Yoga for Climbers: How Can Yoga Help Your Rock Climbing?
An interview with Nairi from As We Flow discussing the benefits of practicing yoga for your climbing and daily life.
Posted on Wed 29 Jun 2022 · Community
Venture into any climbing gym today, and you’ll most likely find posters advertising yoga classes for climbers - or even a dedicated yoga studio on-site. If you're at home, try searching 'yoga for climbers' online: you'll come across countless blogs and videos outlining how yoga can improve your climbing performance and what are the best poses to do.
Over the past couple of years, the climbing world has seen a huge explosion in the number of climbers practicing yoga. From pro-climbers such as Alex Megos and Adam Ondra using yoga to train their minds and improve their flexibility, to us amateurs who do a few poses on rest days to ease our aching muscles, yoga has never been so popular. But is there any real benefit to practicing yoga as a climber, or is it just another fitness trend?
This week, I sat down with Nairi - co-founder of As We Flow - to talk about her own journey with climbing and yoga, what yoga is, and the ways in which it can benefit both your climbing and day-to-day life. My initial assumptions about yoga were completely overturned! Rather than just a tool to improve your strength and flexibility, I learnt that yoga is a way of life, a lens through which you view the world, helping you tackle the challenges you encounter both on the rock and in everyday life. So brush the cobwebs off your mat and get practicing - you'll find the benefits much greater than first assumed.
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Yoga can help your climbing in some quite unexpected ways © Francesco Tretto
Hey Nairi! How are you? Before we dive into the topic of yoga for climbers, could you start by telling the audience a bit about the journey behind As We Flow?
Hello Mapo Tapo readers! Yes, I have so many things to say about this project.
As We Flow was born from the combination of two disciplines, yoga and climbing, which at first may appear very different but in reality share many points in common. The first of these is ‘flow’ - the continuous energy in motion that accompanies us throughout our lives. We flow during our yoga practice, where the poses follow one another without interruption, creating fluidity and freedom in the body through continuous movement. We experience flow on the rock, at the beginning of our vertical journey, where it is not only important to reach the top but to enjoy every step of the process…
How did we come up with this idea? It was in the middle of the very first lockdown. Lorenzo and I started brainstorming - as we love to do - thinking about what we could have done with our respective passions. We started discussing the reasons why we loved practicing yoga and climbing, and found that there were so many things in common. From then on, we simply decided to tell our story. We left the chaotic big city of Milan, and started to live in our van, travelling and climbing in the most beautiful crags in Europe. We thought that it might be inspiring to share this with people, to show that you can follow your passion if you truly commit to it. It’s our flow. It makes us happy.
In terms of what we do, we offer both yoga lessons for climbers and non climbers alike, as well as training programs for climbers. Everything is done online. This allows us to keep traveling and climbing around the world, while still being able to give the attention we want to give to every single person that trains with us.
When it comes to training, 1-to-1 communication is super important: we give as much availability as we can on whatsapp, and schedule regular video calls in order to track the progress of each person and give them feedback. Before we commit to training with someone, we need to ‘meet’ them, understand their objectives, needs and time. We can then work on a personalized training program together that fits all of these objectives and constraints.
Flow is the continuous energy in motion accompanying you through life © Aurelien Wolf
That sounds wonderful! Let’s go back to the beginning - how did you get into yoga (and climbing!)?
I started practicing yoga by myself, while I was living in Milan. The pace of life was too quick; I needed to hit pause and find some time for myself. I started by following videos on YouTube, then I decided to try a yoga studio close to home and ended up going there every evening! After several years, I decided that I wanted to deepen my knowledge of the discipline, and that the best way to do that was to train as a teacher. Here I could write a whole other chapter: there are so many different yoga styles that it was not easy for me to choose which one to start with, but in the end it was the style that chose me :) From then on, my study and research has been non-stop, and is a process I hope to continue forever.
In terms of climbing, I used to climb when I was very young with some friends of my parents, and found it very fun. Maaaany years later, it occurred to me that I wanted to try the sport again. When I got back into it, it felt amazing. You know what I’m talking about: climbing challenges us mentally, it brings people together, takes you to your edge. Thanks to Lorenzo, I got into climbing a bit more and learnt that it is a lifestyle, not just a sport. And this is the best lifestyle I could have chosen!
Breakfast with a view is just one of the many perks of van life © Francesco Tretto
Absolutely! Most of our readers are climbers, so could you tell us briefly: what is yoga?
This is not an easy one to answer in a couple of lines!
Yoga has nothing to do with what we see on Instagram. Yoga is a way of life. Yoga gives you a new lens through which to see the world, it gives you awareness of yourself, your body, your fears, your struggles. It’s a very strong tool we can use to discover more about ourselves and the world around us. Yoga helps you in every aspect, from flexibility, to strength, to balance. But it starts on the mat, our small space where we experiment with things - asanas, poses, breath. And once we are ready, we can apply all this outside of the bounds of the mat, extending the same approach to all our life.
Yoga provides us with a safe environment to learn and experiment - lessons which we can then apply to the rest of our lives © Francesco Tretto
In our previous discussion, you mentioned that there are many similarities between climbing and yoga - the first of which is flow. Can you elaborate on this? How can practicing yoga help your climbing?
As we touched on above, the flow is the first aspect in common between yoga and climbing. Practicing yoga or climbing connects you deeply with yourself, it allows your body and mind to work together, on the mat or on the rock.
Doing yoga means doing an activity with concentration and awareness, staying in the present moment. It means learning to control one's breath in every situation; training body and mind on the mat to prepare them to face what is outside. This is exactly what we will be focusing on during our upcoming trip to Albarracin: 5 days of climbing workshops and yoga classes aimed at getting the most out of your time on the rock.
If you have ever found yourself reading a route or boulder before climbing, visualizing the movements and trying to memorize them while remaining focused, then you have already started practicing yoga!
In terms of other similarities, yoga places a lot of emphasis on the importance of breathing, something that we should also practice as climbers. Learning to manage our breath while we climb is fundamental, especially when it comes to facing the crux of our route. It can help us keep our mind calm and focused on the movement, avoiding falls or mistakes. The practice of yoga teaches us to eliminate external and internal noises, bringing the mind back to a state of calm, stillness and concentration, and allowing us to breathe even in the most difficult moments.
Perhaps more obvious is the fact that yoga helps us improve our mobility and flexibility, which expands the range of movements we can do on the wall - such as loading a high foot or keeping our hips closer to the rock. Through the asanas we also work on strengthening our muscles in some of these more extreme positions: we hold positions for several breaths, or insert dynamic vinyasas requiring good core strength. There’s so much more I could add!
Breath, strength, flexibility, balance and concentration: these are just a few of the skills developed through yoga that can help your climbing © Francesco Tretto
Have you found that it works the other way round too: has climbing also helped your yoga practice?
Yes! Climbing has helped me build my strength and confidence so much. It has taught me perseverance and determination - all skills that I can then bring back on the mat, especially in some yoga styles that can be very demanding mentally and physically.
We’ve focused a lot on the similarities, but are there any notable differences between yoga and climbing?
There’s one difference in my opinion that is quite important, but may not be so obvious.
When I climb, I feel like I am fighting with both my mind and body to climb harder, overcome fear and surpass my limits. This forces me to be very present in myself, and I have no chance of getting distracted for any reason. On the other hand, when I am on the mat, sitting down, nothing can hurt me: I feel safe. My mind can easily run away from that moment, I can easily get distracted if I don't tell my mind to “stay in the present moment”. When we practice yoga, we are not fighting to try to surpass our limits: we are simply contemplating, observing, and refocusing.
That’s very interesting, and actually the ‘forced’ mindfulness you experience while climbing - when you have no choice but to be 100 percent in the present moment - is what initially drew me to the sport. When I am climbing below my limit, though, I do find my mind starts to wonder - but I can bring it back by focusing on my movement, how the holds feel, how I’m placing my feet… Sort of like yoga, I guess.
While the demands of climbing often force you to stay 100 % in the present moment, yoga is about learning how to stay present despite the distraction of internal and external noise © Francesco Tretto
I know that a lot of climbers want to start practicing yoga, but find themselves a little short on time. How would you recommend we build a yoga practice into our training routine?
It really depends on the kind of person you are. I usually suggest people keep their yoga or mobility session separate from their climbing training. If you’re just starting out, my advice is to get into the routine of doing a bit of yoga first thing in the morning, before your coffee. It can be just a 10 minute session to start with, then you can gradually make it longer if you find it enjoyable. If you already practice yoga a bit and enjoy it, then in my opinion it's worth dedicating some of the evenings that you don’t climb to a proper 45 to 60 minute yoga class.
Are there any types of yoga you would particularly recommend to climbers, and why?
There is not one type of yoga that works for everyone. Every climber is different: each one of us has a different mind and body. For sure, it’s good to start with some basic flows and sun salutations (for example) as this can help you understand if it’s a more gentle or dynamic class that you prefer. From personal experience, I generally find that men ask for mobility exercises, while women tend to look a bit more for dynamic flows.
It’s also important to understand that your preferences can change day-by-day, too. Sometimes I feel more like I need to relax on the mat, sometimes I may have energy to jump around and handstand. Odaka and Ashtanga - the two yoga styles I teach - are kind of opposites, just like me. Depending on my mind and body at that moment, I adapt my practice accordingly.
Yoga is very individual and different practices may serve you at different moment © Francesco Tretto
Do you think that meditation is also a useful practice for climbers - especially those who don’t want to practice yoga for various reasons?
For sure! I would recommend practicing this at a separate time to your climbing session, though, as it’s a very different kind of training.
Nowadays there are so many tools available to guide you through meditation - from apps such as Headspace or Calm, to podcasts on Spotify. Likewise, there are plenty of good yoga classes on Youtube. However, there is so much available online that it can sometimes be more confusing than helpful… This is why I prefer to keep my classes live on Zoom, where I can give feedback to my students, without leaving them to work passively in front of a screen.
With so many resources online, you can practice yoga pretty much anywhere you go. All you need is a mat! © Francesco Tretto
Finally, can you suggest any additional resources for climbers looking to learn more about yoga?
One of the books that I would recommend is “Yogarrampicata” by Alberto Milani - now available in both Italian and English.
In terms of specific yoga classes for climbers, you’ll find a few on Youtube - for example, by Lattice Training, EpicTV, Tom Merrick…
On top of books and videos, I would really suggest just trying both the disciplines and experiencing first hand the energy they can bring. When combined, this perfect match of Climbing and Yoga can teach you a lot. This is why we put together the Albarracin Climb and Boulder trip :)
Thanks so much Nairi! I learnt a lot, and it’s definitely inspired me to take up my yoga practice again.
Nairi and Lorenzo - a passionate and strong climber - will be joining us on our Albarracin Boulder & Yoga trip. You’ll spend 5 days in the Spanish Fontainebleau climbing a lot, practicing yoga, and connecting with nature in a new and exhilarating way.
© Lorenzo Possamai
Cover image © Francesco Tretto