Word by Femke Colborne
My right leg has started to wobble furiously. Balancing with my arms stretched out in front of me and my left leg extended in what’s meant to be an arabesque-like pose but probably looks more like a drunken attempt at Superman, I suddenly wish I’d paid more attention in ballet class when I was four.
Luckily, most of the other people in this yoga class are more concerned with improving their strength than looking like ballerinas. That’s because I’m at Manchester Climbing Centre, one of the first British climbing centres to offer yoga tailored specifically to the needs of climbers.
From the start it is clear that this is no ordinary yoga class. Yes, there are mats and candles and scented oils; there’s chanting and posing. But the first thing instructor Kelle Link does is hand around a fact sheet with pictures of different bones and explain how they allow for different levels of flexibility in different bodies. "People who are into action sports tend to be competitive and we don’t want anyone getting injured because they’re trying to stretch further than the person next to them," she says.
Manchester Climbing Centre has been offering three yoga classes a week since February, and they have proved so popular that it plans to introduce even more come the end of the quieter summer season. According to Link, who developed the classes with fellow yoga teacher Jane Craggs, yoga can help climbers to build strength and flexibility and help with injuries – and that’s not to mention the relaxing psychological benefits.
"Yoga can help you to develop the muscles that you can’t see, and that’s really important for balance and core strength," she says. "A lot of climbers are very strong but if you just use force and your technique doesn’t improve. Some climbers are so built they are too heavy to pull themselves up – they’re climbing like Buzz Lightyear when they should be like Spiderman."
Link grew up in New York, where she started practicing yoga seven years ago. She started climbing after she moved to the UK in 2003, and it seemed only natural to her to combine her two passions. According to Link most climbing centres in the US already offer yoga, and she thinks it’s only a matter of time before the trend catches on here.
Manchester Climbing Centre offers three different types of yoga: Vinyasa Flow, Dynamic Flow and Yin. Dynamic Flow is the most physically active class, but according to Link it’s actually the lower impact exercises that often offer the greatest benefits. "People want the dramatic poses but there are so many exercises that don’t look so impressive but go really, really deep," she says.
Holding a simple stretch for up to five minutes can be just as beneficial as more demanding poses, says Link, as this starts to stretch the connective tissue as well as the muscle. That’s part of the reason yoga can also help with some injuries, particularly in the knees and lower back.
It’s also good for building upper body strength and flexibility: "A lot of climbers are very tight in the shoulders and exercises like the back bend and downward facing dog [resting on all fours with your legs straight and your bum in the air] can really help to open up the shoulders," says Link.
Jenny Harrington, a 22-year-old student from Fallowfield in Manchester, has been climbing for three years and started attending yoga classes at the centre four months ago. "I wanted to do something that was more of a complete workout and would get me into shape, but also help me to relax," she says.
Harrington says the biggest benefit has been to her upper body strength: "Overhanging routes are definitely easier on my arms now because my strength has improved. The classes work really hard on your arms."
But it’s not all about the physical benefits. "Climbers don’t really have a way of de-stressing," says Link. "Yoga is great for that because you don’t have time to think about what you had for dinner or what you’re doing later. You’re relaxing and focusing on your breathing.
"Climbers also often have to deal with fear, and yoga and meditation can help with that," she adds.
That’s providing you can concentrate hard enough to forget about the fact that you feel like you legs are about to collapse underneath you. But regular yoga quickly starts to build up strength - and who knows, you might learn to get your body into positions you never thought were possible, which could benefit more than your climbing.