1. Learn and Practice Mindfulness
Mindfulness is "the mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique." The implementation of therapeutic mindfulness programs was first introduced in the U.S. by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s and such practices have repeatedly been shown to improve quality of life and well-being of those those with chronic pain and illnesses.
Mindfulness practices have been extensively studied by researchers and they have found that it can reduce stress, anxiety, depression, rumination/worry, and emotional distress. These findings have been demonstrated not only in those seeking medical care but also in a non-clinical populations as well as in healthcare workers who have some of the highest levels of work-related stress.* (It has not been shown to increase resilience and burn out in health care workers but I do wonder if the addition of a strong hiking or other outdoor fitness activity would impact that area…?)
When we practice mindfulness on the mat during a yoga class or a home routine, we train our brains to bring mindfulness into other parts of our lives. Practicing mindfulness outdoors and in motion can be a potent way to reduce stress and improve health even more than just doing one or the other. Both practices can build upon each other to really make strong positive impact on our well being. In fact, at least one study has shown that taking a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course outdoors resulted stronger mental health outcomes the same course done indoors! And that when the course was done outdoors in nature, those benefits were more likely to be sustained at one month after the course. **
2. Learn Breath Mechanics, Practice Pranayama
Pranayama is a part of yoga (one of the 8 Limbs) that involves the practice of various breathing patterns. Hiking, especially with a backpack, may lead to a less-than-ideal pattern of breathing. It may lead to chest breathing or paradoxical breath patterns. Yoga can help us recognize how we are breathing and helps us to re-establish more efficient patterns that minimize musculoskeletal tension and improve respiration.
3. Stretch and Strengthen with Asana
The physical part of yoga, called asana, can help to rebalance the body. Some poses will help to stretch the muscles that tend to get tight when hiking such as the hip flexors, gluteals, calves and chest muscles. Sometimes we can focus more on the strengthening aspects of certain yoga poses. Hikers may want to focus on strengthening the hamstrings and the whole core (not just the abs): hip rotators, spinal extensor muscles and scapula stabilizers. But usually it’s not either/or! We can often incorporate both strength and flexibility into a single pose. Or we can choose to focus more on one aspect or the other, depending on what our personal goals are for our practice on any given day.
Here's a list of recommended poses for hikers:
Focus on Strength/Stability:
High Lunge, Low Lunge
Standing Hip Swings
Focus on Stretch/Flexibility:
Straddle Forward Fold
Tabletop calf and quad stretches
Cow’s Face Arms
4. Better Balance
Yoga provides a great opportunity to work on balance, which hikers need to stay nimble and upright as we traverse uneven ground and may have limited visual input if we are hiking in low light (or moonlight!), fog or are just chatting or taking in the views.
Here are a few yoga poses that can challenge balance:
Heel lifts in Chair Pose
Don't forget to vary the sensory input while working on balance! Experiment with the eyes by changing your focal point or closing the eyes. Challenge the vestibular system by turning the head to look over your shoulder, nodding yes and shaking no side to side. And challenge proprioception or the ability for the joints to feel and respond to changes in position and pressure by using a squishy surface such a thick mat or carpet, grass or soft, uneven ground.
Learning how to do restorative poses will help hikers recover from long, vigorous treks and can revitalize fatigued muscles and minimize swelling in the legs. Restorative yoga is the deliberate practice of stillness and involves supporting the body with props in order to achieve a very deep level of relaxation. Common sense and good science tell us that rest and relaxation are essential for managing pain and healing injuries.
Some restorative poses that will benefit hikers are:
Legs on the Wall
Legs on a Chair
If you want to practice yoga with me at home, here's a recording of a gentle flow class that I taught with hikers in mind. So grab a hiking pole and a block for this hour long class that will stretch and strengthen your body to prepare you for the trails or help you unwind after time outdoors: https://momence.com/Elements-PT-Yoga/video/Yoga-for-Hikers/12100
As with all class recordings, you can subscribe to have full access to all videos for $10 per month. Or each video is available to rent on a sliding scale. You choose what you would like to pay starting at $2 per class!
*Mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for psychological health and well-being in nonclinical samples: A systematic review and meta-analysis.
**Does a natural environment enhance the effectiveness of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)? Examining the mental health and wellbeing, and nature connectedness benefits