sa eṣa prakṛtiḿ sūkṣmāḿ
daivīḿ guṇamayīḿ vibhuḥ
"As His pastimes, that Supreme Personality of Godhead, the greatest of the great, accepted the subtle material energy, which is invested with three material modes of nature." ~Wikipedia definition of Lila
In the pursuit of the level four this season I have become very cerebral about my skiing. That is to say, I am doing an awful lot of thinking about skiing and not a lot of experiencing skiing. My trainer recently brought this to my attention and it shook me rather abruptly awake. It reminding me of the bigger picture and why I fell in love with this sport in the first place.
When I think back to the process that has been most effective for me in advancing my skiing ability it has not included work. When it becomes work I tend to fixate on the goal. This becomes very black and white. Did I hit the target yes or no? This brings into the process of learning a measure of judgement and frustration that locks my mind in a vortex of thinking rather than doing. When I am working towards a specific outcome and something else really interesting happens in the pursuit of the target is often equally good information if I pay attention to it. Failure is just as good a teacher as success. When I listen to top CSIA trainers describing their training process they often use the word play instead of work.
It's easy to fall into the work mindset as in our western culture, we view all things in the universe as separate. We see ourselves as separate from everything around us and imagine that we have free will, and with it, the agency to act according to our own volition. For example, the weather is bad, therefore I choose to layer up and deal with that environmental situation. I feel quite pleased with myself that I made that choice and acted accordingly. I am winning agains nature! Likewise, if I want to attain a specific goal, I just work hard and I get there. But... what if all of that, the read of the situation, the idea that I had a choice and acted on it thus winning against nature, was all an elaborate illusion?
You may choose to quit reading at this point. I won't be offended. Full disclosure, what I am about to elucidate on can be extremely distressing initially. Alternatively you may choose to take the red pill, and see how far the rabbit hole goes. (Matrix reference ;-)
Enter, Lila and Maya. Lila and Maya are important concepts in Hindu Philosophy. (To understand the yoga connection here it is helpful to understand that yoga is rooted in the tenets of Hinduism.) Lila means divine play and Maya means illusion or magic. Lila is the idea that the whole of the universe, referred to as Brahman, is playing at being the universe that we see. Why would it do that? To come to understand itself by viewing itself as separate parts linked together in a web of complex relationships. Basically... the universe is playing a big game of hide and seek with itself for the fun of it. This is a pretty awesome idea.
Throughout Hinduism's history there have been dualistic philosophies and non-dualistic philosophies. The later emerging from the former as a evolving thought experiment. Reflect for a moment on how a seed gives rise to a flower and a flower grows, dies and ultimately decays, becoming food for worms, that in turn make soil and soil gives rise to fertile ground for a seed to germinate and so on. Things come into being and go out of being dependent on these causal relationships like a chain made up of many individual links. When reflecting on the world in this way it is natural to eventually start thinking that something must have built that chain and set the whole process in motion.
Here's where it get's interesting. That thing that built the chain must have been outside the chain to be able to build it in the first place. After all, it's hard to imagine a chain building itself. This is a dualistic world view. There are two things making up the universe, a creator, and it's creation. The creation is separate from the creator. and everything that happens to a link in this chain of creation of is influenced by the links preceding it and this in turn will give rise to the links following it. The links are separate things with a beginning and end. Presumably the entire chain also has a beginning and an end. But the creator of the chain exists outside it. The creator neither has a defined beginning or end nor does it's actions depend on actions of anything besides itself. This creator is infinite and limitless.
But wait a minute... If you are really paying attention you will have noticed in the above example that seed to flower to worm to soil to seed comes full circle. None of the things in that circle could have existed without the thing that came before it. If a flower can not exist without a seed then logically seed and flower are the same thing. This is where it get's messy.
If flower, seed, soil and worm are all the same thing rather than separate events in series there is no way to consider it's beginning or end. The chain, it turns out, was Maya, an elaborate illusion brought about by the perception of the observer, Brahman. Move up from this tiny example to everything in the universe, yourself included, as indivisible from the whole existing simultaneously, (timeless) and complete within itself (limitless). What the heck! The creation is starting to sound a lot like the creator. Then it is natural to start thinking that they are not separate but one and the same. This is a non-dualistic world view. Recite this phrase, I am Brahman. Actually just chant the syllable Om and let that sound represent this idea as you allow your sense of individual self dissolve into the vibration.
In this thought experiment, could we have come to the conclusion that the universe is non dualistic without first breaking it down into a whole bunch of separate events and observing how they are related? Probably not. To observe anything there needs to be something to observe separate from the observer. Something that is infinite and limitless arising independently can not observe itself without playing this crazy game. It needs to trick itself into seeing itself as a lot of little pieces in order to understand those pieces by observing the relationships between them. If light and dark are one and the same there is nothing to perceive. If light exists and dark exists separately one can be known by comparison with the other.
This might be a fun game for the universe to play if it was getting bored of being infinite and limitless. But it's a dangerous game. The creator could forget itself and start to believe in the illusion it has created much like how we occasionally get caught up in a good movie and forget, it's just a movie. The universe could mistake itself for a tiny flower dependent on a seed for it's brief existence before it inevitably get's eaten by worms. This flower resigns itself to it's fate, almost...
There is some level on which the flower feels as if it is something more. It believes, if it bends towards the sunlight it may be able to grow that much taller, that little bit stronger and possibly stave off it's demise a little longer. The flower starts thinking that it may be able to influence it's fate, and in so doing, it may actually be more powerful than it seams. This pervasive felt sense of being more than one appears to be gives rise a lingering question. Great scholars and seekers throughout human history have dealt with this question in different ways. For one believing in the idea that he or she is the universe pretending to be a human there is a measure of comfort. If your the universe it makes no sense to get worked up about anything. After all, it's just play. Relax, enjoy the show.
While it may not be possible to intellectually conceive of the notion that one is the whole of the divine cosmos without moving through the steps of this thought experiment, is it possible to feel oneself in this way? Absolutely yes! Direct experience of the self as the whole of the universe is totally possible through perception altering. This can be done in a few ways. Yoga is a system, a technology some say, for changing one's perception to eliminate the ego (referred to as Atman) and feel Atman and Brahman merge. My favourite means by which to change my perception to have this sudden realization is skiing. And that brings me back to the business of training for the level four.
Recently I hit a tree while skiing. No, I did not hit my head as you might be thinking after reading all of the above. I was moving through a tight tree trail when I got going too fast. I was thinking too much. Trying to make specific movements for a specific outcome and I failed to do so fast enough. Realizing my alarming acceleration and the risk that posed to my safety I tried to abruptly shut it down by chucking my skies sideways. This was not the safe option. The deep trough I was in at the time made this impossible. My tails hooked against the outside berm and shot me up the inside berm right into the path of a grove of trees that were too tight to slip in-between.
In my recollection of the events that followed next there is a great deal of detail. I saw the tree I was going to hit. That was when my perception shifted and time paused. I said to myself with a strange level of calm, "Christine you are going to hit this tree, there is nothing you can do about it." I looked at the tree and simultaneously heard it say, "Tree, you are going to hit Christine, there is nothing you can do about it." Then I panicked. I shifted to seeing myself as separate from the tree and the situation seamed dire. Should I stick my arms out to catch the tree? No, my arms are to short, I will totally impale myself on those branches that are sticking out. This forced me to come out of pause mode and there was no more time to consider my options. Fortunately something kicked into action allowing both me and the tree to perform a complex series of movements neither of us had ever made before in a situation neither of us had ever been in before faster than either of us could process.
I threw my torso backwards and brought my left leg up while turning it outwards so it and my ski shot forwards towards my trunk. I moved my branches out of the way and repositioned my trunk just enough to catch my left foot specifically under the arch. With my ski splaying across multiple trunks I stretched out to distribute the force over a greater area. My leg bent proportionately with all joints beautifully aligned. My trunk resisted just enough so I was able to absorb the impact without any strain whatsoever to myself. Just a slight dishevelment of my hair, equipment, twigs and moss strewn about the snowy ground. Not a scratch on me... either of me.
I am not kidding. It was like I was in telepathic communication with the trees and witnessing the event unfold from both perspectives at the same time as if from the outside. At least that is how I remember it. In the moment I can't be sure. Everything happened incredibly fast. To fast to think. I was all pure experience and automatic reaction. The only reliable memory was the moment of realization before it all went down. My senses were shockingly acute and I was calm, very calm. One could even say blissfully calm. From the yoga sutras: yogas chita vritti nirodha - yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind to a state of profound tranquility. The superhuman feat of hitting that tree without injury was yoga execution brought about by a life threatening event. It was only possible because I practice yoga and skiing every day. Rather, I play at these things every day. What it allowed me to glimpse was my self as the universe. In that moment there was no boundary between me and the tree or the physics that governed our fated encounter. I experienced, for a fraction of a second, being infinite and timeless.
When we see this ultimate reality it changes us forever. You can't un-take the red pill. (Matrix reference again ;-) You can't accept a lot of the bullshit you have been telling yourself up to that point. Your, I give a fucks, will from that point forward, be in very limited supply. You will start to use them in the service of this bigger picture of existence as divine play. Who gives a fuck about fashion for example when we can give a fuck about poverty. Poverty is born out of the ignorance that there is a limited supply of resources therefore we should hoard as much as we can. This is maya, the illusion. I am just forgetting that I am everything and therefore want for nothing. It would be great if we could hold onto this reality. Unfortunately we can't escape maya for long. There will be sparks of sudden remembering and then they will burn out and we will again be faced with having to do the laundry. That's just the way it is.
Long story short, when it comes to training for the level four I just need to remember it is all play and enjoy the unfolding of the process. I look forward to this. If I forget again, my practice will remind me.
(Breathe, breathe, breathe)
Break through the surface and
I am forgiven, I am free
I am a field on fire
I am forgiven, I am free
I am a field on fire
~ Lyrics: Nine Inch Nails, Burning Bright (Listen Here)
Imagine trying to relax muscles while at the same time having a very emotional argument on a heated topic. It can not be done. Muscular relaxation depends on nervous system relaxation.
The Autonomic Nervous System is comprised of two separate sets of nerve attaching to key organs. This system is how we respond to threats in our environment and how we regain equilibrium. These two sets of nerves are like the gas and break pedals in a car. The
Sympathetic Nervous System set of nerves is the gas. When you are suddenly confronted by a dangerous situation like a tiger jumping out of the bushes the Autonomic Nervous System becomes active and the result is fight or flight. In fight or flight the body is mobilized for strength, agility and quick reactions.
The break pedal on the other hand is the Parasympathetic Nervous System. This corollary system in healthy individuals is active by default. As well, after a threat is no longer a threat the body needs to return to equilibrium. If we stayed elevated in the state of fight or flight all the time our organs would quickly wear out. The Parasympathetic Nervous System once stimulated activates the rest and digest response. The body finds equilibrium through the balance of these two key systems.
Important in the practice of yoga is the Vagus nerves involved in the Parasympathetic nervous system response. The vagus nerve runs from the brain stem down through the core of the body and directly through the musculature of the diaphragm muscle. When the breath is sufficiently deep and slow enough that the diaphragm is contracting to its full capacity the vagus nerve is stimulated and the rest and digest response is triggered.
By practicing yoga breath work it has been demonstrated scientifically that the vagus nerve can be stimulated and a deep calming overcomes the practitioner. During breath work the practitioner increases vagal tone where tone refers to tension on the vagus nerves. The stimulation of the vagus nerve makes possible bringing the heart, for example, back down to calm state. This is called heart rate variability and it can reduce the risk of several disease processes.
The way we add a little more surrender into asana by relaxing the nervous system through controlled breath. This practice transcends the yoga mat and becomes a tool that can be used in everyday life. Taking a deep calming breath while in a heated argument with a colleague is a great example. Another is being able to stop the escalation of a dangerous situation by staying cool headed when someone else is experiencing road rage.
There are very real practical and performance related applications of this tool. We can strengthen it through yoga practice and then take it onto the mountain with us to find that effortless ease in skiing that allows us the full access to our true potential.
High Vagal Tone means the Parasympathetic Nervous System is active often and good at bringing the nervous system back down from an elevated state. We can think of Vagal Tone as similar to good muscular tone. This aspect of the nervous system when it is said to be high is good at establishing calm.
Yogic breath exercises known as Pranayama have for centuries been the mainstay of spiritual aspirants on the path to greater self control and therefore greater access to directing attention towards the important work of mediation. Practicing Yogic Breath work has been shown to increase vagal tone. This is currently the main theory for how Yoga is effective at treating certain health conditions that are exacerbated by stress.
When it comes to mastering a movement discipline however this ability to let go of unnecessary tension mechanically is necessary to find ease. To be able to stop overworking it is critical in becoming a master. Breath work is a great way to learn how to do this in a controlled closed environment and then one can take that out into the mountains. In the following section I will introduce a Pranayama practice and a few asanas that will challenge the practitioner to find the right blend of muscular effort & surrender.
Sthira, Sukham, Asanam: Stable, Comfortable, Asana (posture), is the goal. ~ The Yoga Sutras 2.46 - 2.48
Overtime the yoga practitioner learns to recognize what optimal alignment feels like in each of the asanas. There is just enough muscular engagement in just the right structures to create a sense of effortlessness in the pose. Likewise in a high speed carving turn there is a sense of easy power when one aligns the body correctly in-between the external forces. The body is propelled smoothly across the fall line when exiting that kind of turn. If we are even slightly misaligned the body will have to work harder than necessary and it will feel very laboured.
In Yoga we strengthen the muscles responsible for medial and lateral rotation of the femur bones in most standing postures. The alignment principle of inward and outward spiral was first taught by B.K.S. Iyengar and later appropriated by John Friend into Anusara Yoga’s Universal Principals of Alignment.
The cue, inner spiral, is a verbal descriptor of a muscular action where the yogi activates the medial rotators, primarily the lateral glutes and abductors, to turn the femur bones inwards. Outer spiral cues the balancing counter action where the yogi engages the glute max and hamstrings to slightly undo the posterior pelvic tilt of inner spiral, extending the lumbar spine to come into a healthy neutral position. This spiral work is taught first in mountain pose, the foundational standing posture, and is used in pretty much every standing position in yoga.
Spiral actions move from heels to head but for the purposes of this post I am talking about just the leg spirals. Used throughout yoga asana practice, these actions are absolutely critical to creating the right amount of muscular engagement to support the body in an optimal alignment no matter what configuration it takes. For skiers the mechanics of inner and outer spiral directly correlate with pivoting. Because pivoting is such a difficult movement pattern to instruct, being able to learn the sensation of recruiting these muscles in several different standing postures makes it so much easier to understand the action of pivoting on snow.
Suffice it to say that with proper understanding of alignment while practicing Hatha Yoga it is possible for skiers to improve awareness of the muscular actions involved in pivoting thereby improving steering with the lower body. As well, a huge side benefit is learning to liberate the low back to achieve a neutral spine. A neutral spine used in conjunction with conscious breath techniques to increase inner abdominal pressure strengthens the low back while under load from skiing forces. I wrote about this more extensively in my blog post about J.F. Beaulieu.
Spirals are just terms to describe conscious muscular actions that align the skeleton to deal with external forces. I find the more I work with them the more tangible they become. It is as if I see these spirals working, or not, in my students. There are many spirals from external forces acting on a skier. These are angular momentum, rotational forces and forces created by the bending and unbending of the ski. One way to get better at skiing is to master how to create spirals from within your body equal to those external forces to find that perfect balance point we all seek. The result of doing so is Sthira, Sukham, Asanam.
By: Christine Davidson
At the 28th second of this video you get to see the moment I learned that I had passed the Expert Teach portion of the CSIA Level 4 exam. This combined with passing the Expert Trainer Development exam earlier in the week was far beyond what I had dared to hope for after a season of setbacks, injury and illness.
There is nothing so motivating as feeling part of a tribe:
The 2016/17 season was a test of my metal the likes of which I have never before faced. With so many days hovering around the minus thirty celcius mark, and one of the busiest starts in our Snow School's history, it took a lot of will to giving up one of my days off to train. But I did train, as often as possible, because I knew as the season wore on and our school became more busy the opportunities to train would become scarce.
The CSIA Level 4 Exam for anyone who doesn't know is a five day exam that is held only once each season in the Coast Mountains, the Rockies and the Laurentians. There are three components to the exam. A trainer development exam, expert teaching exam and skiing exam. If you pass one of those three components individually you get to keep it however, you need to pass all three to become a certified Level 4 Ski Instructor.
The Skiing Exam is for most the hardest portion of the qualification. The exam comprises eight different ski runs, each one with a different goal and a GS Race for good measure. You are examined by a committee of Level 4 examiners with very serious expressions and clipboards. There is also often a small audience of fellow colleagues and friends huddled at the bottom of the run which is both encouraging and never racking. The full five day exam experience was without a doubt the most exhausting and stressful test I have ever taken.
There are a combination of factors that make this exam so difficult. By April most full time Ski Instructors have already put in over a hundred days on snow teaching and training. It can be difficult to manage fatigue while training to peak in April. The time of year can bring wild fluctuations in snow quality. You may have trained your entire season on soft fluffy snow only to find yourself on boilerplate the week of the exam or vice versa. All of this is trivial compared to the real challenge, the mental game.
The mystique of the Level 4 standard engineers a kind of madness in most of the candidate pursuing it. Candidates of very high calibre from all over the country put great effort and commitment into attempting the exam every year. Most of them do not pass. It's like any high level sporting goal really. It takes everything you have. All your attention, all your focus, all your will, all your courage not to mention all your time. And yet, training for, and finally taking, the level four exam was one of the most profound personal growth experiences I have had to date.
This journey, for me began in early 2015. I attended the Level 4 course out of curiosity and with apprehension. I remembered how difficult the Level 3 had been, how all encompassing and exhausting it was. I wasn't sure at that point if I had it in me to make the commitment over what would surely be several seasons of skiing to train instead of skiing just for pleasure. What changed my mind seamed rather innocuous at the time but it was the moment I decided to make a significant commitment to the Level 4 gauntlet.
This week of training took place at Silver Star mountain which has a crazy long traverse to go from the front side to the back side. One morning myself plus all the course attendees and all the trainers were making that segue like a school of fish in tight formation. It was a lovely crisp morning with the early sun breaking through the tree branches. The cat track was freshly groomed so it was easy to coast at a comfortable pace.
I noticed all the skiers around me were making very subtle adjustments with their balance and edge pressure to effortlessly glide in very close proximity to one another. I marvelled at how elegant it all was. The tiny adjustment of one person to speed up, slow down, or evade an obstacle had a near instantaneous effect on the whole group. Everyone, myself included, was linked into this really rich state of group flow. I remember thinking, wow, this is so cool! I am surrounded by some of the most talented Ski Instructors from all over the country and we are all here unite by a common goal. Holy smokes, I am one of them!
That last though of being a part of this prestigious and somewhat crazed group was the clincher. It was a total identification with the tribe sort of moment. This was further reinforced as the week wore on by really impassioned speeches by the trainers during the indoor session about what the Level 4 process had meant to them. How difficult it was, how much it meant to them to finally pass and the friendships that developed along the course of that beautiful journey.
A sense of deep belonging is known to be one of the most powerful catalyst for action. Having that feeling, on that quiet cat track laid a very clear path in front of me. Walking, or rather skiing, the path was a different struggle all together.
Staying the course became difficult. That first season I knew I was absolutely not ready to take the exams so I didn't. Once I made the decision not to attend the exams my discipline towards training fell off a cliff. The 2016 course I was a little more disciplined but this season I had major issues with fatigue. I was so damn tired from my full time gig ski instructing I just couldn't get the necessary time to train and when I did get the opportunity to attend a session I just didn't have the energy or drive to make the headway that was necessary to give me the confidence to pull the trigger on signing up for the exam.
With great challenge comes the opportunity for a great quest:
So that spring, as I was nursing my tired and slightly broken body back to health I knew I needed a training plan that would be effective in-spite the business of my winter seasons. I decided I was going to commit a sizeable portion of my savings to training in the southern hemisphere over my summer. Enter, Rookie Academy and the talented trio of Jonathan Ballou, JF Beaulieu and Reilly McGlashan. I have already written extensively in previous blog posts about my amazing experience in New Zealand. You can read those posts by clicking on the above trainers names.
What I didn't detail in those posts, however, was the tremendous boost to my confidence that came from the experience of navigating solo across the globe to find my best self in a camper van meandering for my own amusement across a completely intoxicatingly wild landscape. Maybe one day I will go into greater detail on that score. I think I can get to the juicy part of the story quickly and succinctly by merely recounting the big lesson I learned during that experiment. I learned that confidence is not something that is handed down by a set of circumstances nor is it a genetically inherited personality trait. Confidence is something you claim by deciding to trust yourself.
The entire time I was in New Zealand I was unable to use my bank or credit cards. Imagine this for moment. I was unable to book a hotel, rent a car, or even buy groceries at the market. This was a source of great panic initially. First I tried to fight the problem. I tried to demand of people a the TD Bank that they fix this problem for me during phone conversations with long hold periods and vague non satisfying answers and suggestions to call a different department of the bank which would start the entire nightmare conversation all over again. One support guy happily reported he had discovered the answer. All I would have to do is go back to Canada, walk into a TD branch and changing my pin. I was at the beginning of a five week stay in NZ so that was not a very comforting answer to say the least.
Eventually I accepted that the TD Bank could not help me and I was on my own to solve the problem for myself. I hunted around until I found one bank machine that would accept my five digit pin and dispense a maximum of $300NZ / day. I reached out to my new friends on the training camp for help and I learned all sorts of interesting things.
I learned how to use apple pay. I learned what a manual credit authorization is and how to convince hotels and car rental places to do it for security deposits. I booked a full day fishing excursion and paid the balance cash making strategic visits to the ATM and trying not to look like a lady walking around with large sums of cash. Not that I would even have reason to worry in Wanaka, one of the most kind and friendly communities I have ever had the pleasure to live in. I booked hotels using the expedia app that allows you to prepay with a credit card online. Every day and every new problem, I found a way.
The hardest moment of all this was when I left the comfortable little home I had in Wanaka where I was staying in the accommodation included in my package by Rookie Academy. I almost made the decision to change my flight and go home early. My housemate, who turned out to be one of those people who is really an angel walking the earth completely emboldened me. She asked, "why did you come here?" "Why did you commit to five weeks instead of just the three week duration of the course?" "What were you hoping to get out of this experience?" I didn't have to think about it for long, the answer was obvious. I wanted to see what I was made off.
As a fellow traveler on a bit of a soul search she identified with my quest. In an extreme gesture of generosity she offered to let me use one of her credit cards as an emergency back up if I got really stuck. She would trust me to pay her the balance if I did use it via e-transfer and or she would just cancel it when I flew out of NZ. I am today as I type these words getting emotional all over again. That meant so much to me.
It takes a small army of dedicated helpers to achieve a big goal:
I remember when I was ski racing there were these two kids, brother and sister, in a division above me that were killing it at every race. They were set to go onto the provincial team and possibly the national team after that. What I noticed was an uncommon level of dedication on the part of their parents, but not in that overbearing live vicariously through your kids way that so many sports parents seam to fall into.
Both mom and dad were at every race, camping out at resort parking lots, volunteering to gate keep, working night jobs to pay for all the ridiculously expensive gear and to keep days open to take these kids to training. It was obvious the family had together committed to the goal of winning races. I watched that family operate like a small super team and that was the edge that gave these kids a boost over the competition.
Once I decided to seriously pursue the level 4 I started to recruit a small army of helpers. In addition to availing of the excellent training opportunities at my ski school I started a facebook group amongst my training peers so we could organize self training days together. I hired a physiotherapist and a sports psychologist. I regularly visited a good massage therapist. Most importantly I relied on the generous support of my partner, friends, family, and trainers. It was because through the combine support of all of them that I was able to make such strides in my performance.
My family was at the business end of many desperate phone calls where I was freaking out about being crazy tired or wondering if I was making the wrong decision signing up for the exams. They dealt with each panic attack with great compassion and patience, as they always do. No matter what my decision of the moment to quit, to go for it, to remain in a state of perpetual limbo, they supported my decision. Sometimes, when you are struggling to trust yourself, hearing other people trust your decisions unequivocally, even through the many flip flops, is all you need to get back on track.
One of the best decision I made was to hire John Coleman, a well versed in the Ski World talented Sports Psychologist. The first thing he asked me was "why are you doing this?" As ridiculous as it sounds, I hadn't given that much thought. The ladders of the CSIA are something that you find yourself climbing because they are there, without giving much thought to where they are taking you. John introduced me to a completely different world of performance. The psychological component. The first step was to get clear on the why so that when the road got hard I would have a good reason to keep going.
There were many profound introspective tools John introduce me too but the most impactful was the core alignment exercises. The concept is simple. Imagine your life like a fruit bearing tree. The most transient aspects are the fruit. This is the contexts of life that will fall away one day. They may serve you in so far the experience they provide nourishes the tree as they decompose but they will cease to exist in your life one day. The branches are your most highly prized values in life. These things are marginally more permanent, and yet, like a strong wind, a life changing event could cause the branches to break. Never the less, the essence of what makes you - you would carry on. This essence or core of your being is the trunk of the tree. This is what stands the test of time. These are the self defining characteristics that motivate your behaviour.
I took some time to explore this exercise. Fascinating to me was how many things that seamed really important, when I attach myself, to them ultimately belong in the fruit category. The Level 4, remarkably, was a fruit. I know the struggle to achieve it will one day end either with me passing or deciding to no longer pursue it. When that happens who I am as a person will continue on pretty much un phased. Liberating yes? I thought so. In fact, that realization really emboldened me. No longer did it seam like an all or nothing venture.
Values can be constructive or destructive. My favourite discovered value was freedom. I need that in my life. The freedom to adventure and pursue my curiosities about all things from the most expansive to the most esoteric. However, I have been forced into moments of constraint where freedom was limited and I rebelled against that instead of learning from it. Another value was fairness. This one is interesting. I find myself getting really upset sometimes over unfairness. It makes me strive to be fair in my dealings with others but it can also make me slightly opinionated.
At the core of my motivations for everything was this characteristic of being a seeker. My entire life, from my earliest memories I have been pondering big questions and completely in-content with the mundane. I have been seeking always, self knowledge but not in the intellectual, contemplative sense but rather, through gritty get your hands dirty direct experience. It is an experiment I have invited into my life because I have long suspected there lies dormant within me, and all people, a capacity that transcends all limits. That place where one becomes, as Maslow coined it, self actualized or in a state of exquisite grace where impossible is just a word. This state has a name, flow state. I am a voracious seeker of flow. In the context of seeking flow state the Level 4 makes perfect sense. It is the next big challenge that I am using to test my assumptions and learn what is possible.
New mountains are calling and I must go:
So will I continue to chase this goal? You betcha! To further help in that quest I have made a decision to pursue employment at Lake Louise this season. The Lake Louise Ski & Snowboard School is really embracing the cutting edge of snow sport education and this really inspires me. I believe I will have a great opportunity to exercise my new gained skills as a partial cert Level 4 there.
The Lake has a beautiful terrain assisted development area for new skiers & snowboarders. When I first saw it I actually teared up a little visualizing how much that will set students up for success. They have actively recruited high level pros supported by amazing trainers because they believe that makes for a better product as well as a great career development culture to motivate the up and comers. Super cool, they reward great customer service with a straight up uncomplicated incentive program.
They also have a larger school so there is less strain on each pro during busy times. They spread the prestigious role of teaching students training for CSIA certification across a greater number of high level pros. Super exciting for me personally, they have invited me to help develop a yoga program to give their pros access to tools that enhance performance and prevent injury. And they give pros access to their booking schedule in advance so they can lesson plan and let clients know when they are available for future bookings via, wait for it, computer!
I now know what I am getting into taking the Level 4 exams. I know there will be really wonderful moments of connecting with my tribe of dedicated and slightly mad candidates. There will be awful moments of fear and self doubt. There will be glorious moments when it all comes together and terrifying moments when it all falls apart. I welcome every part of it because I know the pursuit of this goal resonates with my core reason for getting up in the morning and ultimately, it will help me get better at the thing I love more than anything... Sharing my love for skiing with cool clients from all over the world in a breath taking mountain setting. Please wish me luck!
“Don't lower your expectations to meet your performance. Raise your level of performance to meet your expectations. Expect the best of yourself, and then do what is necessary to make it a reality.” ~ Ralph Marston
Prior to traveling to New Zealand to train with him, in the Rookie Academy Advanced Ski Improvement course, I only knew of Reilly McGlashan from the Project Kitz instructional ski video he had produced through a company he co-founded called Projected Productions. So when I met him in person I was a little bit star struck, I'm not going to lie. As if that wasn't already impressive enough I learned that he had also recently founded a new ski school in Hokkaido Japan called Hokkaido Collective Snowsports.
One of the most impressive aspects of really good technical skiing is balancing on a high edge angle. When done really well, the skier appears to lay his entire body over in the turn to the point where the inside hip looks like it is going to hit the ground. Reilly McGlashan is easily one of the best in the world at laying it over so I knew, if I got a chance, I was going to ask him to show me how he does it.
Over the course of the week I learned so much more from Reilly thank just how he lays it over. However, the full significance of what Reilly taught me did not sink in until I had spent nearly the entire season training, experimenting, playing, falling, getting up, putting myself out there and reflecting on the entire experience. I learned to get over the idea that there is a specific recipe of movements that when combined in a certain way will create awesome skiing.
Looking back it makes me think of the first time I heard Barber's Adagio for Strings, Op. 11. The first 26 seconds of the piece as that phrase hits you there is an immediate sense of something impressive happening that really captures your attention. That sound bite alone is quite intriguing but if you stopped at the 26th second deciding you wanted to understand just that one part you would miss being mesmerized by how elegantly that phrase is woven into the larger composition and how it is the cumulative effect of the piece in it's entirety that changes your life.
Like the Adagio Reilly's skiing has a central theme that he encapsulates in Project Kitz with the phrase Hip Discipline. In my mind it was such an elegant mechanical principle that was consistent with everything I had learned from Jonathan and JF, but most importantly it seamed achievable. I was really eager to try it out. I made the mistake, however, of overly fixating on this one aspect which not only proved frustrating but also served to temporarily blind me from the larger more profound lesson.
Day one training with Reilly started with a stretch session at the top of the first chair lift. As a yoga teacher no doubt you have surmised correctly that I was super excited about that. The stretches all centred around range of motion in the hip joint. Reilly explained that he is experimenting with achieving the lateral splits. I was really curious about why. I am paraphrasing but basically he said, by increasing how far you can abduct your femur while keeping the pelvis level you increase how far you can move inside the turn while staying in balance over the outside ski.
In an interview with Tom Gellie on the podcast Global Skiing, Reilly describes how he is constantly inventing exercises and drills to create movement patterns that will help him emulate skiers he really admires. This has been a large part of his training process. Conducting experiments with sample size me approach to ski training interestingly is something I found Jonathan, JF & Reilly all shared in common. For each of them it started as a curiosity about ski technique that became a burning passion and then a life practice involving mindful self inquiry and creative experimentation. It is why, I believe, they are such great innovators in the Ski Teaching world.
As fate would have it one of Reilly's former bosses from a prominent American Ski Resort happened to be joining us for this week of training. I had been fixating on the nuances of a particular movement and frustrating myself. I can't remember exactly what I was talking about but she broke through my rumination by sharing a story about how Reilly trained when he was starting out. She recounted how Reilly was the type of Ski Instructor that was always working on things. When everyone else was interested in the best laps of the day and then having coffee he was working on his skiing. In every available moment he was conducting skiing experiments, trying out new drills and confirming his experience with video analysis.
Something about that story struck a chord with me. At the same time I had the opportunity to follow Reilly down a pitch. The objective was simple, just match his speed and turn shape, later I would try adding the performance. I sort of let go of trying to move a specific way in favour of just moving. I had to have all attention squarely in the moment in order to just keep up. This turned into one of the most profound learning opportunities of the season.
For the rest of that week I was literally chasing Reilly all over Treblcone Mountain. As I was doing so I was also embodying one of the most important tenants of yoga. I was performing action without attachment to the fruits of actions. I was not getting overly hung up on success or failure but just performing each new experiment with attention and curiosity. I could ask strategic questions every now and then to help me slightly change the variables of the experiment. It was really fun and gratifying just to be able to follow in the tracks of a skier who is so inspiring to me.
Finally the moment presented itself, when I could ask Reilly how he manages to achieve such incredible edge angles. "What's the secret Reilly?" I asked a little timidly but I really wanted to know. I suggested it would be awesome to follow him doing it so that I could try to copy his movements which had been such a successful strategy for me to that point. He said, to be able to do that you need really firm snow to hold the edge so that there is something you can balance against. Unfortunately the snow at Treble Cone that day was pretty soft, but there was one really steep pitch that had been skied off and there was some chance to get grip. He turned back to me and said, "OK lets try it. here."
I remember the first turn was to the right going around a snow fence and then cutting hard left just uphill of another ski session. After that it's all a total blur. I know he was far more in balance on that left ski than I because he shot across the pitch and I sort of meandered before making a quick adjustment to reorganize myself to get the turn back to the left happening. And yet that run was sort of life changing for me because what I saw happen in front of me was pure art. There was a theme that adapted seamlessly with the changes in the snow condition and the contour of the slope weaving in and out of the larger composition. It looked powerful, effortless and really darn inspiring.
Several months later when I was at the top of the Gold Scapegoat at Sunshine Village during the Level 4 exams nervously waiting for the wave from the examiners I allowed myself a second to think about the journey I had been on up to that point and how much it had transformed me. The injuries and setback. All the advice of my trainers and all the video I had watched. All the yoga, gym and sports psychology sessions. All the generous support from colleagues, clients, friend and family. I also thought about a section of the Bhagavad Gita:
"Your right is to work only and never to the fruits thereof. Be not instrumental in making your actions bear fruit, nor let your attachment be to inaction. Arjuna, perform your duties established in Yoga, renouncing attachment, and be even-minded in success and failure; evenness of mind is called 'Yoga'. Action (with a selfish motive) is far inferior to this Yoga in the form of equanimity. Do seek refuge in this equipoise."
~ Srimad Bhagavadgita (Ch. 2, 47-49)
At the top of that ski off run, slightly downhill from my fellow candidates I silently committed to just keep moving like I was following Reilly. Finally, the wave came and I went for it. While I didn't pass the full skiing portion of the Level 4, I did manage to pass that particular ski off run. I also passed the Trainer Development and Expert Teaching making it a successful season far beyond my wildest hopes. It all started in a small but stunning part of the world, Wanaka New Zealand where I had the opportunity to meet cool people from all over the world and train with some of the absolute best. I really hope I have the opportunity to get back there again sometime in the near future.
“The idea is to relax (laterally) as I build edge angle vs on the vertical plane. The idea is to use gravity and not to force the edge angle. It allows me to get maximum propulsion out of the turn and, being supple in the articulation, helps me to manipulate my line, speed and direction much more effectively.”
~ JF Beaulieu on the concept of gravity drop, Project Hintertux
Week two started with me feeling confident having progressed so far in a short span of time with Jonathan Ballou’s expert guidance. With a strong inside half I was aligned over the downhill edge. By the end of the second week with JF I had learned how to take that alignment and move optimally to harness the forces I was generating in the turn to get incredible performance in my skiing. I was leaning how to lay it over and rip across the slope like a demon and the most remarkable part of all of this was how easy it felt.
JF calls this movement the Gravity Drop. Putting together Jonathan’s strong inside half and JF’s gravity drop was the formula that unlocked my skiing potential. I felt great optimism about my chances of reaching my skiing goals because not only could I see improvements in my skiing my friends and colleagues were noticing this change in the videos I was posting online. As well, random strangers were stopping me in lift lines to say ‘I saw you coming down the mountain back there and I just had to say that was incredible.’ True story!
I highly recommend purchasing his Project 2016 video series, or invest in a trip to either Mt. St. Anne or Treblecone to train with him in person. It is a very interesting experience training with JF. When he speaks, a hush comes over the group. I am a student with ADHD and learning disabilities. I am like a squirrel on acid at the best of times. And yet, when JF talks about skiing I am compelled, as if by some sort of black magic, to calm down and pay attention.
At first I attributed this effect his thick French Canadian accent lending gravitas to his speech especially when he slows down to emphasize key concepts, but that is not it. JF more than any other trainer I have worked with has dedicated himself completely to mastering the sport of skiing and in the process he has become a Guru. In Yoga Guru means more than just teacher it means dispeller of darkness which is to say remover of ignorance. A Guru is different from a teacher in that he or she gains mastery over a discipline through the direct experience of practice not by merely consuming knowledge from other sources.
There is an authenticity to JF that makes everyone around him recognize, here stand one who has gained deep insight through direct experience. JF has tested for himself every concept or idea he has ever received during his long career in the ski industry. When you present a new idea to him you are probably going to see him playing with that idea somewhere on the slope later that day. This attribute in a teacher, above all things, commands respect.
I first met JF in 2009 on the Klein Matterhorn Glacier by Zermatt Switzerland. I was then training for my CSIA Level Three on a course run by an instructor training company called myskitrip.ca. Back then JF was already distinguishing himself as a great leader and innovator in the CSIA. He was talking not just about how to move but precisely what muscles to contract to make the correct movement.
I remember on this particular camp the focus was on contracting the abductors in a specific sequence of muscular engagements in order to steer the feet under the hips for a smooth transition from turn to turn. Never before had one of my CSIA trainers used correct anatomical terminology to describe movement to me. I found it really fascinating and it really felt like I was being trained like a legitimate athlete.
JF learned a lot about anatomy and Kinesiology by recovering from traumatic injuries. First he nearly died when his spleen ruptured during a particularly violent ski crash. He had a long slow recovery from that experience that taught him a lot about the body. Then he sustained a very bad low back injury. The later required him to spend a great deal of time with Physio and Personal Trainers to rebuild strength in key areas to protect the body from future injury.
One of my favourite parts of the week training with JF was when he taught us how to activate the deep core muscles and breath to stabilize the low back. One sunny beautiful day at TC JF dropped a bomb of insight about how to activate the deep core that changed completely how I think about generating power in the turn. "It’s like holding in a fart and drawing the belly button towards the spine." At first we were all stunned, then we laughed, then we tried it and we promptly stopped laughing because it works.
When we talk about core strength in a load bearing sport like skiing we are talking about stabilizing and supporting the lumbar spine, the low back. This part of the body is under strain in multiple planes, vertically & rotationally, during high performance carving turns. If we do not activate the deep core muscles and breath properly the low back can sustain a very painful bulging or slipped disc when the intervertebral shock absorbing material protrudes from in-between the bones of the spine. This can actually impinge the spinal nerves with very painful and sometimes life altering consequences.
JF then explained how his physio taught him to exhale slowly while the body is under the greatest load and inhale during the transition between turns. In weight lifting this is called the valsalva maneuver. The idea is to inhale during the negative (without resistance) movement and to exhale during the positive (with resistance) movement with slight constriction of the glottis muscles in the throat so the air exits the body more slowly than it would naturally. This increases intra-abdominal & intra-thoracic pressure that stabilizes the low spine by preventing the low back from caving in while performing the positive movement. This breath technique has been used by weight lifters for a long time and actually is what the body will do naturally when you are picking up something heavy.
Everything JF was describing is something I could relate to in my yoga practice. The bandha’s, or locks, are muscular activations that support the spine during seated meditation and while practicing yoga postures. The bandha’s are mentioned in a couple yogic texts written around the 15th century called the Hatha Yoga Pradeepika and the Gheranda Samhita. There are three band’s. Mula bandha involves contracting the pelvic floor muscles, uddiayana bandha involves contracting the transverse abdominus. When mula and uddiayana bandha are combine the lumbar spine is extended. jalandhara bandha involves extending the cervical spine while slightly contracting the glottis muscles in the throat. The ancient yogi’s felt that by engaging the bandha’s energy could move more freely through the spine. Basically it creates good posture by establishing a strong neutral spinal position.
Ujjayi Pranayama, also known as victorious breath, is a breath technique where the glottis muscles of the throat are constricted so that the inhale & exhale are slowed down. It is thought of as a nervous system activating breath that prepares the body for strength and focus. When the bandhas and ujjayi are used together you basically have the valsalva maneuver. Both are systems for activating the core for strength while the body is performing muscular action under load. Ujjayi breath is used during vigorous yoga practices where there is a greater need for core strength. The mechanism of action is the increase pressure in the abdominal and thoracic cavities of the body to support the low back against the strain of weight bearing.
A word of caution for when you are practicing short radius turns. You will find yourself hyperventilating if you try to pair the exhale with each moment the body is under load and the inhale with each transition. JF had an answer for this as well. The minute you gravity drop into a position where the body is under load, get out of there! Don’t hold that tension in your body for longer than you need to. I found when I did this successfully the breath became rhythmical and strong to serve the needs of the body without my having to think about it to much. A certain feeling of effortlessness was the result.
JF also talks about the body in suspension vs compression. If you have activated the deep core with mula & uddiayana bandha and you are aligned in the turn you have enough muscular tension to resist forces acting on the skis and the body, you don’t need to add anything more. In my yoga practice I know when I am activating my core to align in each posture my natural breath takes on a rhythm and force that perfectly matches the muscular output. When this happens the posture because light and effortless. So to in skiing, when I am aligned, core engaged and otherwise relaxed I drop with gravity in a body suspended way where I am extremely strong and generate great power in the turn.
And so with all things, after many years of diligent practice, the absorption of many different trainers perspectives it all comes down to that age old adage. Less is more. With the right effort the desired result is achieved with a feeling of effortlessness. This is what I look for now in my skiing.
The third and final week was when I really got the chance to test how far everything I had learned could take me by chasing the impressive Reilly McGlashan around the mountain.
This season I went to New Zealand to train for the CSIA Level 4 with renown trainers Jonathan Ballou J.F. Beaulieu and Rilly McGlashan through a company called Rookie Academy. It was my first time traveling to the southern hemisphere and skiing the opposite season. Why travel 13,000km for ski training you might ask. Well part of it is the callibre of trainers I had the opportunity to work with, part of it was the experience of skiing in New Zealand and a whole lot of it had to do with my complete inability to cope psychologically with six months off snow.
Mother nature kindly delivered a bomber storm the week before my arrival and that snow stayed perfect for the duration of my three week training course. This was incredibly fortunate because just a couple weeks prior the mountains in New Zealand were bare. I trained at Treble Cone mountain just outside Wanaka, a little shredders paradise with views so stunning you become convinced you have died and gone to heaven.
My first week of training was with Jonathan Ballou from Aspen Snowmass who is kind of a big deal in the Ski Instructing world. This is partially due to his impressive resume which includes PSIA Alpine Team, PSIA L3 Examiner, PSIA Alpine Committee Chair, PSIA Children’s Examiner, NZSIA L3 Examiner and NZSIA Ski Division Committee (Education Coordinator). Additionally Jonathan happens to be one of the most talented teachers I have ever trained with.
Prior to attending Rookie Academy I had watched a lot of promotional video of Jonathan along with JF & Reilly. My thoughts when watching video of Jonathan were, ‘man this guy can lay it over… ho-le-shit!’ Jonathan has been a ski instructor since age 14. I got to meet his absolutely adorable dad, professor Dave, on this trip. Dave was formerly a university professor of molecular bioscience and still wears his university name tag on his ski jacket.
One really cute thing Dave said that he and Jonathan started skiing the same year but Jonathan got a lot better at it. Dave was pretty darn good also especially when you take into account he had to make a massive comeback after a mountain biking injury that left him paralyzed in hospital for two weeks. That story, Dave told me, on the terrifying bus ride down from Treble Cone. It was a small sample of the grit and tenacity that runs in that family.
Jonathan has dedicated his entire life to not just mastering the sport of skiing but to understanding the underlying physics, biomechanics and even the neuroscience behind learning how to master skiing. This gives him a depth of knowledge that is unprecedented in the industry. This is how he was able to help me dramatically improve my skiing in a very short period of time.
A lot of trainers I have worked with dismiss anatomy kinesiology education as excessive for the purposes of teaching skiing. Having formal training in these subjects from my college dance program and yoga teacher trainings I have always disagreed with this sentiment but was very much alone in my opinion. Meeting Jonathan validated the potential of using science in ski teaching. His communication about how to move wasn’t just clear, it was exact and measured out in pace with student comprehension, of which he had a very impressive read.
Once I experienced the target outcome of powerful, carved, high performance turns, I suddenly understood a couple metaphors other trainers have been using to try to convey how they wanted me to move. I shared these insights with Jonathan and he was brutally honest about how much he dislikes metaphors as a means to communicate about movement. His reason being they are simply not specific enough to avoid being misconstrued. Actually, I am exaggerating that point a little bit for dramatic effect. I would ask the reader to entertain my flamboyance to the end of this post and then read Jonathan's clarifying remarks below.
The truth is a metaphor, by definition, is something that is ‘like’ the sensation or concept you are trying to convey. Like may be ball park similar but it is not the same as the target sensation or concept therefore metaphor can only get you so close to the goal, the rest you need to figuring out on your own through trial and error experimentation. Needless to say trainers employing a metaphor based loose guiding approach are likely not going to get results faster than the student has time to experiment, begging the question, ‘who is doing the training?’ Metaphors are also widely open to misinterpretation and as such can quickly become a liability rather than a tool when teaching.
A metaphor that has trapped me in a maladaptive movement pattern for a long time is the peddling a bicycle metaphor when referring to the use of the lower joints in advanced / expert parallel turns. The metaphor suggests that the outside leg extends at the same time the inside leg flexes. I learned from Jonathan this is not exactly true. The inside leg needs to start flexing first, just a fraction of a second earlier than the outside leg extending. It sounds like a difference so subtle as to be inconsequential but it is anything but. If flexing the inside leg leads, weight shifts to the outside ski in a way that promotes rock solid balance. The outside leg then extends as a result of the ski traveling on an arc and the muscles of that leg engage just enough to resist the forces acting on the skis and skier. The result is seemingly effortless power & performance.
If you try to do what the bicycle metaphor suggests you should do, i.e. flex the inside leg and extend the outside leg at the same time, you will push your outside foot (BOS) away from your centre (COM) and your weight will fall on the inside ski. This hopeless misalignment will forever prevent you from achieving cleanly aligned high performance carved turns because you will be out of balance relying on the skis side cut to catch your falling mass at the bottom of each turn. At speed the pressure resulting from this will be too much to manage. It will feel effortful and extra movements will be required to tighten up the radius of the turn like rolling the lower joints or rotating the pelvis.
One of the very first things Jonathan said to me was that good skiing is incredibly simple and yet very very difficult to do. He was totally right. It is difficult to do because we have a lot of preconceived notions deeply engrained old patterns that need to be abandoned in favour of new ideas and movement patterns. Jonathan taught us in one of our evening lectures that movement patterns are never lost. The old adage, like riding a bike - you never really forget, illustrates this point well. We don’t loose old movement patterns, we simply choose to abandon them in favour of new more efficient movement patterns which over time will become automatic. However, if we are tired, scared or out of our depth we can slip back into old habits very easily.
Because new movements are very difficult to pattern Jonathan did not just say, flex the inside leg. Over the course of four training days he rolled out a very systematic and detailed progression of small movements from the ground up that lead to developing what he called strong inside half. It was the how to details of flexing the inside leg to create balance on the outside ski. A strong inside half gave me a tantalizing sample of what the skiing I admire so much in my trainers feels like.
I am going to close with a metaphor but I hope I have made crystal clear why the metaphor is going to be inadequate. For a more in-depth understanding of the sensation I will attempt to communicate about through metaphor you need to train with Jonathan and experience it for yourself. Suffice it to say, a strong inside half was like trading the dodgy handling and sluggish acceleration of a Ford Festiva for a supercharged V8 Mercedes Benz SLR McLaren. I had been handed the keys but still needed to learn how to drive it. For that JF enters the story during week two.
Clarifying comments from Jonathan:
Hey, This is great, and thank you very much for the kind words. If I can make one suggestion, I would stay away from some of the absolutes in the post. I agree with everything there, however not in absolute form. Sometimes we do flex and extend our legs in opposition at the same time, and sometimes we may extend our new outside legs before the flexing the old one. These are not "go to" movements or absolute truths. More often what you have very accurately described is what we would like to do. Regarding metaphors, I do not absolutely dislike them. They have their place. As you say, when used well, they help a student get a little closer to what something may feel like. "may feel like is the operative term. We can not express exact feelings as that feelings, and how we visualize movements for that matter, are unique to each person. I can tell you what I feel or how I visualize, but that may have little, or no meaning to you. Megaphones and analogies are fine, so long as they are used to support more accurate, but simple, descriptions as needed. I hope that helps. The article is great as written, please feel free to disregard my suggestions if you wish.
I love to tell the story about how I earned the nickname Crash. My first season training with the Rabbit Hill Ski Club in Edmonton was a trial by fire. Prior to that my training had taken place at the largely volunteer run Brazeau Race Club at the Drayton Valley Ski Hill. I had a lot to learn in a short amount of time to catch up to my team mates. I routinely blew out of courses in a dramatic fashion with a lot of snow spray and equipment flying everywhere but this was not the reason for the nickname. Once day training GS with my team mates on a weekend camp I was the last to make my way down the pitch. We were practicing a drill that involved high speed large radius turns. I really liked this type of turn because it was fast and you could feel the force build up in the skis and when it would release the snap back would shoot you across the hill. The skis are designed to bend and rebound not unlike the fabric of a trampoline. If you have ever jumped on a trampoline and accidentally lost balance in the air causing you to land at an angle you have likely experienced being shot precariously off into a direction not of your choosing. This same is possible in skiing. If you load up the ski in a misaligned way you are going to be shot out of the turn with little control over where you go.
I had a really deeply ingrained habit of making this turn happen by counter rotating meaning turning my upper body opposite the direction my ski tips were pointing. Counter rotation causes the hips to move inside the arc of the turn increasing the degree of edge angle between the skis and the snow. The ski edges bite into the snow increasing the friction and slowing down the feet meanwhile the centre of mass or the hips want to keep traveling with gravity downhill. The resulting force is Angular momentum often referred to as centrifugal force. That same force you experience on a mery-go-round that allows you to tip your body inward without falling. There is a lot of pressure at this point causing the skis to bend like bananas but due to their construction the skis will eventually need to snap back just like a trampoline. This is when it get's interesting if you happen to be misaligned. In the skiing business we have some excellent descriptive metaphors for what happens in this event. Words like rodeo, bucked, slingshot, and my favourite; rocketed. You get the idea.
Back to my story, I loved the sensation of being rocketed. I had come to associate that with proper technique because like much of alpine ski racing it felt a little violent, very fast and exciting. Unfortunately I had very little control over the rocket due to chronic misalignment. The radius of my Salomon Equipe 9100 GS skis was somewhere in the neighbourhood of 21 meters. That means I needed at least 21 metres of downhill travel to complete one turn relying on just the sidecut of the ski. With my awesome counter rotate and rocket technique I could tighten that up slightly but not predictably.
The last of my team mates to head down the piste practicing my GS turns everything was going quite well until I approached my group. All bunched up watching my approach first with indifference then fascination that quickly gave way to horror as it became apparent I had badly misjudged my approach trajectory and speed. I rocketed myself right towards the group and was forced to chuck my skis sideways to try to stop in time. In the process of doing this I completely lost my downhill edge and turned from rocket to missile, my team mates the terrified targets.
I just wrapped my arms around my helmet closed my eyes and held my breath. Body's went flying everywhere! When the snow settled I was absolutely mortified. A mess of bodies and equipment lie in my wake. Thankfully no one was seriously injured, all the same they were none to impressed with me. If doing that wasn’t bad enough I did the exact same thing just a few runs later earning me forever the nickname Crash and the not so generously intended honour of always being made to go first while performing drills.
My team mates suggested that maybe I might need to get my eyes checked to make sure I can perceive depth. I was hopeful that this could vindicate me. Proclaiming great concern I convinced my mom to take me to the eye doctor hopeful there was a perfectly logical explanation for the whole thing. Imagine my upset when I learned I had perfect vision!
The hard truth was that by counter rotating and dropping my hip to the inside of the arc so aggressively as a way to start the steering effort I was crippling myself in a hopelessly misaligned position. I could not have steered with the lower body even if I knew how, which at that time, I completely didn't. For that reason I had no control over my direction and hence destiny on the mountain. I was operating on the belief that racers need to get their hips on the ground. I felt validated that my technique was correct because it felt like I expected it should feel. I became so attached to the notion that my ideas about performing high speed carving turns were correct that even in the face of incredible evidence to the contrary i.e. crashing into my team mates not once but twice because I couldn't steer, I was willing to consider my eye sight was to blame before considering that perhaps the way I was turning was to blame.
Now here I am all these years later I am very satisfied when I consider how much I have improved since those crazy rocket turns. And yet, as I reflect on my experience at this seasons CSIA Level 4 course, I realize I am still learning and refining my understanding of ski technique. In fact, I realized on the course that some of my ideas about alignment and pressure control have changed. Therefore, I have decided to hit pause on publishing this 26 part blog series to allow time to reflect on these new insights. I must confess there is a little excitement in my fingers as I type this. I love the process of research and experimentation. So that is what I am off to do until the rest of the season.
Stay tuned for the second half of Samadhi On Snow next season!
“Once in a while you find yourself in an odd situation. You get into it by degrees and in the most natural way but, when you are right in the midst of it, you are suddenly astonished and ask yourself how in the world it all came about.”
― Thor Heyerdahl
I am someone with problem feet so I can write this blog post with a great deal of authority. In fact, as I write this post I am looking down at my poor feet and I am quite horrified. There is frost bite damage, bone spurs, blisters and sections of missing skin that just won't heal because I haven't had days out of ski boots in some time. This did not happen all at once. I have been in ski boots since mid November and what I am experiencing is cumulative damage.
I had originally written a fairly cheerful optimistic sounding post over the summer that was filled with helpful tips for how to keep your feet healthy for the ski season. However, I can't bare the hypocrisy. Hear I am, having difficulty walking in the mornings because of the shape my feet are in. So instead, I am going to tell you everything I have done wrong that has lead to the less than favourable predicament I find myself in, so that you may learn from my mistakes.
First of all a little context. As a full time professional Ski Instructor training for the next level of certification I am in my ski boots seven hours a day, six days a week. I love this! If I could I would ski eight days a week. I consider Ski Instructing a privileged calling and so I forget sometimes that it is a job. When I am not teaching skiing I am training and when I am doing neither of those I am free skiing for my own enjoyment.
Over the Christmas holidays I worked a twelve day stretch right on the heels of a ten day stretch. Nothing is remarkable or strange about this in my line of work. All my colleagues have been doing the same and many of them have feet that look even worse than mine. You will notice the injuries happened during or shortly after this busy Christmas period as that was when my body was under the most strain and yet the thing I needed to do to prevent those injuries should have been done far before I ever got to that point.
My first and most regrettable mistake this season was to not replace my foot powder when I ran out in November. It was one of those things relegated to the bottom of of my shopping list when in fact it should have been at the top. The reason foot powder is so important is that it keeps your feet dry. On very cold days that alone can be enough to prevent frost bite. Even though it sounds pretty docile frost bite is no trivial matter. Once you get it once you are prone to getting it in the same spot again even when it's not as cold as the temperature that caused the original injury. Always apply foot powder before putting on your ski socks in the morning. If you are putting your boots on at the resort make sure you exchange the socks you have been wearing in your shoes en route to fresh dry ski socks. The dryer your feet are, the warmer they will remain.
My second unfortunate mistake was that I waited until after the Christmas holiday period to buy boot gloves. A boot glove is a neoprene slop that goes over the toe box of your ski boot fastening around the heel piece with velcro. They work remarkably well to keep the feet warmer. Instead of boot gloves I was using disposable toe warmers on the top of my toes inside my boots. This was inferior for two reasons. First of all, they held my foot in a slightly different spot than normal causing a pressure point. Secondly, because of the lack of foot powder, the toe warmer made my toes sweat. As these disposable toe warmers are good for only five hours on hours six & seven my sweaty toes were very vulnerable to frost bite.
My third mistake was not addressing the above mentioned pressure point sooner. The minute I noticed my tailors bunion swelling I should have been into the boot fitter to get the plastic shell punched. I only waited two days but that was enough time for the swelling to extend to my pinkie toe and get far worse. Even with the boot punch I was in a lot of pain. I started to rely on Voltaren gel, a topical anti-inflammatory, just to get through the days. That meant my feet were wet so I got frostbite on the bone spur.
In one of my daily morning meditation practices I had a difficult time sitting cross legged as the outer edge of my foot resting against the floor was really uncomfortable. Of course, the point of meditation is to be mindful of what is happening in the present moment. I realized that this was my sign and I needed to heed my bodies message. That is when I bought the boot gloves and stopped using the disposable toe warmers. Now the swelling has gone down but the frostbite damage is looking pretty ugly.
My fourth and by far most catastrophic mistake was attempting to break in new, high performance, race fit ski boots on a cold training morning after there is already damage to my feet. Ideally I would have bought and started breaking in the new boots early season when my feet were fine. That way I could have figured out where the pressure points were and visited the boot fitter to get punches in the appropriate spots.
I was feeling lucky so I went ahead and wore my boots for a full morning of training. The super snappy edge pick up that I was getting was so awesome that I completely didn't realize I had lost the skin off both navicular bones. That was unfortunate. In-spite a very creative combination of corn cushions and gel mole skin the resulting blisters just will not heal. I am in a situation now where I need to be really careful about infection and I need to take time off, so no free skiing for me for a little bit.
The navicular bone is on the inside edge of the foot below and slightly ahead of the ankle bone. Normally it is a small protrusion that acts as to provide leverage for a tendon that wraps around it. In ski boots this bone can rub against the hard plastic shell of the boot. This rubbing is traumatic enough that the body responds by thickening the bone just like it would do for any bone injury. As the navicular bone grows it rubs more and then grows more, you get the picture. The only solution is boot punching early enough in the season to head off the growth.
So I have been absolutely terrible at taking care of the outer edge structures of my feet. I have to give myself credit though for all the good stuff I do daily to protect the inner structures of my feet. I give my feet a daily massage before I put on my boots. This is very good for stretching the connective tissue and muscles surrounding all those little bones. One quarter of all the bones in your body are located in your feet. That is a lot of inter joint cartilage that can become damaged if you do not ensure they all can move easily as they are intended to do.
I practice during all of my standing yoga poses separating the toes. I have become quite good at this over the years. Separating or abducting the big and pinkie toes of your feet strengthens muscles that support healthy toe alignment. Bunions are bone spurs that over time will distort the alignment of the toes detrimentally to balance. I have to be extra conscious of this as I have already started to form bunions, however, I have noticed this simple practice of separating my toes has slowed down their progression.
I roll out the muscles of the metatarsal arch using a lacrosse ball and sometimes a frozen water bottle if they are especially inflamed. Standing with the ball or water bottle under one foot I apply a little pressure as I roll the length of the foot. This is helpful for maintaining the full range of motion of the plantar fascia. This is a very powerful band of connective tissue that runs the length of the base of the foot and wraps around the heel bone connecting to the achilles tendon. If the plantar fascia sustains trauma it is incredibly difficult to heal it as to do so requires immobilizing the foot for weeks. I also stretch and strengthen the muscles of the metatarsal arch during my yoga asana practice.
I am confident that I will learn from my mistakes this season. Admitting them openly in this blog will certainly keep me honest if the pain alone is not enough. I hope you keep your feet healthy this season. You only get two after all.
Next Week: How I Earned The Nickname Crash, a story about alignment or lack thereof.
"When you stand with your two feet on the ground, you will always keep your balance."
We know that sports performance in enhanced when the proprioception system reacts quickly to changes in the body pertaining to balance, speed and position. There are three primary locations in the body that have a high density of proprioceptive nerve endings these are the feet, the spine and the neck.
These nerve endings in the feet are of particular interest as they are responsible for a lot of innate reflexive reactions important for balance while moving in an upright orientation. As skiers we lock our feet into hard plastic shell boots that restrict their natural movement. We let our feet freeze until we can't feel them and they become like two blocks of ice on the ends of our legs. We also don't take enough time to stretch, strengthen and massage the tissues that support the health of our feet. The result is often bone spurs, bunions and fallen arches.
All of these injuries dampen the proprioceptive feedback we get from the feet to help us master stance and balance while skiing. The good news is we can do a great deal with the ski boots and insoles to keep the feet healthy and the body above aligned. As skiers we should take seriously the task of keeping our feet healthy. With healthy feet proprioception improves, balance and reaction time improve and thus on snow performance improves.
You stand on them all the time but you probably don't know a lot about them. The feet are a marvel of biological engineering. They are strong enough to withstand tremendous pressure over the course of a long distance run and at the same time possess the flexibility to adapt to a wide variety of terrain.
One third of the bones in the body are located in the feet and ankles. This means there are a lot of joints and a lot of inter joint cartilage that can become damaged with repetitive force trauma. Joint instability from misalignment will result in forces distributing unevenly causing wear and tear to inter joint cartilage which turns into inflammation, restricted range of motion, bone thickening. This is the path to inter joint degeneration and osteoarthritis.
Generally, healthy feet have strong metatarsal arches and straight toes with a full range of motion. Standing and walking with healthy feet feels like not much of anything where as standing and walking on feet that have misalignments will result in foot pain and not uncommonly pain throughout the body. If the base of support is misaligned then the rest of the body will compensate but this could mean other parts of the body are chronically misaligned and further pain and injury is the likely result.
In most cases however there is a lot that can be done for foot misalignment. Wearing properly fitting ski boots that are not too old and worn out is incredibly important and a topic of such depth that I won't even attempt to get into it in this blog series. Instead I will suggest locating a good boot fitter a having custom footbeds made and engaging in daily stretching and strengthening exercises thought the season will go a long way to correcting misalignment issues.
It is very important if you spend a substantial amount of time in ski boots to invest in a well made foot bed. There is a large range of options out there that vary significantly in price and support. A footbed will ensure the neutral alignment of the ankles and feet while standing in the skis. It is ideal to work with a skilled boot fitter who will take some time to analyze your stance and alignment. If you have significant imbalances in the feet then seeking out a podiatrist who is skilled in preparing orthotics for athletes might be appropriate.
A good custom footbed is moulded to your foot so that you feel contact along the entire length of the base of the foot instead of pressure under only the ball and heel of the foot. With this great contact there is more sensory feedback. It is easier to pressure the inner edge of the ski evenly. If arches are falling extra support will help keep the ankle joint optimally aligned while rolling the skis on edge.
There is a surprising variety of materials and techniques used to create custom footbeds. Each method has it's proponents and it's critics. Ultimately it's important that you work with a boot fitter who isn't only going to give you a footbed that they like to create but one that will actually work for your unique foot needs.
The two main scales are hard posted vs soft posted and weighted vs unweighted. The first scale has to do with the stiffness of the material used. A firmer material or hard posted footbed is an older technology that creates a solid arch support but may reduce the mobility of the ankle joint to invert the foot to tip the skis on edge. The softer material is currently more popular and believed by some to be superior in allowing the natural movement of the foot and ankle to roll onto edge but offers less arch support thus is not terribly beneficial for skiers who have pre-existing foot alignment issues like fallen arches.
The second scale weighted vs unweighted refers to how the footbed is moulded. Weighted refers to either standing on the heated material or sitting but with the boot fitter pushing down on your feet while the moulding is taking place. A weighted foot bed will be in the shape of your foot while you are standing upright normally which makes a lot of intuitive sense, however if you have a problem foot the mould will be of the problem not the needed correction. Unweighted involves sitting with legs supported so the mould is of the foot with it's arch at it's highest point.
I have a developing bunion on my left foot that is compromising the strength of my arch. My footbeds from seven years ago were made hard posted and weighted. I immediately noticed a dramatic difference in the fit of my boot and ability to get the skis on edge. However, I do feel that the left footbed has a lower arch support than the right and this makes a subtle but noticeable difference in the amount of effort I need to expend turning to the right.
My most recent foot beds were soft posted weighted where the boot fitter guided me to align my stance so as to keep the arches of my feet engaged. I find that this foot bed allows for a more natural movement of my foot within the boot however as the boot has broken in and packed out I feel like my foot no longer sits in the right place and the arch support of the softer material does not give me nearly the same amount of sensory feedback as the older firmer footbed.
For my next footbed I am taking the middle path with a semi-stiff material and unweighted moulding for really high arch support. I am hoping this will help support my left arch which is falling and a new intuition liner should help with the packing out problem. I will definitely let you know how it goes.
While it may take a little effort and at least a couple trips to your boot fitter to get the right fit it is absolutely worth it. The best strategy for foot injury is prevention because once it starts it's hard to stop. Once you have taken every step possible to prevent foot injury by optimizing the hardware you are ready to focus on the daily maintenance of your feet. Foot therapeutic practices like daily stretches, strengthening and strategies for dealing with bone spurs. More on this topic next week.
Next Week: Essential Therapy for Skier's Feet
“As it is, we are merely bolting our lives—gulping down undigested experiences as fast as we can stuff them in—because awareness of our own existence is so superficial and so narrow that nothing seems to us more boring than simple being. If I ask you what you did, saw, heard, smelled, touched and tasted yesterday, I am likely to get nothing more than the thin, sketchy outline of the few things that you noticed, and of those only what you thought worth remembering. Is it surprising that an existence so experienced seems so empty and bare that its hunger for an infinite future is insatiable? But suppose you could answer, “It would take me forever to tell you, and I am much too interested in what’s happening now.” How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such a fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself as anything less than a god? And, when you consider that this incalculably subtle organism is inseparable from the still more marvellous patterns of its environment—from the minutest electrical designs to the whole company of the galaxies—how is it conceivable that this incarnation of all eternity can be bored with being?”
~ Alan Watts, The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are
I remember very clearly the first time I was introduced to Pigeon Pose. This is a deep hip opening posture performed on the floor with one leg forward externally rotated and knee bent anywhere between ten and ninety degrees. The opposite leg is extended straight back from the pelvis. In the full version of the pose the back knee is bent to allow the foot to rest in the elbow of the corresponding arm or touch the head while held by both hands.
Not only do the hip flexors of the back leg get an intense stretch but the external rotators of the front leg, most notably the piriformis muscle, are lengthening in a way is not commonly experienced during daily, what we call in the dance world, pedestrian movement.
I was a nineteen year old dancer at the time with the requisite crazy flexibility. However, this did not prevent Pigeon Pose from bringing me near the point of tears when I first tried it. It was like a lightening bolt inside the hip! Looking back it was not so much that the stretch in the deep hip muscles was so intense it was the fact that we stayed in the pose long enough to pay a great deal of attention to it.
As a dancer I most definitely had manipulated my body into positions that called on the lengthening of those same muscles but it wasn't part of my training yet to pay conscious attention to how that felt. I had been dancing from age five to nineteen with all my emphasis on the mechanics of performing the movement without taking time to feel the movement, to breath into it and let it unfold organically.
I became a real dancer the day I learned to train kinesthetically and yoga was a key part to this transition. To train kinesthetically one needs to understand two things, the desired outcome of a movement and how to feel the sensations that correspond with that movement. It won't happen immediately, but if you practice training kinesthetically in a dedicated fashion for a while, you will evolve from a robot simply copying movement in a mechanical fashion to an artist performing movement with grace and elegance. This is when your personal style will emerge and your own movement vocabulary will develop.
Where people get hopelessly stuck is in learning to recognize the difference between a picture and outcome. An example of picture is watching your yoga teacher execute a seemingly effortless Eka Pada Galavasana (Flying Pigeon Pose) and trying to copy by configuring your body into the shape of the pose. Emboldened by how effortless your teacher made the pose look you place your shin on the backs of your arms and simply cantilevering the entirety of your lower body weight forward. The pain of your shin bone digging into the back of your arms causes you to fall in a heap on the floor. You can't fathom how your teacher is managing to withstand all this pain. This is because you do not understand what is going on inside your teachers body to achieve the outcome of the posture.
The outcome is a feeling of lightness as the lower body ascends into the air gently balancing on the backs of the arms as if the legs and pelvis are filled with helium. The outcome is achieved by engaging deep core muscles and hugging to the midline. These terms, engaging core & hugging to midline are descriptors of actions that the teacher is employing that are completely invisible to you the outside observer.
Engaging the core is making sufficiently tense the core, back, gluteus & leg muscles so the lower body becomes rigid in Pigeon Pose. This has the effect of consolidating the weight of the lower body into a central axis point that can be balanced on top of a support structure. Hugging to midline is a series of actions that create sufficient tension the back, shoulder, chest and arm muscles to make a solid support structure for the axis point of the lower body to balance upon.
I could write paragraph after paragraph about externally rotating the upper arm bones and squeezing the shoulders together etcetera and it would not give you the slightest clue how to perform Eka Pada Galavasana. You would need to train with me for a period of time where you would learn each action, reflect on the sensation of that action and it's contribution towards the outcome of various poses progressing from simple to complex.
By this process, one day, you will inevitably find yourself in Eka Pada Galavasana but that won't be terribly special to you. The remarkable accomplishment will be the superhuman feeling of lightness that no one can witness but you. You will probably start laughing with a mixture of shock and delight when it happens just like children do when they first experience the revolutionary milestone of taking their first steps.
This is what is called in Buddhism beginners mind. By abandoning pre conceptions and surrendering to the process without expectation the outcome arrives somewhat spontaneously. There is no magic, just the process. All the same the results seem to arise magically. You can't do it, you can't do it, you can't do it and suddenly, you can!
Next Week: Skier's Feet: The Critical Weak Point
"Don't think, Feeeeeel! It is like a finger pointing away to the moon. Don't concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory."
~ Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon
Proprioception is elegant in it's simplicity and yet gives rise to one of the most complicated and profound phenomena in our human experience. Proprioception creates the experience of embodiment. It frames the parameters by which we understand our relationship with the outer world. It may well be a significant component of consciousness. While the above is the realm of neuroscience and philosophy one thing we know for sure is that without proprioception it would be impossible to navigate the world safely.
But how does it work? Distributed throughout muscle, joint & skin tissue are tiny receptors that measure subtle mechanical changes like stretch, amount of tension and pressure. These sensors are linked through the vast network of the central nervous system which communicates information about the state of the tissues in the body to the spinal chord and from there on to the brain. Specifically this information is processed in a part of the brain called the Cerebellum. Folded like an accordion the tissue of the cerebellum is densely packed with neurons in a small space enabling it with a large processing capacity. Located at the base of the brain very close to the main channel of communication with the body, the brain stem, the cerebellum is largely responsible for motor control. Out of a constant cacophony of signal from receptors throughout the entire body the Cerebellum recognizes patterns, interprets them as joint positions and creates a mental map of how all the various parts of the body are oriented in space. We experience this process as the sensation of our bodies in space and the feeling of movement.
To understand proprioception it can be helpful to visualize it on a small scale. Visualize an individual muscle in your arm. Contained within that muscle tissue are many very tiny mechanoreceptors. These sensors measure and transmit information about the amount of stretch the muscle is experiencing. If you can picture a coiled wire you are not far off the configuration of the protein that resides inside the mechanoreceptor. When the muscle stretches because the arm is contracting while holding something heavy the coiled protein inside the mechanoreceptor stretches as well. The mechanoreceptor then sends a signal through the central nervous system to the cerebellum saying "hey! Were stretching X amount." This message in combination with all the other sensory information is processed and interpreted by the cerebellum to very accurately predict the position of all the joints in real time giving rise to our sensory experience of body position and motion.
Proprioception not only helps guide movements but contributes to our sense as well aided with two other important systems. These are the visual motor system and the vestibular systems. If your not familiar with how the visual motor system aids in balance and situational awareness while performing sports I highly recommend visiting the website eyeQ.com and learning about Dave Picket's fascinating and extensive work on the subject. The Vestibular system is something you will have at some point in your life become acutely aware of if you have ever become dizzy from spinning.
Located in the inner ear are fluid filled rings internally lined with small cilia hair like projections attached to sensors. Depending on the orientation of the head the fluid will move and the brain is generally very good at interpreting the stimulation patterns created by the moving fluid to inform balance. When we we spin and suddenly stop the fluid continues to move with the momentum of that action for a short period of time. The brain thinks you are still spinning but this conflicts with the eyes telling the brain that the spinning has stopped. This conflict in communication between the two systems is experienced as dizziness. With practice anyone can become more accustomed to these mixed signals, figure skaters for example, who practice high speed spins repeatedly report no longer experiencing dizziness as the brain has adapted to the conflicting sensory information over time.
Proprioception is so ubiquitous to our experience of reality that we can completely take for granted that it is happening all the time subconsciously. Right now you know where both your right and left big toes are in space regardless if you can see them because you feel where they are. Try this experiment. Massage just the right toe for one minute. Then observe the difference in sensation between your two big toes. Because you have stimulated mechanoreceptors in the right big toe the neural pathway for the right big toe has been activated and the proprioceptive sense for that part of the body awakened. You will feel your right big toe more acutely than your left for a short period of time.
Motor Sensory Amnesia
Conversely there are situations where proprioception can be weakened and our mental map of our bodies in space made more vague. This is called motor amnesia. The first instance where this takes place is simply with lack of use. If you were a really active child skipping rope and swing from monkey bars as easily as walking down the street but in your adult life you have become primarily sedentary trying to repeat those movements will feel a little robotic and malcoordinated at first. If you were to pick up those activities again however and practice them diligently for a few days the same neural pathways from proprioceptors to cerebellum would be re-strengthened and you would restore your youthful grace in those movements all it would take is time and practice.
The second situation where our mental map can be distorted and our ability to perform movement efficiently impeded is when we sustain an injury. Pain combined with an effort by the body to stop using the injured tissue so it may heal literally atrophies it's sensory neural pathways. A commonly explored example of this is spraining the ankle joint by rolling over the outer edge of he foot. The injury to that tissue is compensated for by the other foot for a period of time and the sensory system that communicates to the brain the position of the injured ankle joint is weakened over time. It is quite likely without substantial effort to rehabilitate this injury completely the joint will be prone to a repeat of precisely the same injury due to motor sensory amnesia. It becomes a vicious cycle of injury leading to reduced ability to sense that part of the body making it vulnerable to injury yet again and so on.
The case of motor sensory amnesia that I see the most often as a Ski Instructor and Yoga Teacher is that which arises from joint range of motion limitations. If the muscles surrounding a joint are excessively tight and impede the joint from moving through it's full range there are receptors within the tissues of the joint that will never be stimulated leading to black spots in the mental map. Tight people literally can not feel the entirety of their bodies. They don't know what they are missing.
This is what Mr. Lee was talking about in Enter the Dragon. "Don't concentrate on just the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory." In the same way, don't concentrate exclusively on strengthening just the parts of the body that are considered most important in your particular sport and neglect stretching those same tissues as well as strengthening and stretching all the other parts of the body. Not only will you blind yourself to the full extraordinary sensory experience your body is capable of. You will cripple yourself from being able to quickly learn, internalize and refine new movement patterns. You will miss all that heavenly glory.
Kinesthesia & Learning Movement in Sport
When it comes right down to it skiing, like all sports, is about learning to feel body movements that produce desired outcomes so they may be repeated. Enter the process by which we learn how to perform movement patterns for the first time and store that memory for future use. The eighteenth century physiologist and neurologist Henry Charlton Bastian first gave this process a unique name calling it Kinesthesia. This term describes our conscious awareness of the sensations associated with performing movements.
A good example of Kinesthesia at work was when I finally learned how to ski with a stance that was appropriately wide. I remember it had a recognizable sensation. I felt it mostly in my hip muscles and described it as uncomfortable. Really it was just foreign. I was stimulating mechanoreceptors in a novel pattern and it was completely new and slightly awkward. The consequence of that body position was that my turns felt more stable. Once I knew those key target sensation, the discomfort in my hips, and the sensation of a more stable turn as if by magic I could suddenly recreate that more aligned stance at will.
As a teacher of movement I still marvel at these eureka moments when I witness my students having them. A student has a unique combination of learning style, cultural influences, body configuration and life experiences that influence her interpretation and communication of movement sensations or movement vocabulary. This can vary widely between students and event day to day or moment to moment within one student. Therefore, as a teacher of movement I have necessarily become a part telepathic and part movement linguist. Like most sport instructors I fortunately poses a Rosetta stone of movement vocabulary. I acquired it during thirty years training in various movement disciplines combined with a strong ability to empathize with students and many many hours carefully observing student responses to different instruction.
However, I know enough know to know that I am just a guide in the loosest sense of the word engineering the conditions for learning to take place. Ultimately the student must experiment with information I give her in the environment until they stumble upon the sensation for themselves and define her own movement vocabulary. It is a challenging art to be a teacher who can create the right blend of environment and instruction at the right time to guide a student towards the right epiphany. As a student it is equally challenging
Often kinesthesia and proprioception are used interchangeably. It is important to understand that while operating from a common mechanism they are not the same thing. Kinesthesia is a behavioral process. It has to do with learning movement. It corresponds with things like developing muscle memory and hand eye coordination. Proprioception is largely automatic and unconscious. It describes our sense of our bodies in space and informs our sense of balance.
Kinesthesia and learning movement
Kinesthetics sense can be with practice or allowed to weaken with disuse. Kinesthesia is how we learn movement patterns that are effective for helping us achieve certain outcomes for example learning how to swing a bat to hit a ball or how to navigate a mountain by turning skis on snow. Performing basic movements while reflecting on their corresponding sensations of the movement connect you into a rich sensory scape where physical literacy is gained. Learning how to pay careful attention to sensations associated with movement is one of the hallmarks of yoga practice.
Tapping into the four parts of the foot
In yoga asana practice one of the foundational standing postures is Tadasana or Mountain Pose. How appropriate for a discussion about yoga for skiers to reflect on the many benefits of Mountain Pose. The posture itself involves simply standing with feet parallel and hip distance. The goal is to stand with perfect posture so the breath can be full and unrestricted. Outwardly it appears incredibly simple and yet internally there is a lot going on. When teaching this posture I give many alignment cues from the ground up.
The first cue is to become aware of four key points on the bottom of the feet. These are the distal end of the 1st metatarsal or the fleshy mount just back from the big toe, the distal end of the 5th metatarsal or the fleshy mount just back from the pinkie toe, as well as the inner and outer edge of the Calcaneus or the heel bone. If there is even pressure on these four points chances are the rest of the body above the feet is aligned.
The second cue is to broaden the toes. The purpose of separating the toes is it makes more pronounced the sensation of pressure on the 1st and 5th metatarsals helping the practitioner tap more into their kinesthetics sense to find balance. All the remaining cues are to activate specific muscles that will support and strengthen that beautifully aligned posture.
Most yoga practices start with a series of linked postures called Surya Namaskara or Sun Salutations. Pose number one in the sequence is Tadasna, Mountain Pose. I marvel at the elegance with which the ancient yogis crafted this practice. Mountain Pose is the perfect kinesthetics sense builder. Starting the sequence with this posture helps the practitioner tap into sensing the alignment of their bodies through the litmus test of feeling even pressure on the four points of the feet. It primes them to become more receptive to sensations arising in the body that inform alignment to create effortless balance.
So to in skiing there is a specific point on the feet that we want to pay attention to but it is even smaller. Ski Instructors often refer to this spot on the foot as the front of the heel the back of the arch. It is the intersection of four bones in the feet which are the Calcaneus, Cuboid, Navicular & Talus. A circle, approximately the size of a quarter, marks the sweet spot of the foot. I have a custom footbed in my ski boot with an arch support that helps me feel this spot on my foot.
Feeling pressure on the sweet spot of the foot is the result of bending and extending the hip, knee and ankle joints to precisely the correct degree and in the right order. The result is that the body weight lands right on top of the sweet spot of the ski, just back from the mid point in-between the toe and heel pieces of the bindings. When this happens the ski turns almost effortlessly. Voila! Just by learning to feel pressure on a specific point of the foot aligns the body creating balance. With balance all things become possible.
Next Week: Experiments in kinaesthetic training: My first pigeon pose I thought I was going to die
"Tell me, I'll forget. Show me, I'll remember. Involve me, I'll understand"
~ Chinese Proverb
It was the mid nineties. I was 15 and knew everything there was to know about skiing, or at least I thought I did. I was leaving my little river valley hill and the Brazeau Race Club based in Drayton Valley Alberta for a slightly larger river valley hill outside Devon Alberta called Rabbit Hill. I along with a fellow teammate mate from Drayton Valley traveled the hour and fifteen minutes one way three times a week to train with certified coaches, our parents generously taking turns to drive us there.
My coach, let's call him Bob, realized he had his work cut out for him getting me caught up with the team mates. First problem, my stance was from the 80's as were a couple of the uncertified volunteer coaches who generously gave up their weekends to teach us at my local hill. Bob explained to me rather unceremoniously "there's no daylight between your legs." With the inner edges of my ski boots literally touching I made turns like a salsa dancing upright inchworm, my entire body would shimmy and my legs would thrust out to the side. The problem was, that using my entire body generated a lot of excess momentum that went well only under extremely favourable conditions like when I had heaps of room to make a turn and no obstacles to avoid. Not terribly adaptive for navigating plastic poles on an icy rutted pitch.
Bob tried to explain using very practical terminology to get me to widen my stance like "imagine your riding a horse." I would take this information into consideration think that my stance was so far apart that I was about to split the crotch of my ski pants and when I would check back in with Bob he would shake his head and say not wide enough. I thought I was widening my stance but I couldn't feel it. The honest truth was I had absolutely no sense at all where my legs were in space. In my mind my feet were so wide they may as well have been heading in opposite directions but this was unequivocally not the case.
I was also a slightly obnoxious teen and relentlessly stubborn so I sort of didn't believe my coach that my feet weren't wide enough. I can only infer that he was on to me based on what happened next. In a bold move one day after exhausting his entire repertoire of analogies to describe a wide stance Bob resorted to mechanical modification. He Duct Taped a volleyball in-between my shins. The humiliation of having to hop and shuffle my way to the front of the T-bar line with a volley ball Duct Taped in-between my shins provoked a little soul searching. It took about 15 seconds to get down Rabbit Hill but it took nearly a minute to ride that T-bar up. That was a lot of seconds to ponder my assumptions about my stance.
With the volleyball in-between my shins for an entire afternoon, perhaps 30 times up and down that small pitch, I had to re-learn how to turn. My upright inch-worm technique did not work at all. Most significantly however, my legs were hurting in a new way as I recruited muscles that were not previously being used. When I sheepishly asked Bob if I could remove the volley ball he warned that if I didn't keep my stance wide I would have to repeat the exercise. That wasn't going to happen. I knew what sensation to look for and I was really really motivated to feel for it. From that day forward I skied with a reasonably wide stance. My body adjusted. Aches and pains were replaced by a new sense of normal. I enjoyed the increased stability and balance that the wider stance brought. It was the first in a long list of changes I had to humbly adopt in order to pull my self out of the bottom of the race results list and ultimately into the top 10.
With my students now I see the same thing. While they are standing still I often ask them to copy my demo. In some cases I ask if I can actually position their bodies in the shape I want them to feel. While at a stand still my students can bend and turn their legs to a very specific degree no problem. Once they start sliding down the slope however, that often goes out the window. The movement patterns they executed very successfully only moments before while standing still can not be repeated to the same degree while moving.
So why is this the case? Skiing is an open sport meaning the variables that influence the experience are constantly changing. External things like speed, terrain, snow conditions and obstacles provide a huge amount of sensory date for the central nervous system and brain to process. Throw on top of that all the internal information, the sensations arising within the body that give the skier a sense of where his limbs are in space, and it's easy to become overwhelmed.
We are built to turn our senses outward so as to anticipate threats in our environment so that we can respond appropriately. It is really hard, while in what one perceives as a potentially threatening environment, (ie. skiing) to pay attention to those subtle cues coming from within the body. The latter is precisely what is needed to become aware of the sensations associated with movement patterns. And yet this type of awareness remains elusive to most athletes until extensive practice where eventually the external stimuli stop eliciting a fight or flight response.
And, ORRRRRRR........ you could try yoga. Yoga has, as a key component of it's system, a practice that trains the practitioner to turn attention inwards. This is called Pratyahara which loosely translates to mean sense withdrawal. This does not mean emptying the mind as many people mistake it to mean. Rather it means developing the capacity to switch focus from being alert and aware of the outside world to becoming hyper sensitive to the inner world.
The inner world is an entire universe of sensation that is, for most of us, going on all the time just beneath the level of conscious awareness. Try for a moment closing your eyes and feeling your heart beat. In-spite the fact that this is a substantial muscular movement happening within your chest all the time it's awfully hard to feel. Try again with your fingers on your wrist monitoring your pulse, eyes closed and pay specific attention to the chest. Before long you will feel the rhythmical pulsations of the heart in time with your wrist pulse. Then remove your fingers from your wrist and practice paying attention to the sensation of your heart beating within your chest. If you do this often you won't need to place your fingers on your wrist anymore. You will simply be able to feel your heart at will by shifting your attention inward.
Another practice that is powerful for cultivating this skill is walking meditation. While performing a mundane task like going for a simple walk. Practice paying as much attention as possible to the changes in sensation through the bottom of your feet. You will notice each step becomes an entire epic drama when you pay enough attention to it. You will undoubtably notice differences in-between the left and right step. You will start to become aware of how pressure on different parts of the foot correspond with different subtle movements of the leg bones, the balance of the pelvis, even the way your turn your head. If you do this for just a couple minutes ever day for a period of time, eventually the way you walk will change. You will become more efficient, more event, more graceful just by paying greater attention to the internal world.
In Hatha Yoga we practice each posture with our attention inward focussed. In this way each posture is deeply felt and held for at least 45 seconds to a minute. Over time the yoga practice gifts the practitioner with an acute sensitivity towards inner world. This becomes a tool the practitioner can use to navigate life with a little more clarity, less pain as a result of poor posture and inefficient movement patters and much more grace.
When we ski a lot we progressively desensitize ourselves to the outer world. At first it happens on Green runs and then progresses to ever more difficult terrain. This desensitization means the fight or flight reaction is no longer triggered and we are relaxed enough to start paying attention to the inner world while we ski. The sensations that arise within the body that tells us how we are moving through space become obvious and modifiable. This is motor sensory intelligence. If we have a very strongly tuned capacity for inner focus the intersection of desensitization to the external stimuli and heightened sensitization to the internal stimuli creates a very unique scenario.
We become masters of movement. The lines between the inner and outer world start to blur. We are no longer just reacting to the external world while skiing, we are creating and responding to the external world simultaneously. We learn to move with precision utilizing the terrain to create the path down the mountain rather than just follow a path down the mountain. This is where skiing gets juicy. This is the realm of Spiritual Skiing.
Next Week: Cultivating Feel, Proprioception & Balance
"Exercises are like prose, whereas yoga is the poetry of movements. Once you understand the grammar of yoga; you can write your poetry of movements."
~ Amit Ray
The best Yoga for Skiers is of an intensity that is appropriate to the activity level of the season. It should cultivates structural balance as well as physical, mental & emotional balance. It should be personalized to the practitioner.
As skiers we are seasonal people. Our lives revolve around the coming and the going of the snows. For every season there is an appropriate type of yoga to support optimal physical conditioning and mental focus. A yoga practice that is inappropriate for the level of activity of the season is likely going to be counterproductive at the least but it could even be injurious. There are many different styles of yoga each one emphasizing different aspects of the original teaching. There are as many types of yoga as there are practitioners and the practice can be and should be customized to an individuals needs.
In the winter and spring when a skier is spending a lot of time tearing up the mountain a hot sweaty core power flow class is likely not the best choice. Skiing is a strength sport. There is not a lot of cardio involved in resort skiing. Energy is spent in short bursts in-between periods of rest riding lifts. However, a lot of muscular strength is required to resist the forces acting on the body while skiing. The lower joints of the hips, knees and ankles in particular are under great strain. While it might make intuitive sense to replicate these conditions in a yoga class so as to make the body strong enough to perform these actions in practicality this only serves to deplete the skiers energy and make the body less stable.
Skiing is not a symmetrical action. There are muscles on one side of a joint action that are being strengthened disproportionately to their antagonistic counterparts. For example when you ski you have probably noticed your thigh muscles burning. The quadriceps are responsible for extending the knee joint and the centre and superficial most quadricep, the rectus femoris, is also involved in hip flexion.
When we ski gravity is pushing us downward towards the mountain as we essentially fall down the slope. We turn to break, or slow down. The action of breaking generates other forces that have the effect of compacting the body. In order to keep from folding like an accordion we engage the quadriceps to extend the knee joint in order to resist these forces.
Think of descending stairs. If when your foot landed on the lower stair if the quadricep muscles were not active the knee would buckle under the strain of the rapid deceleration as gravity pulled your bodyweight down towards the platform of the lower step. Those quadricep muscles stay slightly contracted so that when the foot lands on the lower step gravity is resisted and the body stays upright and a constant speed is maintained.
If you practiced a lot of yoga poses that strengthened the quadriceps during the height of the ski season those muscles would no doubt become strong but their effective range of motion would shorten. The shortened muscles would be really ineffective if one day you were skiing moguls and needed to rapidly bend the knees to absorb a large bump at speed. That action would likely cause injury because your quadriceps have become overspecialized for resisting gravity and not adaptive to unexpected but necessary movements like bending deeply at speed to absorb a bump. Not only is this a recipe for traumatic knee injury it is a sure way to develop wear and tear injury over time.
Yoga asana practice is uniquely beneficial when it is used for cultivating structural balance and stability in the body. This means strengthening and stretching the muscles on both sides of a joint action evenly. The super bendy yogis are really doing themselves a disservice if they continue to stretch to their end point without ever strengthening the muscles. They too are likely to experience traumatic and or long term injury.
A good yoga practice will over time establish perfect posture and liberate the full healthy range of movement of all the joints. the muscles will be both strong and pliable and the nervous system will be highly tuned so that the body can be reactive and adaptive finding stability, equilibrium and effortlessness in all situations.
This is where personalization of practice is absolutely key. If you already know or discover while practicing yoga that your quadriceps are really tight you need postures to lengthen those muscles and the connective tissue that surrounds them. Through the course of this blog series I will introduce four yoga concepts and explaining how these concepts pair beautifully with the efficient performance of key skiing skills.
The very first concept is the most important to personalizing the practice. I call it feel. You will need to feel your body in a way that may be new or foreign to you. It won't happen right away but I promise that with regular practice you will learn to become very sensitive to what your body needs and how to provide that. There is of course no replacement for a good teacher guiding this discovery. However, the teacher is just that, a guide. The practitioner bears the responsibility for knowing her body and giving it what it needs. Only then will the practice really work.
Holding the postures for at least 45 seconds to one minute is absolutely critical in strengthening the ability to pay careful attention to feelings arising within the body and mind. Fast moving flowing sequences of postures are very beneficial on many levels but often do not allow enough time in each pose for the beginner to properly sharpen the tool of attention. I recommend Hatha, Iyengar and Anusara style classes for their slower pace and emphasis on introspection and alignment.
Yoga cultivates feel through strengthening our capacity to willfully focus our attention on sensation. It also develops structural balance in the body giving the practitioner the full use of her body and the capacity to recognize optimal alignment. By teaching the principle of balancing effort and surrender the yoga student learns how to resist and release forces to generate power in the turn. Finally by blending breath movement and focus the yoga practitioner turns flowing on the yoga mat into flowing down the mountain.
"By archery in the traditional sense, which he esteems as an art and honours as a national heritage, the Japanese does not understand a sport but, strange as this may sound at first, a religious ritual. And consequently, by the " art " of archery he does not mean the ability of the sportsman, which can be controlled, more or less, by bodily exercises, but an ability whose origin is to be sought in spiritual exercises and whose aim consists in hitting a spiritual goal, so that fundamentally the marksman aims at himself and may even succeed in hitting himself." ~ Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel
A multidisciplinary or, in our case a multi-sport approach to skills development, makes for a more adaptable creative athlete and paves the way for revealing ones highest potential. The Multi Sport approach cultivates what Canadian Sport for Life describes “Physical Literacy.” Basically physical literacy is the ability to perform basic movement patterns that are common to many different sports. Canadian Sport for life suggests that developing a broad range of physical literacies shorten the learning curve for new sports. It also gives developing athletes a broad pallet of skills to work with that makes them uniquely innovative. Often these are a the athletes that we see progressing sports.
I was very luck to have been put into dance lessons at a young age. I started learning Highland Dance at the age of five and went on to compete until my mid teens. It was remarkably demanding on me to memorize all the steps at that young age and very nerve racking to perform in front of large crowds but I gained so much from the experience. One unexpected side benefit was how physically strong it made me.
In grade two when I was seven years old my elementary school held a just for fun track competition. Boys and girls competed together in running races, high jump and other events. When it came to the running race I was really surprised to learn, in-spite the fact I was on the smaller side of kids in my school, I was really fast. In fact, I was one of the fastest kid in my school. All the Highland Dances have at their base a constant jumping motion for the entire duration of the song. All this jumping, it turns out, was excellent cross training for sprinting.
So often we are quick to label a kid who shows promise in a discipline from a young age naturally talented. Malcolm Gladwell, in his book Outliers, demonstrates that quite often seemingly unrelated experiences and circumstances play a large role in determining who will be exceptionally successful in a given discipline. The idea of natural talent is a bit of a myth.
Yoga is one of those disciplines that cultivates so many physical literacies. Most people when they think of yoga in the context of it's benefit for other disciplines they are pursuing naturally think about increased flexibility however, this is just one small component of the myriad benefits yoga instills. Key amongst these are balance, coordination, core strength, effective breathing, concentration, refined use of muscular effort and an overall heightened sensitivity to as well as awareness of the body.
For skiers yoga provides a perfectly complimentary overlay of physical literacies that lend themselves beautifully to the learning, refinement and perfecting of four foundational skiing competencies. These are balance, alignment, power & flow. However, in the vast unregulated world of yoga there are as many types of yoga practice as there are Yoga Teachers. Skiers have specific needs and limitations that not all yoga practices effectively address.
Next Week: Yoga for Skiers Best Practices, What to Look For in a Yoga Teacher & Practice
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
~ Jidda Krishnamurti
During my second year of university, I found myself gripped by severe inescapable anxiety and depression. I was a student with learning disabilities, only recently diagnosed, and while I was getting a lot of help from the incredible teachers at the University of Alberta's Specialized Supports for Persons with Learning Disabilities department, I was struggling to integrate the coping strategies fast enough for the courses I was taking. I felt like I was constantly treading water and that at any moment I could drown.
I was on the verge of failing enough courses that I risked being kicked out of school. As I think back on that experience with the wealth of knowledge I have gained since, I can't fathom why the idea of failing a couple courses so completely destroyed my sense of self-worth. But it did, and in a devastating way.
The more fearful I became that I wouldn't be able to finish my degree, the more difficult it became to function. I couldn't get out of bed a lot of mornings, causing me to miss classes and then I was in a terrible position to complete projects and pass exams making my anxiety and depression worse. That downward spiral was relentlessly dark and terrifyingly inescapable.
I had sought the help of a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist who taught me how to question my inner dialogue and a couple breathing techniques to help calm myself down during an anxiety attack. This was definitely better than nothing, but really was just a band aid on a gushing wound. Under the advice of my doctor, I went to see a Psychiatrist and my life took a turn from the not so uncommon level of depression and anxiety that most twenty somethings experience during university to the downright psychotic.
I tried five different antidepressant medications over the course of a year or so with no major improvement in my symptoms. Things took an ugly turn when, during one of our monthly fifteen minute interviews, my Psychiatrist asked me what I had been up to. I talked about the usual struggles with my course load, difficulty sleeping and the general malaise that was my norm at the time. With a little bit of rare enthusiasm, I innocently recounted a story about skiing the gully chutes at Lake Louise.
The story was that I jump turned my way down a very steep icy narrow chute. I explained how there wasn't great snow cover and I hit a rock and high sided myself, losing both skis and sliding head first on my back at alarming speed, catapulting off a natural feature and cartwheeling to a stop.
What I explained that caused my Psychiatrist to take particular notice was that at no point during this rag doll down the hill did I feel any fear whatsoever and I thought that to be a little strange. It turns out antidepressants, especially when taken in large doses, cause a kind of mental emotional numbness. At that stage in my treatment I was taking two different kinds of SSRI antidepressants at the same time in fairly high doses.
Upon hearing me talk with such enthusiasm about what I now suspect she viewed as a suicide attempt she right there and then declared that she thought I was Bipolar. This assessment was rendered in the absence of any consideration of the fact that I was a former alpine ski racer and as such had a different tolerance for risk on skis than most. As well, she completely refused to entertain the possibility that the medication I was already on was altering my mood,
I received a prescription for an antipsychotic to be taken along with the two SSRI antidepressants. The combination of those three things had me so strung out I couldn't sleep. Thus I was also prescribed an experimental new sleeping pill that does interesting things when mixed with alcohol and is terribly habit forming. It was at this point that my life became a lot like something out of a Hunter S. Thompson novel.
Most days I was completely listless, walking around campus with a vacant stare and no particular interest in anything, least of which my life. During one of these aimless wanderings through the campus library, I discovered a series of audio lectures by a professor of Asian studies named Allan Watts and a series of guided meditations by Jack Kornfield. These cases tapes changed everything.
I started to spend about an hour a night listening to Watts lectures on eastern philosophy and then sitting in mediation following Kornfield’s instructions. This more than anything else helped me to find an hour of calm after days spent fighting episodes of melancholic panic. Learning about eastern religions like Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Yoga and Zen exposed me to exotic world views that somehow penetrated the thick fog of self-hatred, fear and loathing. It was an entirely new world that made me hopeful again.
These ideas poked holes in the thick armour wrapped around my depression and, as if by magic, rendered the thought processes that lead to panic attacks completely inert. Practicing meditation allowed me to explore those exotic and intriguing ideas in my own consciousness and feel their effects immediately. Slowly I was training myself in a kind of mental flexibility that allowed me to face the challenges of my life with an entirely different set of tools. So despite all the therapy sessions and medications, I credit meditation for my ability to not only survive and recover from mental illness but to become immune to its reinfection.
Our goal is to strive towards happiness by becoming agents of influence in the world, able to steer our experience towards things that we define as good and away from things that we define as bad. We are taught from childhood that our actions and behaviours have consequences, therefore it is by our own efforts, or lack thereof, that the quality of our lives is determined. This theory holds up pretty well until bad things start to happen to good people or seemingly correct actions and behaviours don't yield the good feelings or positive results that we desire.
What Yoga taught me that made all the difference is how to see that I had no control over the circumstances of my life. We would like to think that we can influence and direct it, but this is an illusion. Yoga taught me that I have complete control over how I choose to perceive the circumstances of my life. Having learning disabilities was not something I could control. Had I remained fixated on everything I couldn't do easily, I would have failed to appreciate how the struggle to perform certain tasks that others found easy fostered within me an extraordinary creativity in problem solving.
But Yoga goes a step further as a treatment for anxiety and depression. It teaches you that the only thing that really exists and therefore the only thing you have any hope of engaging in a meaningful way is the present moment. After years observing my thoughts during meditation I learned that anxiety resulted from agonizing over future scenarios and depression resulted from ruminating over the past. Whenever I could reside, for even the briefest moment, in the present I experienced the innate perfection of my existence and everything around me.
Incidentally that was the point where my entire life started to become dedicated to play. I moved to the Bow Valley, set on the intention of teaching both Yoga and skiing professionally. Waking up so early to get to the mountain for work meant my morning Yoga practice consisted of about half a dozen key asanas modified for the mobility challenges presented by wearing ski boots. I made the mountain my studio, exploring this brief connecting practice out in front of the Ski School sign at 7,082 feet.
This beloved morning ritual flowed naturally into morning sessions where I would train with my colleagues, observing not just my skiing performance but my thoughts about my skiing performance. The first chair lift of the morning as I ascended into the alpine, the sun rise casting a red orange glow over shimmering snow, I would take a moment from visiting with colleagues to observe my breath. Oxygen drawing in and CO2 moving out into a vast expansive valley filled with trees, snow, rock and sky.
The first run of the morning was a prime time for learning. My head clear from distractions, I could tap into the sensations arising within my body giving important clues about how in balance I was. The way the surface of the snow reacted to my skis let me know if I was aligned. This alignment, or lack thereof, was directly proportional to the amount of power I was able to harness from forces generated in the turn. All of it culminating in a seamless experience of movement with, rather than against the mountain.
When it worked, it was glorious. When it didn't work, I became part psychologist, part detective investigating the influence of my thoughts on my ability to integrate the instructions of my coaches. Ski training in this way opened up a fascinating new dimension to the exploration of what I was capable of on the mountain and as a human being. This was the beginning of a very beautiful period in my life, one I am so fortunate to be enjoying still. This was the origin of my foray into Spiritual Skiing, an experiment in sport as meditation and medicine that is ongoing.
Next Week: The Art of Movement: An Introduction to The Multidisciplinary Approach to Learning.
"I glimpsed it for fifteen seconds and it made me a servant for life." ~ Kabir
In the west when we think of yoga, many of us imagine a bunch of skinny people in stretchy pants performing exotic physical contortions on a sticky mat while breathing heavily. We consider yoga akin to any other type of physical conditioning class like Pilates and Cross Fit. This is because it has been rebranded and marketed to a western audience as such. The high emphasis on the physical aspects of the practice and the exclusion of the religious, philosophical and psychological underpinnings is just the latest iteration in Yoga's five thousand year history.
Yoga arose in India around the fifth and sixth centuries BCE and became one of the six orthodox philosophies in Hinduism. From the pre-classical through to the medieval periods in India saw the composition of several profoundly impactful religious and philosophical texts that influenced belief systems throughout the eastern world. These jewels of human contemplation were committed to history in the deeply symbolic language of Sanskrit.
The Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita and Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, amongst others, describe a world view that is very different to that which we hold in the west. In the west, we see ourselves a separate, autonomous units acting in the universe and being acted upon by the universe. In eastern philosophy there is no individual isolated self separate from the universe. All is one and therefore the self is the universe.
The goal of yoga is to attain liberation from the small view of self as a separate entity operating within the whole by experiencing union directly with the whole. In fact, the word Yoga translates to mean to yoke or to unite. The yoga practitioner disciplines her mind through yoga practice so as to reside in the perceptual state of experiencing herself as synonymous with the universe or, put another way, to remember that she is God. That's a little more lofty than standing on your head or getting your leg behind it wouldn't you say?
The method of attaining liberation differs slightly depending on the type of yoga you practice. There are four types of yoga: Jnana Yoga - the yoga of knowledge: Bhakti Yoga - the yoga of devotion: Karma Yoga - the yoga of action; and Raja Yoga - the yoga of meditation. Even if you are a regular yoga practitioner in the west you may never have heard of these four types of yoga. Allow me to explain the long thread that links the yoga we practice on sticky mats in tight pants to the original yoga.
Raja Yoga (or royal yoga) is described in The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali is a systematic eight step linear process of attaining liberation. Step one and two of Raja Yoga are the Yamas & Niyamas which involve becoming a disciplined, moral person. Step three, Asana means posture, but in Raja yoga there was only one posture, a seated posture called padmasana or lotus. Step four is Pranayam or breath exercises. Step five is Pratyahara which involves learning to turn ones attention inward. The sixth through eighth stages are Dharana, Dhyana and Samadhi or concentration, meditation and self knowledge. The practice of these three is what results in Moksha or liberation. Everything beforehand is prep work.
At a certain point in Raja Yoga's history there was little revolution. Some yogi's (yoga practitioners) believed the Brahmans (the priesthood caste in Hinduism) had become a little corrupt. The Brahmans, by insisting upon the system of Raja Yoga starting with the very difficult stages of Yama and Niyama, made yoga the exclusive domain of aesthetics. These were the very severely disciplined practitioners who would abstain from all indulgences. We are talking about people who would live in caves with no possessions, relying on alms to survive so they could spend all their time meditating.
Some yogis believed Raja Yoga excluded normal house holders from practicing yoga. They branched out, creating a seven stage system of yoga that deemphasized the Yamas & Niyamas in favour of a practice that had a lower bar to entry and was more physically tangible.
Philosophically Raja Yoga was very reality negative and the physical body was seen as something to be transcended. One was trying to escape reality and the body through the practice of Raja Yoga where as Hatha Yoga was far more reality affirming. One could practice Hatha Yoga and hope to achieve liberation while holding a job, getting married, having children and all the other activities that make up human life.
In Sanskrit the word Hatha breaks down into ha and tha which mean sun and moon. The sun represents divine masculine while the moon represents the divine feminine. Therefore Hatha Yoga is about uniting the masculine with the feminine.
Going way back to Samkhya, another of the six orthodox philosophies in India, the two irreducible elements that gave rise to all manifest reality were purusha (consciousness) and prakrti (matter), also represented as divine masculine and feminine respectively. In Hatha Yoga the practitioner achieves liberation through the pathway of prakriti (matter) or the body, uniting it with consciousness.
In Hatha Yoga the first stage is Shatkarma or physical purification. Many of us in the west are now familiar with the Netti pot for cleansing the nasal passages with salt water. Jala Netti is one of the Shatkarmas. Stages two through seven are Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, Dharana, Dhyana & Samadhi.
The manual on Hatha Yoga, called The Hatha Yoga Pradipika, gives the first mention of yoga postures (or asanas) besides padmasana but lists only fifteen, non of which are standing postures. Another text on Hatha Yoga called the Gheranda Samhita lists only thirty two asanas. This is a far cry from the thousands of asanas we have today in modern yoga practice. Bear with me a moment longer as I explain how that all came about.
All the countless styles of yoga that we practice today in the west came from Hatha Yoga. Hatha Yoga developed in India between the 600 CE - 1500 CE but fell into relative obscurity for a long time until a remarkable Indian master practitioner named Tirumalai Krishnamacharya taught a small contingent of students who went on to popularize Yoga in the west. Please note that there were other teachers who brought yoga to the west whom I do not have time to go into detail about. However, because Krishnamacharyas impact was so extensive, we can understand the evolution of modern yoga almost exclusively from his teaching lineage.
Krishnamacharya was a remarkable scholar and renown healer in India who lived in exceptional health right up to the age of 101. He taught B.K.S. Iyengar, Indra Devi, Pattabhi Jois, and his son T.K.V. Desikachar. These four teachers developed their own schools of Hatha Yoga that emphasized slightly different aspects of the practice. Many students of these four teachers went on to create their own styles of yoga within the school they had been certified. The students of those teachers went on to start brand naming their unique spins on the styles of yoga they had been certified in. Along the way, the practice of Hatha Yoga has been the subject of constant evolution in the absence of regulation. Therefore, modern yoga practice in the west is the result of countless teachers putting their own unique spin on an ancient psycho physical spiritual practice.
In this blog series I will be talking a lot about modern Hatha Yoga as it pertains to improving the health of a Skier, and by extension, skiing performance. Through the practice of Hatha Yoga, skiers can improve their physical conditioning, prevent injury, refine kinesthetic awareness, accelerate learning movement patterns, and better cope with stress.
However, when it comes to The Spiritual Skier, I am talking about skiing as Karma Yoga. Skiing as Karma Yoga elevates skiing to an art. For those who have dedicated their lives to skiing, it is a sacred duty. Skiing as Karma Yoga becomes an end in itself - meaningful, purposeful and the access point to awe. I will have the opportunity to elaborate on what Skiing as Karma Yoga means when I get to blog entry on Flow.
Next Week: How Yoga Saved My Life
"In the perfect moment, I was.. Or, I felt to be, a little superman." ~ Stefano De Benedetti
Conscious of it or not it seams most of us are compelled to test our limits for reasons that are hard to articulate but just as critical to our health and wellbeing as breathing. The quest to know ones limits is one and the same with coming to know ones self. It is a journey full of obstacles, challenges and sometimes it is down right heart breaking. However, when these obstacles and challenges are met with conviction and will power eventually they are overcome.
There is a reason the epic has been such an enduring story format throughout human history. We all resonate with the plight of the seeker who sets out to overcome a seemingly insurmountable obstacle and in so doing learns what he or she is made of. The qualities of human beings most universally prized tend to reveal themselves during these journeys to seek out boundaries and transcend them. The attributes of discipline, conviction, tenacity, passion and heart are nouns we use to describe the larger than life individuals who are the protagonists of these stories.
The sport world is full of epics. We are fascinated by individuals who pursues perfection in sport and becomes a fully actualized masters. One such individual is Stefano De Benedetti, the first man to descend Mont Blanc's East Face. In the extreme skiing documentary Steep De Benedetti described his journey towards becoming one of the pioneer extreme skiers as "his way of becoming a man."
In the seventies and eighties as De Benedetti and others were first attempting to ski massive perviously un-navigated peaks the technology was not nearly as advanced as it is now. True grit of character, iron thighs and a fiery drive to learn what is possible on skis compelled these athletes, in spite incredible risk, to push themselves beyond what was considered possible.
We admire individuals like De Benedetti even though we can't completely understand why they do what they do. Even when we are pursuing our own passions we can hardly articulate ourselves what our own quest to transcend is about. We become spiritual when attempting to describe our it because it is a process richly textured, so beyond the mundane as to completely defy language. All we know for sure is that we need it. If we are lucky enough to be on such a quest we tend to rank it above all things in spite it's intangibility and regardless the risks involved. If we have not yet found it we ache for it deeply. That seams strange doesn't it?
The Indian yogi mystic Sadhguru in an interview with Oscar winning filmmaker Shekhar Kapur proposes a very elegant explanation for the origin of this compulsion towards transcendence. "There is something within you which cannot stand boundaries. Or, in other words, there is something within you which wants to become boundless. What can be boundless? A physical form can be small or big, but never boundless. There is something within you which is longing to touch a dimension which is beyond the physical."
Somehow it is in the pushing of boundaries that we find ourselves in the realm of living meaningfully and with purpose as we are fulfilling that most lofty of human needs, the need for what psychologist Abraham Maslow called self actualization. Evolutionarily this makes sense. A species that has an inborn desire to push boundaries will be innovative and ultimately adaptive to change. Change appears to be the one constant in the universe so the compulsion towards transcendence is humanities and by extension life's instrument for propagating into a vast inhospitable universe.
Remember how I said the Ski Bum will be the hero of this blog series? It can not be underestimated how important it is to follow the compulsion towards transcendence or put another way follow your passion, no matter what that looks like for you. What we are really talking about is nothing short of the survival of our species.
I can appreciate how that statement sounds a little grandiose. But consider how out of harmony with our very nature we now feel as a global civilization when we have built a system where we do things we don't like for stuff we don't need. Look at what that system has created. Think of the tremendous potential discoveries that are being lost because so many of us have to commit time and energy towards basic survival rather than the pursuit of passions. Just as tragic think of how many of us have the capacity to pursue our passions but don't because our priorities have become so messed up. It's not hard to see how the system we have created will ultimately destroy us because it is so fundamentally out of touch with what we are.
There is something within all of us that does not like limits and this compels us to push through boundaries even at our own individual peril. The ancient yogis thousands of years ago concluded that this is because our true nature is actually limitless. True or not living from that paradigm makes us more adaptive as a species to the natural pressures of environmental change. Therefore it makes sense to do crazy things, push your boundaries, follow your passions not on an individual level but on a species level. Dare I say following your passion in life, no matter form it takes, is what you have evolved to do and is your greatest contribution as an agent of the process of life.
Next Week: Yoga, Not Exactly What You Think It Is
The above quote by Mr. Twain was very much in my mind about seven years ago when I experienced a defining moment. In 2006 I had moved from Edmonton to Ireland with my then husband who had landed an incredible job with a company based in Dublin. About three years into our European experiment, on a dark December evening, I found myself looking forlornly through the windows of our apartment at a very bazar sight. Illuminated by a full moon the characteristic green Irish landscape was completely submerged under a thick blanket of white snow that had completely shut down the city. The gulf stream had diverted west of Greenland causing the worst snowstorm in twenty years.
My heart grew heavy as fat flakes drifted mesmerizingly earthward. I could feel an old familiar restlessness rise within me, and it just kept rising. All the frustration of a decade spent aching for a sense of meaning and purpose compressed into that one moment like a singularity. That night when it exploded into anger I had finally reached the critical threshold of discomfort necessary for action.
I knew what I was contemplating would entail a tectonic shift in my life that would be full of terrifying uncertainty and very real risk. But more importantly I knew, with certainty, that the only thing in the entire world that I wanted to be doing with my life was the one thing that was absolutely impossible. Because, in that entire snow filled country, there was not one skiable mountain.
Fast forward to present day, approximately five hundred and fifty days on snow, countless hours on a yoga mat and one transformative trip to India later. I find myself writing a blog series about Yoga for Skiers from my apartment in Canmore Alberta. For those of you reading who don't know, that is right in the middle of the magnificent Canadian Rocky Mountains! I am writing it out of an intense geeky interest in the subject and from the heart because it is on the topic of two of my greatest passions in life.
This blog series is for those on a quest to know the self through sport. For our purposes the landscape for the quest is the sport of skiing and the path, or method, or technology, or tool for self inquiry is yoga.
I am really hoping these words are connecting with the spiritual seekers, the heartsick wanderers and the relentless dreamers of the ski world. You know who you are. Those of you who have postponed plans or outright gambled everything on a mountain lifestyle, compelled by a need to experience the sublime that lies in a beautiful untouched expanse of snow. I salute you! You have left the perceived security of a common career path to drift from mountain town to mountain town in pursuit of a dream. Many would label you a Ski Bum stereotyping you as an aimless vagabond selfishly pursuing fun and forsaking the responsibilities of the real world. In this book the Ski Bum is the hero. So for you this will be a validation of your life choices.
And then there are the geeky sports medicine, sports psychology and physiotherapy types. I have a huge crush on all of you by the way. Additionally I am simultaneously hopeful and terrified that you are reading this because the arguments I will present for the efficacy of yoga as a multimodal approach to skiing skills development will be heavily under scrutiny. And well it should be. I hope what I present here generates a lot of discussion in the comments. It is so absurd to me how few skiers bother to warms up before skiing let alone engage in activities outside skiing that would maintain the health of their bodies to prevent injuries. This is a conversation that is well overdue.
Most of all I am hoping these words are connecting with those of you who are perched longingly on the edge of becoming the skier you want to be. Maybe that means you are wanting to embrace the quest to know the self through skiing or maybe it means you just want to feel more confident on blue runs. All is out there just waiting for you to make it happen. And I hope this blog series might spur you forward and make you see it's easier than you think.
Next Week: There Is Something Within That Does Not Like Limits
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
The idea to write a book about Yoga for Skiers started as a copy writing exercise during a business and marketing course I was taking as I was starting up my company The Spiritual Skier. The goal of the project was just to write a five page document that would help identify me as an expert on yoga for skiers to boost brand credibility. I absolutely did not intend for it to become a three year research project that would result in a full scale one hundred page book but that is sort of what happened by accident.
It turns out I had a lot to say on the subject. I spent the first summer crafting an elegant framework for communicating my ideas about how yoga, as a physical practice, had helped me personally achieve important milestones in my skiing progression. I took the five skiing skills, right out of the Canadian Ski Instructors' Alliance (CSIA) manual, consolidated them into four and overlaid four complimentary yoga practices. The result was four chapters titled Feel, Align, Power & Flow.
I was really happy with this conceptualization. However, the more I wrote the more questions erupted in my mind. Questions like, how do I really know that practicing hip opening yoga postures will help skiers pivot? Beyond my own anecdotal experience how can I provide evidence of a correlation? Does foam rolling really do anything and if so what? What is pressure control anyway? This all started as simple innocent curiosity and then evolved into a full blown obsession.
I started to research a broad range of topics spanning a wide array of subjects from biology to physics. I interviewed people who literally wrote the manual. I rededicated myself towards my ski training and attended every yoga teacher training workshop I could all in an effort to validate my theories about yoga for skiers.
Then I went to India. Up to that point I had been practicing and teaching yoga primarily as physical exercise. I had some basic knowledge of meditation and eastern philosophy that had served me well in the past but my overall conceptualization of yoga was fragmented and incomplete. That is until I experienced the complete system of yoga attending my second Yoga Teacher Training intensive at Rishikesh Yog Peeth. When I returned home I knew I needed to rewrite much of the book. But I didn't mind at all because I was so fascinated and renewed in my love for the practice.
I learn that yoga is an ancient system for altering perception towards the lofty goal of attaining a view of reality that is transcendent. I learned how yoga engenders the practitioner with a set of cognitive tools that are extremely adaptive for living life at the peak of ones potential and, dare I say, becoming a little superhuman. I started to see the pursuit of mastery in sports like skiing as a very similar path with the same becoming a little superhuman outcome.
This prompted an expedition down the rabbit hole of perception, neuroscience, religion and mysticism. I poured over the works of Abraham Maslow on Peak Experience and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's work on Flow State. I studied several of the ancient texts on yoga. I became my own guinea pig in a series of experiments pushing my edge skiing big mountain lines and going deep into my meditation practice.
All the while I had started teaching yoga & ski retreats, workshops and private sessions. During the process of researching and writing this book I had undoubtably become a better Ski Instructor and Yoga Teacher. My own learning and performance both as a skier and yogini had accelerated. All this was a terrific bonus but I was most gratified to see the positive impact this work had on my students. The results exceeded even my wildest expectations as a small community started to form around the idea of The Spiritual Skier.
Then my life exploded. You can read all about it in this blog post. This was the ultimate fire test of all that I had learned, practiced and integrated into my life. In the course of a single year I faced not one, not two but three potentially devastating shocks with a stoic determination not to let it throw me off my course. During this time the mountains were my medicine, yoga was the firm foundation that held up my sense of self and skiing was a boundless expression of my commitment towards living an ethos of love, play and the pursuit of awe.
While recent crisis have not been able to dislodge me from this course they have changed the timetable for the book. Instead of self publishing a collated ebook on Amazon I have decided to publish key sections of interest on my blog that will act as the perfect accompaniment to the 2015/16 ski season. I will publish one a week over twenty six weeks starting November 1st.
You can access each post by visiting my website blog page every Sunday starting November 1st or, for your convenience, you may subscribe to receive the 26 part series completely for free by clicking on the link below.
What do you do when the shit hits the proverbial fan? We have all been there. That awful moment in your life when you realize the calamity that has become your daily experience is not going to go away quickly or easily. You will be forced to deal with it.
Up until quite recently in my life my approach has been to recoil, avoid, deny and outright hide from the challenge. There was a time in my life when I was so good at doing this I could actually convince myself, at least on an intellectual level, that nothing was wrong.
However, the symptoms would soon manifest in my body. Things would break. My immune system would fall apart, joints would ache, sleeping and eating habits would fall by the wayside until eventually I could no longer function in my daily routine.
My approach to crisis has dramatically changed in the wake of my deepening Yoga practice. I am no longer a denier and instead have become quite pleasantly adept at facing challenges squarely in the eye. It all comes down to changing your perception about what is happening to you. Is it a crisis or an opportunity?
For my first Yoga Teacher training I studied with a wonderful teacher named Daniel Clement in Nelson British Columbia. Dan recently wrote a book called "Your Wound is Your Gift." In his book Dan enumerates the many reasons we should look at these dark nights of the soul as gifts rather than obstacles.
It is in those moments of absolute crisis that the ego is rendered inert and the true self can emerge to face crisis with a level of grace and clarity that we don't realize we possess. In facing these challenges we grow as people and become more inspiringCumulatively to ourselves and others in the process.
During the past twelve months I have been visited by three gifts. In a relatively short space of time I underwent an ectopic pregnancy, I witnessed my parents business fail and their security threatened as well as the end of my ten year marriage. I write it out like a grocery shopping list. Each event on it's own had the power of an atomic bomb to transform the landscape of my life. Cumulatively they transformed my experience of life into another dimension where the only constant was change.
People, when talking about periods of intense change reference clever sayings like when it rains it pours. In my case it was more like pressing down hard on a gas pedal in a car hurtling down a treacherous mountain road and never letting up. It was constant sensation of being under threat with no end in sight. Each gift was delivered before the shine could fade from the old gift and the emotional impact of all three was intense to say the least.
These things have fire tested my beliefs and practice and yes, I absolutely do see them as gifts. I witnessed what a five thousand years old spiritual science can do when fully unleashed on real crisis. My yoga practice leapt off the mat and meditation cushion and went into battle with some of the worst fear, self doubt and gut wrenching grief I have ever experienced.
Yoga had become this incredibly powerful magical stuff had accumulated in my body and mind from my five years of dedicated practice that just deployed automatically like a life raft on a sinking vessel. All I had to do was get into that protective space and I knew everything was going to be just fine.
When talking to friends, family, colleagues and even health care providers I kept hearing panic. You must be so overwhelmed, terrified, sad etc. In truth I was all these things but I wasn't suffering and therefore I could witness the transformation that was taking place with curiosity and intrigue instead of horror.
My own self just seven years ago or so upon reading the above words would have called bullshit! There is no way my past self could have been convinced that the things I have been through could be in any way positive. Unfortunately, back then, I spent way too much of my precious time worrying about precisely these types of scenarios instead of enjoying the serenity of their absence.
I can now appreciate what my yoga practice has done for me. I understand what it is for. Here I am, still negotiating the upheaval of these three gifts in my life but I am not suffering and that has made all the difference.
This morning I practiced yoga at the end of a dock overlooking a beautiful mountain lake. In each posture the word gratitude resonated throughout my body and into that vast expansive breath taking space. A soft silent thank you was offered for all the beautiful gifts in my life.
This newsletter will be short. Primarily because I have been so busy this month. I started teaching a new Early Morning Yoga class at The Yoga Lounge in Canmore. I attended the Canadian Ski Instructors Alliance Alberta's spring convention. However, the crown jewel of the month was by far having the privilege of playing host and guide for seven remarkable people at the first ever Yoga & Ski Restorative Retreat at Sunshine Village.
For two years I have been dreaming about offering a unique mountain getaway that would combine the body restoring benefits of Hatha Yoga tailored to the needs of skiers and snowboarders with a guided moving meditation experience on snow drawing from both eastern philosophy and my twelve year experience Ski Instructing. I am so grateful that the team at Sunshine Village believed in the concept and me enough to support it's development ultimately resulting in this past weekends terrific success.
The execution was nothing short of spectacular with absolutely perfect weather, mouth watering healthy gourmet food, luxury boutique mountain lodge accommodation, world class service every step of the way and a transformative program of spirit elevating practices if I do say so myself. Both on the mat and on the mountain we laughed, we played, we pushed our perceived limits to find the spiritual within the sublime of that awe inspiring Rocky Mountain setting.
I was really moved several times during the retreat but especially during the closing. We gathered in circle at the top of Standish Mountain under a bluebird sky for a smudging ceremony and mind like sky meditation practice. As I sang the Mangalya Prarthana Mantra, taught to me by my dear teacher Krishna, each guest took time to smudge with white buffalo sage to purify and express gratitude to the mountains. That mantra is all about extending your most heart felt positive wishes to people and animals throughout the world. I could feel the sentiment of that mantra was being amplified by the seven remarkable guests. For that moment we made Standish mountain into a sacred space so as to reconnect with mother nature. I could not have imagined beforehand that it would feel so natural and therapeutic do so. This was powerful medicine.
As a Yoga Teacher I have been learning that so much of the success of any lesson has to do with me trusting that the power of the practice resides within those who show up to partake. After many years of teaching movement I am starting to understand that my role is to prepare the setting with meticulous attention to each students unique needs. Then I need to get the heck out of the way in the sense that I remove my ego and expectations from the equation. When I get this part right I as the teacher witness the most brilliant gems of insight emerge from within the student him or herself. It makes me remember what another of my dear teachers in India, Roshan, once said to me about the Sanskrit expression Hari Aum Tat Sat. He said he uses the expression at the end of each class to say "I've done my part the rest is up to you." By you he means you the student and nothing less than a manifestation of the divine.
I can't wait to see what beauties will emerge at the next Yoga & Ski Restorative Retreat this May 2 - 4. Some spaces are still available. If not for yourself this time around please tell a friend or family member who could benefit from a retreat into the Rockies.
"Arjuna, he who looks on all as one, on the analogy of his own self, and looks upon the joy and sorrow of all equally- such a Yogi is deemed to be the highest of all."~ Bhagavadgita Ch.6V.31
We were invited by a thin fit looking orange robed Yogi to stand in his cave which he had been inhabiting for some time practicing in solitary in the traditional way. One of the employees from the school translated for us as the yogi explained how he acquired the cave after it's previous occupant retreated into the Himalayas to go still deeper into the practice.
It was pitch black except for a small pit of embers near the far wall. With the little LED light attached to my bag I could take in the small space. Almost nothing inside. Just a little alter carved into the rock upon which rested a couple small statues of Hindu deities, mala beads and what looked like offerings of dried flowers and food. Who could say how many yogis before him had sat humbly in that silent space meditating upon the nature of the self and reality at large. I was humbled to consider the lengths to which some in this vast tradition of yoga have gone for the sake of discovering through direct self experimentation what the human mind is capable of.
For weeks now I had been learning about the astonishing level of discipline the early yogis employed to gain insights into the nature of consciousness. Eating a sparse and modest diet of vegetables, lentils, beans and rice to make the body healthy and the mind steady. Cultivating an attitude of equanimity towards all things. Renouncing possessions, comforts and attachments. Meticulously cutting away from their lives all things that could distract from their ultimate goal of glimpsing ultimate reality, Brahman. I had also been hearing a lot of extraordinary claims about the special powers wielded by sages ancient and modern. This made me really uncomfortable. I felt torn by the desire to swallow whole the notion that a practice, on the level described in the ancient texts, could indeed yield extraordinary results like levitation and the ability to recall past lives. However, my inner skeptic demanded that I question these things.
The fourth and final chapter of The Yoga Sutras talks extensively about the Siddhis or supernormal perceptual states. These Siddhis arise as side effects of disciplined practice and appear to give the accomplished yogi extraordinary psychic abilities. I couldn't read any of it without categorizing it as a kind of dramatic embellishment upon concepts that I assumed must have been quite ordinary. I was not following Roshan's advice to neither accept nor reject but merely contemplate all that I received.
Flipping through my notebook today I found some gems of insight from my wise teacher Krishna. "Success in yoga is not related to specific clothes, reading authentic books or talking about yoga; only through practice can it be realized." A serious practitioner will commit himself whole heatedly to the practice without any expectation of result. Eventually the practice will pervade every aspect of waking life for the aspirant. Only then will the deepest benefits be realized. Krishna's second remark that I found while flipping through my notes made me smile. He made a very contentious statement one day while lecturing. He proposed that, in his opinion, one who is not practicing all aspects of yoga the yamas, niyamas, krias, mudras, bhandas, pranayama, dhyana, asana etcetera; categorically can not be called a Yoga Teacher. In a room full of western yoga teachers this statement unleashed a pretty immediate defensive reaction. The rationale behind Krishnas argument became apparent to me over time as we studied the ancient texts on yoga. The Bhagavadgita, Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Gherand Samita all speak about yoga as a discipline of direct experience. Moksha or liberation comes to the aspirant through practice alone.
In another lecture a while later Krishna again brought up this idea of direct experience being king both for understanding and teaching yoga. He described The Yoga Sutras as "metaphysical speculations on the super sensual or transcendental." The Sutras are not for intellectual debate, he exclaimed powerfully, they are to be experienced." Then I finally decided to do what Roshan had been advocating all along. "Neither accept nor reject anything that you hear; contemplate." I have been revisiting chapter 4 of The Yoga Sutras since the completion of my course and it often reminds me of my Psychology and Philosophy studies in University. It reads like a how to manual for someone seeking to willfully alter his or her perception of reality. Who is to say that once someone possesses that level of self control they can not wield greater influence over their reality?
It's helpful to remember that the early yogis did not have modern scientific equipment to probe the physical stuff of the universe with. The had only their own intellects the tools of observation, inference and reason. What a tenacious bunch they must have been. After all how does a mind hope to use only itself to dissect the inner workings of itself? They were driven by the need to try to understand and so they learned to sharpen that one instrument, their minds, with every means at their disposal. How incredible! How inspiring! How revolutionary!
Because yoga has always been intended to be a discipline yielding insights through direct experience there can be no authority higher than the practitioner herself. I admire the teachers who have dedicated themselves wholeheartedly but they are just guides. The really good ones will often dismiss the adulations of their students understanding the work is done by the student. In essence the practitioner is her own teacher as well as a student. Actually it might make more sense to call a yoga practitioner an experimenter in perception.
It's not easy to maintain a home practice. I go through waves of enthusiasm when new and exciting discoveries are made punctuated by periods of lethargy when results are just a lot more of the same. But I always return to the practice. Not just for my health, happiness or connection to a community but compelled by the mystery of it all. I keep finding that the rabbit hole goes ever deeper and I must see where it leads.
Many Culinary Delights For The Mind, Body & Soul
Never Give Up
Always Let Go
The program was in full swing and I was getting close to over the jet lag, I had let go worrying about stretchy pants, the hot humid weather felt nice rather than oppressive and I was really starting to enjoying my new temporary home of Shiva Cottage in Swarag Ashram. No where in Rishikesh will one find meat. The primarily Hindu community is vegetarian so there were many beautiful vegetarian dishes on offer that I enjoyed immensely. In the school we were fed a fully Sattvic diet with three herbal teas per day. I loved the food but found myself starting to crave things from back home around this week three mark.
The hardest thing to live without was coffee. Part of the school policy is to abstain from caffeine while on the premises and preferably for the duration of the 6 week program. The main reason a yoga student does not want to ingest caffeine is because of how it alters the nervous system making one slightly agitated. This means the practitioner is unable to remain fully present during practice. I used to think this was just the kind of old world abstention for the sake of abstention that one sometimes sees in old traditions until I found myself naturally giving up coffee during my 200 hour teacher training in Nelson BC. For some reason my body didn't want caffeine once I had gone deep into the practice. I decided to trust that and I experienced a really beautiful natural stimulation effect from the practice alone.
I knew from the school information that this was coming so I tried to ween myself off coffee in preparation for my departure. I also had the experience from my 200 hour training where I didn't want caffeine so I thought it would be easy. It wasn't. As soon as the travel stress hit I was downing coffee in an airport in-between flights so as to boost my waining brain power during that long journey.
However, once I started the program I told myself, I would give up caffeine no problem. This was actually easier than one would imagine given you just couldn't get it on school premises. I felt really different during my practice. This is when the big slowdown occurred and to this day I haven't quite been able to speed up to my previous frenetic pace. I was walking slower, I was talking slower, I was talking less. I could feel my practice from the inside out. Everything was a little more visceral, a little more raw and wide eyed. Sorry, I feel like that doesn't really explain things well. It's one of those things you really need to experience for yourself.
However, it only took till week three to discover where the cafes offering coffee to the numerious caffeine starved westerners attending yoga training were. And they were good! Coconut milk iced lattes, Americanos, Mochas. These crafty cafe owners had done their market research and knew exactly how to pander to our western yogi cravings.
On one particularly exhausted morning I convinced myself that I really needed a coffee because I hadn't slept well for days and a whole day of study and practice lie before me. It would help me, I argued. In fact it would be good for me. Really, it would be negligent of me not to have a coffee leveraging the brain boosting power of caffeine to focus more on the brilliant offerings of these amazing teachers. So, just like any drug addict, I rationalized jumping off the wagon until it made perfect logical sense.
So I went to The Health Cafe in-between classes with a couple class mates and ordered a coconut milk iced coffee. It was just a tiny glass but it was so marvellous! Paired with these delicious caffeinated beverages one could avail of numerous tasty reasonably portioned organic healthy option deserts like apricot coconut slices, small coco chocolate balls and almond paste sweets. But these seemingly harmless treats were merely the gateway to hard deserts.
Things like nutella pancakes giant syrup covered chocolate balls, banoffee pie and the mother of them all, hello to the queen, were on the back page of the menu at cafes strategically placed around the perimeter of this school buildings. Hello To The Queen is a delicious graham cracker, caramel and banana base topped with a generous helping of ice-cream, whip cream and chocolate sauce. It's quite a shock to the system when your living in an ashram eating Sattvic and drinking nothing stronger than ginger lemon honey tea. Under these circumstances a Hello To The Queen, although tame by western standards, will totally f**k you up.
So I went there finding pasta, pizza, coffee and deserts that by western standards would still be considered very healthy vegetarian small portion options but by Indian yogi standards and my teachers standards completely inappropriate to the aims of our training. I argued irrationally to myself why this was acceptable. At one point I even argued that this was good Tantric Yoga practice. I was merely affirming the validity of this reality and experiencing it in it's fullness. However, there was no escaping the truth because during my deeply introspective practice be it asana, pranayama, mantra or meditation I could feel the difference on the couple days where I slipped.
And here's the really interesting thing. I didn't judge myself. I still don't and that's probably how I am able to write this tell all expose now. Yoga is not about becoming perfect through force of will. Yoga is a process of peeling back layers upon layers of misconception and recognizing the truth that we are already perfect. When this realization dawns, even if on the preconscious level, we no longer crave things that are not good for us because we directly experience that sense of connection and are totally fulfilled.
Tis what happened to me during the 200 hour training when I spontaneously gave up coffee. The thing is it doesn't last. It is easier to fall into this realization when we are beginners absent of preconceived notions or expectations about the practice. It becomes measurably more challenging to revisit once we are seasoned practitioners full of our own ideas about the good and bad of things. This is how well intentioned yogis can start to become a little elitist midway through their journey and you start to see bumper stickers proclaiming things like "I will totally kick your asana!" You can tell I am in the neighbourhood of midway through my journey because I have strong opinions about that bumper sticker and what it implies.
And yet it seams that really seasoned practitioners like my very disciplined teachers both in Nelson and India and the wise old sages meandering barefoot though the streets of Swarag Ashram somehow find their way back to the beginner's state of mind. With seeming effortlessness they conduct themselves to the highest standards of the practice and in some cases even according to the traditional texts, which is really hardcore. I don't yet know how they do it but I have seen that it is possible through their brilliant examples. So my practice continues with plenty of observation and a lot less judgement after my experience in India. I am hopeful this is a good recipe to help me progress to a point where judgement will no longer be an issue.
Enjoying the series? Stay posted for Part 4 in my March newsletter!
"External circumstances can only cause you physical pain. Suffering is created in your mind."
India and I were on much better terms after the initial panic and sickness wore off. Once I started my 300 hour Yoga Teacher Training Intensive I leapt enthusiastically into an exciting new routine. Unfortunately I couldn't sleep more than a few hours a night for the first 12 days. Someone had told me that it takes one day per time zone crossed to adjust to the jet lag. I knew I just needed to be patient.
My daily schedule Monday - Friday:
5:30am wake up and personal morning mediation
6:30am herbal tea & Jala Neti (nasal cleansing)
7am morning yoga practice for 2 hours
9:15am breakfast of fruit salad, oatmeal & honey
10:00am mantra practice
10:30am yoga history & tradition lecture
11:45am yoga anatomy & philosophy lecture
1:00pm lunch of lentils, vegetables & rice
2:00pm rest, hand wash laundry, study, explore
4:00pm adjustments workshop
5:00pm evening yoga practice for 2 hours
7:15pm dinner of curry, vegetables, rice chapati, desert
8:30pm personal evening mediation practice, reading
10:00pm lights out
Our first evening gathering as a group I receive the above schedule and a bundle of yoga goodies. A stack of textbooks, notebook & pen and my most prized possession from the training, a woven yoga rug. I had agonized before my departure on many inconsequential little details. One thing I hummed and hawed about for ages was taking my fancy expensive western yoga mat. In the end I decided to pack really light, I mean really... light. So no fancy western yoga mat. Instead I brought a yoga towel and that served nicely on top that beautiful woven rug.
For context it's worth noting that at one time I traveled with multiple suit cases. One for shoes, one for outfits. In the heady days of my European adventure there was occasion for multiple pairs of shoes. I certainly did not want to be responsible for lugging around a lot of stuff while negotiate crowed Indian streets. In a mad departure from my former habit I took just one small suitcase. This was a very good decision not only for practical reasons but for advancing my yoga practice of non attachment as well.
Those first couple weeks I was consumed by a singular thought. It crept up while in postures. It was in the back of my mind during nearly every śavāsana I used precious internet time when both power and internet were inconsistently available to research possible solutions. It was even making its way into my dreams. "Oh my god I didn't pack enough yoga cloths!"
I can't type that sentence without laugh. It sounds absolutely ridiculous in hind sight. Like, really embarrassingly ridiculous. And I would probably not type it at all were it not for the fact that this was one of my greatest insights about myself and the nature of reality during the intensive.
It was really really hot in India in September when I first arrived. The average daytime temperature those first couple weeks was 38 celcius. I have hardly in my life ever encountered that type of heat not to mention the humidity. I was sweating buckets. In the evening the sun would go down at nearly the exact same time we would find ourselves lying in corpse pose after our evening practice. I would feel awful stinging like I was being bitten by the most sadistic mosquitoes you could possibly imagine.
Thing was I was wearing 30% Deet repellant at the insistence of my travel clinic consultant and there were never any bite marks. It just didn't make sense. To this day I'm not sure what was happening but my best theory is this. My sweat pours were stretched so wide open that their contracting as the temperature dropped slightly was actually painful. Anyway, I digress, the point is, I was sweating a whole heck of a lot.
The few yoga clothes I did bring were of course expensive synthetic active wear. I can tell you, synthetic does not hand wash worth a damn. Every piece I took with me was absolutely destroyed by my rough attempt to beat the sweat out of it through sheer brute force. It never dried properly and so I just stank like a wet worn sock all day long. This further exacerbated my anxiety about the lovely clean yoga clothes sitting neatly in my closet back home rather than with me during yoga teacher training.
After talking sheepishly to one of my teachers about how anxious I was feeling about being away from home plus how terribly I was sleeping I found myself slipping in the fact that my lack of yoga clothing was making me uneasy. Then I realized, my teacher wears the same yoga clothes every day. A simple baggy white cotton long sleeve shirt and baggy white cotton pants. And he is doing pretty darn good with that.
For my teacher this simple yoga ensemble is a conscious choice. However, throughout India a limited wardrobe is a side effect of real life threatening poverty. And I am freaking out over a lack of stretchy pants. What the hell is the matter with me! My teacher listened attentively and calmly explained that this being the first time I had traveled to the East and alone at that I was was simply experiencing the stress of radical newness. I needed to practice evening meditation for a number of minutes equal to my age. So I did. In my 34 minute meditation practice I came to a realization.
My western capitalist upbringing had me absolutely convinced that I could control the universe with the right pair of technical fabric leggings and colour coordinated weather appropriate footwear. I believed this in the core of my being as if it were a law of nature. Without a thick insulating layer of stuff surrounding me I was feeling quite exposed to the uncertainty of life that pervaded every waking moment of my experience in this very new very different setting.
During insight meditation assumptions must be questioned. They are practically begging to be questioned. So I questioned. Is there truth to this assumption that I wield greater control over my destiny with the right stuff? A memory flashed in my mind from earlier that day when I was walking towards Lakshman Jula bridge shopping for cotton clothes.
A couple Sadhus were just lying in the shade of an archway resting during the hottest point of the day and looking quite content. Sadhus are a type of yogi who vow renunciation from worldly possession so that they can work towards moksa or liberation. They wear orange robes are nomadic and live off of alms, the food donations of strangers.
There they were with nothing but their orange robes and a pair of wooden walking sticks. Meanwhile I was going through the motions of a familiar dance, seeking some comfort in the hunting and gathering of more than I need in-between commitments where I engage in activities that help me pay for those excesses. The Sadhus I realized were not just lying there, they were a meditation in the form of a life. While they were contemplating Brahman, non fluctuating blissful highest reality, I was stressing myself out. Who had greater influence over their destiny they or I?
That weekend our first Sunday activity was white water rafting. I hadn't packed a swim suit as the recommendation on the email I received from the school was to bring bathing clothes. I won't go into the detail of that miscommunication. Suffice it to say I thought bathing cloths was something other than a bathing suit and was quite sure I would find them in India. Anyway, I found some Iyengar shorts and a tank top that were both good for swimming in and relatively conservative.
As we were crossing under Lakshman Jula bridge the guides suggested we jump out of the raft to float in the Ganges. I did so. And as I was floating in that holy river wearing Iyengar shorts, a tank top and a bright orange lifejacket I glanced up at the bridge packed as it always is with people coming and going about their business. A few waved down at me and I back up at them. Most were to busy to notice. I was contemplating Brahman, as I floated with the current of the river. Quite literally going with the flow. There was nothing to do but enjoy the moment. The moment was a cornucopia of delights. Letting go of everything, including the raft which had carried me to that point, I had gained the coolness of the water, the sweetness of the air, and the magnificent blue of the sky. As I type this I can't help but tear up a bit at the memory. This was a kind of yoga of powerful insight but no stretchy pants in sight.