“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.