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December 8, 2021

Trusting our Instincts—& other Life Lessons from Rock Climbing.

rock climbing lesson

Mostly yoga is my jam.

But when I started teaching at a rock climbing gym, I got a complementary climbing membership. I’d been thinking about trying rock climbing for ages—well, I’d been saying that in my OkCupid profile for ages. But now I finally did it.

Rock climbing’s hard! It’s sometimes scary, but it’s fun too.

And just like yoga, I can extrapolate lessons about life:

1. Going up can sometimes be a lot easier than getting back down.

With bouldering at least, you basically climb up to a height of maybe fifteen feet, then climb down—no ropes, harnesses, or climbing partners required. Springy padded floors cushion a fall, but it’s still not recommended to just jump down, at least not more than a handful of feet. And there’s something disconcerting about just losing your grip and falling.

I’ve learned a few new strategies for climbing, like using a little momentum to reach sideways to catch the next grip—but it can be a completely different action to go back down. So, I have to think not only about how to get to the top, but how it’s going to go climbing down. Sometimes I don’t go up because I’m not sure how I’ll come down. Usually though, I just try, and I can get down safely, even if it’s scary. I’ve even fallen a few times, but I’m still here.

In life, it can be easy to go into something, but coming out of it gracefully is a completely different skill. Starting a romantic relationship is beautiful and exciting, but it’s hard, for me at least, not to be conscious of the pain that can come if things don’t work out. How will I cope? What will I do? Just like in climbing, it’s wise to consider my descent, not just my ascent, but also have faith that I’ll figure it out.

2. Sometimes I need to rely on my best instinct.

To some extent I look at the wall and the route, and think where my hands will go—but once I’m up there, that takes too long. Right hand, left hand, right foot, left foot, which grip to reach for? There’s balancing happening, not to mention strength, and if I take too long, I’ll fall down. I have to be present in the moment and use my best instinct.

Humans have incredibly well developed logical brains—this is one thing that distinguishes us from animals. Our powerful logical brain helps us, but so do our instinctual or emotional brains. Yet sometimes, the logical brain is so dominant that it inhibits a helpful response from our instinctual brain. 

One amazing example is summarized here by Peter A Levine, PhD, who talks about befriending our bodily sensations in order to heal from trauma.

Rock climbing is just rock climbing, no one is saying it’s an antidote to trauma, but putting ourselves in real but safe situations that require us to use instinct, is a great way to practice tuning into instinct in real life. We already know that we can’t always reason through situations—sometimes we have to trust our gut, it’s just hard to do it.

3. Trying again when I’m scared, even if I still don’t succeed.

I don’t have to finish every climbing route I take on. Falling just a little bit, even without injury is scary. I sweat, my heart starts racing, I think about people watching me and judging my abilities. But I can also press myself to try again when I’m scared, and that matters, even if I still can’t finish a route.

Routes are color coded by difficulty level, and I mostly stick to the two “easiest” colors. Sometimes even those I can’t figure out, or they look impossible. Where do my hands and feet even go? Plenty of them I try anyway, and I really cannot get far. But I press myself to try at least once, or a second time if I fall, to put my hands on the starting points and get my feet on the wall. And that’s something—putting yourself out there when you’re not sure what to do or how things will go—both in climbing and in life.

Climbing won’t be for everyone, but it might be for you. Many gyms are making an effort to be inclusive and welcome everyone, including those of us who might have felt like climbing wasn’t for us. You don’t need experience. You can take an introductory class and give it a go. See what you learn about yourself!

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