"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