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Breathing on the wall: Olivia Hsu's mastery of climbing and yoga

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PrAna ambassador Olivia Hsu is a master of both rock climbing and Ashtanga yoga. Through the lens of her dual expertise, she offers wisdom for balance – in life, in climbing, and in navigating the gender gap that still exists in both.

PrAna ambassador Olivia Hsu has mastered both climbing and yoga. Photo courtesy of prAna.
PrAna ambassador Olivia Hsu has mastered both climbing and yoga. Photo courtesy of prAna.

A thousand feet off the ground, the wind catches on pant legs, and the sun catches on skin. When you’re climbing, you cling to imperceptible wrinkles in the stone. When you find yourself at your limit, your muscles clench to shaking. The blood screams in your forearms. Your heartbeat pulses into every fingertip. You look down. The ground is far, and the fear is welling.

And somehow, the secret is to breathe. To move slowly. To swing deliberately from one hold to the next. The secret to rock climbing is discipline and mindfulness. The secret, often, is yoga.

Many who climb also practice yoga, but few have mastered both. PrAna ambassador and yoga teacher Olivia Hsu is one of those few.

Hsu had been climbing hard for years before she discovered yoga. When daily workouts led to finger injury, she found herself in search of a new physical activity to fill the interim.

tk caption Photo: TK
Hsu is a Boulder, Colorado-based yoga instructor specializing in Ashtanga. Photo: Courtesy of prAna

Now, she does each, side by side, often on the same day. After sponsorships with Arcteryx and The North Face, she has settled into ambassadorship at prAna where she can embrace both her passions. The two sports have intertwined in her life and in her career.

“Compared to a lot of other activities, climbing and yoga have the same mind-body connection, and there are more complex movements that translate pretty well between one and the other,” she said.

Hsu has been studying Ashtanga yoga for about 15 years. Her outlook on climbing reflects that. Many climbers single-mindedly chase grades, aiming for climbs ranked harder and harder in the guidebooks. For Hsu, it isn’t about the numbers.

“What you define as success is a personal thing in the end,” she said. Her proudest climbs haven’t been those marked with high numbers but those that were more difficult for her personally.

“Maybe that’s the yoga part of me,” she laughed.

The stillness of yoga
Alone in a still room, beads of sweat strain to the skin’s surface, and muscles strain to the floor. When you’re practicing yoga, you remain still with your crowded brain. Thoughts pour into the stillness, clambering for attention.

The secret is clearing your mind, moving forward into that same razor-sharp mindfulness that pries your senses wide open when you’re high up and scared on a mountainside. The secret is staying strong and confident in your pose. The secret to yoga, sometimes, can be found in climbing.

Hsu went to high school in Hong Kong and college in Australia. She was playing field hockey and looking into law school when she wandered into one of the university’s climbing club sessions.

“There was a whole bunch of guys standing around who couldn’t get to the top of the climb, but I got to the top. And I couldn’t do a single pull up.”

She was hooked.

Every summer during college, Hsu would save up her money and go on climbing trips in Europe. One year she had been climbing well and consistently, and a friend who was an organizer of an Australian national climbing competition snuck her onto the roster. She placed third.

The joy of climbing
She’s been featured in magazines and on the cover of guidebooks since then. The humility she maintains is refreshing to find within the club of elite climbers, which is often dominated by big personalities and big ambition.

TK caption. Photo: TK
For Hsu, climbing and yoga compliment one another. She climbs 5.13 regularly and is known for her pursuits in both roped climbing and bouldering. Photo: Courtesy of prAna.

“It’s really easy for people to get wrapped up in their egos, but in the end climbing is supposed to be this fun, joyful thing,” she said. “It’s such an honor to be able to climb.”

For Hsu, climbing isn’t about competition – it’s about introducing people to the outdoors and using that introduction to teach them how to be good stewards of the environment.

Even so, Hsu says climbing can still feel self-indulgent at times, so she strives to share the joy and honor of the sport with others. She’s been involved in First Descents, which provides free outdoor adventure for cancer fighters and survivors trying to reclaim their confidence post-diagnosis, and HERA Climb4Life which raises funds for ovarian cancer research through hiking and climbing events in Colorado. Hsu also recently joined the Women’s Wilderness Institute, to help the nonprofit with its mission of teaching women the skills involved in different outdoor pursuits.

Getting women in the outdoors is important to Hsu. Though she finds the one-to-one gender ratio she’s been seeing in climbing gyms encouraging, she says there’s work left to do.

“I almost feel like climbing is a microcosm of what’s going on in society,” she said.

She’s seen women establish hard routes and set grades, only to have men climb the same route later and dismiss the route as a grade easier. She said she’s also had mixed feelings about the qualifying title “first female ascent” awarded to the first woman to climb something previously established by a man.

“But in the end, we’re not the same as men,” she said. “We have different strengths and weaknesses, which is the more modern view of feminism. I also think men and women have different levels of mindfulness and different ego structures.”

Both genders have much to contribute to the sport. In a way, they balance each other out.

Like yoga and climbing, the secret to one’s success often lies with the other.

Corey Buhay has been climbing and practicing yoga for several years, achieving mild success in the first and spectacular failure in the second, likely due to omissions in steady breathing.