Kilimanjaro – Yoga and Pranayama Practice for High Altitude

YogaIn 2009, Wim Hof, commonly known as Mr. Iceman, made it to the top of Kilimanjaro in  shorts in just 2 days. His ability lies in his years of practice of tummo meditation – a form of yoga that derives from the Indian Vajrayana tradition. For the rest of us, there is hope even with some basic hatha yoga combined with breathing techniques called Pranayama.

Pranayama techniques allow for maximizing your lung capacity, which becomes critical at high altitudes. High altitude is generally considered to be above 12,000 ft where atmospheric oxygen level falls to as low as 60% compared to sea level.

There are many Pranayama techniques that can help increase lung capacity. One of the most useful and basic breathing technique is called Ujjayi Pranayama. It is a slow deep breathing technique where you breath in and out through your nose, taking slow deep breaths and directing the air through the back of your throat, making a HA sound. Slow long breaths are critical – 4 to 6 counts on the inhale, 6 – 8 counts on the exale. For beginners, start with 4 counts of inhale and 4 counts of exhale.

Another commonly practiced technique is Kapalabhati – this is forced exhalation by pumping contractions of your belly, inhalations happening naturally. This helps detoxify the body by removing more Carbon Dioxide from your blood stream allowing for increased capacity for oxygen uptake once you return to normal breathing.

Pranayama breathing combined with hatha yoga practice provides synergistic benefits such as expanding your chest, building core strength and flexibility and most importantly building the mind-body connection. A positive well relaxed and de-stressed body and mind after a yoga practice is the most significant benefit of it all that you cannot get from any other practice.

In my experience, practicing yoga once a week for an hour, like most people do,  is not really effective. Intense yoga practice for at least 5 days of the week is essential to see tangible benefits.  I recently started Bikram Yoga which provides 1.5 hrs of intense practice (available 7 days a week in their studios) including Pranayama breathing. Combining 26 postures in a particular sequence, Bikram Yoga classes pack a punch. Popularly known as the torture chamber, the hot studios work your body and mind for one great workout. I still find it hard to push myself to do it regularly, but the feeling and satisfaction after class drives me to go back to it.

I have done several day hikes since my practice for 2 months and I can attest to the positive difference in my fitness level and endurance. The part of the mind-body connection that lasts outside of class for me is my losing interest in fattening sugary foods and the natural weight loss that accompanies any nutritious diet of  fruits and vegetables.

In the end, we may never become the Iceman, but we can get tangible benefits from intense yoga practice such as Bikram Yoga or any yoga practice for that matter when practiced 5  – 7 days a week for at least an hour at a time. This I consider as one of the most essential part of training for Kilimanjaro.

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4 thoughts on “Kilimanjaro – Yoga and Pranayama Practice for High Altitude

  1. Haresh

    Three forms helped me
    1. Anulom/Vilom (long deep breaths with focus on contolled breaths)
    2. Ujjayi Pranayam
    3. Kapabhati

    I can feel the difference and increase in capacity over a month.

  2. Roz

    I’ve just commenced a 30 day challenge of Bikram yoga in preparation for my expedition in June to summit Mt Kilimanjaro. Day 3 completed today. I’m really hoping that the mind/body/breathing practice will benefit me most of all in readiness for the altitude. Really enjoyed reading your article.

    1. DM Kumar Post author

      Thanks much! Good luck with it. Keep up at least 90 days with 5 – 6 times per week. The starting pranayama and kapalabhati can be done more often than just when in class. Hope to hear your experience from the climb.

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