Upward-facing Shred Betty
My yoga and snowboarding adventure begins with a moment of pure joy in my kitchen. Subaru packed with gear and snacks, husband strapping toddler into the car seat, I experience that all-too-rare feeling. "I am completely happy," I acknowledge. I take a conscious breath and join my family in the car.
One reason I'm happy is that we're driving from Boulder, Colorado, to Vail so I can attend ReTreat Yourself, a four-day women's snowboarding camp run by pro snowboarder Barrett Christy. I'd interviewed Barrett years before when I worked for outdoor adventure magazines, and I heard about this all-women's camp she'd started in January 2003. I'd done many things as an athlete back in the day but not much since I had my daughter three years ago at the age of 40. My former rock-climbing, Tele skiing, trail-running self has atrophied, and the results on my body are scary. I'm now in physical therapy for an achy knee and alignment problems that have left me feeling as if I could barely pick up luggage without straining my sacroiliac joint. These are not limitations I want to have as I enter middle age.
So perhaps it was some rebellious inner shred Betty, or simply a lack of boundaries, that prompted me to say yes when the chance to try snowboarding came along. My rationalization was that Barrett had long practiced yoga as a way to enhance her pro riding career and that yoga was a large part of the week's snowboarding program. "I devote myself to yoga more than any other training activity off the snow," says Barrett. "In order to enjoy snowboarding at this level for the last 12 years, yoga has been important."
Yoga is something I can do and is in fact one of the few disciplines I've been doing since my injuries. Maybe, just maybe, yoga will be the bridge for me, too, not just to snowboarding, but also to re-envisioning how active I want to be.
We arrive at the Vail Marriott a few hours later with enough time to sign up my daughter for her first ski lesson. Then I meet Barrett and the rest of the women to get squared with our gear. I decide to try one of Barrett's Gnu boards and snag a goodie pack of board wax and yoga tops before going to the hotel to spend the evening with my family.
Early the next morning my daughter leaves excitedly for her class, and I report to mine. We start off with 20 minutes of gentle yoga stretches, from Sun Salutations to hip openers, before we turn to logistics; wriggling into butt pads, pulling on warm clothes and boots, strapping wrist guards over our gloves. By 10 a.m. I assemble with my beginners' group of two sisters, Michelle and Holly, both close to my age, and our teacher Juliana (a.k.a. Jules) Broste, who is half our age. Despite Jules's quick laugh and easy-to-follow instructions, I am having a hard first day.
Is it the heavy jacket I've borrowed that feels like I'm lifting 10 pounds every time I pull myself up after falling? Is it the thigh burn I feel while doing a "falling leaf" move all the way down the bunny slope just before tumbling in full view of the lift line? Is it that my body snaps like a whip, with my head the last to make contact on the snow as I fall? Is it that Michelle and Holly are quickly taking to this new sport and neither of them is falling? Is it that in more than 30 years as a skier, both alpine and Telemark, I've rarely fallen, and now this?
My self-talk all during this first day is so negative I'm embarrassed to reveal it. Nothing feels right. Nothing works. That moment of complete happiness I'd felt in my kitchen before coming here? Gone. I am taking a risk. Aren't I supposed to be rewarded, and quickly? This day feels like a punishment, not a prize. Defeated and severely worked over, I leave the slope early to rest up before our evening yoga class. Yoga is the last thing I want to do right now. But because it is part of the retreat, I push myself to show up.
I'm glad I did. The class is restorative yoga, taught by Libby Plante, a certified yoga instructor at the Vail Athletic Club. "Yoga helps to strengthen and stretch your muscles to keep you safe on the mountain," Libby explains. "Yoga also teaches you balance, which increases performance, and it teaches you focus."
Today Libby helps us focus by stretching out our muscles with flowing vinyasas, twists, breathwork, and hip openers. I am stunned that after the class, I no longer feel sore. My muscles do not seize up that night as I sleep; instead they remain stretched and loose.
I can't say the same for my brain, which seizes up all night with negative thoughts about snowboarding and furtive plans for escape from Vail. Would anyone notice? By the morning, I am so worked up that when my room service waiter delivers breakfast, I blurt out my fears. "I am dreading this day," I tell him. "It hurt so much. All I did was fall. I don't really want to go back out." He uncovers my egg white omelet, takes the wrap off my teacup, and assures me with a thick Australian accent that all I need to do is make it through the second day. Then things will start to click and be well worth my effort.
Bolstered by the waiter's pep talk, I report for the second day, only to find out that we are starting out with partner yoga. I hate partner yoga. How can I stay in my flow and find my own mental and physical space if I have to interact with someone else? I pair up with a stranger and prepare to endure my discomfort. Instead, I open up and stretch more than I had the day before doing yoga solo. This is a lesson: Receiving help from someone else leaves me better prepared.
Today I wear a lighter jacket and feel less like I am weightlifting every time I press up from a fall. But my attitude is still pulling me down. After our first run I feel like quitting. Even my classmates comment. "How did your daughter like her first day skiing?" one asks. "Her teacher said she was extremely enthusiastic," I say proudly. "Huh, that's the opposite of her mother," the woman says, and then quickly apologizes.
"She's right," I think. "I'll ride the chair up with Jules and tell her that I'm going to go in. This isn't working." On the chairlift I confess my state of mind to Jules, eyes tearing up as I do. Jules tells me she'll ride down with me, hand in hand, so I can better sense what turning feels like. "OK," I say, "I'll try one more run." Jules and I snowboard down the mountain, leaning into a heel turn, then snaking around into a toe turn, and repeating the turns again. I can't yet do this on my own, but like partnering in yoga that morning, pairing with Jules helps me get to the next level. Snowboarding and I are starting to click.
That night, still sore, I take part in the retreat's Yoga for Athletes class. The power poses make my muscles feel worse. It is hard to hold the Warrior poses, which tax my already fatigued quads. Lowering to the floor from Plank feels impossible. Libby says that Power Yoga is a good way to train before snowboarding, but restorative yoga is better once you are on the mountain. I do come away with a wise nugget, however. "Yoga helps you calm your mind and release negative thoughts," Libby says. I take note. Tomorrow on the mountain, it will be all about yoga.
And in the end, that is what works. On the third morning, I ride the gondola to our bunny run atop the mountain with a calm mind. I stand on my snowboard and remind myself to breathe and focus only on the moment, on positioning my body. I have gone up early and have the slope to myself.
Finally, everything I've learned starts to flow together. I lean into my downhill leg like a warrior, then point with my arm and dig my heels into the mountain for a turn to the right. I lean back into Warrior before pointing my head and arm in the opposite direction and dig in my toes for a left-hand turn. I swoop, then swoop again, then swoop two more times.
Michelle and Holly are riding the chair up and don't know the person they see is me. All they know is that they see a woman snowboarder who is smoothly linking turns. They are inspired. That's what they tell me once they realize I'm the one who caught their eye.
And then, finally, I have another moment of feeling completely happy, as I did in my kitchen. Not because I've impressed my fellow snowboarding students, but because I've come back into myself—come back into how I want to be—with enough time left to enjoy the rest of the retreat.
Freelance adventure and health writer Jean Weiss lives in Boulder, Colorado.