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Just before blasting off on what would become a record-setting ascent of the world-famous route known as The Nose on El Capitan, climber Heidi Wirtz stood before the 3,500-foot wall of granite taking deep, rhythmic breaths, a practice she uses to focus her mind and calm her nerves. Ujjayi breathing or “victorious breath” is just one aspect of the Ashtanga yoga practice that Wirtz credits for her success on big walls.
Yoga affects every element of climbing–flexibility, strength, discipline, and focus, says the Colorado-based adventurer. “It’s improved my core strength, my body awareness, my concentration, and ultimately my climbing.” Case in point: Wirtz smashed the women’s team record with partner Vera Schulte-Pelkum on The Nose that summer day in 2004 with a 12-hour, 15-minute ascent, besting the record by more than 4 hours. Impressive for a woman who says she “doesn’t really train.” (Apparently, she’s not counting five Ashtanga sessions a week, plus 6 miles of running 3 days a week.)
Every athlete, including hikers, can benefit from Ashtanga or another form of yoga, says Wirtz, 34. Try the Eagle and Triangle poses in camp to stretch your upper back (necessary after supporting a pack all day), and your hips, calves, and hamstrings–all important after a climb.
Sit back slightly, balancing on your left foot, as you cross your right leg over left, then wrap your foot around your left calf (if possible). Open arms wide, then cross right under left and wrap your forearms around until the palms face each other. Gaze forward and breathe deeply 10 times.
Place feet about 3 feet apart; turn your right foot out and your left foot slightly toward center. Inhale, then as you exhale reach out over your right leg, placing your hand on your shin, the top of your foot, or on the ground behind your foot. Look straight ahead or up toward your hand. Hold for 10 breaths.