Down Dog to Downhill: How Yoga Got Me Back on My Skis
It had been at least 20 years since I last swooshed onto a ski slope. Growing up in Michigan, I loved skiing—the brisk air brushing my cheek as I schussed down a slope, the smell of fresh pine trees, the sparkle of the snow, and the physical demands of the sport. I liked the après (after) part too—the warmth and coziness of the fire, hot chocolate, and wonderful company. It was all delightful! But that was long before kids, career, carpools, and college savings plans got in the way. Closing in on 60 years old, I never thought I’d see a slope again. Besides, I was content with my yoga. Until I met him. An outdoorsman, a hiker, biker, skier. A year into our courtship, he asked me to join him for a long weekend of skiing in Utah. “You betcha,” I agreed, imagining myself effortlessly skiing again—forgetting it had been so long, forgetting I had only skied downhill on Midwestern hills, forgetting my advancing age—forgetting my common sense entirely, it seemed.
It had been at least 20 years since I last swooshed onto a ski slope.
What was I thinking? My excitement turned to abject fear as we rode the chairlift over the craggy crevices of the mountain. It was just a gentle blue intermediate run at a resort known for friendly runs, but it looked like Mt. Everest to me. Teeth chattering, knees knocking, somehow I managed to slide off the seat and shimmy my way over to the side so that I could position myself at the top of the slope. Where I stood. Frozen. My gentleman friend kindly took my elbow and softly steered me so that I faced downhill. “Just take it nice and easy,” he said. “Follow me.” With that, he pushed off, carving lovely turns in the fresh snow. He waited for me about halfway down the slope. I stood at the top, shivering. And I think maybe tears were beginning to freeze in my eyes. Below me lay the beautiful valley blanketed in snow and the crisp, tiny town. And all around me were people capably schussing this way and that. They all seemed so darned confident, as though everything was effortless. I was immobilized with terror. "Too long since I’ve done this," I thought. "Too scared. Too old."
Finally, I took a deep breath and ever so slightly pushed off. My knocked knees came in handy as I forced my skis into a snowplow. Somehow, I miraculously managed to meet up with my friend and slowly make my way down the rest of the slope. I was ready to curl up in a fetal position, but he spurred me back onto the chairlift. “It’s just like riding a bike,” he said. Little did he know I hadn’t really done that in quite some time either, but I digress. After several runs on this somewhat gentle slope, I noticed fear giving way to a feeling of ebullience. I was skiing! I was standing upright, skis mostly parallel, pretty much pointing downhill, taking some turns. He was right; it was like riding a bike!
Actually, I realized, it was more like practicing yoga. Without thinking, my breath seemed to automatically synchronize with my movement. Deeply inhaling as my body extended tall, exhaling as I pivoted my hips to turn, my breath kept me steady and smooth, moving with a rhythm that carried me down the runs. It was a lot like being on my mat—focusing on my breath kept me in the moment, thinking only of standing firmly on my skis, letting go of my anxieties and fears.
Without thinking, my breath seemed to automatically synchronize with my movement.
And balance? Skiing requires transferring weight from foot to foot at each turn, and each turn offers an opportunity to lose balance and fall. Sure, I fell, but not nearly as much as I'd anticipated. Thank you vrikshasana (tree pose), natarajasana (dancer), standing padangushthasana (hand-to-toe pose), and every other balance pose I’ve practiced through the years. Even though I found out that getting up from a fall in skis can be as difficult as unfolding from eka pada shirshasana (foot-behind-the-head pose), I also learned that the flexibility I've gained from yoga helped me get back on my feet relatively quickly and safely.
As I skied with surprising freedom and ease, I felt an awesome appreciation for my yoga practice. My legs supported me strongly. My core kept me stable as I lifted up and twisted to each side. My hips pivoted. My shoulders were steady. My ankles flexed firmly to allow for better ski control.
Before the trip, I was sure I would be wracked with the burning pain my thighs so well remembered from previous skiing. Instead, my quads felt strong and energized at the end of the day. I dubbed my new practice "ski-asana" and I bowed in gratitude for every utkatasana, (chair pose) I’d ever done, certain it was the reason my thighs were feeling happy.
Yoga has given me a sense of adventure. And it wasn't only the physical aspect of yoga that gave me the strength and courage to face downhill skiing again. Reaching for new poses, trying new things, instilled curiosity and confidence in me that I carried up that mountain. I never thought I’d kick up into a handstand, let alone ski down a black diamond run. Now, I’m doing both!
Reaching for new poses, trying new things, instilled curiosity and confidence in me that I carried up that mountain.
Since that first trip three years ago, I’ve skied several times, even from the top of the mountain at Jackson Hole, Wyoming (elevation 13,000 feet). Each time I mount my skis, I take a deep breath, smile, and thank my yoga practice.
To warm up for skiing, incorporate some of the following into your practice:
- Pranayama (breathwork), particularly a few rounds of bhastrika (bellows breath) followed by ujjayi (victory breath) to warm the body.
- Apanasana (knees-to-chest, or wind-relieving pose).
- Surya namaskar A (sun salutation A). You might want to try holding plank for several breaths during this series, as well as incorporating side plank.
- Lunges of all kinds, such as anjaneyasna (crescent pose) in its many forms, high and low.
- Twists such as salamba bharadvajasana (supported Bharadvaja’s twist), ardha matsyendrasana (half lord of fishes pose), marichyasanas (marichi's poses), or the more active parivrtta janu shirshasana (revolved head-to-knee pose), pasasana (noose pose), and parivrtta trikonasana (revolved triangle).
- Utkatasana (chair pose). Try moving up onto your toes. Many times!
- Standing sequences. Get to know the virabhadrasanas (warriors) and andanjaneyasnas (lunges), and incorporate some trikonasanas (triangles), prasarita padottanasanas (wide-legged folds), and utthita parsvakonasanas (side angles), with shoulder-opening poses such as baddha virabhadrasana (humble warrior) or others utilizing bound, archer, or eagle arms.
- Standing balance poses vrikshasana (tree pose), natarajasana (dancer), standing padangushthasana (hand-to-toe pose), virabhadrasana III (warrior III), orgaraudasana (eagle pose).
- Utkata konasana (goddess pose) and malasana (buddha squat).
- Virasana (hero's pose) with “broken toes" (i.e., toes tucked under).
- Eka pada rajakapotasana (pigeon pose).
- Badda konasana (bound angle pose).
- Supta padangushthasana (reclining hand-to-toe pose).
Remember, these are just suggestions and you don't have to do them all at once. Just open up to find the courage in your body, and have fun! Namas-ski!
Cathy Beres is retired from a lengthy career in advertising and marketing. Now in her "second act", she is pursuing her passions: yoga and writing. Cathy discovered yoga after the death of her husband and credits it to bringing her back to life. She became a certified yoga instructor in 2010 and particularly enjoys teaching beginners, young girls, busy moms, aging baby boomers, seniors, and those dealing with serious life challenges such as cancer, depression, or loss of a loved one. A... Read more>>