To look in most climbing gyms, with people grunting and shouting, lunging for holds and falling, you might not get the impression that mindfulness, a state of calm awareness, played much of a role in the sport. In fact, cultivating this sense of awareness is not only integral to improvement in climbing, but climbing itself can be a means to develop a quiet, centered, mind—both on and off the rock.
Following are six exercises that will help develop mindfulness through climbing. They have the added benefit of dramatically improving your climbing technique as well.
The easiest way to climb more mindfully is to simply slow down. Find a route you have climbed before or one that is comfortably within your ability. While climbing, focus on each movement, giving conscious attention to the feeling in your arms and hands, feet and legs. Note how your balance shifts and how each hold feels. If you are having trouble slowing down, try counting, so that each movement between holds takes a certain number of seconds.
Another exercise is silent climbing. This does not necessarily mean that you must quiet your breathing or stop talking, though these things don’t hurt. More importantly, however, is to ensure that your movements, particularly foot placements, don’t make any noise. This forces you to pay close attention to your feet and where you are putting them.
Really an extension of slow climbing, this exercise has you reach for a hold and pause for a certain amount of time just before you grab it. While pausing, note how your body is positioned, how your muscles and straining, and how gravity is pulling against you. When a few seconds have passed, allow yourself to grab the hold and move on the the next, pausing again just before gripping.
This is another exercise that puts the focus on your feet. Find a low-angled route and climb it while holding tennis balls in your hands. This, obviously, prevents you from pulling down with your arms and forces you to use your feet and remain conscious of your balance the entire time.
For this difficult exercise, find a route that you have climbed many times before attempting to climb it blindfolded. At first, moves that are normally easy will feel like unreasonably long reaches and your body will not know how to twist to make the route easier. With practice, however, you will learn to “feel” the route and become more aware of this feeling even when your eyes are open.
All five of the exercises above ask you, or force you, to climb slowly. While every one of them will improve your technique, too much slow climbing can actually hurt your climbing over time. After every session of slow climbing, finish with a few routes climbed quickly. You don’t need to race, simply climb slightly faster than you normally would. The challenge is to remain mindful even at this pace. While the placement of your hands and feet will become less precise, other things, like the swing of your body and the way your weight shifts between holds, will become more obvious.
Becoming more acutely aware of your body’s actions (of the way the ground feels when walking, of the way the arms stretch when reaching) is the first step to realizing that thoughts, though omnipresent, are simply thoughts and can be let go. As the Buddha famously said, “all that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.”
Conscious climbing is a route to this mindfulness; a way to become more aware of our minds and bodies. So, tie-in, chalk your hands, and climb on.