Nearly two years ago when I was attending a month-long yoga teacher training course in northern Thailand, I naturally made many discoveries directly related to the situation and teaching, but also quite a few that were either unrelated or tangentially so.
For me, one of the most poignant came from something that I found sorely lacking in the Ashram and all the activities we performed there. Ironically, so much of the study and philosophy behind yoga, Buddhism and other eastern practices is about finding and living in harmonious balance. However, for me something was missing, or out of balance as it were. This small personal moment of enlightenment came largely as a result of my planned activities following completion of the yoga training.
My idea was to go rock climbing in some of the world class areas to be found in Thailand, Laos and Vietnam once I had left the Ashram. I’ve only been practicing yoga for a few years now, but have been a passionate rock climber practically my whole adult life. I was looking forward to spending some time on the fantastic, super steep and surreal cliffs in this part of the world for a long time and this was my opportunity.
Going into it, my preconception was that I’d come out of a month in the Ashram in great physical condition with increased flexibility, core strength and balance. All these are also important attributes for better performance in rock climbing. My suppositions were largely correct in this regard and I did emerge with improvements in those areas, but there was a crucially important factor missing in the equation.
Rock climbing, particularly on steep overhanging cliffs requires a great deal of upper-body pulling strength. It’s also a fact that finger strength is usually the weakest link as well as the first thing to atrophy with disuse. For all its amazing facets, yoga is pretty thin in some areas such as working those upper body pulling muscles. This shortcoming became clear to me when one of the people in my class, a fitness trainer by profession good-naturedly challenged one of the younger, more athletic yoga teachers to perform some exercises not found on any of the proscribed lists of Asanas.
The above images show similar body positions from climbing and yoga, but utilizing vastly different muscle groups to achieve them.
Here was this guy who could turn himself into a human pretzel and perform poses such as Mayurasana or Scorpion with incredible ease, skill and dexterity suddenly struggling with certain athletic activities I took for granted outside yoga. At age 55 and on my worst day for example, I could do many multiples more pull-ups than he could. I don’t say that in a demeaning or competitive way, but as an interesting and sobering thought for me, a climber hoping that yoga practice would also have benefits for this other activity I love.
Of course it does overall, and the improvements to my flexibility and balance from yoga have given me tremendous benefits in all aspects of my life including climbing. What it meant for me as a climber however, was that I needed to find my own ways to do pull-ups and other climbing specific exercises during my time in the Ashram. With a little creativity I was able to find all kinds of “apparatus” to use including tree branches and door jambs. I certainly didn’t need expensive gym equipment. The end result was that when I transitioned from yoga in the Ashram to climbing, I was in overall much better condition for both activities.
Another crucial thing that yoga and climbing share is the need to focus, remain calm and look inward at the same moment that you’re seeing outward. I find that climbing can be almost meditative, so again many of the techniques learned from yoga have incredible application and benefit out on the rock. Uncontrolled high levels of adrenaline will physically tire you out faster, create a lack of focus and virtually assure poor technique.
This, of course, increases the risk of injury. Despite all those Sylvester Stallone action type dramas of high adventure, the best approach to climbing is to maintain a calm, tranquil and focused mind. This is especially true on long trad leads or where the risk of falling might be high. Conversely, when you’ve faced potentially life and death situations and decisions while climbing, I find that it is easier and simpler to achieve that center and balance practicing yoga.
I think in many ways, yoga and climbing are like the universal Yin and Yang—opposing forces that perfectly complement and balance each other. I feel there is interdependence between them and real joy to be found practicing and learning from them both in equal measure.
Climbing and yoga are things that can be learned and practiced at virtually any stage of life and adjusted to suit individual capabilities throughout. To my mind, it seems a perfect marriage or partnership.
I hope this inspires you to go out and give both a try if you haven’t done so already.