Yoga is becoming more and more prominent in the adventure community as a means of keeping the body, mind and soul healthy during outdoor pursuits. The yogic focus on breath, awareness, and increasing strength and flexibility becomes increasingly important as we challenge ourselves in new ways and climb to new heights, both figuratively and literally.
Yoga offers an opportunity for stretching out tight hamstrings, mobilising joints, improving balance so you bend rather than break, and breathing through the challenges. Enjoying each moment for what it is, rather than thinking about the next uphill or the fear of a steep downward slope. Taking a deep breath and observing the moment with all of your senses, as you learn on the mat, can be transferred into mountain moments when you want to commit a view, a feeling, an exhilaration, to memory.
Living and adventuring at altitude brings a host of new challenges and new opportunities for deepening your practice of yoga, on and off the mat. Whether you’re climbing to high peaks and sleeping in tents, or staying in a mountain retreat at alpine heights and spending time outdoors every day, the following are a few different yogic ways to enhance your mountain experience and keep yourself healthy at great heights.
The fourth limb of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga (the yogic guidelines to a meaningful and purposeful life) is pranayama.
prana: life force energy
yama: regulation , guidance
pranayama: guidance of the life force energy, or control of the breath
We often underestimate the impact of altitude on our fitness and lung capacity; we actually require more efficient use of oxygen at altitude, therefore any activity we do is optimised, whether that’s on the yoga mat or out in the mountains. You can harness your breath to increase the oxygen in our bloodstream by practicing pranayama three times daily as you adjust to a shift in altitude — morning, midday and evening. Thich Nhat Hanh stated that “breath is the bridge that connects life to consciousness, which unites your body to your thoughts”. Through breathing properly, we enhance the flow of oxygen in our body, we are able to tune in to what is happening inside us, and we keep our mind calm even when our physical body is challenged.
• KAPALBATI BREATH
This pranayama technique is also known as the “breath of fire” or “skull-shining breath”, as it creates heat in the core, awakens our digestive fire, and purifies our mind of unwanted or heavy thoughts. As an energising breath, it’s great to practice in the mornings, or in this case, to pump up oxygen levels at altitude!
Find a comfortable seated position. Bring your hands onto your belly, and relax the shoulders. Take a deep breath in through the nose, then begin short sharp exhalations through the nose, pumping bellybutton to spine, for 30 exhalations. Focus on the exhale; you don’t need to think about the inhale, it will happen passively. After your final full exhalation, squeezing all the breath out of the belly, hold your breath outside of your body for as long as feels comfortable, then inhale slowly, and return to natural breathing. Repeat two more rounds. As you become more comfortable with this breathing technique, you can try increasing the count of exhales to 50, then 100. It can help to bring to mind a thought or feeling that you would like to let go of, and with each exhale imagine it being released.
• NADI SHODANA BREATH
Otherwise known as alternate nostril breathing, nadi shodana helps us to balance our two opposing energies; masculine and feminine, ida and pingala, sun and moon, yin and yang, energising and restoring. It is also helpful in clearing the nasal passageways and sinuses, relieving migraines or nausea from sudden altitude increase, and calming the mind of fear or anxiety when we find ourselves in new or uncomfortable situations.
Find a comfortable seated position. Rest your left hand in your lap or on your thigh, and lift the right hand up in front of you. Curl the middle three fingers into your palm, leaving your pinky finger and thumb extended. Take a deep breath in through both nostrils, and a full exhale. Bring your thumb to your right nostril and breathe in through the left nostril for a count of 5. When you reach the peak of your inhale, pause, then release the right nostril and bring your pinky finger to close your left nostril and exhale through the right for a count of 5. Inhale right for a count of 5, release left nostril and close the right, exhale left for a count of 5. And continue for approximately 1 minute. When you’ve finished, release your hands into your lap and return to your natural rate of breath. Notice a sense of clarity or lightness in the head. As you become more familiar with this technique, you can try lengthening the inhales and exhales, keeping them even on both sides, maintaining a sense of balance in the body.
BREATH FOR WALKING
During your hikes, especially when walking uphill, avoid the traditional long inhales and exhales that you would usually use on your yoga mat. Focus on shorter, stronger inhales and exhales. Try breathing in for 5, out for 5, and adjust to suit your body and how hard you’re hiking. Try to lengthen the exhales to engage the parasympathetic nervous system, and encourage your body to keep calm. Focusing on the breath is a wonderful way to power up the hills, and move mindfully in alignment with your body’s needs.
Outdoor pursuits offer the perfect setting for mindfulness practices. As we spend so much time in the analytical, linear left hemisphere of the brainduring our working life, taking ourselves away from the computer and into nature offers an opportunity to look at things from a whole new perspective. Rather than focusing on where you’re going, how many miles to the top, worrying about whether you purchased the right brand of sock or if you’ve got too many layers on, try focusing purely on the moment at hand. Observe the moment with all of your senses, feeling the ground between your feet, the fresh mountain air on your skin, the taste of your flask of tea during your halfway pause, take in the sights and sounds of mountain life going on around you.
A yogic approach to life in the great outdoors can take you to even greater heights, and help you to remain fully present in each moment so that you reap all the benefits that Mother Nature has to offer.