The Canyon Express chairlift creaks and moans in the fierce wind as it slowly carries us to Mammoth Mountain's midpoint. In another minute we'll have to hop off with one booted foot strapped onto our snowboards and glide over the packed snow for a few yards to avoid causing a traffic jam. "I'm nervous," says Marianne. "I haven't gone snowboarding since last season." Between us is Serena, who assures Marianne that everything will be OK. The three of us met the day before on our way to a four-day yoga and snowboarding retreat in the resort town of Mammoth Lakes, California. Serena is by far the most experienced of our little group, but she has readily agreed to accompany us on a handful of intermediate runs.
For the most part, I keep quiet, silently telling myself that this is no big deal. Sure, I've had just four full days of snowboarding over two seasons, but I know how to do this—I think."Ready, girls?" asks Serena, obviously pumped for the first ride of the day. Up here, the wind kicks up the powder, making for little visibility, but I can still see narrow trails below, a few moguls, and tight turns bordered by tall snow-covered pine trees. I take a deep breath of the biting winter air. There's no turning back now.
What a Rush
It doesn't take long to forget my worries; as I start down the sharp, snowy incline, the sun soon reappears. Even though I'm flying past the trees and weaving across the mountain, the landscape seems to go by in slow motion. Marianne and I ride side by side as I try to rotate my hips and kick my board in unison with her to keep up. All is silent except for the sound of our boards carving the snow and the occasional "woo-hoo!" from Serena up ahead.
It feels like we have the whole mountain to ourselves. That is, until the land flattens out and we're closing in on new chairlift lines. Suddenly people are all around—people I could easily blow right into. And just like that, I lose speed, the front edge of the board dips into the snow, and...clip. Trip. Thud. Smack on my back.
I turn around, and Marianne, too, is down but looking cheerful. "Let's do it again," I call out. And we do. Over and over again. (By the end of the weekend, I will have several spectacular green and purple bruises.) When our group of 20 gathers back at the cabin in nearby Convict Lake Resort for yoga and dinner the first night, it seems everyone's hurting. With all the aches, pains, and fatigue that come with a sport as physically demanding as snowboarding, it's hard to imagine doing vigorous yoga after a day on the slopes.
We all let out sighs of relief when Ted McDonald, our retreat leader and the owner of Adventure Yoga Retreats in Santa Monica, California, announces that evenings will be dedicated to a gentle Yin Yoga practice. Yin Yoga consists of long-held floor poses that, according to McDonald, are great for lengthening muscles that have become bunched up and sore from hours of skiing or snowboarding. "Most people are exhausted from a long day on the mountain, and their body is tight," he says. "No one has the energy to flow, but everyone wants to feel better. Yin sets you up for a great night's sleep and another day on the mountain." We settle into a series of quieting forward bends, juicy hip-opening low lunges, and reclining twists, happy for the chance to slow down and take care of ourselves.
Since 2003, McDonald has been leading winter yoga retreats in Mammoth Lakes, a small resort community a little more than 300 miles north of Los Angeles. Most of the retreaters—men and women in their 20s through early 50s—are longtime skiers and snowboarders who have made the trip with McDonald several times before. After a warming dinner made by an Ayurveda-inspired chef, everyone gathers around the fire or soaks in the hot tub to kick back and share the day's stories. Really, it feels less like a retreat and more like a bunch of old friends who meet up once a year, rent a cabin, and bum around one of California's most treasured ski mountains to do what they love best. I'm one of the few newbies to the group—and to snowboarding—but by bedtime, I feel more than welcome in the cozy little cabin, and I crawl into one of the bottom bunks to rest up.
A Little Help from my Friends
Sore as I am the next morning, I join the crowd in the cabin's living room before McDonald and Power Yoga teacher Ashley Turner arrive to lead class. While the chef makes a savory breakfast in the kitchen, we meditate, chant, and then move into a vigorous flow sequence that wakes me up. Turner and McDonald's practice emphasizes hip openers, lunges, side stretches, and core work.
My arms are pretty tired from all the falling and getting back up, so I skip a lot of the Chaturanga Dandasanas (Four-Limbed Staff Poses) and notice I'm not alone. Turner adjusts me into some incredibly deep backbends, which are both invigorating and soothing to my aching muscles. She then guides us through balancing poses and Headstand—poses you can easily fall out of. But as with snowboarding, I try not to worry about crashing and instead move with awareness while hoping for the best. After Savasana (Corpse Pose), Turner reminds us to take care of ourselves and have fun out there.
"Beginning with a more flowing practice gets the blood moving and sets your body and mind for the day ahead," says McDonald. "After the short but strong practice, you still have loads of energy for the mountain, but your blood is moving and your mind is ready." In other words, the yoga, along with the seated meditation that began the practice, wakes you up, gets you feeling energetic, and cultivates calm focus for whatever comes next.
And he's right. When we arrive at Canyon Express, I decide that, instead of stumbling through the runs today, I'll be more aware of my body while I ride and try to figure out what I'm doing that causes me to suddenly crash. With my feet back in my boots and strapped onto my board, I'm surprised at how familiar the stance feels—like a shorter version of Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend).
"It's your toes," says Serena, after watching me take a few turns and tumbles. "You're afraid of leaning into your toes, so you're just riding on your heels." Marianne agrees. So we spend the morning snow boarding through quiet areas where they coach me through some basics: to ride squatting like I'm in Utkatasana (Chair Pose), to deeply exhale before leading with my hips and shoulders to turn, to bend my front knee and bravely lean into the front of my boots and toes, and most of all, to keep smiling when I fall. When I finally put it all together, we ride as a trio into McCoy Station for a cafeteria lunch with the rest of the group, where we share high-fives and stories of the morning's adventures.
Free to Be
On Saturday, there's a clear sky, no wind, and intense sun, which brings in the crowds and leaves little need for heavy winter coats, hats, and gloves. In fact, after each run with Serena, I shed a few more clothes until I'm down to a single layer plus helmet and sunglasses. Now that I'm not so bundled up, I feel freer and move with greater ease. I also notice I'm more comfortable—less worried about snowboarding "the right way" and better able to flow, feeling the movements of the board under my feet and letting my weight shift back and forth. In this moment I remember something Turner said about snowboarding earlier in the retreat: "It's so good to get out of my head and just be."
Serena and I are on our last run together, and impulsively I veer off to the left when we come to a fork. She continues to the right, leaving me alone on a trail that seems to have escaped everyone else's radar. Here, the snow is a little fresher, people are absent, and I have no idea what's up ahead. Flying solo along the trail, carving steady turns, spraying snow, I ride self-assured on my toes and heels. I feel as light as a feather, thrilled enough to scream out "woo-hoo!" And then I fall, with the biggest smile across my face.
Ticket to Ride
Trip Rundown: Check the website (ayretreats.com) for details on upcoming retreats.
More Around the World: Check out winter snow-sport retreats from Babes in the Backcountry (babesinthebackcountry.com) in California, Canada, Japan, and South America; Kripalu (kripalu.org) offers cross-country skiing and yoga retreats in the Berkshires of Massachusetts; and Women's Quest (womensquest.com) takes yogis cross-country skiing and snowshoeing in Colorado.