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Yoga on the Rocks

Local mixologists whip up an alcohol-free cocktail of mental and physical exercise.

By Matt Kettmann

 

reathe deeply. Drop into Downward-Facing Dog. Now scramble up the steep mountain.

Camarillo Yoga Center’s Audrey Walzer illustrates the simple essence of YogaROCKS.

Such is the quick progression of YogaROCKS, a Ventura County-based outdoor fitness class that combines the stretching and spiritualism of yoga with the physical challenge and adventure of rock climbing. Run by Audrey Walzer, the owner of the Camarillo Yoga Center, and Matthew Fienup, the owner of Earthworks Rock Climbing School, YogaROCKS takes young and old—one recent trip had a seven-year-old and her 84-year-old great-grandfather—into the mountains for a full-day excursion amidst the oak trees and babbling brooks of the Los Padres National Forest. The seven-hour, $115 class begins with about 45 minutes of gentle yoga before you’re harnessed in and given the chance to climb routes ranging from easy to expert. There’s a solid break in the action for a gourmet picnic lunch and, better yet, says Walzer, participants are constantly surrounded by “positive, supportive, and loving energy.”

That support is crucial in both yoga, where newbies are often timid due to hippy-dippy misconceptions, and climbing, where fear of heights and strength concerns could usually be considered serious hurdles. Not so in YogaROCKS.

YogaROCKS combines the tranquility of nature, the intensity of rock climbing, and the focus of yoga.

When it comes to the yoga, Walzer says that she doesn’t teach “white leotard” or “pretzel” yoga. Rather, Walzer teaches techniques that can be easily duplicated by participants at home. “Everything we do is just joint mobilization,” she said one recent afternoon beneath a climbing site in the wooded hills above Montecito. Walzer, who’s taught yoga for over 25 years and was a coach in the 1976 Olympics, explained that she also uses the surroundings to aid in the practice, whether that means leaning against a tree or bending over a rock. “We gear it to the group,” she said. “I don’t want people to be turned off.”

“It’s just like what we do for climbing,” Fienup chimed in. “We teach the basic steps to the group, and then go one-by-one to each participant and tweak it.” That attentive model allows those who want to push it—whether by deeper stretching or higher climbing—to do so, but doesn’t put the pressure on those who want to take it easy. “We have the technical background to challenge people who are gifted, but, at the same time, we are able to create tremendous success for people who aren’t as gifted,” said Fienup, who himself grew up with a “paralyzing” fear of heights. “Climbing was the hardest thing I ever had to do,” he explained, adding, “Most climbing schools just tolerate people who aren’t as gifted or are afraid of heights. Those are our favorite clients.”

Currently, YogaROCKS uses one of four climbing spots: The Foot and John’s Portero, both near Ojai, and Gibraltar Rock and San Ysidro Creek, in the mountains above Santa Barbara. All of the spots are perfect for both beginners and experts, each offering more “user-friendly” options than Yosemite and Joshua Tree, said Fienup, his fingertips still hurting from a weekend on the craggy rocks of Joshua Tree. “This is one of the best places to learn climbing in the country,” he claimed.

And the day’s learning doesn’t stop with yoga and climbing. Fienup turns out to be quite the natural history guide; on your short trail walk to the climbing area, he provides the lowdown on plants, geology, geography, Chumash lore, and more, making it educational for the head as well as the body. The combo of his knowledge and Walzer’s encouraging attitude is clearly one of the reasons for the class’s success. Yoga people come for the climbing, the owners explained, and climbers come for the yoga. Everyone else, it seems, comes for both.

The marriage of climbing and yoga makes perfect sense, explained Walzer. “When anyone is surprised or tense,” she said, “they tend to hold their breath.” Rock climbing presents advanced practitioners with intensely stressful moments, and learning to breathe properly via yoga can be a valuable asset—as it can, says Walzer, for anyone who must deal with the challenges of a 21st century work day. And when it comes to doing yoga beneath a rock climbing site, you couldn’t ask for a better setting: the sound of trickling creeks, mountain breeze through the oak trees, scents of sage and earth—in short, the dictionary definition of tranquil.

With only about a dozen people per class and the chance to explore as many as seven climbing routes over the course of a day, few health related day-trips are as enticing as YogaROCKS, which is designed to instill lasting lessons in participants. Explained Walzer, “We challenge students to ask where else these techniques would be useful in their lives.”

06-01-2009

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