Yoga on the Rocks

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They may seem like an unlikely duo, but in practice, yoga and rock climbing are a natural match.

This is no ordinary yoga class.

In a clearing near our group’s campsite, Tomoko Horikawa leads us through breathing exercises, light meditation, sun salutations and warrior poses. In these respects it is like yoga classes I’ve had before, except, well . . . it is outdoors.

This is my first time practicing yoga outside the walls of a studio. I didn’t expect it to be much different, but it is. I bend over to touch my hands to the mat and look through my legs at the trees, now upside down. Where I would normally focus on the instructor in the front of the room, I find myself noticing the shapes and colors of leaves surrounding my mat, the calls of birds, and the rustlings of animals as they start their day. But here’s what makes this yoga class truly unique: At the end of the session, we’ll head off for a rough-and-tumble rock-climbing expedition.

I’m on a weekend yoga-climbing retreat in Devil’s Lake State Park in Wisconsin, one of many such retreats popping up around the country, and the world. As a rock climber, I’ll admit that when I first heard of combining this sport with yoga, I was intrigued. I’ve always thought of yoga as a calm, gentle practice meant for unwinding, and rock climbing as an adrenaline-driven sport meant for adventure. Still, both require a presence of mind and mind-body flexibility that can inform one’s entire life.

“I don’t feel that yoga and climbing are just physical activities,” says Annie Anderson, a Republic of Cyprus–based climbing instructor who leads yoga-climbing retreats all over the world. “Both influence my approach to life in many ways.”

Practicing yoga helps improve climbing ability, she notes. For example, the awareness that comes from thoughtful body placement in yoga asanas can translate into a more solid step onto the next toe hold or a surer grasp at a jutting stone when traveling up a wall. A yoga-strengthened core provides better climbing balance, creates a more stretchable spine, and makes it easier to lengthen the body instead of scrunching the shoulders and neck. A strong, flexible lower body helps you propel yourself upward without over-relying on your arms. Open, flexible hips allow for higher steps and farther reaches with legs and feet.

And it works the other way around, too: The body confidence, proprioception and mental focus one develops from climbing can be powerful allies as you take on increasingly challenging asanas.

For those interested in experiencing the combined benefits of yoga and climbing, there are a growing number of options. My yoga-in-the-woods experience is a fairly typical example. Part of an all-in-one weekend package hosted by Chicago-based Power Adventures, the retreat cost $285, and included a campsite reservation, all meals, group camping equipment, and both yoga and climbing gear. For an additional $40, Power Adventures provided personal gear (tent, sleeping bag, mat) and even extra outdoor clothing (helpful for indoorsy types like me who don’t have a lot of outdoor gear of their own).

Hybrid Adventure

As noted, yoga and climbing require many of the same physical skills: balance, strength, flexibility, breathwork. The mental skills are similar, too: concentration and the ability to find equanimity in the face of challenge and physical discomfort or awkwardness.

“So much of climbing is about focusing the mind and not being affected by fear,” says Anderson. “If you can control the fluctuations of the mind, you will have control over your climbing performance.”

I had ample opportunity to face fear on the first day of the retreat. After the morning’s yoga class, we took an invigorating hike to the climbing area. We broke through the trees to the top of the bluffs, where we enjoyed a spectacular view of Devil’s Lake’s smooth, glassy water.

Down the bluff, ropes were set for three routes of different styles and levels of difficulty. One began from a cave behind the wall, which also offered ambitious bouldering inside. The quartzite looked much smoother and more slippery than the limestone and basalt that I’d been climbing back home, but instructor Corey Pfund pointed out that it was a hard rock, and once I got a solid grip, it wouldn’t flake off and drop me. (Lesson one: When it comes to danger, looks can be deceiving.)

As we received instruction on tying in and safety procedures, I studied the routes and contemplated my favorite aspect of climbing: solving the problem (or route) in my head and then executing that solution with my body. Pfund mirrored my thoughts as he prepared us for our first climb. “You need to look around and be really aware of what’s there,” he said. “It’s a lot like solving a puzzle — figuring out what pieces fit where — as you work your way up.”

I decided to try all three routes. I bouldered so high inside the cave that I scared myself when I looked down. Then I decided to climb a crack in the wall face that was offset from the rope’s anchor and not part of our official route. The crack climb was risky, and Pfund advised against it, but I wanted to challenge myself.

Soon enough, I felt my backside slam into a facing wall before I was fully aware that my hands had slipped off. Falls happen, and while this tumble was more intense than some, I knew the rope would hold me, and I got a rush from taking the calculated risk. I wore my fall as an invisible badge of honor. (Lesson two: Listen to your instructor, or be prepared to take your lumps.)

Restoration Time

When our group returned to the campsite, Horikawa led us through a restorative sequence. She paired us up for partner-assisted stretching and massage. The 20-minute process offered welcome relief after the long day of climbing.

We had one more yoga session before we ate, and by the time the others started roasting marshmallows after dinner, my eyes were starting to close on their own.

I awoke Sunday at 6 a.m. for a 90-minute sunrise yoga session on Mirror Lake beach. Although the sky was light, the sun hadn’t yet lifted over the horizon, and the water was dark and still. Because of the 40-degree morning chill, we started with some blood-pumping poses like headstands and backbends to build heat.

After breakfast, we had free time, with the option of canoeing, hiking or finding a quiet place to journal or meditate. (I chose my preferred form of meditation, which I call “napping.”)

We didn’t climb during the second afternoon, but we did challenge our balance with an activity called slacklining, which involves suspending a nylon strap between two trees and walking (or trying to) on the quasi-tightrope. Having learned my daredevil lesson the day before, I was thankful the rope was only a few feet off the ground.

Body-Mind Bonding

The take-home messages from the weekend surprised me. I learned that, far from being an odd couple, yoga and climbing are a natural match. Both demand that one pay close attention to what the body is doing. Both engender mindfulness, and a willingness to experiment with unfamiliar physical positions and sensations.

Yoga can also bring out the reflective side of climbing. “When body and mind become one in the moment, performance is at its peak, and the experience of climbing becomes almost spiritual in nature,” says Mark Brontsema, director of the Arizona Climbing and Adventure School in Carefree, Ariz. “Climbers who practice yoga are often released into an expansiveness that seems above the daily concerns of life.”

Indeed, in addition to strengthening my yoga and climbing skills, I left the Power Adventures retreat with a new sense of community. Before we broke camp, each of us shared one thing we enjoyed about the weekend. As a woman who likes creature comforts and prefers traveling alone, I was shocked to discover that I actually enjoyed camping outdoors with my fellow retreaters. (Lesson three: Be prepared to surprise yourself.)

In the company of total strangers, I had done things I’d never anticipated and created memories I’ll never forget. Somehow, I bonded with these people, and to the natural environment around me. Yoga and climbing — and camping. I get the connection. And I like it.

Jocelyn Stone is an Experience Life associate editor.

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