What do rock climbing and Yoga have in common? Well, just about everything. According to Heidi Wirtz, a professional climber and yogi, both climbing and Yoga both improve coordination, dexterity, range of movement, balance; and both build and tone muscles, core strength, and mental and physical focus. The only difference is that climbing takes place in the vertical world, while Yoga inhabits the horizontal plane.
Wirtz—dubbed “Heidi Almighty” by fellow climbers—has practiced both disciplines in tandem for the past 18 years. Originally attracted by the opportunity to spend time in the mountains, she began climbing 20 years ago. Since then she has climbed ice and rocks in North and South America, North Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Among her many accomplishments, Wirtz, along with climbing partner Vera Schulte-Pelkum, have set women’s speed records for the regular route on Yosemite’s Half Dome, as well as the infamous Nose route on El Capitan, obliterating the speed record on the latter by four hours.
But it is climbing’s personal rewards that keep Wirtz traveling the world in pursuit of vertical challenges. “It is a full body workout that will bring challenges both physically and mentally, which can be truly rewarding. I also personally love the fact that it takes you to beautiful places outside, and that there is such a strong community surrounding the climbing world,“ she says, and then adds, “Oh, and it is super fun!”
About 18 years ago, Wirtz began seeing an acupuncturist. Having been a passenger in several car accidents while in high school, she suffered from chronic back pain and sciatica. Wirtz’s back problems prompted the acupuncturist to encourage her to begin practicing Yoga as a way of maintaining spinal health. She bought a Yoga book and began practicing in her living room. Within a month she found an Ashtanga teacher, Jill Barr, who she studied with for the next seven years. She has since studied with Tim Miller, David Swenson and Patabhi Jois. Now a resident of Boulder, Colorado, Wirtz attends Richard Freeman’s classes—when she’s not on a climbing adventure.
Whether she’s at home or traveling, Wirtz is committed to consistent Yoga practice. “I try and do Yoga at least three days a week, even when traveling, though sometimes it is hard to find a good space,” she says. “It is always easier to have a steady practice when I am home.” Her practices run anywhere from 40 minutes to two hours.
Wirtz believes Yoga supports her passion for climbing, as well as enriching other areas of her life. “I don’t think that I would actually be all that mobile without Yoga,” she says. “It has taken care of my bad back and helped to keep me from getting injured. I feel that it has improved my balance, coordination, flexibility, core strength as well as improving my focus and clarity, all of which are huge keys for climbing.”
As with most of us who practice Yoga, Wirtz enjoys the mental benefits of practice as well as the physical. “Besides keeping me flexible and limber, it keeps my head more clear, especially when combined with meditation. I feel more grounded and mellow from Yoga.”
While most asanas cultivate the skills needed for rock climbing, Wirtz has a special affinity for two of them: Garudasana (Eagle Pose) and Parsvottanasana. As for Garudasana, she says, “It strengthens and stretches the ankles, calves, thighs, hips, shoulders and upper back all of which you use a lot in climbing. It also improves balance and concentration. I also like that you can bust this pose almost anywhere.” And Parsvottanasana (Intense Side Stretch) develops many climbing-related skills simultaneously in a single pose. “I love the wrist and hand stretch that you get, as well as releasing hamstrings, opening chest, lengthening spine and improving balance,” she says.
Wirtz’s climbing career has also given her the opportunity to practice karma yoga, the yoga of service. In 2006, she traveled to Pakistan with climbing partner Lizzy Scully to scale some walls off the Biafo Glacier. After Scully was injured during the climb, the pair decided to visit Khane, a remote village in the Hushe Valley of Northern Pakistan. Moved by the deplorable conditions at the girls’ school there, the two formed a non-profit organization, Girls Education International, to raise funds to upgrade the girls’ school, provide new supplies and hire a qualified teacher. The organization aims to improve educational opportunities for girls and women living in mountainous regions around the world. For more information on this project you can visit their website.