"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
Christine Davidson is a Ski Instructor, Yoga Teacher and Peak Performance Coach on a mission to make humans awesome!