Hännah Marciniak (@yogihannah) is a dedicated practitioner of Ashtanga yoga, a climber, mountain biker, skier, and together with her husband, Lucas, parent of an adventurous two-year-old, Oliver. Hännah runs her own business, Mountain Light Ashtanga, which offers small group yoga in the traditional Mysore style. She also works as a linguist, providing expert consulting in information retrieval technology. Hännah originally hails from Bellingham, Washington, and currently resides in Bend, Oregon.
AMI staff writer and all-around epic mama Elizabeth Bauer met with Hännah, in person, and recorded the following conversation.
Elizabeth: How do you identify as an athlete? What are you athletic passions?
Hännah: It’s interesting hearing that question because I hesitate to qualify myself as an athlete at all. It’s a very loaded word for me entailing a level of expertise I’m hesitant to claim, even though being active, healthy, and fit are all critical parts of my life.
While I was active growing up (skiing, doing gymnastics and track and field), my main pursuit was music. I was very driven to become a violinist. In pursuit of this dream, I practiced daily (in my teenage years 6-10 hours a day). I'm certain this goal-driven, disciplined cultivation of skill has shaped my approach to and patience with the ups and downs of my abilities in yoga, climbing, and other activities. Growth is not a linear trajectory; you don't always appreciate the subtleties of what you're learning and how they'll integrate over time. It's given me a longer-range view of my physical capabilities, especially post-birth.
I discovered climbing in my early twenties and found that I loved the powerful mind-body connection and the mental challenge it presented. I was awful when I started: terrified of heights and barely able to get off the ground inside, on top rope. But, I’m stubborn and didn’t want to let my fear stop me. Instead, I used it as a way to become intimately acquainted with, and to push through, my fear. As I grew in my climbing, I began to feel more connected to my body and have more confidence in myself. I gained physical strength, as well as mental and emotional resilience, a willingness to try new things, and a familiarity with the discomfort of being in a uniquely challenging spot. It’s been a long journey for me with climbing, but I love pushing myself: surrendering to the immensity of “things are not going to be ok”, staying with it and seeing what happens.
Approaching motherhood felt similar to my early relationship with climbing: take a big breath and just do it. We approached having a child with a lot of deliberation, but it’s still a big leap of faith. There’s no turning away from the irrevocable responsibility, but having practiced surrendering to the unknown helped ground me even as the reality proved to be harder than I anticipated. Hands down, birth the hardest and most sustained thing I’ve ever done.
Taking the mind-body connection further, I began delving into yoga after a particularly low point. I had always felt drawn toward it, but never had the courage to step into a class and see what it was actually like. After discovering the powerfully meditative, rigorous, and transformative method of Ashtanga, I realized that this was a practice I wanted to cultivate for the rest of my life. Yoga, climbing, and just generally being outdoors, whether that’s backpacking, mountain biking, or skiing, are all critical to my sense of well-being.
Elizabeth: What was your journey like through pregnancy and how did that transition go?
Hännah: It was exceptionally difficult and empowering in equal measures. I was mesmerized watching my body change, feeling a life growing in me, and finding a deep trust in myself. On the other hand, I had to recognize how attached I was to my physical capability. In my first trimester, I felt incapacitated and unable to do the things that kept me physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy. Seeing how quickly that could go was a difficult thing to come to terms with. Actually, I don’t think I came to terms with it. I think I just got through three months of it. But I was also very stubborn; I wasn’t going to let pregnancy keep me from continuing to do the things that were important to me.
Even as my yoga practice shifted, it was still something I practiced daily. Even if I had to slow it down, I still hit the trails backpacking and biking. Even as I was having to find new and unique ways to approach climbing problems, I was still out there climbing. My one concession was to hold off on leading, given the extra forces should I fall.
Elizabeth: How long did you keep climbing?
Hännah: I was climbing hard through 41 weeks. It was fun and challenging in a totally different way. I had to rely on my technique. The main challenge was not being able to get my body in certain positions. I consistently climbed in the 11s and 12s but it became difficult to do certain types of problems. I needed space; I needed to be able to move. Things that were stemmy were really good because I could still fit my body into those spaces. I was able to pull off some pretty fingery technical climbs for quite a while, but overhangs got tough because I couldn’t see my feet. I do remember trying some at 40-41 weeks; it was still happening but not so gracefully.
Elizabeth: After the baby came how did the transition go?
Hännah: It went from being able to get out even if things looked different or were harder, to not even knowing how to get out. We did, but we had to redefine everything and reset expectations. There’s a flurry and stress in trying to get everyone out of the house: having to remember so much more, pack so much more, and have so much less time to do it. We say it’s a success if we get out the door and remember Oliver.
Also, having Oliver at the crag with us shifts our focus so much. There is this constant pull to make sure he’s ok that it’s harder to focus on the climbing. I think for both of us, it has heightened our awareness of risk. It feels a lot more vulnerable having Oliver there.
Another shift since having Oliver is that it’s no longer about how many climbs I do or how hard I climb, but just the fact that we made it out the door. We’re outside and we’re climbing, in whatever form that takes. There’s a sweetness to that because it’s about having gratitude for staying engaged in what you love to do.
We can be frustrated by the fact it’s changed and is less accessible now, or we can surrender to what it is and appreciate what we can do: embrace exposing our son to things we love and see that love grow in him. It’s nice to let go of expectations. It’s a freeing place to be.
Elizabeth: Do you think that your active, adventurous lifestyle has equipped you with the ability to adapt?
Hännah: Yeah for sure. There’s something about doing a push of 30 miles in a day, being at altitude and thinking that you are at the end of your resources, then realizing that you haven’t even tapped into the beginning yet. That type of awareness of how much you are actually capable of, that you don’t even realize until you’re there, is a profound lesson. And it absolutely comes into play with parenting.
Parenting is the biggest marathon ever. It’s the sensation of acknowledging how exhausted and depleted you are and just being with it, and continuing to move and let go.
Elizabeth: How are you crushing it in spite of and because of being a mommy?
Hännah: I feel less inclined to let my own mind stop me. I’ve felt some of the mental barriers I had about what I thought I could and couldn’t do naturally dissipating because of birth, pregnancy and needing to trust that I can do things I didn’t think that I could. I know I can, because I’ve done them.
I’ve seen how powerful an experience it is to be in the moment with whatever is happening. Birthing Oliver at home was the most sustained experience of being present I’ve ever had. There is freedom in knowing that regardless of what I am feeling or going through, I can be with it and come out the other side. That is a really powerful thing for me in a variety of other places. I know I can access it; I know it’s there. I lead harder now. That’s been interesting. Since giving birth I am willing to put myself out there.
Elizabeth: Yes! It’s remarkable. After the birth of my son, I ran a marathon and didn’t train, because - what’s a little pain? I mean, really. I’ll be fine. I remember running it and thinking, this is so much fun! I ran happy because of childbirth. After birth, I wondered, how far can I push myself? Birth really puts intense physical activity into perspective.
Hännah: It really opens up the horizons doesn’t it?
Elizabeth: Yes, it made me tougher. Experiencing natural childbirth and the focus it demands made me realize the depths of what I am capable of and the pain I am capable of tolerating. How we experience it, it’s all in our head.
Hännah: I don’t even associate it with pain. You turn off that judgement.
Elizabeth: Yes, Brittany Aae said, “pain is information, it’s your body talking to you.” It’s so cool. Birth is really like a secret superpower.
Hännah: Realizing how much we can access, how much is there, it’s personally profound and shifts my perspective on what we as women can accomplish. There is so much untapped potential.
Elizabeth: So what does discipline look like in your life?
Hännah: Discipline in my life means that THE DOING is more important than the outcome. Committing to practicing daily (or continuing to get out climbing, skiing, biking, hiking) is where the growth happens, regardless of what that looks like. It means not waiting for the conditions to be perfect. It means pushing through my mental barriers of fatigue and attachment to an ideal that's currently so hard to access. It means learning to communicate what I need to my family and asking them to respect it. It means asking for help and building community to support me in doing so.
Balancing parenthood, work, and the pursuit of the activities that help sustain me is a constant practice. It's never static. What works in one phase goes out the window the next. What's helped me is to reframe this groundlessness. Instead of clinging to wanting to find THE answer for how to balance everything, I try to rest in the feeling of discomfort that I'll never "figure it out." Perspective is such a powerful tool for shaping our experiences of the world. In yoga, we're taught that it's our filters on how we see and interpret things, our expectations of and attachment to what we want to happen or to avoid that are the root of our suffering. So, I try to cultivate curiosity for what I'm experiencing at any given moment, to give myself space to not know all the answers on how to achieve balance, and to simply notice what's working, what's not, and what might help shift things. Like any practice, some days I feel like I'm making strides, while others are a shit show, sometimes quite literally.
Some of the practical strategies that have helped me the most at different points in time are:
1) To articulate my needs and priorities. Putting it out there; make it explicit. This is the first step for me, and I notice that it helps me align my intentions and actions with my priorities.
2) To ask for help. This is a challenging thing for me to do. I like to be self-sufficient and limitless, or at least to think I am. I hate accepting that some things are beyond my abilities or that I can't do everything, all the time. But the sustained and demanding nature of parenthood, not to mention the ups and downs of life in general, repeatedly push me right up against my limits. Too little sleep, endless responsibility, not ever enough time for myself or my partnership and relationships, all this means I need to give myself permission to not always have to push through on my own. I've had to learn how to reach out to and accept help from my partner, my family, and my community in order to take time I need to take care of myself. All of this is critical for me in order to be a good parent and partner.
3) To make commitments and set structures in place in my life that reflect my priorities. It may feel like one too many things to do to make a climbing date with a friend or get up for an early morning practice after four hours of interrupted sleep, but if I don't commit to doing it in advance, it's too easy for me to let it slide in the moment of being too busy or too tired. Regularity is another component of this too. This is, in part, also why I've decided to start teaching Ashtanga again. It holds me accountable to and inspires me in my own practice. Part of me feels like it's crazy to be introducing another commitment when I don't feel like I can keep up with what I've already got on my plate most days, but having it there forces a reprioritization of my time and energy that is better aligned with what I want in my life. It's so totally worth it.
4) To build a community of other like-minded parents. I'm fortunate my partner is as driven to ensure that adventure and self-development are a part of our lives as a family, but it's also been so critical to have friends with littles who also want to prioritize getting out and being active. We team up with other parents to get out climbing and trade on and off watching the kids. We have friends who are always up for a ski or a good all-day backcountry hike. It's mutually supportive and inspiring, getting us out of the house even when it feels insurmountable.
5) To reset our expectations and goals. Climbing trips for me now return to the joys of being outside, enjoying the feel and smell of the sun-warmed rocks and the heady challenge of pushing my limits. Those limits may be more mental now (pushing through the need to focus while my toddler is having a fit at the base of the crag), but it's still that process of honing my mental capabilities. Or gratitude for getting a few turns in the mountains overriding having perfect conditions and an all-day epic ski. Or a quick loop on the mountain bike when I have an hour, even if it's not a big or challenging expedition.
6) Remember that it's ok to be uncomfortable. We're more adaptable and capable than we give ourselves credit. Like pushing through a 30-mile summit, an all-night rescue, or giving birth, what we experience as our limit is only the beginning of what we have in us. There's so very much more potential and it's ok to be uncomfortable, cold, sleep-deprived or hungry. These are temporary states. Getting out there to push our limits, to be in nature, or to stay in touch with the activities that keep us vital, these are the things that will last. I think it's more important for my son to experience this with us than it is to always be comfortable and routine-driven. We're fortunate he's even more adaptable than we give him credit for, and so we get out with him as much as we can manage, whether big trips or small, even if that means he's not home for a nap or that we don't have all the nourishing food we'd like. We keep bars and snacks around to grab for quick expeditions, prioritizing having the gear we need to get out with him, and have bins we can throw in the car with our seasonal gear to make it easier to get out.