Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Rock Climbing as a Transformative Practice

In the world of spirituality and psychology I often see references to people’s “daily practice.” Spiritual leaders and therapists will ask you “do you have a daily practice?” Usually they are referring to meditation, yoga, martial arts or the like. The general thinking goes that in order to grow spiritually, or personally, you need some sort of structured practice that provides the medium to experience a state of presence that will ultimately lead to higher consciousness. So why can’t rock climbing be considered a daily practice?

Rock climbing is similar to yoga or martial arts in that all three have surface level athletic components (techniques, training, etc.). One could practice yoga or martial arts (or rock climbing) for the workout alone and never fully get into the philosophical side of the practice. The difference is that yoga and most martial arts already have a religious or philosophical discipline built into the practice that a practitioner can explore if they want to. Rock climbing has similar philosophical components but no official structure or discipline in which to acknowledge or nurture these internal experiences.

But really, what does rock climbing have to teach us that could be considered transformative? Outdoor education programs have known for years that utilizing rock climbing experiences with their students often results in profound transformations – and these are usually just one time experiences. What could open up as possible outcomes if rock climbing were used deliberately on a more long term basis?

I have considered many of my experiences with rock climbing to be transformative over the years. From climbing I have developed a greater self knowledge, a greater sense of awareness of space and self, increased self-esteem, an ongoing feeling of accomplishment, community and a strong connection to the outdoors. For me, these developments have contributed to growth in other areas of my life. They have transferred into my work as a therapist, into my personal relationships, and how I carry myself in general (balance, self-awareness, and confidence in my physical abilities).

What would a structured spiritual discipline look like in rock climbing? I don’t know the answer to this question. I can think of plenty of scenarios that seem more like a joke or parody of this question then a serious thoughtful answer. Maybe rock climbing isn’t ready for something like this? It might have a hard time shaking its adrenaline junky image. Or maybe rock climbers are not ready for something like this? Or maybe it’s just me. Since nothing like this exists yet (as I know it) then it’s hard for me to imagine what it would look like.

What has been your experience? Could you (or do you already) utilize the transformative lessons that rock climbing has taught you and apply it to the rest of your life?

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Why Climb?

Red Rocks While on my recent vacation and break from posting to the blog I was asked, “Why do you climb?” Pretty deep question when I think about it. Usually people ask me something more on the surface like, “How did you get into rock climbing?” or “What do you like the most about rock climbing?” Did this person really understand that I could go on and on about why I climb? I spared them the 40 minute lecture and made a mental note to write about it instead.

I asked my boyfriend, Trevor, why he climbs. He replied, “It’s good exercise.” Really? That’s it? Yep, that was it. For me, that is just the start. Of course climbing is good exercise. You gotta hike in and carry a huge backpack of gear just to get to the base of the climb. Then while climbing you have to utilize every muscle in your body in order to get to the top. But for me, the physical benefits are an added bonus to the mental side of climbing. The mental side is of course why I climb.

I wondered why other people climb. I tried searching online for other articles about why people climb. I came across the usual reasons like good exercise, get to see beautiful places, love the friendships you have with your climbing partners, etc. I agree with all of these reasons. But there is more for me. What’s interesting is that the reason I climb has changed and evolved several times over the years.

When I started rock climbing I got hooked because every time I climbed I seemed to improve. I could do a move or finish a route that I couldn’t do the last time I climbed. It was the only sport I had participated in that provided me with such immediate and tangible feedback. It was fun and challenging and that was enough of a reason to say why I climbed.

As the accomplishments grew so did the supporting variables like getting to travel to cool places to climb, getting involved in the climbing community, making great friends; all components that rounded out and cemented my identity as a climber.

Then, the overuse injury happened.

I first tore my rotator cuff back in 1997 – out for six weeks. That steady increase in improving my climbing ability came to a screeching halt. As any climber who has experienced an injury will tell you: getting back in shape is a bitch. Before the injury I was climbing hard. After the injury I could barely climb 5.9’s without pain. Recovery was slow; much too slow for my ego.

Turning point: Do I humbly take the time to recover and come back to climbing? Or move on to the next sport that will stroke my ego?

That one turning point changed why I climb forever. I chose to be patient and humble and build back my accomplishments ever so slowly. More importantly, I chose to climb for the sake of climbing and not just for the accomplishments. I chose to climb because I enjoyed it and stopped climbing to fulfill my drive or ambition to be a great climber. That drive was still there but it wasn’t the leading reason that kept me climbing. You could say that I became more detached from the outcome. It wasn’t that I didn’t care. It was more that I was recognizing a depth to the sport that perhaps I overlooked before; a depth that I couldn’t see when I focused on the ratings.

Not attaching my self-worth to the outcome meant I started noticing subtleties of the sport that I didn’t notice before. Having to recover from an injury meant needing to develop a higher level of body awareness to avoid re-injury. I began noticing more of how a move feels in my body or how a route feels as a whole. I started having more fun learning sequences of moves like a dance routine. I started climbing routes because they were 5 star routes rather than projects I needed to check off my list. In short, I started climbing for the sake of climbing.

What at first seemed like a cop out on the surface turned into a gold mine. After I detached myself from the outcome, the accomplishments actually came a lot easier and faster. I recovered from my injury and came back climbing harder than I was before it. The injury actually served as an excellent opportunity for growth.

So why do you climb? No, really, why do you climb? Not the surface reason but the underlying reason? Does it stroke you ego? Or do you climb for the sake of climbing?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Yin and Yang Integration

Men and women climb differently. They move differently, learn differently, process information differently and mentally approach climbing all together differently. Yet, both can climb the same climb and you may not notice much of a difference at all in their internal processes when the outcome is the same. Now before I get a bunch of emails about being sexist or stereotyping, let me explain.

Men and women bring different strengths and different ways of being and knowing to climbing. Both feminine and masculine styles are valuable in knowing and understanding to help your climbing grow. Understanding both styles can help you assess where your own climbing is at and where it may need to go in order to grow and get past a plateau. When we are stuck in our climbing development we often need to broaden our perspective and apply what is missing in order to get unstuck. Thinking about different climbing styles is one of those perspectives.

Having a feminine or masculine style of climbing is not limited to what sex you are. I have known lots of women climbers who embrace a more masculine style of climbing (think muscular boulderers). And I have known male climbers with more grace and subtlety than their female counterparts. Whatever style you seem to inhabit most often is fine – until you reach a plateau. A plateau may indicate that you are developing too much of one style over the other and you have lost a key balance that is needed to keep growing both physically and mentally.

Different rock climbing styles are best likened to the Chinese concept of Yin and Yang. Wikipedia says “Yin and yang are complementary opposites within a greater whole. Everything has both yin and yang aspects, although yin or yang elements may manifest more strongly in different objects or at different times. Yin and yang constantly interacts, never existing in absolute stasis… Though they are opposing, they are not in opposition to one another.”

Climbing has many yin and yang components that we juggle and balance each time we go climbing (see Table 1).

Yin and Yang Table by Rana Betting Climbs may draw upon different components depending on the rock and the route. For example, I find crack climbing to be more masculine (yang) in its approach. Grunting up cracks often leaves me feeling like I lack grace in my movements. But if I get on a bolted face climb (more yin) then I feel my movements open up and the feeling of grace returns. It doesn’t mean that cracks cannot be climbed gracefully. Anyone who has ever watched a video of Steph Davis climbing a crack knows it can look graceful. It just means that I have a hard time climbing them gracefully. I have over developed my face climbing yin skills and I need to consciously develop more of my crack climbing yang skills to compensate and grow. How about you? Where in the balance of yin and yang climbing styles could you use a little more growth or development?

We may also be unconsciously drawn to a style of climbing that best fits with a way we already relate to the world. Assessing the levels of yin and yang in our personality as a whole may give us some clues as to why our climbing development may be stuck. Think of your career or your relationships. Do they have more yang qualities than yin? Or more yin qualities than yang? This information could correlate to your climbing style. Climbing reflects life. Life reflects climbing.

That last concept will be one that I come back to again. I believe that climbing has a lot to teach us about our life in general. But I also believe that our climbing often reflects the chaos or peace in our lives. How is it reflecting yours right now?