Carving through fresh powder against a backdrop of endless blue sky and crisp winter air—it's a thrilling, adrenaline-pumping rush that's familiar to anyone who has strapped boots onto a board at the top of ;a mountain. It's why snowboarding is one of winter's most popular sports, with an estimated 6 million-plus boarders in the United States alone. It's also one of the most physically demanding sports, thanks to turns that require pistonlike actions in the legs and air-catching maneuvers that have you exploring your body's full range of motion. And then there are the crashes. Falling is an unavoidable part of the sport, and, just as in yoga's balancing poses, there's a certain grace in yielding when you lose your balance.
As snowboarding gains popularity, more and more pro snowboarders are embracing yoga for the balance it provides. French-born Caroline Beliard-Zebrowski's 12-year career of freestyle, slopestyle, and half-pipe competitions and backcountry video shoots left her with several injuries. Hoping to rehabilitate and ride again without pain, Beliard-Zebrowski took up vinyasa yoga.
"As an athlete, I thought I knew my body, but yoga really helped me discover it," she says. Beliard-Zebrowski eventually retired from competition to become a yoga teacher for professional boarders and even got her husband, former pro snowboarder Gary Zebrowski), on the mat too. Today, Zebrowski and Beliard-Zebrowski work together coaching surfers and snowboarders at yoga retreats in the southwest of France, California, and Tahiti.
In addition to helping riders recover from injuries, says half-pipe pro Gretchen Bleiler, yoga also offers them a competitive edge. Bleiler says her practice, which includes asana and meditation, has given her tools to handle the stress of competing. "The clarity I find on the mat leads to living my life with calm and purpose that I take into my snowboarding," says the four-time X Games gold-medal winner ;and 2006 Olympic silver-medal winner. "It's so much more than exercise. Yoga is a system that teaches me how to have balance in my whole life, in my relationships, and the work that I do." Today, Bleiler is studying for her teacher certification in primordial sound meditation at the Chopra Center in Carlsbad, California.
"I wouldn't still be a professional snowboarder at the level I am if I hadn't taken care of my body with yoga," says Ashtanga Yoga practitioner Terje Haakonsen. "Most of my other sports break my body down. Snowboarding, soccer, and skateboarding are rough on the joints and muscles. But yoga builds my body up and wakes up all the little muscles so that all of the parts are working together as a team."
Before he goes up on the slopes or explores backcountry terrain, Haakonsen does his morning Ashtanga practice, which he says gets his blood moving so that he's warmed up before getting on a lift. "It's the best way to start the day," he says.
David Carrier-Porcheron (DCP)
You know you've made it when the world calls you by your initials. Canadian freestyler DCP spent 14 years competing all over the world, sponsored by Burton Snowboards. During this time he discovered yoga and found that it increased his flexibility (key for competitive moves, such as midair board grabs). Today, the Power Yoga practitioner breaks into a few poses to stretch and open up his hip flexors before he attempts the jumps and cliffs he's known for.
"Yoga helps me connect with the present in a real snowboarding situation, where I can be focused in the moment and watch my breath in the air," says DCP, who revels in meditation, Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), Vrksasana (Tree Pose), and the Warrior series. Such awareness extends beyond the board, he notes, and provided solace when he lost a dear friend and his brother-in-law in an avalanche. "Yoga slows me down and takes stress away," says DCP. "I'm more flexible in my body but also with life's circumstances."
Some yoga poses emulate the physical actions of a maneuver you'd make on a board, says yoga teacher and avid snowboarder Eoin Finn, who trains pros and World Cup athletes using alignment-based yoga and breath techniques. The following poses help strengthen muscles and increase the range of motion you need to keep your moves loose and fluid on the mountain.
The Move: Carving
The Pose: Utkatasana (Chair Pose)
The Move: Indy Grab
The Pose: Parivrtta Prasarita Padottanasana (Revolved Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend)
The Move:Method Grab
The Pose: Ardha Ustrasana (Half Camel Pose)
Split boarder Chanelle Sladics has broken so many bones that she's lost count. She's long lived on the edge: skydiving, cave free-diving, snowboarding in extreme conditions. About eight years ago, she says, she was feeling depleted and realized that her sports were taking a toll on her body. The future yoga teacher became inspired by her practice to make over her diet, and she increased her flexibility, going from someone who could barely touch her toes to someone who doesn't start the day without stretching. "Yoga gave me a new body to ride with," says Sladics. "I became a stronger, more agile athlete."
Sladics says 10 minutes of practice a day with a focus on hip openers and Pigeon Pose in particular has helped her ride better and bounce back more quickly. "After riding four or five days in a row, my body is spent, but I go home and get on my mat," says Sladics. "Most bodies can only handle five hardcore days in the park. On day six, when I wake to see beautiful powder outside, I'm stoked because I don't have to pass it up."
In 2009, Gary Zebrowski was in peak condition and training for the Olympic half-pipe at a French ski resort when he suffered a 12-foot fall. When he got up the pain in his left knee was so intense that he had to ride down the mountain on the back of a ski patrol snowmobile. The doctor told Zebrowski that he'd need surgery and at least eight months away from any kind of board. "So many questions were turning in my head. The 2010 Olympics were just seven months away. I was on top, aiming for a medal," he says. "I had two choices: have the surgery and kiss the Olympics goodbye, or bypass the surgery."
Zebrowski opted to skip the surgery and seek other options for rehabilitating from his injury. "I spent three months in Breckenridge, Colorado, and established my own training program with yoga," he says. He worked with his wife, yoga teacher and former pro boarder Caroline Beliard-Zebrowski. Zebrowski did Surya Namaskar (Sun Salutation) as part of every warm-up.
Balancing postures helped with knee stability. Vasisthasana (Side Plank Pose) addressed core and leg stability, while Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose), Virabhadrasana I (Warrior Pose I), and Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose) added strength and flexibility. Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend) and Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend) worked his tightening hamstrings. For mental preparation, he practiced daily pranayama and meditation. He eventually made it to the Olympics, and though he was still injured, he finished thirteenth in his event. "Practicing yoga really helped me to find my deepest strength in order to finish the competition," he says.
Unwind the Grind
Eoin Finn suggests these three poses after a day on the mountain to stretch tight muscles and decompress joints that get worn and torn when you're shredding.
1. Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog)
2. King-Arthur's Pose
3. Supine Pigeon Pose
Diane Anderson is a writer based in San Francisco.