Yoga Practice for Hikers: Benefits of Yoga in Endurance Training…

This is an addendum to the multi-part Backpacking Training series “Hiking and Fitness: Training to go-big” Pt1-Pt2 by Bob Doucette at ProactiveOutside:

Any of us who have been out on the trail for more than a few days understand that backpacking is an endurance sport.  Whatever your reasons for being out there, whatever your mindset or perspective regarding the activity, your body understands backpacking as an endurance activity.  Most backpackers, and trainers who work with backpackers, focus on 5 primary fitness aspects: Aerobic Endurance, Anaerobic Endurance, Upper Body Strength, Lower Body Strength and Flexibility.  In his previous posts, Bob has focused on cardio training and weight training as it relates to hiking and backpacking…but I want to talk about the benefits of Yoga.

Tree Pose at the Grand Canyon...

Yoga Breathing and Aerobic/Anaerobic Endurance

Aerobic exercise is typically lower intensity, higher endurance type work and uses available oxygen in the bloodstream as fuel.  Anaerobic exercise is higher-intensity, but significantly shorter bursts of activity usually recruiting much more overall muscle fiber and feeds primarily on glucose (and glycogen reserves).  Both Aerobic and Anaerobic endurance rely on the body’s ability to access fuel (oxygen and glycogen) more effectively and to use the fuel more efficiently.

Controlled, focused, mindful breathing is an integral part of any Yoga practice.  Yogic breathing teaches us to control our breathing throughout the physical exertion of holding and transitioning between postures.  With regular practice it opens the lungs, chest and diaphragm and deepens our breathing capacity.  In a study of the cardiopulminary effects of Yoga published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2002, it was reported that,

The intense stretching and muscle conditioning associated with attaining and holding yoga postures increases skeletal muscle oxidative capacity and decreases glycogen utilization.

The reason behind this increased efficiency was described here, “The slow breathing rates associated with yoga breathing have been shown to substantially reduce chemoreflex response to hypoxia, probably through the improved oxygen delivery to tissues…” and “The slow increase in lung capacity associated with well-practiced yoga breathing recruits normally unventilated lung and helps to match ventilation to perfusion better, thereby increasing oxygen delivery to highly metabolic tissues (e.g., muscle).

The findings in these studies (referenced below) show that regular Yoga practice, when combined with proper Yogic breathing techniques, increases lung capacity and muscle efficiency.  Allowing your body to not only store and deliver greater amounts of oxygen to the blood stream through more controlled and deliberate breathing, but also reduce the amount of glycogen your body needs in Anaerobic metabolism.  In short, Yoga breathing adds fuel to the fire and your fire burns less fuel.

From her article, Going the Distance, published at YogaJournal.com: Nancy Coulter-Parker says,

” The greater your aerobic and anaerobic endurance, the better able you are to sustain exercise for a prolonged period of time. Improving your endurance can make your cardiovascular and respiratory systems more efficient and decrease both your resting heart rate and stress levels…

…one of the keys to endurance is to better utilize your oxygen intake.”

Clayton Horton, director of Greenpath Yoga Studio in San Francisco and a former triathlete and competitive swimmer suggests,

“Being conscious of the breath allows our body to breathe better.  Conscious breath teaches you to pay attention to the quality of your breath, and you learn to observe and perhaps even manipulate your breathing during physical activities.”

For improving endurance through better breathing, Horton suggests asanas that enhance both range of motion and lung capacity by opening the chest and rib cage. These include Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward-Facing Bow Pose), Ustrasana (Camel Pose), Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose), as well as Eka Pada Rajakapotasana (One-Legged Pigeon Pose).

Yoga and Strength Training

Upper and lower body strength is also highly important in endurance training.  Not mentioned, but implied, is the development of a solid core.  We are not talking about muscle development and growth necessarily, too much muscle can be a liability in endurance sports.  Large amounts of muscle mass require large amounts of fuel and are, typically, less efficient.  What we want to develop is the ability to recruit more muscle tissue in each movement.  This delivers more power, with less muscle mass, utilizing less fuel.

Body weight exercises are especially good when it comes to engaging more overall muscle during your workout.  A simple push-up, as most of us know, not only works the chest and triceps but also works the legs, abs, back and shoulders.  Further, performing asymmetrical push-ups throw your balance off and engage even more of your core muscles.  Many Yoga postures are designed specifically to engage multiple muscle groups and fire your stabilizing muscles at the same time.  Holding a typical standing pose like Warrior I or II, will engage almost every muscle in your body and holding the posture challenges the smaller core stabilizing muscles used to maintain your balance.  This whole-body muscle recruitment, combined with the deep breathing, builds stronger, more efficient muscle tissue.

Challenging arm balances and inversion poses are very effective for building muscle strength,” says Yoga Expert Rodney Yee, “because they flex groups of smaller muscles — not just the major muscles you work with a weight machine — to support the body’s weight during the pose.

Holding standing poses such as the warrior poses and triangle pose,” he adds, “is great for strengthening the leg muscles. And in balance poses such as tree pose, one leg has to hold up your entire body. So you’re increasing your strength just by putting your weight on that leg.

When it comes to using yoga to improve muscle strength and endurance, Horton (mentioned above) recommends focusing on any asanas that promote a lengthening of muscles in the body, such as Parsvakonasana (Side Angle Pose), as well as stabilizing and strengthening poses that develop core strength, such as Navasana (Boat Pose).

Yoga and Flexibility and Balance

The idea that Yoga can improve our flexibility is pretty common knowledge.  Even those with no Yoga experience at all would tell you that Yoga can improve flexibility.  Yoga asanas work by safely stretching your muscles, releasing the lactic acid that builds up during intense (Anaerobic) exercise causing stiffness, tension, pain, and fatigue. In addition, yoga increases the range of motion in joints reducing the risk of injury. Yoga stretches not only stretch your muscles but all of the soft tissues of your body including ligaments, tendons, and the fascia sheath that surrounds your muscles. According to a WebMD article on the Health benefits of Yoga, “…you most likely will see benefits in a very short period of time. In one study, participants had up to 35% improvement in flexibility after only eight weeks of yoga.(Personally, I have seen improvements in my flexibility after only a few sessions)

This from an article on Flexibility Training at RunnersWorld.com,

Yoga involves static-active stretching, making it a hybrid of the other forms of stretching. As in static stretching (whose proper technical name is static-passive stretching), you assume and hold positions in which certain muscles are lengthened. Like CR (Contract-relax), yoga also involves isometric contractions, but with a crucial difference: In CR, you contract and relax the same muscle in a coordinated sequence; in yoga, you hold one set of muscles in isometric contractions while relaxing and stretching the muscles opposite them.

Yoga is seen by many as a complete form of exercise. It increases passive and dynamic flexibility as well as balance and coordination…

Balance is a particularly important asset in backpacking and is often overlooked in training.  Good balance out on the trail can be the difference between an innocent stumble and a serious injury.  I’ve seen many hikers/runners take a spill simply due to poor balance.  Many of the standing postures in Yoga are performed on one leg (or some other isometric position) for the purpose of practicing balance.  Yoga also teaches the mental side to maintaining good balance, achieving some standing postures takes great focus and control (Mindfullness).  If you haven’t worked on your balance in a while, try a posture as basic as Vrksasana (Tree Pose)and see how long you can hold the pose.  For most it’s a matter of seconds.  When you feel comfortable balancing in Vrksasana, try to transition directly into one of the more challenging standing poses like Utthita Hasta Padangustasana (Extended Hand-To-Big-Toe Pose) or Natarajasana (Lord of the Dance Pose) without letting your raised foot touch the ground.

The amazing thing about Yoga is, for all it’s fitness benefits, it’s also restorative.  Many elite athletes and trainers have incorporated regular Yoga into their fitness training because it helps restore flexibility, speeds muscle recovery, reduces stress and helps prevent injury.  If you haven’t incorporated Yoga into your training, you are missing out on an amazingly fruitful fitness resource.

 

Sources:

  • Article written by JAMES A. RAUB, M.S. for the THE JOURNAL OF ALTERNATIVE AND COMPLEMENTARY MEDICINE

CARDIOPULMONARY STATUS: EFFECTS OF HATHA YOGA ON LUNG FUNCTION AND OVERALL CARDIOVASCULAR ENDURANCE IN HEALTHY ADULTS

1) “For example, Joshi et al. (1992) followed lung function in 75 males and females with an average age of 18.5 years during yoga breath-control exercises. After 6 weeks of practice, they reported significant increases in forced vital capacity (FVC), forced expiratory volume in 1 second (FEV1), peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR), maximum voluntary ventilation (MVV), as well as a significant decrease in breathing frequency (fB), and prolongation of breath-holding time.”

2) “Rai and Ram (1993) compared an active Hatha Yoga posture (Virasana or Warrior pose) to chair-sitting and to a resting, supine posture (Savasana) in 10 healthy men, 25 to 37 years of age. The active posture induced a hypermetabolic state, as indicated by increased minute ventilation, heart rate (HR), and oxygen consumption (V.O2), compared to either the chair-sitting or resting posture. In a similar study, the same authors (Rai et al., 1994) compared an active sitting posture (Siddhasana) to chair-sitting and supine relaxation and found the same results, indicating that the yoga “activity” and not the body “posture” was important for cardiovascular “conditioning.””

3) “Telles et al. (2000) reported that a combination of yoga postures interspersed with relaxation improved measures of cardiopulmonary status in 40 male volunteers to a greater degree than relaxation alone. Cyclic meditation (stimulation plus calming), consisting of yoga postures and periods of supine relaxation, was better at decreasing V.O2 and fB, and increasing tidal volume than sessions of Savasana (calming) alone. Konar et al. (2000) reported that the practice of Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) twice daily for 2 weeks significantly reduced resting HR and left ventricular end-diastolic volume in 8 healthy male subjects. Birkel and Edgren (2000) reported that yoga postures, breath control, and relaxation techniques taught to 287 college students (89 men and 198 women) in two 50-minute class meetings for 15 weeks significantly improved FVC of the lungs measured by spirometry. In a similar study, 1 hour of yoga practice each day for 12 weeks significantly improved FVC, FEV1, and PEFR in 60 healthy young women, 17 to 28 years of age (Yadav and Das, 2001).”

4) “Finally, a number of published studies have reported significant improvement in overall cardiovascular endurance of young subjects who were given varying periods of yoga training (months to years) and compared to a similar group who performed other types of exercise.”

  • Going the Distance By Nancy Coulter-Parker
  • Using Yoga To Prevent Injuries And Accelerate Recovery By Sabrina Grotewold Published Feb. 28, 2012

 

Yoga Practice for Hikers: Variations on the Dragon Pose…

I recently went hiking/trail running with a buddy of mine who had been hitting the trail pretty hard over the course of a couple of weeks.  He’s never been big on stretching and was starting to feel it.  Prior to our hike, he mentioned needing to find some stretches he could do to open up his hips a little bit.  I suggested a couple of things and quickly walked him through a simple sequence to help relieve some of the muscle tension he’d built up in his legs and bring some flexibility back into the hip joints.  That morning I introduced him to variations of Anjaneyasana (The Low Lunge) known as the Dragon Pose.

Basic Dragon Pose...

Putting it to practice…

Now I’ll walk you through the sequence.  This is a great short sequence for stretching leg muscles and opening the hips before or after a long hike.  As always, you should start in a relaxed position (either seated or standing) and practice proper Yoga breathing until your mind is calm, focused and present.  You can actually use the beginning of the Sun Salutation sequence to get into position and I often do two or three sequences of Sun Salutation before attempting the Dragon Pose:

  1. When ready, bring your palms together at your chest, thumbs resting against your sternum (Mountain Pose). Exhale.
  2. Inhale and raise your arms stretched above your head, shoulders back and pelvis forward (slight backward bend in your spine) (Forward Salute Pose).
  3. Exhale and bend your knees slightly, bending at the waist and keeping your back straight, lower your hands to touch the mat on either side of your feet (Forward Fold Position).
  4. Inhale and move your right foot back, knee touching the floor (Lunge). – (THIS IS OUR STARTING POSITION).
  5. Make sure your left knee is aligned with the big toe of your left foot and your knee is directly above the ankle.  Point your right foot so that your right knee and the top of your right foot are resting on the ground (you may need additional padding under your knee).
  6. Exhale and slide your foot back as far as you can comfortably go while allowing your pelvis to drop toward the floor.  You should feel the stretch in your hips and groin.  Make sure to keep your hips squared to the front of your mat, don’t let your torso twist as you reach back with your right foot.
  7. Continue breathing in this position and with each exhale, try to drop your pelvis more toward the floor and deepen the stretch in your hips.  You really don’t want to hold this pose for much more than 2 or 3 minutes, but for now we want to shoot for about 10 to 15 breaths.   To advance the pose:
  8. Inhale and lift your torso bringing the back straight and chest out, shoulders back.  You can either rest your hands at your side, or rest your hands on your left thigh using them to help support the position and take some of the strain off your left knee and quad.  To deepen the position even more, you can raise your hands above your head (similar to Warrior I Pose), fingers toward the sky, while keeping your back straight, chest out and shoulders back.  Once finding your position, hold for 10-15 breaths.
  9. Exhale and lower your torso to your left thigh and bring your hands to the ground supporting your body.
  10. Inhale and slide your right knee forward slightly then curl your toes under your foot.
  11. Exhale and straighten both legs, raising your tailbone, rolling your weight to your toes and the ball of your foot then push your right heel to the ground.
  12. This position offers a great stretch of the left hamstring.  Keep your hips squared to your mat, flex the right quad and push your weight toward the right heel.  Maintain your left foot on the ground and push into your big toe.  Straightening the left leg can be difficult in this position if your hamstrings are tight, stretch as much as is comfortable and breathe.
  13. When ready, Exhale and bring your left foot back to join your right foot in Down-ward Dog, pushing your tailbone to the sky and feeling the stretch.
  14. Inhale and swing your right leg into lunge position and repeat the sequence with the other leg.

There are more variations to the Dragon that I will discuss in a future post.  For now, enjoy the freedom gained from this liberating stretch and don’t forget to Breathe!

 BONUS:

Here are further variations on the Dragon I found at YinYoga.com.  I especially like Winged Dragon and Fire-Breathing Dragon for a good hip stretch.

Alternative Dragons:

  1. The first alternative pose is a simple low lunge called Baby Dragon, as shown in the picture at the top of the page. If you like, you can rest your hands on blocks.
  2. The next option is to rest the arms or hands on the front thigh and lift the chest, increasing the weight over the hips. This is called Dragon Flying High.
  3. A deeper option, Dragon Flying Low, is to place both hands inside the front foot and walk hands forward, lowering the hips. For more depth, come down on the elbows or rest them on a bolster or block.
  4. In Twisted Dragon, one hand pushes the front knee to the side, while the chest rotates to the sky.
  5. In Winged Dragon, with hands on the floor, wing out the knee a few times, rolling onto the outside edge of that foot and then stay there with the knee low. You could come down on the elbows or rest them on a block or bolster.
  6. Overstepping Dragon exercises the ankle. From Baby Dragon, allow the front knee to come far forward and/or slide the heel backward, until the heel is just about to lift off the ground.
  7. Dragon Splits offers the deepest stretch for hip flexors. Straighten both legs into the splits. Support the front hip with a bolster under the buttock for balance and to release weight; this relaxes the muscles. Sit up tall or fold forward for different sensations.
  8. For Fire-Breathing Dragon, in any of the above variations, tuck the back toe under and lift the knee up, lengthening the leg. This puts more weight into the hips, increasing the stretch.

Gear Review: Manduka eKO SuperLite® Travel Mat…

Yoga gear and apparel provider, Manduka (@MandukaYoga) recently started a regular contest on their Facebook Page for 2012.  The nature of their “Happy YOU Year” contest is to “Tell us what you plan to do, or be, in 2012” and every day that week they were giving “a Manduka gift to help that intention become reality“.  An amazing and honorable, well-intentioned promotion that I really thought had a great message behind it.  So I entered a comment explaining my plan to bring Yoga Practice to the hiking and backpacking community to promote better health and fitness.  Well, my story won their attention on that particular day and they announced they were sending me their lightweight travel mat!  This was the perfect choice to help bring Yoga to the trail.

The eKO SuperLite® Travel Mat is made of natural tree rubber and is a 100% “biodegradable rubber that won’t fade or flake” and offers “superior grip“.  The mat is very light for a Yoga mat (2lbs) and is as flexible as a towel or blanket.  It easily folds, rolls or wraps up into any duffel, case or backpack.  They come in a variety of colors and all have the awesome “Upward Frog” Manduka logo.  The mat doesn’t offer a great deal in the way of padding, but it’s the trade-off for having the luxury of being able to take the mat virtually anywhere.

I’ve been able to use the mat several times now, some inside just to try it and some outside. I’ve only had it out on the trail once so far and I loved it.  It was just enough padding to soften the rock outcropping I used it on.  It also packed easily, I simply folded it in half and then rolled it like a bed-roll and strapped it in to the pack where the bed-roll would usually go – perfect!  I imagine being able to use it as an extra layer under an inflatable sleeping pad on overnight trips.  It would protect the inflatable from potential puncture issues and the grip would keep things from sliding around in the tent.  And it would be there waiting for me in the morning for some nice tent-side Sun Salutations!

So far I am really happy with this generous gift from Manduka and would recommend it to anyone interested in making trail-side Yoga a part of their hiking and camping experience.

Manduka eKO SuperLite® Travel Mat – $39

Manduka Sojourner Package – $60 (normally $75)

Soldier Pass and Brin’s Mesa Trails- Sedona, Arizona

Red Rocks from Soldier Pass - Sedona, Arizona

“This here…”, he said pointing to my map sprawled across the table. “..This here is the sink hole, Devil’s Kitchen.  We just came back from there.  Even if you don’t do the trail, it’s worth checking out….only a hundred yards or so up from the trailhead.”

Devil’s Kitchen is the ominous name given to the only sink hole in the Sedona area.  It sits right at the base of a small peak, known as The Sphinx, that marks the beginning of Soldier Pass Trail.  I had stopped in to what has become my regular pre-hike stop to seek trail suggestions and get updates on road and trail conditions around Sedona.  The Hike House has only been around about a year and half, but seems to have a very passionate, knowledgeable and helpful staff.  I’ve stopped in here before every hike in this area since my first hike up Mund’s Wagon Trail. As I was reviewing trail suggestions, an older couple walked in who had just returned from hiking Soldier Pass that morning and were more than happy to offer their vote for the trail.

“It’s really something to see…”, the older gentleman went on about the sink hole. “…all the rock just lying there where it collapsed probably thousands of years ago.  Worth a look.”

So, with multiple endorsements for Soldier Pass and an opportunity to make it a more substantial hike by combining the entirety of the Brin’s Mesa Trail, I folded up my trusty map and headed out.  Easily enough, the parking lot and trailhead for Soldier Pass Trail (and several connected trails) is just up Soldier Pass Road off of the main drag heading west from Sedona.  A short drive through a small subdivision delivers you to a modest, gated parking area that defines the trailhead to Soldier Pass.  It’s a well maintained dirt parking area with defined parking stalls, signs and maps but I can see how it’s dozen or so vehicle capacity would be grossly inadequate during peak season.  From what I’ve heard, this place is literally crawling with tourists hiking and biking the trails during the peak season.

Soldier Pass - Sedona, ArizonaThere were a handful of cars in the parking lot when I arrived.  Mid-morning, mid-week, off-season I didn’t expect to see a lot of people out but I knew I wasn’t going to be completely alone on the trail.  The morning was a beautiful 67 degrees when I hopped out of the truck and packed a few essentials, and non-essentials, into my new Osprey Exos34 (yes, I am testing out a new pack and so far loving it).  I slung the new pack over my shoulders and took a few minutes to adjust it properly for it’s maiden voyage then headed out.  Just as you get started there is a plaque on a boulder stating the trail was dedicated in 1995.  The trail’s construction, signage, and markers were apparently a cooperative effort between the Friends of the Forest and the Famous Red Rock Jeep Tours.  A short walk down the well maintained trail quickly brings you face to face with the Devil’s Kitchen.  I really wished I’d been properly equipped with a good wide-angle lens in order to capture the gaping hole properly.  Aside from the hole itself, the most significant feature is a huge triangular-shaped slab of stone that collapsed in one massive chunk around 1970 and is often referred to as The Grand Piano.  Contrary to the dramatic “…all the rock just lying there where it collapsed probably thousands of years ago” promise, reports are that the sink hole collapsed sometime in the 1880′s.

coffee pot from Soldier Pass - Sedona, Arizona

I spent a few short minutes trying desperately to capture the sink hole properly with my insufficient equipment before giving up and moving on to Soldier Pass Trail.  In the 1860′s and 70′s, General Crook and his men would make camp along this trail down in the wash.  They would use the area as a resting point to hunt and fish on their way up from Fort Verde (now Camp Verde) and called the area Camp Garden.  General Crook used an existing Apache trail leading up over the pass to raid the Apache food stores in an effort to roost them out of the area and coax them into moving to the Reservation.  In later years, Soldier’s Pass would be used by local ranchers to move their cattle out of the canyon and up to cooler elevations during the warmer months.

I plodded along the trail happily soaking up the late morning sun and enjoying being on the trail.  I walked right past where the Seven Sacred Pools are supposed to be…mainly because I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for and partly because there is no water this time of year.  So the Seven Sacred Pools are more like the Seven Sacred Dimples in the sandstone and were thus, missed.  There is a point about a half mile or so in where the trail seems to split.  One trail clearly heading in toward the canyon and the other trail heading up.  As I walked along Soldier’s Pass, higher along the trail I remember looking east toward several significant natural arches in the cliff-side and thinking, “damn, I wish I could get over there and check those out.”  Turns out, you can!  The trail I saw that seemed to lead into the canyon is a short hike to the arches/caves in the side of the cliff below Brin’s Mesa.  I WILL have to go back to check those out.

coffee pot from Soldier Pass - Sedona, Arizona

Soldier Pass is a relatively easy trail, the beginning of the trail is not much more than a pleasant walk in scenic country.  But the trail does reach a point where you are climbing pretty steadily to traverse the pass.  It’s at this point where the views become impressive.  Looking back the way you came, the view opens into a wide panorama of the Sedona Valley.  You get a full view down the valley into Oak Creek Canyon, across the airport plateau, and beyond.  There are also a ton of great spots to stop and have lunch, rest, enjoy the view and snap off a few pictures.  However, I imagine this area is uncomfortably crowded in the peak tourist season and I wouldn’t stop here.

Sedona Brins Mesa Trail - Sedona, Arizona

Brin’s Mesa Trail…

Once up and over the pass it’s a short slightly downhill walk to the intersection with the Brin’s Mesa Trail.  This trail climbs from FR152 on the west end up the mesa and around the ridge the that dominates the east side of Soldier Wash.  Soldier Pass Trail hits Brin’s Mesa Trail just about in the middle.  Heading right, takes you up across the mesa and down Mormon Canyon to Jordan/Cibola Trails where you can cut back to the Soldier Pass trailhead and parking area.  Heading left will take you out to FR152 and deeper into the Wilderness area.  I chose to add the miles and explore Brin’s Mesa Trail both directions, taking it out toward FR152 first and then returning back the same way past Soldier Pass and up the mesa.  Brin’s Mesa trail has a different character to the west, down the hill.  It repeatedly crosses a small tributary of Dry Creek and during the wet season would probably be a lot of fun.  As it is, the trail is very nice.  You spend most of your time in the trees, a rarity for most of Arizona, and the ground ranges from slightly rocky to soft sand.  This was an easy, quiet, pleasant hike and I found myself lost in my own thoughts, ambling freely down the trail simply enjoying the solitude.  Before I knew it I had reached FR152 and the end of the trail.  I unstrapped the pack, dug out a few snacks and plopped down on a slab of red sandstone for a quick break.  After helping a few lost hikers and bikers who weren’t quite sure where they were, I pulled my pack back on and headed up the trail.

In no time at all, it seemed, I was back at the intersection of Brin’s Mesa and Soldier Pass.  Someone had scrawled arrows in the loose dirt of the trail pointing in the direction of Soldier Pass.  Apparently, it easy to miss your turn if you are planning on heading the opposite way I went and down Soldier’s Pass.  The sign at this connection does show arrows for following both trails, so just pay attention to the signs and it shouldn’t be a problem.  I did run in to a few folks all the way at the far end of Brin’s Mesa Trail who were wondering how they missed Soldier Pass.

Getting higher up on to the Mesa you can see the remnants of trees burned out in the fire on Wilson Mountain in 2006.  Much of the undergrowth and many of the trees have started to come back, but there is still a great deal of dead sticks standing along the foothills of the mountain.  The dead trees I encountered along Brin’s Mesa are presumably casualties of the same 2006 fire.  The views from the mesa are fantastic and I found a perfect little knoll to the west of the trail that overlooks Soldier Wash Canyon to stop for a little mid-hike yoga practice.  This is the first time I have actually stopped mid-hike for yoga practice but the location was perfect and I had brought along my new light-weight Manduka travel mat just for this purpose.  The setting was perfect for it, I couldn’t pass it up.  I also found it to be incredibly effective for renewing my energy for the hike.  After my short break, I continued my hike across the mesa.  As the trail reaches the edge of the mesa, before plunging into Mormon Canyon, the view down the valley opens up again.  As before at Soldier Pass, this is the photographer’s vantage point.  Take time here to snap off a few impressive shots.

The climb descending down into Mormon Canyon was similar to Soldier Pass, it was a quick descent that mellowed out and turned into an easy path.  It quickly crawled through the trees offering glimpses of Cibola Rock and Steamboat Rock, the two dominant rock formations above this the trail.  It connects to Cibola Trail just before the Jordan Trail Parking lot.  This parking lot is paved and much larger than the Soldier Pass parking lot with bathrooms.  If the Soldier Pass lot is full, one could easily park here and traverse Cibola trail before heading up Soldier Pass.

Cibola trail is a nice short connector trail that cuts across a low pass to join Jordan Trail which I took back to the trailhead at Soldier Pass.  It starts off easy enough but has a bit of a climb in the middle to get over the pass.  It’s not difficult, nor long but it was described by an older lady I encountered on the trail as “a strenuous hike”, so I guess it’s all relative.  I ended the hike in great spirits, happy to have spent the afternoon on the trail and looking forward to a beautiful Nut Brown Ale from Oak Creek Brewery.  The perfect way to end a day of hiking in Sedona.

 

Soldier Pass to Brin’s Mesa – Red Rock Secret Mountain Wilderness.

Some trailhead parking. From Sedona take Highway 89A west to Soldier Pass Road.  There is a small, gated parking area and a Red Rock Pass purchase booth at the trailhead.  The parking area closes at 6PM.

Trail Length: 8.8 mile round-trip (as described here)
Elevation Gain: 700 feet
Difficulty: Easy to moderate
Open:
Year-round but very crowded during peak season.

 

 

Yoga Practice for Hikers: The Downward Dog vs. The Cobra Pose…

We all love our outdoor pursuits, but hiking and backpacking can put unique strain on your body.  The forward bending posture and, often, prolonged uphill climbing creates stress in the lower back, glutes, and hamstrings.  Carrying a pack, even of light weight, puts strain on the upper back, shoulders and neck.  Then there’s the usual fatigue in the calves, ankles and arches of the feet that will happen to anyone who is on their feet for long periods of time.  There are two basic Yoga Asanas (Poses) that will specifically help stretch and strengthen all of these muscle groups to help reduce the risk of injury.

Both asanas are found in the Sun Salutation sequence.  If you followed my previous Yoga Practice for Hikers article you are already familiar with the Downward-Facing Dog and the Cobra Pose as they are both an integral part of that sequence.

The Downward-Facing Dog

Downward-Facing Dog Pose...

Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana) puts focus on strengthening the upper back while also stretching the shoulders, hamstrings, calves, arches and hands.  Holding this pose and moving through this pose also work to strengthen the arms and legs.  It is also said to be beneficial for digestion and relieves headaches, back ache, insomnia and fatigue.  For our purposes, we will be focused on the muscle contraction in the upper back at the apex of the pose, and getting as much of a stretch as is comfortable in the hamstrings, calves and arches while maintaining a tight core.

The Cobra Pose

Cobra Pose...

Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana) is used to strengthen the spine and stretch out the chest, lungs, shoulders and abdomen.  At the deepest stretch in this pose it will also firm the glutes and stretch your quads.  Proper deep breathing in this pose will help to stretch and open the chest.  Cobra is supposed to stimulate the digestive organs, help relieve stress and fatigue, sooth the sciatic nerve and be therapeutic for Asthma.  We will be focused on keeping shoulders back and chest out, pushing the hips to the floor to strengthen the glutes and get a good stretch in the quads.

Alternate: The Upward-Facing Dog

Upward-Facing Dog Pose...

If you want to add focus to strengthening the arms and wrists, we can replace the Cobra Pose with Upward-Facing Dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana).  The benefits and muscles affected are similar but the Upward-Facing Dog requires pushing up and forward, with the hands firmly planted, using the arms, shoulders and upper back to hold the position.  There is a tendency to “hang” on the shoulders in this pose, which compresses the neck and lowers the chest.  Be mindful of your posture here, shoulders should be drawn back toward the tailbone lengthening the neck.  Head should be straight, looking forward, or slightly bent back.

Putting it to practice…

Now I’ll walk you through the sequence.  For those of you who have done Hindu Push-ups, this will be very similar.  As always, you should start in a relaxed position (either seated or standing) and practice proper Yoga breathing until your mind is calm, focused and present.  You can actually use the beginning of the Sun Salutation sequence to get into position:

  1. When ready, bring your palms together at your chest, thumbs resting against your sternum (Mountain Pose). Exhale.
  2. Inhale and raise your arms stretched above your head, shoulders back and pelvis forward (slight backward bend in your spine) (Forward Salute Pose).
  3. Exhale and bend your knees slightly, bending at the waist and keeping your back straight, lower your hands to touch the mat on either side of your feet (Forward Fold Position).
  4. Inhale and move your right foot back, knee touching the floor (Lunge).
  5. In pause between breaths, move your left foot back, both knees on the floor (or into Plank Position – THIS IS OUR STARTING POSITION).
  6. Exhale and raise your tailbone, straightening your arms and legs, pushing your chest toward your feet and your heals toward the ground (Downward Dog Position).  Focus on knitting your shoulder blades together, upper back tight, chest out, shoulders back and arms straight.  Keep your neck in line with your torso (spine straight).  Feel the full stretch in your glutes, hamstrings, calves and arches.  Do NOT force the stretch beyond what is comfortable.  The pose should not hurt.  You may hold this pose for several breaths if you like, but continue proper, controlled breathing with your core strong.
  7. Exhale and slowly lower your chest and nose to within an inch or two of the mat, your hands firmly planted and elbows in close to the body (Chaturanga or Four-Limbed Staff Pose).  Your knees may touch the mat if you prefer.  You can pause at this position briefly or you can glide through this pose and straight in to Cobra Pose.  If you will be moving into Upward-Facing Dog instead of Cobra, keep your legs straight here and do not let your knees touch the floor.
  8. Inhale and lower pelvis while pushing the chest up, arms supporting the posture and shoulders back (Cobra Position).  Focus on knitting the shoulder blades again with your chest out and shoulders back.  Don’t worry about forcing your back to arch uncomfortably, but focus more on keeping your shoulders back, head up, and pushing your hips to the ground.  The arch should be held using the back muscles, not by pushing with your arms (unless you are using Forward-Facing Dog here).  Feel the stretch in your quads.  If you are comfortable with it, roll off the balls of your feet and point your toes.  This will move you forward a little and deepen the stretch.  Breathe deeply in this position opening the chest and lungs.
  9. Exhale and raise your tailbone, straightening your arms and legs, pushing your chest toward your thighs again and your heals toward the floor returning to Downward Dog Position.  Repeat steps 6 through 8.

To come out of the exercise, reverse steps 1 through 5 until you are back in Mountain Pose.  This sequence is as much a strength training exercise as it is a stretch and I treat it as I would push-ups (Hindu Push-ups).  So, for pre-hike stretch I would maybe do 15 or 20 of these to warm up.  If your breathing becomes too forced and erratic, you are working too hard…reduce the reps or slow down.  Remember to maintain controlled movements, slower is better.  You should not be throwing your body into any of these postures, you should move into them naturally.  As you practice, the postures will feel more natural and comfortable as your strength and flexibility improve.

Yoga Practice for Hikers: Sun Salutation…

Young womanAs lovers of the outdoors, hikers and backpackers alike have a close, almost reverential relationship with the sun.  We love spending our days under the warmth of it’s rays, we use the sun for navigation, we plan our excursions around sunrise and sunset.  Our connection to the sun when we are outdoors is as tied to our survival as the air we breathe and the water we drink.  It is only fitting that the first posture (or asana) sequence we will review for Yoga Practice for Hikers is the Surya Namaskar, or Sun Salutation.  According to many authorities, the Sun Salutation goes back over 2,500 years to Vedic times when it was used as ritual prostration to honor the dawn.  Tradition was to perform the ritual salutation outdoors, facing the sun for a complete 108 cycles.

This is a great sequence for practice outdoors because you are mostly on your hands and feet and it can be practiced with, or without, a mat.  Find a nice quiet place, free from distraction, on relatively level ground with room for the length of your body to stretch out.  Your hands will be supporting your weight at points, so make sure the ground around you is free of sharp objects that may hurt your palms.  If practicing in the morning, it is tradition to face east toward the rising sun.

Sun Salutation

Stand, relaxed, arms at your side and your feet together.  Breathe deeply (breathing should be through the nose as described in the Three Breath Practice.)

  1. When ready, bring your palms together at your chest, thumbs resting against your sternum (Mountain Pose). Exhale.
  2. Inhale and raise your arms stretched above your head, shoulders back and pelvis forward (slight backward bend in your spine) (Forward Salute Pose).
  3. Exhale and bend your knees slightly, bending at the waist and keeping your back straight, lower your hands to touch the mat on either side of your feet (Forward Fold Position).
  4. Inhale and move your right foot back, knee touching the floor (Lunge).
  5. In pause between breaths, move your left foot back, both knees on the floor (or into Plank Position).
  6. Exhale and lower your chest and nose to the mat (Chaturanga or Four-Limbed Staff Pose).
  7. Inhale and lower pelvis while pushing the chest up, arms straight and shoulders back (Cobra Position).
  8. Exhale and raise your tailbone, straightening your arms and legs, pushing your chest toward your thighs and your heals toward the ground (Downward Dog Position).
  9. Inhale and bring your right foot forward again, left knee to the ground (Lunge).
  10. Exhale and bring your feet together, hands on the floor on either side of your feet (Forward Fold Position).
  11. Inhale and with a straight back, slowly bring your hands up above your head, shoulders back, pelvis forward (Forward Salute Pose).
  12. Exhale and return to starting position (Mountain Pose).
12 Stations of the Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskara)

12 Stations of the Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskara)

Repeat these steps with your left foot for one full cycle.  Complete at least 3 cycles.  You can repeat your Sun Salutations for as long as you like, until your body feels warm, relaxed and flexible.  There are many variations of this asana, but the point is to master breathing through the movements and practicing proper form.  Do not move so fast as to allow sloppy posture, or so slow that you can not breathe in sequence with the movements.  You should feel the full stretch of each position before allowing yourself to transition to the next one.

This asana is a fantastic full-body warm up and is often used at the beginning of many Yoga workouts to get the blood flowing, the muscles warmed up and the body ready for more advanced work.  It is also a great sequence to practice first thing in the morning to wake the body and get the blood flowing after your night’s rest.  Consider practicing this sequence in front of your tent after a night camping trail-side, or to loosen up your body after a long car ride to a remote trailhead.

And don’t forget to BREATHE!

Yoga Practice for Hikers: The Importance of Breathing…

As you sit at your computer reading this article, I want you to be conscious of your breathing.  Consciously exhale long and easy through your nose, do not force the breath, just let it escape through your nostrils.  Feel it leave your body.  Then, begin to inhale.  Bring the air in through your nose at the same pace of your exhale, slow and deliberate but not forced.  Now pause for a moment.  Try it again.  Try counting this time as you slowly exhale, try to count slowly to at least 5 or 6.  Then inhale again, use the same count as you did for your exhale.  Repeat this process, and with each breath be mindful and conscious of your breathing.

Why is the way we breathe important?  Why do we breathe like this?  Practicing breathing in this way demands our focused attention, keeping our minds engaged in the moment.  Mindful, conscious breathing increases physiological awareness.  Focused, mindful breathing also reduces stress, strengthens the respiratory system, energizes your mind and body and focuses the brain on the now.  Breathing is an integral part of Yoga Practice and these breathing techniques, when used properly, can also help us on the trail when fighting fatigue, stress or altitude.

Posture is also important as we practice breathing.  Make sure you are comfortably seated with your spine straight and your arms and shoulders relaxed.  Your head should be balanced and in line with your spine.  Make sure your pelvis is tilted in line with your spine and your weight is evenly distributed and balanced.  Chest out and strong, shoulders relaxed and core solid.  Keeping this posture, continue your breathing practice from above.  Out through the nose (count if you need to), pause, then in through the nose (counting again) and pause.  Repeat.  You should be able to feel your muscles relax with each exhale and energize with each inhale.

Your mind should be on your breathing, noticing the subtle movements in your body as you practice.  If your mind wanders (which it will at first), don’t get frustrated.  Simply refocus, gently, bringing your mind back to the task at hand.  Try this exercise from YogaEverywhere.com:

The Three Breath Practice: By Jillian Pransky

You can practice Three Deep Conscious Breaths anywhere, anytime and as often as you wish. However, when you are just starting out, it can be helpful to follow these few simple steps to enhance the effectiveness of your practice. For more seasoned yoga practitioners, please skip down and begin at #4:

  1. Please stop whatever activity you are involved in so you can give your full attention to the breath. Over time you will be able to consciously breathe in any moment – while you are walking, talking, listening, working, waiting, or even eating, however, in the beginning, it’s good to stop what you’re doing so you can concentrate more easily.
  2. You can sit in a chair or on the ground with your back relaxed, but straight or stand with your weight distributed evenly on each foot.
  3. When you are new to the practice, and if you are in a safe environment, you may close your eyes so your attention is on the breath and not on outside activities and scenery. However, eventually, you actually want to do this practice with your eyes open, aware of your environment. This way, you learn to connect to your breath as you are moving regularly from moment to moment, engaged in the world around you.
  4. Relax and take a deep breath, slowly breathing through your nose, then breathe out again through your nose. Allow your mind to follow your breath in and back out of your body. You can focus on the tip of the nose where the breath enters and leaves or you can mentally follow the breath on its complete path in to and back out of the body.
  5. After you have completely exhaled, allow another natural breath to flow in. Don’t pull or suck the breath in, it will come to you naturally. Once you have a full breath in, exhale again without forcing or pushing the breath out. Allow all of the breath to empty from your lungs without jumping ahead to the next inhale. Simply rest your mind on the breath and feel its effects; observing and sensing. Stay relaxed and allow your awareness of the breath to be soft, not heavy with concentration.
  6. Each inhalation and exhalation is one cycle. Do three cycles and allow your mind to rest fully on the breath. You may notice that your mind wanders even after the first breath. When you notice that the mind has tripped out to your to-do-list, dissecting a past conversation, or balancing your check book, just acknowledge that you’ve been distracted and gently guide your mind back to your breath. The attitude in which you guide yourself back to the breath is KEY. So when you find yourself tripping out, just be humored, and with the warmth you’d offer your best friend, guide your mind back to the flow of your next breath. (We tend to go where we feel welcomed, to relax and expand more when we are not bullied.)
  7. After getting the hang of paying attention to Three Conscious Breaths bring the practice into your every day life as often as you can. You skip parts 1-3 and jump right to 4-6. Use this Three Breath Pause through out your day in any moment, when you are walking to your office, eating lunch, in a conversation with a friend, working on your computer, waiting on a line, stuck in traffic, when ever. You will find this practice transforming your day. And, eventually, you will find the “Pause” more accessible to you in those harder moments, like when you’ve just been insulted, or your child or parent is pushing your buttons, or anytime you feel your anger or irritation building.

Proper Breathing is not only an important part of your Yoga Practice, it’s a great way to reduce stress, quiet the mind and control the body.  It brings you fully into the moment, allowing you to completely connect with the present.  Whether it’s Yoga Practice, a short hike, a quiet moment outside or an afternoon at a breathtaking vista…mindful, conscious breathing can put you in the right mindset for a deeper, more meaningful experience.

Tips for the Yoga Beginner

As I start out with posting Yoga Practice for Hikers over the coming months, I want to filter in some advice and tips from the experts.  For beginners, the idea of starting a Yoga Practice can be intimidating.  The underlying tone in the advice given over and over again is to have a sense of humor, enjoy yourself and find your own reward in the act of doing.
 
Below is some great advice found at the Whole Living Blog.

Tips for the Yoga Beginner

Body+Soul, October 2007

New to yoga? Notable yoga experts offer these 5 tips.

1. “Along with your yoga mat and your towel, bring a sense of humor to class. Students who get hung up on doing everything ‘perfectly’ are less likely to come back.”
–Seane Corn, creator of the Vinyasa Flow Yoga DVD series and national yoga ambassador for YouthAIDS

2. “Don’t force your way into yoga. Adapt your movements to accommodate your level of strength and stamina, so that you avoid injury and feel comfortable in every pose.”
–Baron Baptiste, founder of Baptiste Power Vinyasa Yoga

3. “Watch out for what I call ‘self mutilation’ — spending your time talking to yourself about what you can’t do. This will make your practice dismal. The more you stay connected to feeling the pose — to breathing into the pose — the better your experience will be.”
–Ana Forrest, founder of Forrest Yoga

4. “To jump-start your practice, go on a yoga retreat. By temporarily shelving all the distractions in your normal life, you’ll learn enough in just two or three days to make a big difference in your weekly yoga class experience.”
–Richard Faulds, former president of Kripalu

5. “When you get to class, keep an open mind. Tune in to your own infinite possibilities. And drink water.”
–Guruatma Singh Khalsa, co-owner of Franklin Yoga and yoga instructor for 32 years

Introduction to Yoga Practice for Hikers…

The outdoors is good for mind, body and soul...and so is Yoga...

Hiking  and backpacking is fantastic exercise.  For many, though, it’s also an opportunity for injury.  Hiking over the rugged, uneven terrain we love puts specific strain on the tendons and joints in our legs, causes muscle fatigue and forces a forward leaning posture that is very hard on the long muscles of the back.  The additional challenge of carrying weight in a backpack magnifies our potential for injury.  Creating an even bigger problem, many of us have day jobs that keep us bound to an office chair staring at a computer screen.  This combination of sedentary work mixed with active outdoor pursuits can lead to torn muscles, strained tendons, and pinched nerves.  With a little off-trail conditioning and post-hike stretching using basic Yoga movements, we can reduce our risk of an injury that can force us off the trail for good.

Yoga has, in one form or another, been around for over 5,000 years.  Believed to have been introduced to the West in the 1800′s, it’s gained popularity in recent decades as a way to improve overall health, sharpen mental focus and reduce stress.  Of the 8 steps attributed to Classical Yoga typically physical exercise (asana), breathing techniques (pranayama) and meditation (pratyahara) are the general focus of Modern Western Yoga.  Yoga has been proven to increase physical strength, build stamina and improve cardio-vascular health.  The combination of slow, focused movements and controlled breathing allows us to exercise systems in the body that don’t otherwise see much action.  For all active people, but hikers and backpackers specifically, Yoga offers a great way to maintain the strength we need for the climb, while also improving balance, flexibility and recovery time.

Starting in January, I will make Yoga Practice for Hiking a regular part of my Blog.  I will be introducing new forms and movements with step by step instructions, explanations and some tips and tricks.  I’d also like to include some pictures and video for reference but that part may have to wait.  For those of you who are new to Yoga, I will go over some of the basics here to get us started.

Where to Practice…

Anyplace where it is quiet and without distraction.  I like to have my morning stretch in the backyard on the patio.  I get up early and start my morning coffee, while it’s brewing I take a few minutes to go outside and stretch.  Warming up my muscles, soaking up the morning sun, breathing in the crisp morning air while I wait for my coffee is the perfect way to wake up.  For post-hike stretching, a quiet trailhead or parking lot or even an open picnic area is all you need.

When to Practice…

As I mentioned, I like to stretch in the morning when I get up.  I also try to stretch a few times throughout the say because I spend my days working behind a desk.  So, for me, whenever I start to feel my muscles stiffen up or my back or neck start to ache, it’s a good time to stretch.  It’s also recommended a good stretch after any extensive exercise.

What do I need…

You really don’t need anything special.  I have a very basic Yoga Mat, I make sure I have loose comfortable clothes that won’t restrict movement and a towel.  Other than that, all you really need is a distraction free location, time to complete the routine and a plan.

Why are we doing this…

Very simply put, Yoga will improve performance and reduce the potential for injury.  Athletes at all levels of competition have experienced increased performance with the addition of Yoga to their training regiment.

How do I know if I’m doing it right…

I’m really going to try to make sure I explain the process clearly.  The rest is practice.  The important thing is being aware of your body and paying attention to how you feel.  If something hurts, or doesn’t feel right…stop.  Focus on breathing through the movements and transition slowly from one position to another.  Practicing slow, deliberate movements while keeping your core tight and your breathing controlled will allow us to get the most out of every exercise.

If you follow along with me, we are learning together.  I have some experience with Yoga and have taken several classes, followed a few video workouts and have done a fair amount of research on the subject.  I am, by no means, an expert.  I plan to pursue this subject as a learning process and will be consulting with experienced Yogi’s, Yoga instructors and instructional books to determine which movements and combinations will have the greatest advantage to hikers and backpackers.  I want to try to provide suggestions for basic everyday routines, post-hike routines as well as therapeutic exercises for when injuries do happen.

If you have any specific problem areas or post-hike discomfort, let me know so we can look for a way to work through it.