I bet you just did things you never thought you’d be able to do,” Earthworks climbing guide Matthew Fineup called up to me. That was an understatement-I was clinging onto a rock face 40 feet above solid ground, leaning off to the side, staring at tree branches, looking for my next hand-hold, and trying to gauge how long my fingers could maintain their grip. Fortunately, I was equipped with a harness, my rope anchored to the top of the rock and held by Matthew on the ground.
He shouted these words of encouragement amid the repeated refrains of “awesome,” “good job,” and “look at your feet.” These phrases were all part of Matthew’s instructional dialogue leading climbers of various ability levels as we ascended rock walls by negotiating a series of hand- and footholds.
Ascending the rock was part of a full day of YogaRocks, the collaborative effort between Earthworks and the Camarillo Yoga Center that combines outdoor rock climbing and yoga instruction. Yoga and rock climbing are naturally complementary, according to Camarillo Yoga Center owner Audrey Marcia, and the eight other participants on my excursion-all of them repeat yoga-climbers-wholeheartedly concurred. They recounted such benefits as increased flexibility and an enhanced ability to focus and relax on the rock by drawing attention to their breath.
To prepare us for the climb, Audrey guided us through a yoga session that blended relaxing breathing techniques with postures that stretched the soon-to-be-taxed muscles of our arms, legs, and back. With this preparation, we would be able to scramble more nimbly up the rock. Then we geared up with harness, helmet, and very tight, rubber-soled shoes.
My first ascent was harrowing. I’m afraid of heights, a fact that became more apparent each time I hoisted myself up to another level of holds. I’m certain my heart was beating three times as fast as my normal resting rate. It took all of my attention to simultaneously negotiate the rock and remember to breathe. But somehow, the imprinting of the initial yoga session stuck, and I did continue to breathe. I even made it to the top of the rope.
Then the fun began, as I had to let go of the rock and rappel down it. Even though I was fully secured, letting go of the rope and leaning back while perched 60 feet in the air seemed counterintuitive to survival. “Breathe, breathe, breathe,” I kept reminding myself, realizing that the yoga of rock climbing is continual breaths.
Each ascent became progressively easier, as I remembered to breathe and felt more comfortable shifting my weight from quarter-sized toeholds to tiny cracks on the cliff. With each ascent, I felt the chattering of muscles seldom-used becoming more fatigued as the day continued.
As if scaling rock walls wasn’t challenging enough, Matthew dared the group to don a blindfold to ascend one of the routes. He promised it would provide an entirely different climbing experience. It did.
Phil, who is studying to become a guide himself, was the first to put on the blindfold. His swaying dance up the cliff would have put Spider-Man to shame. Inspired, I tried the blindfold, but untied it and flung it off halfway up the rock, since it left me a bit too disoriented. Indy photographer Paul Wellman, though, set down his camera, tied on the designated bandana, and reached the top of the rock, blindfold and body fortunately intact.
Framing the day with yoga practice at the beginning and end of the climb provided a physical warm-up and cooldown for the strenuous excursion on the rock. It also added a contemplative element. Toward the end of the day in the quiet Sespe wilderness outside Ojai-blue skies overhead with hillsides and ridges rimming the horizon-taking the time to pause and breathe was a reminder that we were here not only to challenge our physical and mental limits, but to enhance our relationship with nature.
Earthworks Rock Climbing School and Camarillo Yoga Center cosponsor YogaRocks at various locations throughout Santa Barbara, Ojai, Ventura, and the surrounding rocky regions. For more information, visit earthworksclimbing.com or call 320-2739.