The simplest way to improve your climbing doesn’t involve weight training, campusing, or hang boarding. Just do a little yoga. Flexibility helps you move through tricky sequences with creative footwork and keep your body close to the wall, allowing you to climb nimbly and efficiently. Take a look at some of the best climbers in the world: Adam Ondra can contort his knees in seemingly inhuman ways, Margo Hayes can hook her heel high above her head, and Alex Megos can do full splits on the wall.
The benefits of yoga go far beyond flexibility, though. The practice also improves strength, body awareness, balance, and breathing, says Mina Leslie-Wujastyk, a professional rock climber and yogi who has completed a 200-hour teacher training course at the Trimurti Yoga School in India. Yoga also helps to prevent injury by correcting muscle imbalances and increasing the functional range of motion and stability in your joints.
You don’t need to perform crazy arm balances to call yourself a yogi, nor do you need expensive classes to reap the rewards. A short daily session at home is plenty. The routine below, adapted from Leslie-Wujastyk’s Yoga for Climbers seminar at the 2019 Arc’teryx Alpine Academy is easy to do on your own and should take roughly 20 to 30 minutes.
This is a Vinyasa-style practice, which synchronizes breath and movement and flows from one position to the next. Do whatever feels good to you: complete this as a routine, mix and match your favorite poses, or use a couple to warm up or cool down.
Cow Pose (Bitilasana) and Cat Pose (Marjaryasana)
What they do: Gently warm up the back, spine, and neck and stretch tight forearms.
How to do them: Begin in a tabletop position, with your wrists below your shoulders and your knees under your hips. Spread out your fingertips, and flatten your palms to the mat. “Climbers tend to enter a clawed hand position because of tight forearms, so really try to flatten down your fingers,” says Leslie-Wujastyk. “It’s better for your wrists and also gives you a nice stretch from your fingers into the forearm.”
Inhale as you look forward, let your tummy sink, and stick up your tailbone to curve your spine downward (cow pose). Then exhale as you lower your head and neck, tuck your tailbone under, and arch your spine (cat pose). Repeat three more times.
On the final exhale, tuck your toes, and lift your knees and hips to enter downward-facing dog.
Downward-Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
What it does: Stretches the arches of the feet as well as the calves, hamstrings, and shoulders.
How to do it: Continuing from the previous pose, lift your tailbone toward the sky, straighten your arms, and allow your shoulders to sink until you form an inverted V with your body. Bend your knees as much as you need to feel comfortable, especially if you have tight hamstrings. Keep your head parallel to your arms and your spine elongated through the neck. Breathe deeply as you pedal your heels up and down to warm up and stretch out the calves and the hamstrings. When you’re ready, on an exhale, press your shoulders out, your thighs backward, and your heels to the ground (it’s OK if your heels don’t touch) to deepen the stretch. Hold this position for three deep breaths. Then slowly walk your feet toward your hands, keeping your knees bent if needed, to enter a standing-forward-bend posture.
Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
What it does: Lengthens the spine and stretches the calves, hamstrings, and lower back.
How to do it: When your feet reach your hands, release your hands, cross your arms, and take hold of your opposite elbows. Press your heels firmly into the ground, and lift your tailbone toward the sky. Relax your spine, lengthen your torso, and let your head hang free. Keep your knees bent as much as you need to feel comfortable. Take three deep and slow breaths. With each exhale, sink deeper into the stretch. On the next inhale, stand up, raise your arms out to each side, bring your palms together over your head, and stretch toward the sky. Then exhale and bring your arms to your sides.
Tree Pose (Vrkasana)
What it does: Improves balance and stretches the groin, chest, and shoulders.
How to do it: Ground down through your left foot and find a strong, centered base. Lift your right foot, and bring it against your left ankle, with your toes still on the ground or with the base of your foot resting on your left shin or high on your left thigh (but not directly against the knee joint). If the thigh feels too high, go for a lower position—the higher your foot, the greater the challenge. Find your balance, then bring both hands in front of your chest, palms together. Draw your shoulder blades back and down. Lengthen your spine. If you feel stable, raise your hands above your head and stretch toward the sky. Bring your awareness back to your breath—inhale and exhale deeply three times. On the final exhale, lower your hands out to each side, release your raised foot, and return to a neutral, standing position. Repeat with the other leg.
Garland Pose (Malasana)
What it does: Stretches the groin and improves ankle mobility.
How to do it: Stand with your feet hip-width apart, your toes angled slightly outward. Bring your palms together at the chest, breathe in deep, then exhale as you squat as low as you can go comfortably (don’t worry if your heels lift). Press your elbows against your inner thighs to open your hips and increase the stretch. Take a few deep breaths, then sit down on the mat.
Butterfly Pose (Badhakonasana)
What it does: Opens the hips and stretches the inner thighs. “This is really useful for climbing, because it helps you get your center of gravity—your hips—closer to the wall,” says Leslie-Wujastyk.
How to do it: Sitting on the mat, bring the soles of your feet together in front of you, centered, and let your knees drop out to each side. Inhale. Think about stacking your spine from your tailbone to your neck. As you exhale, relax the hips, and engage your glutes to help release the leg-adductor muscles on the inside of your thighs to draw your knees toward the ground. For an extra stretch, hinge from the hips, and lean your torso forward over your feet. Take a few deep breaths, sinking deeper into the stretch with each exhale.
Boat Pose (Paripurna Navasana)
What it does: Strengthens the abdominal and hip-flexor muscles while training balance and focus. As Leslie-Wujastyk says, “A little bit of core is always good for climbing.”
How to do it: Sit with your knees bent and your feet flat on the floor, rock onto the “tripod” formed between your sit bones and tailbone, then lift your heels off the ground. Keep your chest high and your spine long. Find the balance point, then raise your legs and feet together until your torso and thighs have formed a 45-degree angle with each other, open to the ceiling. Straighten your knees. Keep breathing—deep inhales and exhales—and hold the position for as long as you’re able. On the last exhale, bring your knees to your chest, give yourself a squeeze, and then lower your legs to the ground.
Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana)
What it does: Stretches the hamstrings and lower back. “This is a basic posture, but it’s really good for climbers,” says Leslie-Wujastyk. “We tend to get quite tight in our posterior chain—the muscles down the back of the body.”
How to do it: Extend your legs out in front of you, feet together. Draw your toes toward your torso, engage your quads, inhale deeply, and on the exhale, fall forward to touch your toes (if you can’t reach, place your hands on your shins). Relax your head and neck. With every inhale, think about the micromovement of lengthening your torso, and with every exhale, of relaxing deeper into the stretch. Take a few breaths, and on the next inhale, slowly come back up.
Extended Puppy Pose (Uttana Shishosana)
What it does: Stretches the shoulders.
How to do it: Come up to all fours so that your knees are directly below your hips and your hands are under your shoulders. Then slowly walk your hands forward, straighten your arms, and drop your head and shoulders toward the ground. Keep a slight curve in your spine and your hips stacked above your knees. Lengthen through your fingertips, press your hands flat, and allow your armpits to sink lower, while keeping your hips high. Take a few deep breaths.
Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana)
What it does: Stretches the front line of the body from the shoulders through the chest to the abdominals and hip flexors.
How to do it: On the next inhale, look between your hands, shift your weight forward, and lie on your belly on the mat. Exhale. Shift your hands back slightly so they’re just below your shoulders, flatten your palms, then lift your shoulders and lengthen your collarbone. As you inhale, engage your back muscles, draw your shoulders back, and gently press up with your hands to raise your torso higher into a backbend. Only go as high as you’re comfortable. Think about drawing the shoulder blades down and curving through your upper back rather than your lumbar spine. Exhale, and bring your head down to the mat.
Supine Spinal Twist (Supta Matsyendrasana)
What it does: Lengthens the spine and stretches the abdominals, obliques, chest, and front of the shoulders.
How to do it: Lie on your left side, with your legs stacked and your hips and knees both bent to 90 degrees. Inhale, extend your right arm above you, and exhale as you let it gently fall to the right side, allowing your spine to twist. Shift your gaze to your right palm, and let gravity pull you into the stretch, keeping your knees grounded and pressed together with the help of your left hand. Breathe deeply three times. On the next inhale, bring your knees up to center and let them fall the other way, this time lengthening out the left arm and shifting your gaze to your left hand. Breathe deeply three times, and on the next inhale, return your knees to center.
What it does: Relaxes the body and calms the mind.
How to do it: Lie flat on your back, with your legs relaxed and hip-width apart. Place your arms by your sides, palms up, so your shoulders are open. Close your eyes and return to your breath. Notice how your body feels. Notice the activity in your mind. Fully relax into the pose for a couple of minutes, then slowly bring your awareness back to your body. When ready, find your way back to a seated position, take a few breaths, then be on your way.