Book review: Exploring how yoga can complement the outdoor experience
High Country News
Yoga for Hikers
238 pages, softcover: $16.95
Photography by Erika Schultz
The Mountaineers Books, 2016
“Yoga for Hikers” opens with the author, Nicole Tsong, a yoga-skeptical, Alaska-living outdoorswoman, having just moved from Anchorage to the big city, Seattle. Irritable from traffic and urban life, distraught by a lack of access to nature, she takes up yoga on a whim as a coping mechanism. It also is an alternative to half-hearted attempts to train during the hiking off-season.
The new practice proved its effectiveness during Tsong’s first subsequent session of skate skiing, a form of cross-country skiing with skating-like propulsion.
“In the past it had usually taken me at least a month to skate ski up to about four miles in one go without pause — and here I was practically bolting up the hills the first day,” Tsong writes.
The premise of her book is simple: The connection between nature and yoga may at first glance seem tenuous, but adventurers can build strength, stability, endurance and increase recovery time by complementing their activities with yoga. To emphasize the point, one highlight of the book is interviews with outdoor athletes and professionals. Epiphanies and personal stories of conversion to yoga come from the likes of Buzz Burrell, the noted trail runner and adventurer, to Kristin Hostetter, the gear editor at Backpacker Magazine. Tsong collects testimonials from a range of trail-bound adventurers as well as scientific evidence, each extolling how yoga improves performance, heals and prevents injuries, and toughens minds to deal with challenges.
Tsong’s claims of yoga’s benefits for the hiker aren’t limited to the physical. “Yoga teaches you to listen to your body and understand when you can push and when you need to take your intensity down a notch,” she writes. Beyond the physical, yoga can enhance our understanding of and connectivity with nature, she also writes. Using Tsong’s techniques, yoga can teach us to feel the same peace, hyperawareness and emotional high of being outside, even when we have to stay indoors.
I am an avid long-distance backpacker with more than 16,000 miles on my shoes who until recently was an Appalachian Trail record holder. Yoga has helped me heal and become stronger. After a hiking-related shoulder injury six years ago, a yoga practice similar to that illustrated in “Yoga for Hikers” helped me recover. Like the trekkers highlighted in “Yoga for Hikers,” I’ve found that regular practice in the offseason has made me more aware of my body and its needs. Admittedly, when I’m hiking I never seem to find enough time for “on-trail” sequences like those described at the end of the book. Yet I believe the classes described in the book can help hikers “get to the next level” and feel more confident with their bodies in the outdoors.
The book’s audience ranges from the wouldn’t-be-caught-dead-in-a-yoga-studio hiker to the experienced yogi seeking targeted poses. Unlike many other yoga books, “Yoga for Hikers” shows photos of real people practicing in nature — not glamour yogis. The goal of the book clearly is to make everyone feel comfortable practicing yoga to reach peak physical and mental performance.
Tsong answers the questions those new to yoga often are afraid to ask, and provides extensive details for those with more knowledge of the practice. She starts from scratch, explaining everything from equipment needed to set up your home practice, to common challenges in each pose or to how to choose a class when you want an instructor to push you further.
Recognizing that yoga can be daunting, especially for people who prefer to be alone in the woods, the bulk of the book spells out three full at-home yoga classes. Tsong details nearly 70 poses in simple language that someone who has never taken a yoga class can understand. For each pose, she shows how each exercise applies to the physical demands of the trail, with special emphasis on hiker-specific injuries like Achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis.
In addition to guiding readers through two strengthening classes and one recovery class, Tsong dedicates a chapter to practicing outdoors and includes two shorter “classes” to take to the trail and repeat during breaks and in camp.
“Yoga for Hikers” seeks to convert the most yoga-skeptical outdoorsperson and, thanks to the author’s voice, does it in way that is patient, thorough and kind. Tsong seems to know a secret to the outdoor experience that can be unlocked through yoga and challenges readers to look beyond the sometimes intimidating yoga-pant-laden stereotype.
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