Balancing Polarities: Restorative Yoga for Climbers

I’ve been climbing and practicing yoga for over a decade. I feel lucky to have found synergy in the relationship I have between these two arts. I say lucky because I know a lot of hyper-flexible yogis who could benefit from climbing because of the strength element. I also know many climbers who would benefit from lengthening and stretching their muscles through a yoga practice.

All forms of exercise share two features in common: first we must stress the tissues, then we must let the tissues rest.  Stress has a negative connotation in our culture because we forget the “rest” part of this equation. But to have little or not stress in our live is just as damaging as having too much stress.  We need to stress the body, and we need to rest it. There is a Yin/Yang balance here that leads to health” ~ Bernie Clark

There is a sutra from an ancient yoga text that reads: Sthira sukham asanam: the posture is steady and comfortable.”

The word, Sthira, means more than just firm. It translates as stable, resolute, changeless. Sthira speaks not only of challenge, strength, endurance and fortitude but also vigilance, the ability to be pay attention, to be present. It is the opposite of agitation and refers to both physical and mental stillness: a controlled, fully engaged body and a focused mind. This is required for a climber to be in his/her body completely and enables maximum climbing potential.

savasanaSukha translates as pleasurable, joyful, agreeable, easy, comfortable, happy, prosperous, relaxed. It is the opposite of discomfort, suffering, stress or pain. Here we bring in the principles non-violence and self acceptance. We nurture ourselves by doing something that feels good. This is the rest, the relaxation, the restoration of body and mind that enables maximum recovery for true growth and breaking through plateaus.

I see the concept of Sthira and Sukha being very pertinent for both climbers and yogis, specifically with the way both groups handle their rest days and cross training.

For climbers, a rest day yoga class could be ideal, or it could be completely disastrous to your training regime. There are many styles, difficulty levels and ways of focusing effort in yoga that produce very different results. For example, a vigorous vinyasa class, with many arm balances and Chatturangas will produce stress on the tissues, which then can lead to a stretch of the tissues. This is great for cross training and lengthening bulky asymmetrical muscles.

We need to define a couple of terms that are used rather loosely by many yoga teachers: stress and stretch. These are not synonyms. Technically, stress is the tension that we place upon our tissues, while stretch is the elongation that results from the stress. We often say we are stretching our muscles, but to be more precise, what we are doing is applying a stress to our muscles that results in a stretch.

A stretch, however does not always accompany a stress, so they are not the same thing. For example, isometric exercises stress the muscles, but there is no change in the length of the muscles.” ~ BC

This concept of creating a stress to enable a stretch is precisely why yoga practice is extremely beneficial to a climber.

However, the purpose of this article, is to expound on this concept, and highlight the value of a more restorative yoga practice on rest days. There needs to be a definition and differentiation of Restorative Yoga.

We work very hard in our climbing training, (and life outside of climbing), and while we may sleep, we rarely take time to rest. Restorative yoga poses help us learn to relax and rest deeply and completely. During deep relaxation, all the organ systems of the body are benefited, and a few of the measurable results of deep relaxation are the reduction of blood pressure, serum triglycerides and blood sugar levels in the blood, the increase of the “good cholesterol” levels, as well as improvement in digestion, elimination, the reduction of muscle tension, insomnia and generalized fatigue.

suported bridgeWe target the Parasympathetic Nervous System in Restorative yoga. This is opposite of the Sympathetic Nervous System, or the stressful fight or flight response.  The PNS response tells the body it is safe to rest and digest, and our entire body responds heartily.  It is way too common for people, and I might add, especially competitive athletes, to be stuck in a negative stress response loop for a very long time – weeks, months and even years. 

When we neglect the PNS, when we persist in the SNS or stress response, we unconsciously tell our bodies, day after day, “HOLY SHIT THERE’S A TIGER CHASING ME.” The blood and resources are diverted away from the abdomen and the organs, out to the extremities so we can run and punch and kick and flee for our lives.  The organs get depleted, the healthy functioning of our systems is interrupted, muscle tension never releases, and we slowly get worn down beyond simple repair of a good night’s rest. This is truly the beginning of dis-ease in the body.

Now, how can you expect your body to perform at an elite level, to scale rock faces and endure incredible physical and mental stress, with out ever letting your body and brain know that the tiger has gone home?

This is the power of a restorative yoga practice. Balancing these polarities inside our bodies is not only imperative for humans functioning in high stress activities like climbing and training, but for all humans, because frankly, our lives are way to stressful as it is.

I don’t want to get into Epigenetics too much, but this stress effects us on a genetic level, in our very DNA. We can effectively ‘turn on’ genes that consequentially express ill health for us, and believe it or not, for our children and generations to come.  We are shaping the history of humanity with our inability to release stress.  That’s a big deal, friends.

Now, don’t get stressed out about it! Just simply make time to relax into a sweet juicy restorative yoga class somewhere, and let your body just do what it knows how to do. It has incredibly intelligent self-healing mechanisms and programs, if you just give it permission to run them.

 


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