Whether you’re an expert snowboarder, an Olympic skier (think Ted Ligety and Julia Mancuso read Yoga International?), or perhaps clipping your just-rented boots into bindings for the first time, yoga can help you have a safe, fun, and productive day on the mountain.
Practice the following breathing technique and poses to optimize your athletic performance, protect yourself from injury, and make even the longest and coldest day outside more enjoyable!
1. Victorious Breath ()The benefits: Often referred to as “victorious breath,” ujjayi breath is a great tool for keeping warm during a cold day on the slopes (and more health-conscious than hot cocoa). The best part about this breathing technique is that you can use it anywhere, anytime—while waiting in line or sitting on the chairlift (not every mountain has heated gondolas, right?), strapping into your old-school snowboard bindings, or preparing to fly down a giant slalom course at record-breaking speeds (when ujjayi breath may also help to increase your focus and calm your nerves).
How to practice it: Inhale fully and exhale completely, in and out through your nose with your mouth closed. When you exhale, slightly constrict the back of your throat, as if whispering or fogging up a mirror. Try also to maintain the slight contraction of your throat on your inhalations. Concentrate on the sound of the breath: It should call to mind the sound of ocean waves or (if Star Wars is more your jam than the beach) Darth Vader’s breath. Your breath should be audible to you, but not so loud that people around you can hear it.
2. Chair Pose ()The benefits: It takes a remarkable amount of stamina, strength, and flexibility to charge down a mountain on a pair of skis or a snowboard. Chair pose will help you cultivate leg and core strength, promote proper knee alignment, and increase ankle flexibility, helping you to endure longer days on the mountain (regardless of your skill level).
How to practice it: Stand with your big toes touching and heels slightly apart, or with your feet hip-width apart (whichever feels most stable for you). Shift your weight back into your heels as you bend your knees, and lower your body as if taking a seat in a chair. Make sure the center of your knees track in line with your second and third toes. Draw your lower belly in and lift your chest up, keeping your low ribs in. Reach your arms out in front of you at shoulder height, palms facing down (extending your arms forward for balance similar to how you might hold your ski poles!). Hold for 5 to 10 breaths.
For an added kick, you might consider the following variations.
Iron Footstool: Shift your weight into the balls of your feet, and lift your heels high. If your feet are together, squeeze your legs together—if not, just keep your knees tracking in line with your toes. Stack your shoulders directly over your hips as you slowly lower down as far as possible without leaning your torso forward. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths.
Use a Block: Place a block between your thighs (the narrow way if your feet are close together, or a little wider if they’re further apart), and squeeze the block for the duration of chair pose or the iron footstool variation.
3. Twisted Prayer ()The benefits: As with chair pose, this pose will help cultivate leg and core strength, promote proper knee alignment, and increase ankle flexibility. It also increases strength and flexibility throughout the spine—perfect for skiers charging down the slopes and snowboarders who constantly flip their bodies around to reposition themselves.
How to practice it: Come into a traditional chair pose (with arms overhead). As you exhale, bring your hands together at heart center and twist to the right, bringing your left elbow to the outside of your right knee. If your left knee and hip shift forward, press down firmly into your left foot and draw them backward. On an inhale, breathe length into the spine; and as you exhale, gently deepen the twist. Take 5 to 10 breaths, and then change sides.
4. High Crescent LungeThe benefits: Crescent lunge builds leg strength and stretches the hip flexors. Working to keep your balance in this posture will also help increase core strength, an essential component of safely navigating more difficult trails or courses.
How to practice it: From standing with feet hip-width apart, step your right foot back behind you for a lunge, bending your left knee and stacking it directly on top of or slightly behind your left ankle. Keep your right heel stacked over the ball of your foot and pointing straight back (not allowing the heel to drop out or in). As you inhale, reach your arms up toward the sky, stacking your shoulders over your hips. Draw your belly in, and soften your shoulders away from your ears. Take 5 to 10 breaths in the pose. Then step your right foot forward to return to standing before switching sides.
If you feel a little off balance, consider the following variation.
Low Crescent Lunge: From the high lunge, release your back knee to the floor and untuck your toes. Bring your hands to the top of your front thigh, or reach them up to the sky. Take 5 to 10 breaths, then switch sides.
5. Hero’s Pose Variation ()The benefits: This pose stretches the thighs and the muscles around the knees and ankles, and it mobilizes the knee joints. After a day of wearing stiff ski boots or shifting your weight around to steer your snowboard, virasana should hit the spot.
How to practice it: Kneel with your legs close together. To start, place a rolled mat or blanket behind your knees and a block (at its widest) between your feet. Depending on your flexibility and proportions, you can either adjust the height of the block or remove the block and/or the mat completely. Sit back on the block and stack your shoulders over your hips. Rest your hands on your thighs, and lift the crown of your head to the sky. Hold for 5 to 10 breaths.
Variation: Instead of sitting on the block, you can bring your feet together, tuck your toes under, and sit back on your feet to give the soles of your feet an intense but amazing stretch.
I will note that I learned the hard way the striking differences between downhill skiing and snowboarding. After deciding to give snowboarding a whirl after years of competitive skiing, I lost control of my board on my first run, sliding full speed ahead until catching an edge of the board on a patch of ice—crashing face-first into the snow. Ouch!
That said, however, many of the same yoga poses and techniques can be used to assist both skiers and snowboarders to increase their strength, flexibility, and body awareness—advancing their sport while protecting their bodies!