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Yoga for Climbing with Penny Orr and Mina Leslie-Wujastyk

So what's it all about, and what can it do for your climbing?

Both Penny and Mina discovered yoga in their teens, taking the odd class here and there, primarily for the physical benefits as cross-training for climbing.

However, as their experience grew and their practice deepened, both came to appreciate the mental aspect of yoga, which brought self-awareness and influenced the way they reacted to the world around them. These skills also proved to be highly beneficial on rock. Penny sums it up: 'For me, yoga is a way of connecting the physical and the mental; a meditation in movement, much like climbing'.

Both are now qualified yoga teachers working in the Sheffield area, and love the opportunity yoga gives them to share movement and mediation with others. WCS talked to Penny and Mina about their pathways to regular yoga practice, how it can help your climbing, and how to bring it into your daily life.

What have you found to be the physical benefits of yoga practice for your climbing?

P: There are some fairly immediate and obvious physical benefits of a yoga practice, and these all transfer to climbing: strength, flexibility, and balance.

M: I find yoga primarily helps me to stay mobile and flexible in ways that climbing simply causes me to tighten up. My degree is in Physiotherapy so I have always had a good understanding of just makes absolute sense! Not only do you work in a very thorough way to maintain movement and function throughout the body, but yoga also has a firm focus on the breath which helps us to work with our parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest setting) to relax the nervous system at the same time. You learn very quickly to notice more about your body and become much more in tune with sensations you feel on a physical level. This sense of awareness helps us to prevent injury and work more mindfully on target areas.

...and mental?

P: This is quite a big topic but I'll keep it succinct! In general, yoga cultivates concentration and focus, helps to improve body awareness, and can help to calm the nervous system - great for everyone, including climbers. However, the greatest gift of yoga - in my opinion as a climber - are the lessons it can teach us about how to deal with stress. When we step onto our yoga mats we deliberately apply physical stresses to the body (some poses can be very challenging and uncomfortable) just like we do in climbing. When we go climbing however, it’s rare that we stop to observe how the mind deals with these stresses. In yoga, on the other hand, the whole point is to observe the habits and strategies our mind employs to help us cope when we are at, or near the edge of, our physical limits. Over time we get better at filtering and adapting these responses with positive results; eventually, we learn how to adapt our psychological responses to stress in lots of different situations, from the mat, to the office, to the top of a scary onsight attempt! I also think that yoga is worthwhile for it’s own sake…after all, it’s fun and it makes you feel good abut yourself!

M: The mental benefits of yoga can be huge. Essentially, yoga brings us to the present moment through breath awareness. This is the first step and is often quite challenging in itself; our minds are busy and often run around from thought to thought without us even realising! Using the breath we begin to quieten the mind and notice more about what we are experiencing in that exact moment. The postures can be challenging and our awareness of the challenge and how we respond and relate to it is really interesting. Learning to observe sensations and thoughts without judgement is extremely liberating. Often yoga can be portrayed as gymnastics or stretching but really it opens you up to so much more, the postures are a means to challenge the body so that we can observe the mind.

Mina at Unity Yoga Studios, Sheffield

Photo: Lydia Ainscough

How about injury prevention/recovery?

P: Personally, I feel that injury prevention is the greatest benefit of yoga for my climbing. Sure, yoga builds strength, flexibility, and balance but it's possible to work on these things separately while you're down at the climbing wall. The advantage of yoga is that it offers a systematic and fun way to improve both strength and flexibility simultaneously. This is important for improving your climbing abilities but more importantly, having strong and flexible muscles can dramatically reduce the chance of muscle tears and other injuries. Another point to add here is that climbers tend to much stronger in specific areas of the body but very weak in others, both in terms of antagonistic muscles (the muscles that we don't use so much while we climb) and in terms of larger muscle groups (e.g. shoulders vs legs). When these types of imbalances are addressed properly, the body is far less open to injury. Again, yoga can provide a framework for balancing the body - and in a way that doesn’t allow you to ignore your weaknesses!

Also, though there is no doubt that yoga is fantastic for injury prevention, it’s not totally failsafe - unfortunately nothing is! So if you do find yourself with, say, a finger injury, for example, then yoga could offer an alternative activity to keep you fit and strong while you can’t climb. Also, depending on the injury, recovery time can be greatly decreased by practicing yoga. (Hot yoga can be very good even for finger injuries: when we exercise in very hot conditions the body responds by pumping blood away from the core and into the extremities, improving circulation in the fingers and delivering fresh, nutrient rich blood to the injury.)

Penny taking her practice outside on a climbing trip to Switzerland

How did yoga move from cross-training to a larger part of your life?

P: My yoga practice developed very slowly! I wasn’t looking to fill a missing void in my life or anything like that, but the more time I spent practicing the more I wanted to practice…I didn’t really notice it happening at the time but I started doing yoga for yoga, rather than because it was good for my climbing.

M: It kind of just happened naturally, I began to practice more because I saw the physical benefits and then began to love the practice just for itself. The mental side had a huge pull for me and has led me to study meditation since which is also now a core part of my practice. Yoga can really be what you want it to be, it took me a while to realise that I didn't need to practice two hours a day or stand on my hands and do the splits at the same time to be a yogi. Being "good" at yoga is a contradiction in terms. Yoga is just being with the breath in the moment, if you want to you can take a posture or move the body at the same time. Some days I do an active physical practice (yang), some days I do a very passive relaxing practice (yin), some days I just meditate and some days I do none of it!

How would you recommend a climber introduce yoga into their climbing practice?

M: I would recommend taking a few classes to begin with to find out what you like. Styles and teachers vary immensely, so spend some time sampling to work out what you like. After that you can take classes to suit your needs around climbing or when you have a bit more experience you can develop sequences to practice at home. Most yoga teachers also offer 1:1 sessions to and this can be a great option if you want to develop a home practice with some guidance.

P: I would highly recommend finding a local class or studio. Start off by going to a few classes. In time, you can start making short routines (3-5 poses) to add to the end of your climbing session. Change the poses up regularly, and keep going to classes - it’s easy to get stuck in a rut when you’re still learning the basics.

Are there any resources you would recommend to climbers looking to develop their yoga practice?

P: There’s no substitute for actually turning up to a class and having personalised adjustments (physical or verbal). That said, if you are short on cash/ time, or you happen to live in the middle of nowhere, there are several online resources you can use. The best one that I’ve used is Yogaglo, which is a website with thousands of classes of various lengths and styles. They also have a very diverse community of teachers who are all highly qualified and extremely experienced. Even if you use online classes, it’s still important to go to a live class every now and again.

Leah and Shauna acroyoga on a trip to Wales

And finally, a lot of the WCS community are currently being inspired by Leah and Shauna's acroyoga antics. Where's the best place to start?

M: I don't have very much experience here! Acroyoga is great fun and something you can enjoy with a friend, I also imagine it takes great concentration to pull off some of those moves!

P: I’m definitely not an expert when it comes to acroyoga, but there are often workshops held by studios, especially in larger cities. Otherwise, it’s more a case of just giving it a bash in the park on a sunny day. A quick search on google will give you some good starting positions and advice on how to get into the poses... Have fun, and just be careful not to hurt yourself or your partner!

Yoga for Climbers will run as one of the new specialist workshops available to Full Ticket holders at WCS16. Keep an eye out for it when choosing your sessions!

If you are feeling inspired to incorporate yoga into your climbing, you might also be interested to read Penny's sequence of Six Yoga Poses for Climbers.


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