue that she cites with heated classes is that they tend to make you more flexible than you naturally would be otherwise. This is a problem if you’re a climber. Sensibly, hyper-mobile joints are injury-prone joints. Excessive extension of your joints and muscles is not desirable in terms of injury prevention.

Stability, not Hyper-Mobility

The most critical take-away for me was the distinction between stability and hyper-mobility. When I first started climbing, I actually had to quit for six months after just eight weeks of climbing regularly. Between doing yoga 2-3 times per week, and climbing a similar amount, my shoulders felt horrible. Everything I was doing was wrecking my shoulders.

It was very interesting to me that Ashley mentioned that yoga will “shred your rotator cuffs,” if you aren’t careful. Her commentary on chaturangas (aka yoga push-ups) was also extremely interesting, warning that this is a risky pose and should be avoided if you are a climber. She also notes that over-extended shoulder positions and binds (holding two body parts, like hands, intertwined while in a pose) will result in you becoming more mobile than necessary. Check out this link if you want to see examples of the spicy poses that you probably want to avoid.

 
 
The stronger I am, the more stable I am. The more mobile I am, the more susceptible to injury I am.
— Susan Ashley Hunt

Three ways I have changed my yoga practice since listening to this podcast:

1. Minimizing chaturangas
Even though Ashley says to eliminate them from your practice, I only do yoga 2-4 times a month. I have minimized my chaturangas instead of totally eliminating them. Instead of doing chaturangas for the whole class when we flow, I only do about 30% of the full chaturangas.

2. Skipping the extremes
If the teacher says, “and to take it one step further, you can extend this reach for…. etc. etc.,” this is your cue to consider if this is going to help or hinder your pursuit of improving your climbing. There are things I used to do that I don’t anymore, and I’m fine with that!

3. Leaving my ego at the door
Many times when I think to myself, “I can totally do the advanced version of this,” I have to remember that I’m in yoga class to stretch, get centered, and enjoy myself. For me, yoga is for enjoyment. I remember that I can push myself at the gym.

But if yoga can make you “hyper-mobile” and you are super inflexible, then wouldn’t doing yoga help your flexibility? And what about core strength? Let’s dig into what Ashley had to say about this.

There’s a Better Way to Gain Core Strength and Flexibility

There is a common philosophy among yogi-climbers that yoga will give you great core strength and flexibility. Yes, holding plank for two minutes straight in a yoga class might benefit your abdominal strength, however, there are more efficient ways to get strong abs. The same goes for flexibility.

In my own training, I have much briefer ways of incorporating abdominal training and stretching than by attending a yoga class. With a full-time job, I get less than eight hours a week to train. Therefore, I focus my training time on climbing and climbing-specific exercise protocols. Yoga is not and will never be an integral part of my training program. It is a bonus session that I deeply enjoy, but it is not on the list of tools I am deploying to make myself a better climber.

As Kris puts it, “My core strength is better than all of you yoga teachers, why would I go do yoga?”

This is not to say that I don’t like yoga - I love it. I wouldn’t pay $23 for a drop-in class if I didn’t. However, I know that it is not the most optimal way to improve my climbing in terms of core strength and flexibility.

But what if you love yoga like I do? How can you work it in while still becoming a better climber?

Putting Yoga in Your Training Schedule

Something that was not mentioned on the podcast is how to program yoga into your schedule, so I want to comment on that because it relates to mistakes I have made in the past. Additionally, if you love doing yoga and you’re not going to stop, you might as well optimize how you’re doing it.

As I mentioned previously, when I first started climbing I did a lot of intense, heated, power yoga and climbed three days per week. I hardly rested because in my head I thought, “Yoga is just stretching, this is still a rest day.” However, going into a heated room and elevating your heart rate to 90% of its max for an hour and a half is not resting, no matter how much stretching is involved.

If you are going to go to yoga on a rest day, make sure that it is a restorative practice. Phrases like “yin,” “slow flow,” and “easy” are the yoga buzz words you are after when looking for a rest-day-friendly yoga class.

If you want to do strength-focused yoga, make sure you slot it into your training accordingly. Keep in mind that a tougher class is going to hinder your recovery from whatever climbing training you are doing. Frankly, you will be better off lifting and bouldering to become a stronger climber, but more power to you if you enjoy a challenging vinyasa flow.

The Verdict

To sum all of this up: Yoga and meditation can bring joy, fulfillment, and focus to your life. There is no doubt that adding a little meditation to your weekly schedule will bring benefits to your everyday life and maybe even your climbing. As far as physical adaptation goes, yoga probably isn’t the best way to get a strong core and be flexible, but it can be extremely fun. So if you want to do yoga, go right ahead! But be mindful of its effects on your body and its impact on your recovery from climbing training.

What are your thoughts on incorporating yoga and meditation into your climbing routine? Have you found that meditation helps your mental game? Did doing yoga help you start to practice your flexibility? The Power Company would love to hear your thoughts. Drop us a comment below!