As a skiing and climbing guide, athlete, and yoga instructor, I am continually impressed by the correlation between success in the mountains and a regular yoga or meditation practice. In my personal experience, by taking time each day to completely focus my attention on simple movements in conjunction with controlled breathing, even for a just a short period of time, I have found that I can dramatically increase my ability to handle a higher mental stress load and consciously reign in a respiratory-system-gone-rogue.
The primary intention behind a yoga practice is the alignment of a series of movements with the coordination of the breath. Beyond the poses, aside from the stretching, before the flow, and without regard to the brand of clothing you choose to wear or the space in which you practice, is the synchronization of intentional movements with focused and controlled breathing. That is the essence of yoga.
One of my favorite quotes is by Sharon Gannon: “You cannot do yoga. Yoga is your natural state. What you can do are yoga exercises, which may reveal to you areas where you are resistant in your natural state”. Instead of hand-eye coordination, think body-breath coordination.
This training allows the individual the ability to more easily and calmly focus on a specific task and execute difficult movements with precision—especially, and perhaps most importantly—when pushing towards exhaustion.
The goal of starting a mindful movement practice is in taking this basic principle and applying it to any activity of your choosing.
I understand yoga is not for everyone. Personally, I love the quiet space, the dance of a well-sequenced vinyasa flow, and in the winter months I crave the warmth and full body lymphatic cleanse of a heated studio; they are always significantly cozier than the mid-January temperature of my 1920’s craftsman and warm my core after a day of skiing far better than even the highest, most overworked setting of my Subaru’s seat-heating capabilities. That being said, I know plenty of guides and world-class athletes who firmly believe that yoga—of any sort—is not, and never will be, for them.
The secret is that these individuals find other activities with which to strengthen their mental game and incorporate mindful movement. Biking, running, swimming, pilates, even those post-work hikes with a heavy pack, all provide the opportunity to spend a few moments really thinking about and tuning in to your body positioning, your motor patterns, the rate and quality of your breath, all while tuning out the external static of life.
So my challenge for you in writing this blog post, if not to inspire you to rush off and attend the nearest yoga class, is to move through a few minutes of your next workout focused on not just exercising, but moving with intention, breathing in coordination with the efforts of your activity, and turning off the music in an effort to quiet your mind and direct your attention entirely to the task at hand. By practicing mindful movement in your daily tasks and familiar workouts, you will increase and strengthen your ability to use those same techniques to lower your respiratory rate and remain calm, thus allowing you to be more relaxed and move more efficiently when confronted with new and/or difficult tasks in an unfamiliar or uncomfortable environment for a longer period of time: situations much like those found on Mt. Rainier and other alpine objectives around the world.
Solveig Waterfall is an AMGA Certified Ski Mountaineering Guide and has been working professionally in the mountains for 12 years. She guides in Alaska as well as the continental U.S., Ecuador, Mexico, and Argentina. She also teaches backcountry skiing programs and ski mountaineering courses for RMI. Outside of guiding, she instructs yoga and fitness classes designed to complement an active life outdoors.