Rock Climbing & The Imagination:
How Movement Impacts the Creative Brain

Rock Climbing & The Imagination

Creativity is one of those beautifully intangible things that is often not only elusive, but also hard to define. I mean really, can we even put definitive bounds on creativity? Also, where does it come from?  And why oh why does it seem that when we need it the most our little spark of genius is nowhere to be found while other times a lightning strike of inspiration seems to burst out of nowhere?

This year, one of Alfa Charlie’s biggest goals was to make sure we took time out for play. To get out from behind the computer screen, to move our bodies in different ways and to experience new things… not only for our health, but to allow our brains the opportunity to take in a fresh perspective (Research shows exercise has huge impacts on our creative brain, which we delve a bit into here).

As a part of this initiative we decided to sit down with other local creatives to investigate what makes them tick and what creativity looks and feels like to them. Most recently, we talked to Sandy Jairaj — a New Jersey native who is not only an artist, but a full-time climbing coach and the only female route setter at Mesa Rim, a San Diego-based climbing gym— to talk about climbing and her creative process.


Sandy Jairaj | Mesa Rim San Diego


What is your personal definition of creativity?

When I try to understand my own creativity I first ask myself, “When do I feel creative?” I feel creative when I rock climb, when I route set (which for non-climbers is the process of designing climbing routes indoors) and when I paint but also when I dance or kiss or really thoroughly enjoy a cappuccino. Creativity sometimes manifests a product, like a painting or a boulder, but I don’t think it requires it.

At my most creative, I find flow, which is  this place where I feel fully immersed in exactly what I am doing and nothing else. It doesn’t happen every time, but sometimes when I’m painting and frequently when I’m climbing, it feels like there is no room in my brain or body for anything else to be simultaneously occurring. It’s a feeling that ends as soon as I take notice of it. I think creativity exists outside of that all-consuming place, too. When I asked myself “What is creativity?”  I could only think of it in terms of what being creative “feels” like. When I’m routesetting or trying to articulate a certain movement to an athlete, I’m trying to express a concept and I think that also requires creativity.

If I had to describe “creativity” as concisely as possible I guess I would describe it as the process by which we understand our thoughts before they are expressed and how we subsequently choose to express them.


As a setter, coach and a climber, how do you use creativity uniquely within each of these areas?

As a routesetter, I think my job is to create an experience. I first need to know what my parameters are. I have to know who my climber is (youth competitor, outdoor climber, first time climber, etc.)I need to know what terrain I’m setting in. Is it steep or vertical or slab? What angles do I have to work with? I might use volumes to create a different environment and set my holds around that. Based on this information, I can decide what I want the climber to feel or what experience I want them to have. From there, I start picking the holds I need to create that experience. Everything from the color, to their geometry, to their ergonomics is considered.

Once the climbs are up, we start the forerunning process. This is when we climb each others problems, decide on what we like and troubleshoot how to improve the climb. Coaching requires creativity as well but not in an aesthetically functional way. One of the most important parts of coaching, if not the most important part, is imparting information in a way that the athlete understands. I need to have a handful of ways of describing a concept like “body tension” or “balance.” Because they can seem somewhat ambiguous, I need to use my best judgement to decide what explanation of that term will resonate most with that climber.

As a climber, I always get to exercise my creativity. I get to express myself through movement every time I pull off the ground. I get to express what I’ve learned about climbing through climbing. The climb is always asking something of the climber and how I choose to climb it is a form of response.

Climbing also gives me the chance to be in that flow state. Projecting is the process of dedicating oneself to a certain climb and the process by which the climber does (or doesn’t do) the climb. I love to project. I get to find a climb that speaks to me and explore why it inspires me. I get to look at myself honestly and evaluate what I need to do in order to be able to do the climb. I get to train for one specific goal. I get to emotionally respond to repeated failure and decide how I choose to deal with it and I get to decide what the climb means to me. When a climb is at your limit, you have to focus 100% of your attention on it. You can’t simultaneously think of work emails when you are attempting to successfully finish your project.


How has this impacted the way you use/understand creativity outside of the gym and climbing?

Creativity feels like a process. Despite using creativity to problem solve and design rock climbs, I do not see it as something that needs to result in anything tangible. I think a certain amount of creativity is probably needed just to enjoy a really lovely sunset or a good cocktail.

I think climbing and routesetting also both embody some amount of failure. I fall off my projects more often than not. Sometimes I set unfortunate rock climbs. The process of failing is usually more important than the end result. It allows me to learn and then apply what I have learned in the future. I try to keep this mindset when I paint as well. It is easy to feel that I have wasted time when I create something I don’t like. Treating it as a small but valuable part of a process makes it a positive experience.


Do you feel like climbing has increased your creativity in other areas and/or when climbing do you feel like it sparks insight or ideation?

I think creativity is a little bit like a muscle in that the more I use it, the more I continue using it. The past few months have been focused around climbing and routesetting and I have experienced more growth as a painter than I ever have before. I trend towards nature, geometry, and balance in art, all of which are somehow connected to rock climbing, routesetting or both. Lately, I think route setting has influenced what I paint. I’ve been using more hard angles and block colors than I have in the best, both characteristics that I find aesthetically appealing in hold selection.

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