Few sports marry the elements of speed and grace better than skiing. Combine the adrenaline rush of hurtling down a slope with the agility of a beautifully carved turn and the sport’s broad appeal is evident. Far removed from the brisk, high-energy land of skiing lies its perfect foil—yoga. Where skiing is fast and risky, yoga is slow and thoughtful. The two sports’ philosophies diverge, yet the physical demands of skiing call out for the counter movements of yoga.
Perhaps the biggest benefit yoga can bring to your skiing is injury prevention. Skiing asks a lot from the body—cold muscles are called upon to perform a variety of functions, while dexterity, balance, and high levels of concentration are also a must. For those skiers who hit the slopes sporadically, these athletic requisites are often too tough, and they can end up injured and disillusioned with the sport. By observing your body’s imbalances, brought on by the particular movements of skiing, and employing a yoga program to bring your body into a state of equilibrium, you can avert injury and participate in the sport for years to come.
In any sport, and skiing is no exception, if you overcompensate in one area, you weaken another, thus preventing yourself from being able to perform at your peak. Since skiing is a lower-body intensive sport, imbalance most obviously occurs in an overdeveloped lower body and a comparatively weaker upper body, according to Prisca Boris, Yoga for Athletes instructor in Vail, Colorado, and former pro-mogul competitor. In her work with skiers, Boris uses yoga poses and variations on the push-up to build upper body strength.
It’s those lower body imbalances, however, that directly affect a skier’s performance, and sometimes lead to injury. For example, strong quadriceps and opposing tighter, weaker hamstrings can place too many demands on the knee joint. Knee joints (and the lower half of the body in general) take a lot of abuse as they actively absorb terrain on a downhill run. In a skiing stance, though the bent-knee position with the hips forward helps cushion the shock of impact, the actual power comes from the gluteus, quadriceps, and back muscles. If these muscles are weak, the knees end up taking the pressure that the legs and glutes aren’t bearing. Eventually, the joint fatigues. Shortened inner thigh muscles can also strain the knee joint by limiting the leg’s range of motion. To avoid knee injury a skier should strive to keep the musculature around the knees and calf muscles supple and stretched so there’s less pull on the joint, and yoga can help here. Boris instructs her yogi skiers to work to lengthen all four sides of their upper legs—inner and outer thigh, hamstring, and quadriceps—to ensure minimal strain on surrounding joints.
Together, the hips and knees create the driving force behind skiing, or more precisely, the steering mechanism. “Use of these joints, with some help from the ankle, is always directed toward the goal of trying to put pressure on the inside edge of the downhill ski in order to effect a turn,” Boris says. It’s technically referred to as angulation—the creation of angles with your body using feet, ankles, knees, hips, spine, or a combination of these in order to push and move the ski.
A skier angulates from the hips, constantly engaging the hip flexors to raise and lower the legs. But overuse of the hip flexors can lead to back strain as the front of body becomes overdeveloped, leaving the back weaker and tighter. Keeping the hip area flexible and supple is necessary not only to avoid imbalance, but to encourage good turning habits. For example, skiers with tight, congested pelvic/hip areas will tend to wrench the upper body back and forth to initiate a turn, instead of utilizing the lower body. This results in abrupt, awkward turns and a stiff, sore upper back.
Which leads us to core strength and awareness—vital to both skiing and yoga. “In skiing, awareness of your center allows you to rise to initiate movement,” Boris says. “You rise to start your turn, and sink down to finish your turn, and all the while the core or torso should remain facing downhill.” Awareness of your core can prevent you from turning inefficiently. What’s more, core awareness translates to quicker reactions to unexpected situations—runaway skis, out of control skiers, shifting snow, and weather conditions—and can rescue you from accidents.
Balance, a blend of strength, flexibility, and kinesthetic sense, is especially important for being able to achieve the next level in skiing, whether that’s mastering moguls or perfecting powder skiing. It’s also imperative for avoiding injuries. If you’re schussing along and hit unexpected terrain—a rock or sheet of ice—and one ski is forced out from under your body, you can avoid tearing your inner thigh muscle or groin area if you have the flexibility and strength to support the abduction of the leg.
Prepare for Powder
Despite the capacity for injury, skiing is not a sport to be feared but rather one to prepare for. One of the simplest steps to get ready for the mountain is to check your alignment. If you’re properly set up atop your skis, you’ve already cleared one important hurdle.
Many skiers erroneously think that leaning back will prevent falling, or conversely, that leaning extremely far forward will protect them from a spill. Neither assumption is correct. How you stand on your skis—your alignment—is key to staying balanced. Follow these fundamental alignment principles for skiing and you can avoid the dreaded face plants that inevitably occur under a chairlift full of spectators.
Feet should be shoulder-width apart, as if in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), to create a stable base for the body.
Knees should be in line with the toes, as in Utkatasana (Chair Pose).
Hips should be tipped slightly forward. This is a somewhat unnatural position for most people; however, ski boots help encourage this shape in the lower body. This posture helps you gain control. Boris likens it to walking down a roof: “If your hips are back, then your feet will come out from under you,” she says.
Shoulders should be dropped, or relaxed, as in Tadasana.
Torso should be still. Referred to as a “quiet upper body” in skiing, having a “still” torso is akin to riding a bicycle with the lower body doing most of the work while the upper body provides stability.
Hands should be in front of your body to encourage forward movement and to initiate pole plants.
Our bodies are designed to move. Biologically, we require continuous, regular motion. Yet, often in the winter months, we stay indoors, moving less and sitting more. Skiing satisfies our primal need for motion while reconnecting us with nature. Both novice and veteran skiers can attest to the physical and spiritual exhilaration of a day on the slopes.
To get the most from your days on skis, follow the wisdom of yogis and stretch those muscles before and after you tackle the mountain. Remember, if you stay in top shape, you can ski for free after age 70. Now, there’s something to look forward to!