Scarpa North America Blog

The Yoga of Climbing

Jun. 23rd 2017

Do You Practice Yoga?
You may practice yoga already without necessarily labeling it as yoga.

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A formal yoga practice can involve much, much more than just an asana (pose) practice, and practicing yoga does not necessarily include asana for all formal yoga practitioners. Additionally, it’s by no means a far stretch to consider a regular dedicated, inward-focused, rock-climbing practice a form of asana practice in and of itself.

The word yoga itself can be translated several ways. My preferred translation is simply “to unite.” We are striving to unite within ourselves, to cultivate and maintain a quiet equanimity within. Attaining a state of yoga involves letting go of the need for external circumstances or outcomes to match internal expectations or desires.

The evolution of yoga into a posture-based practice involving specific sequences and/or specific poses is relatively modern. Without going into a history of yoga, suffice it to say that in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, there is but one sutra that mentions asana, and it simply says, “Sthira sukham asanam,” commonly translated as, “The posture should be steady and comfortable.” Attaining this steadiness and ease in posture assists a person in his or her efforts toward an overarching goal of yoga: chitta vritti nirodha, or “stilling the fluctuations of the mind.”

As we calm our minds, we come to accept whatever is as it is in the present moment and from moment to moment, relying on our internal sense of okay-ness to steady us when life rocks the boat, whether it’s something as simple as failing to onsight a route or something as tragic as losing a loved one. It doesn’t mean that we don’t feel or acknowledge our emotions, but we don’t need to become or embody what we feel or to impose those feelings on others – we can stay centered and more stable, demonstrating more equanimity and less clinging to the ultimately uncontrollable world outside our own minds.

Cultivating this yogic mindset presents a far greater challenge for human beings than any asana practice ever could. We live in a world driven by results and achievements and competition, while at the same time the fast-paced media of today now creates a world in which what you achieve today might be forgotten quickly – if not by tomorrow, then definitely by next week or next month, never mind next year! This can lead to a cycle of perpetual wanting and needing within a person’s psyche, should one fail to consistently turn in the results they desire from any endeavor, climbing included.

Climbing itself or training for climbing (or any other physical activity, as I see it) can serve the same purpose as a postural yoga practice. It all depends on how you approach your physical activity. A yogic climbing practice would appear inward-focused, noncompetitive, and non-outcome-based. In other words, the climber would enjoy climbing for the experience of climbing in the present moment and from moment-to-moment, accepting of his or her physical state of being for that given day on the rock. The climber’s enjoyment of the day would not rely on the outcome, send or fail – because climbing becomes simply a practice to be enjoyed for what it is, in the moment, with a deep sense of self-awareness and acceptance.

In other words, if you can be or are working toward being completely present from moment to moment, with no expectations or attachment to specific outcomes in specific timeframes in your climbing or training, maintaining a sense of steadiness and ease in your movements, breathing and staying focused with a quiet mind, you are creating a state of yoga for yourself in your physical practice…even if it’s via climbing and not via a sun salutation or other yoga flow or pose.

After all, how realistic is it to expect your body to be perfectly tuned in, recovered, and ready to crush every day? It isn’t. Learning to let go of this and to just ride the waves of performance as they flow through your life, ups, mids, and downs, will yield a much more persistently contented state of mind, unattached to the outcome of any given day of climbing or training or whatever else it is that you do.

Now that you’re possibly convinced that you don’t need an asana practice or that you already practice asana with your climbing, let’s look at ways in which a modern yoga asana practice might actually benefit you – both as a climber in particular, and as a person in general.

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Potential Benefits of a Yoga Asana Practice for Climbers
– In flow practices that incorporate guidance regarding breathing, you will learn to link your breath with movement. If you struggle with holding your breath while you climb, a flowing yoga practice can help teach you to maintain a steady, rhythmic breath as you move and flow from pose to pose, even when movements become challenging. Learning to not hold your breath and learning to breathe through challenging movements can benefit your climbing.

– Focusing on the breath and harnessing the mind to the breath as you move in an asana practice can directly influence the way you move and how your mind helps (or hinders) you while you climb. If you can keep your mind focused on what you are doing in the moment, breathing linked with movement, movement linked to breathing, this may help you calm and steady your mind while you climb as well. Keeping unhelpful mental chatter at bay (stilling the fluctuations of the mind) can be a huge boon to climbing performance. I also find counting my breaths and trying slow my breathing down at climbing rests to be a helpful focusing and relaxing tool, preparing me for the upcoming sequence as I recover.

– If you struggle with a particular area of flexibility in climbing (or in ever-tightening muscles as a result of climbing), chances are that you can find more than one asana to address this issue. A complete and well-balanced asana practice will include moving the body in a wide range of motions, whether you are doing a challenging Vinyasa flow practice or a slow-paced Yin practice.

– If proprioception (awareness of body in space) and balance challenge you in climbing, practicing certain yoga asanas may help you dial in a greater level of comfort in these areas. Vinyasa means “to place in a special way.” For proprioception, fine-tuning how you place the body into the pose can help you develop a similarly honed awareness when you are climbing – a deeper knowledge of when you can reach or effectively utilize a hold, for example. Balancing poses can help cultivate a deeper awareness of the muscular activation throughout the body required to attain a sense of steadiness while you hold the balance.

– You may improve your strength through a formal yoga asana practice, but this depends almost entirely on how strong you are when you start your practice. Keep in mind that yoga movements rely on body weight for strengthening and generally do not exactly (or often even closely) mimic climbing movements. Two main principles of athletic training are SAID (specific adaptations to imposed demands) and the Overload Principle (OP). SAID means that if you want to improve at an activity, doing that activity at a high enough level to encourage your body into adapting will help you improve. OP means that to continue improving, you must increase the load – which is why mimicking climbing movements in weight-training exercises is one of the most effective ways to gain climbing-specific strength. You can lift weights with a yogic mindset, though!

– A noncompetitive, non-ego-driven, inward-looking yoga asana practice focused on movement in the moment and enjoying movement from moment to moment with no expectations of outcomes can provide stress relief and deeper relaxation. For the hardworking climber who wants to train 24/7, incorporating the more restful practices of Yin and restorative yoga into a training plan can potentially yield great benefits. Practicing yoga regularly can lead to a calmer mind and to better sleep quality and quantity, leading to better performance. This attitude, cultivated in an asana practice, can also be brought into your climbing and training as well.

Other Yogic Techniques to Consider for Climbers: Pranayama, Mudra and Meditation

I’ve already touched on pranayama, or yogic breathing techniques, above – but yogic breathing can also be practiced on its own. Yoga offers a wide range of breathing practices that can help a person become more connected to their breath and more capable of breathing fully and completely, not reverting to restrictive, often subconscious, often stress-driven, habitual breathing patterns that can rob the body of taking the most nourishing inhales and exhales possible. Finding a yoga teacher with knowledge about pranayama may help you improve your breathing for climbing (and life!).

Another potentially helpful yoga practice involves the use of mudra, or specific hand positions aimed to elicit specific responses for the practitioner. You can look to established mudras for ideas, or simply come up with a hand position that you connect with to remind you of a specific mental state you wish to cultivate in your climbing. Before you step onto the rock or try a route/problem in a competition, place your hand(s) in this position to remind yourself of this mental state.

Meditation, or single-pointed concentration or focus, is a state of mind that can help a climber achieve results. Visualizing the route or problem that you are trying to send can be a form of meditation. You can hold your chosen mudra as you do this to help you connect the hand position with your relaxed, focused mind as it visualizes the flow of the climbing from moment to moment. Consider associating a word or phrase like “calm, strong, calm, strong,” with your hand position while you meditate, inhaling and exhaling in time with the words.

Recommended Reading for Using Yoga as a Part of Your Climbing Training:
– Bringing Yoga to Life: The Everyday Practice of Enlightened Living, by Donna Farhi
– The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga: The Philosophy and Practice of Yin Yoga, by Bernie Clark
– Relax and Renew: Restful Yoga for Stressful Times, by Judith Hansen Lasiter
– The Path of the Yoga Sutras: A Practical Guide to the Core of Yoga, by Nicolai Bachman
– Mudras for Healing and Transformation, by Joseph and Lilian LePage

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