Practicing any physical discipline—and particularly learning a new one—gives you skills you can consciously or unconsciously parlay into your yoga practice.
Take an extreme sport like skiing (my current obsession), with its unrelenting demand for focus and precise body awareness. An unexpected dividend of shredding the gnarl? A richer, fresher yoga practice.
Last month I went to Vail, Colorado to attend one of Kim Reichhelm’s Women’s Ski Adventures. A former ski racer and two-time World Extreme Skiing Champion, Reichhelm now channels her passion for skiing by sharing it with others, helping less confident skiers taste the aliveness, freedom, and euphoria that skiing can inspire. With the support of a vibrant group of women united by a common love of skiing, I learned to become a true intermediate skier, eschewing the “power wedge” (a.k.a. the “pizza wedge” new skiiers learn first) in favor of getting my legs working parallel to one another. But that wasn’t my only breakthrough. After a week of morning yoga classes, coupled with four full days on the slopes that Reichhelm’s adventure offered, I discovered how putting time on the mountain breathed new life into my time on the mat.
Skiing helped me get to know my feet in a new way.
Like no other sport I’ve come across, skiing requires nuanced foot awareness. My ski instructors cued me incessantly on foot placement, and now when I stand in Mountain Pose (Tadasana), I can feel how the posture’s vitality needs to come from the ground up. Skiing has upped my foot proprioception exponentially. All those cues I have heard in yoga classes for several decades about activating the feet make much more sense now. Learning to ski has exposed my flat-footed habits, reinforcing how critical it is to fire up my lazy arches during yoga.
Skiing has reintroduced me to my core.
When you’re starting down a steep pitch of a black diamond run, you have to lean forward to maintain your balance. It’s counterintuitive for newbie skiers to lean forward down a steep; that’s why you see so many beginners leaning back, making skis more prone to slip out from under you. So, how do you move from your core when you ski? My instructors used cues similar to what my yoga teachers have cued.
Ruth DeMuth, a certified ski instructor who teaches at Vail Ski School, talked about zipping up the front of your body and shifting your weight forward by flexing your ankles. If your weight is on the heels, turning becomes difficult. To keep your feet nimble, your core needs to be lifted and taut, able to absorb the vagaries of snow conditions, which can range from crusty to mashed potatoes to light, freshly-fallen powder. Putting movement patterns into practice on extreme terrain made me realize the non-negotiability of certain yoga principles, such as my root lock (mula bandha). If I fall into a typical yoga trance, following the vinyasa groove without paying attention to my inner landscape, I may or may not engage mula bandha. On the slopes, however, not activating my core means I am much more vulnerable to a series of unfortunate events. There’s a lot on the line. Skiing does an amazing job of reteaching the urgency of alignment.
Skiing has helped me keep my drishti on the prize.
If you’ve been practicing yoga for any length of time, you’ve come across the term drishti—the principle of using gaze to influence focus. Drishti integrates biomechanics with what’s in our line of sight to expand the perimeters of “normal” vision. At ski camp, every instructor had their own way of saying “look where you want to go—not where you are going.” If you look across the slope, instead of down, you will traverse rather than descend. If you look at the tree you are scared of colliding with, you will ski directly into it. What I’ve learned when skiing is that you need to cultivate a gaze that looks through obstacles instead of at them.
Similarly, a wandering eye during yoga practice, especially one trained on checking yourself out in the mirror, dilutes your ability to be present. Especially when I struggle with a balance pose or a challenging asana, I’m more apt now to rely on a soft-gaze focal point to take me deeper into the pose.
Skiing has helped me embrace wobbling.
When most people first learn how to ski, they do everything they can to avoid falling. But falls can be your best teacher, exposing your weak side, compensatory habits, and/or lack of awareness. By paying attention to your body when you fall, you get immediate feedback about why your center of gravity might be askew. “It’s exploring that back-and-forth calibration your feet and legs make on the slopes that strengthens your ability to balance on the mat, says Kim Fuller, co-owner of Colorado Yoga + Life magazine and one of my yoga teachers during the ski camp.
During one of my post-ski yoga classes, Kady Warble, a yoga teacher based in the Vail Valley, led us into a low lunge variation. One of my compadres toppled out of the lunge, then expressed embarrassment. “Falling is learning,” Warble responded. Changing my mindset about balance mishaps made me more willing to push my edge in trickier poses. Classifying falls not as failures but as learning opportunities made me more willing to cultivate the yoga equivalent.
Skiing has made me more patient.
Motivated by a perceived loss of control, many skiers rush their turns by initiating the turn too early, which has the unintentional effect of making you more out of control, not less. Another one of my ski instructors, Laura Morvay of Vail resorts, told a fellow student struggling at the top of a run “to have the courage to be patient.” Morvay explained that the trajectory of a turn means letting the skis point straight downhill as they find the fall line, then rolling on to your feet to carve a turn. In skiing, this kind of turn even has a name—wait for it—called a “patience turn.”
This skiing lesson prompted me to think about how many times I’ve forced a pose, willing my hamstrings to release or my shoulders to rotate. Allowing for the pause in skiing, the moment of effortless gravity, taught me to try the same patience in my yoga practice. Just like skiing turns, poses can’t be rushed. In any given pose, we can fall into our body’s plumb line, letting the sweet spot of release emerge in its own time. “Every time you ski or practice yoga, honor that it will feel different,” says Fuller. Both the plumb line and the fall line are moving targets that ultimately only reveal themselves through surrender, difficult as that is—an act of devotion really—to put into practice.