Teaching Yoga to the Toughest Alpine Climbers in the World

yoga for alpine climbers

The climbers drawn to El Chaltén, Argentina are, to say the least, unique creatures.

This part of Patagonia is not known for its friendly weather. It offers violent winds, torrential rains, and temperatures that can fluctuate suddenly from 60 degrees to freezing. To reach the base of a route, a climber must walk eight to ten hours on precarious trails, frozen glaciers, and across raging streams.

They’ll stay in El Chaltén for two to five months, and spend most of their time in town waiting for weather windows. They’ll have their climbing gear, food and tent stashed near the route, and when the weather is amicable (the strong winds less ferocious) they’ll hurry in, utilizing the summer’s long days, to heave their bodies up 10,000-foot cliffs in a 20 to 30-hour push.

Accidents and deaths occur every year.

At the base of Supercanaleta, a popular route on Cerro Fitz Roy, the body of Belgian climber Frank Van Herreghewe has lain frozen since 2002. A grim reminder of the dangers of these mountains.

I was down in El Chaltén for three weeks in December 2013, teaching yoga, hiking and sport climbing on short cliffs. The mountains of Patagonia were too wild for me, but I had a deep admiration for the climbers who braved nature’s most aggressive elements.

 These were the toughest guys I knew, yet to my surprise, many found yoga to be “scary” or “too hard.”

One climber nicknamed “Troutman,” a skinny but bold climber who had helped set a new ice route, said “I can’t do yoga. Yoga’s like doing a 5.13.”

This comment was followed by chuckles from other climbers since a 5.13 is a challenging grade … even for these dedicated vertical ascenders. In another instance, I was teaching bakasana, crow’s pose, which requires balancing the knees against the backs of the arms, leaning forward so that the face is a foot off the ground.

One climber, who often looked off of cliffs thousands of feet in the air, said “I’m scared. What if I fall?”

In El Chaltén, I taught at Tai Attwell’s apartment turned yoga studio. I never advertised the classes or posted any signage on storefronts; the satellite Internet was dreadfully slow in this small village of a few thousand. Yet every class was full simply from word of mouth. The message, “Yoga at 3, Tai’s place behind the laundromat” circled the town so quickly that one time, a climber told this to me not knowing that I was the teacher.

This group was relatively new to yoga, but not new to their bodies. They were high functioning athletes, but not the kind that competed with one another on the mats or were insecure about not being able to do a certain pose.

These guys were confident in their physical abilities but had egos that were constantly humbled by nature’s grandeur.

They practiced pranayama exercises on the rock to calm their nerves. They were familiar with hard work and perseverance. All of this led to massive improvements in their yoga practice in a short amount of time.

Condensation dripped down Tai’s windows as we flowed and built heat, protected from the winds that whipped down the streets and the fresh snow that iced the towering peaks.

What surprised me the most about teaching yoga to climbers was the parallel between the two activities.

In yoga, we breathe through challenging poses in order to retrain our brains to relax when in distress. Climbers do the same thing. When crossing a precarious section of rock or ice, they calm their breaths in order to calm their nerves. While I taught them, they taught me. In particular, I learned the muscles that are most active among traditional climbers.

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Must-do poses for alpine climbers

1. Urdhva Dhanurasana (Wheel Pose)

yoga poseCrampons, tents, sleeping bags, ropes, ice axes, harnesses, quickdraws, cams, water, and food all add up in weight when thrown in a bag and carried up a mountain.

Climbers have to carry 50-80 pound packs up a glacier for hours on end. As their bodies tire, their shoulders roll inward, their lumbar vertebrae curves under pressure, and the quality of their posture decreases.

Heart openers open up their shoulders, stretch out their pectoralis muscles, and increase the space between their front ribs, offering a counter balance to their long days of trekking with gear.

Often climbers have tight shoulders, but limber lower backs and strong arms. To help them move into full wheel, stand next to their ears and allow them to press up while holding your ankles; assist them by pulling their hearts closer to your shins.

2. Chaturanga Dandasana (Four Limbed Staff Pose)

static.squarespace-1Everybody gains strength through pressing down in chaturanga, the yoga push-up, but nobody needs it more than climbers who spend a disproportionate amount of time using their shoulders to pull up their bodies.

Their shoulders are exceptionally strong, but limited in range due to the repetition of this pulling motion. Unlike knees or elbows, the shoulder joint can move up, down, back and forward, which makes it more susceptible to injury. Through balancing out the pulling motion with pushing, a climber can prevent shoulder injuries, a common ailment in the sport, and increase their range of motion for a further, more stable reach.

3. Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (Pigeon Pose)

static.squarespace-2The hip flexors, which help bring the thighs to the stomach, are the thickest muscles in the body.

These muscles are notoriously tight among runners and hikers, which can cause a pelvic anterior tilt that moves the butt outwards, arching the lower back. This tightness can also cause the hamstrings, quadriceps, and calves to strengthen, while the glutes weaken.

This is why it’s especially important for runners, climbers, and hikers to do hip openers in order to maintain balanced muscles and flexibility in the legs and lower back. Another unique quality among climbers is that they have open adductor muscles, which allow them to stem across rocks and reach their legs for spaced out footing.

Flexible adductors with tight hips are an interesting combination, for when they release into pigeon pose, it’s a very deep release. To facilitate this, hold pigeon pose or other hip openers at the end of class for three to five minutes.

4. Vajrasana (Thuderbolt Pose) on Toes

static.squarespace-3If you’ve ever walked in plastic boots for eight hours, then you know how important it is to protect your feet.

For this toe strengthening variation, tuck your toes and sit on the back of your heels with your weight on the balls of the feet. Lengthen through the spine, by bringing the belly button in, then soften the shoulders and collarbones.

Hold this pose for five to ten breaths. Breathe through the deep stretch, allowing blood to gather in the joints of the toes.

5. Salamba Sirsasana and Pincha Mayurasana (Headstand and Forearm Balance)

static.squarespace-4Inversions have a number of physical benefits specific to climbers.

They reverse the direction of blood flow to increase circulation
frigid temperatures and high altitude cause circulation
to slow down). They activate the lymphatic system, which prevents illness (coughing, sneezing and runny noses are frequent symptoms when exposed to below freezing weather). They strengthen the shoulders, arms and core muscles (the stronger theses muscles are, the better climbers are at preventing fatal accidents). They also improve balance (climbers are on their toes as often as ballerinas).

Most of all, inversions are fun and build confidence. Climbers have tremendous upper body and core strength, so inversions are accessible to them even as beginner yogis. Plus, as people who see the world from the highest points on earth, they appreciate seeing things from a new perspective.

***

I’m new to climbing, but find myself having similar reactions on the rocks to those I do on the mat.

I look up at a vertical cliff and think, “there’s no way I’ll make it up that. It’s just too high, too steep. My fingers aren’t strong enough; I can’t do enough pull ups.”

I give it my best shot, and I fall. My stomach drops to my knees. I nearly piss in my pants. But the rope catches me and I’m safe. I try again. I fall again. I repeatedly fall until I’m frustrated and wiped out.

I’m just about to give up, when I realize that I’m climbing up the wall. I’ve moved passed the difficult section.

Over the last ten years in my yoga practice, I’ve often thought that there’s no way I can do an arm balance, or move into a difficult transition. Yet before my doubts have a chance to become true, I’m doing it.

In yoga, climbing and in life, we often fall. We learn from these moments. We learn to not give up. And something transformative happens every time we pick ourselves up and overcome our fears.

We learn that anything is possible.

This article was originally published on October 1, 2014.


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