Thursday, May 7, 2009

Trance and Altered States in Rock Climbing and Yoga

Lauren Scheiwe

My objective was to search for altered states and trance in the everyday. For the purpose of exploring these within rock-climbing and yoga I decided to exercise two forms of research. For the climbing I observed and interviewed participants and chose a more empirical form of research for yoga by participating myself. The first of these was rock climbing. I have been fortunate enough to meet two brothers who were willing to participate in my study. The eldest brother has been climbing for over three years, the younger for two. Both have climbed and done bouldering indoors and outdoors. The second activity I observed and partook in was Hatha Yoga. I chose a local not-for-profit yoga centre where I had previously been a member and who were willing to take part in my research.

Rock Climbing
As I watched the boys climb, I saw them climb the most difficult climbs with more ease than I could ever imagine. Well at least more ease than I could imagine myself doing, as I had discovered a year or so earlier when my pathetic attempts to climb even the most basic climbs made me realise it’s really not as easy as it looks. Yet here they were speeding up the wall like little spider monkeys. At that point for the interest of the study and out of a sense of my own inadequacy, I decided to look past their athleticism and search for the meaning and source of transcendence behind the activity.

Whilst writing about his vision runs, Rob Schultheis (1996) mentions the Chinese Taoists and their concept of ‘wu wei’, “doing without doing”. To me there was an obvious element of this involved in rock climbing, as during their climbs, the brothers wore such peaceful expressions combined with a light air of determination. To me it seemed it was as if they knew a secret, a serene passageway to the top, which required simply the patience to see. They had already been climbing for two hours by the time I arrived, yet they still had the energy and determination to complete most of the courses effortlessly, or so it seemed to me.

Schultheis (1996) also mentions that the Hopis (Native North Americans) used extreme forms of running as a deliberate way to power. I wondered how climbing compares to this. According to Schultheis the Hopis had 15 foot races annually, each with its own divine purpose and with elaborate symbolic underpinnings like; prayers, preparatory fasts, abstinence from sex and powerful body paint and clothing. I could see no evidence of body paint nor ‘special’ clothing and the other factors were perhaps best left to my imagination, as they didn’t seem like appropriate questions to ask.

I did however briefly interview the elder of the two brothers. When asked about thought processes during climbs he told me that, the focus is purely on the task at hand and that sequence, for him is predominant. He also said that there is an element of control in terms of consciously ‘switching on’ the muscles required to reach the objective, especially in relation to the more difficult steps within the sequence that require more proficiency and/ or fortitude. He spoke about energy conservation and endurance, saying; “ It’s possible to regain energy in rest spots. These occur when repetition has afforded you the time and opportunity to rest briefly before tackling the next, more difficult part of the sequence.” He also spoke of reaching a point where it was no longer necessary to switch on certain muscles therefore doing without doing and reaching a trance state where it’s “just you and the climb”.

In his article, New Perspectives of Self, Nature and Others (1995), Peter Martin speaks of seeing cliffs as playing fields. I think now I can see how this may be possible for people have that type of passion and zeal. He does however, also cite a beautiful poem by Bill Neidjie, which I was inspired by and think it expresses the oneness and the connection of humans to nature marvellously.

Rock stays,
Earth stays,
I die and put my bones in cave and earth.
Soon my bones become earth…
all the same.
My spirit becomes my country…
my mother.
                                                            Bill Neidjie (1986) Kadadu Man

The name hatha yoga has two roots, ‘ha’ (sun) and ‘tha’ (moon) and of course yoga which is derived from the root ‘yuj’ which means, to join. These symbolically refer to the flowing breath from right nostril ‘sun breath’ and the left ‘moon breath’ thus hatha is the unification of these two breaths (Bernard, 1967).

Because it had been two years since I last practiced yoga, I took a friend with me for moral support. As we entered the room and joined the group, I noticed the minimal light and how it created a safe, calm and warm environment. There was also soothing Indian music playing featuring the sitar, which had an immediate calming effect. When our group had settled on our mats, we began a short private meditation. From there our instructor lead us through breathing exercises and more meditation. First we focussed on our breathing and drawing air deep into our stomachs, then into our chests. The focus on this repeated activity put me in the zone for meditation.

The breathing also put us in the right state for our yoga practice. Beginning with slow careful stretches we then moved into more dynamic movements and patterns. Our breathing was in harmony with our movements and by this stage the breathing pattern was relaxed, automatic and required no monitoring. However at one stage during our session my conscious mind snuck in and tormented me saying, “Oh come on, do you really have time for this? There are so many things you should be doing, can you really justify this?” I quickly told my fully conscious self to leave me alone, and pushed it so far away that I could hear nothing at all. I found once again that through repetition and flow my mind was released.

Sound also plays an interesting part in yoga practice. Allowing the sounds not to register but still to accept them is important, especially when it’s not possible to be somewhere silent. I enjoyed noticing all of the individual sounds become one comforting continuous buzz then eventually disappearing. This reminded me of when I meditate in nature, as it’s almost the same process. Allowing the breeze, chirping of birds, scurries of animals and the trickling of water to unify as one peaceful sound. Now in the city with the bustle, the sound of passing traffic and distant voices play the same role and become indistinguishable. Although I feel more of a connection with nature and find the sounds much more pleasant and organic, I was pleased that I still found it possible within these surroundings.

There was a definite feeling of transcendence attained during my yoga practice, although I only became fully aware of this once we had completed our session and done another meditation and breathing exercise. As I got up from my mat, and for some time afterwards, I felt as though I was awakening from a deep restful sleep, still in a dream world whilst reality was slowly seeping in.

Through the process of observing rock climbing and experiencing yoga, I’ve come to conclude that there is a real presence of trance and altered states in both.


Bernard, T. (1968) Hatha Yoga, The Report of a Personal Experience. London: Rider.

Horst, E. (2003) How to Climb 5.12. Connecticut: The Globe Pequot Press.

Martin, P. (1995)
Martin.pdf. New Perspectives of Self, Nature and Others. Retrieved May 2, 2009.

Schultheis, R. (1996) Bone Games : Extreme Sports, Shamanism, Zen, and the Search for Transcendence. New York, N.Y: Breakaway Books.

Singh, P. (1974) The Hatha Yoga Pradipika: Sacred Books of the Hindus. New York: AMS Press.

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