"Exercises are like prose, whereas yoga is the poetry of movements. Once you understand the grammar of yoga; you can write your poetry of movements."
~ Amit Ray
The best Yoga for Skiers is of an intensity that is appropriate to the activity level of the season. It should cultivates structural balance as well as physical, mental & emotional balance. It should be personalized to the practitioner.
As skiers we are seasonal people. Our lives revolve around the coming and the going of the snows. For every season there is an appropriate type of yoga to support optimal physical conditioning and mental focus. A yoga practice that is inappropriate for the level of activity of the season is likely going to be counterproductive at the least but it could even be injurious. There are many different styles of yoga each one emphasizing different aspects of the original teaching. There are as many types of yoga as there are practitioners and the practice can be and should be customized to an individuals needs.
In the winter and spring when a skier is spending a lot of time tearing up the mountain a hot sweaty core power flow class is likely not the best choice. Skiing is a strength sport. There is not a lot of cardio involved in resort skiing. Energy is spent in short bursts in-between periods of rest riding lifts. However, a lot of muscular strength is required to resist the forces acting on the body while skiing. The lower joints of the hips, knees and ankles in particular are under great strain. While it might make intuitive sense to replicate these conditions in a yoga class so as to make the body strong enough to perform these actions in practicality this only serves to deplete the skiers energy and make the body less stable.
Skiing is not a symmetrical action. There are muscles on one side of a joint action that are being strengthened disproportionately to their antagonistic counterparts. For example when you ski you have probably noticed your thigh muscles burning. The quadriceps are responsible for extending the knee joint and the centre and superficial most quadricep, the rectus femoris, is also involved in hip flexion.
When we ski gravity is pushing us downward towards the mountain as we essentially fall down the slope. We turn to break, or slow down. The action of breaking generates other forces that have the effect of compacting the body. In order to keep from folding like an accordion we engage the quadriceps to extend the knee joint in order to resist these forces.
Think of descending stairs. If when your foot landed on the lower stair if the quadricep muscles were not active the knee would buckle under the strain of the rapid deceleration as gravity pulled your bodyweight down towards the platform of the lower step. Those quadricep muscles stay slightly contracted so that when the foot lands on the lower step gravity is resisted and the body stays upright and a constant speed is maintained.
If you practiced a lot of yoga poses that strengthened the quadriceps during the height of the ski season those muscles would no doubt become strong but their effective range of motion would shorten. The shortened muscles would be really ineffective if one day you were skiing moguls and needed to rapidly bend the knees to absorb a large bump at speed. That action would likely cause injury because your quadriceps have become overspecialized for resisting gravity and not adaptive to unexpected but necessary movements like bending deeply at speed to absorb a bump. Not only is this a recipe for traumatic knee injury it is a sure way to develop wear and tear injury over time.
Yoga asana practice is uniquely beneficial when it is used for cultivating structural balance and stability in the body. This means strengthening and stretching the muscles on both sides of a joint action evenly. The super bendy yogis are really doing themselves a disservice if they continue to stretch to their end point without ever strengthening the muscles. They too are likely to experience traumatic and or long term injury.
A good yoga practice will over time establish perfect posture and liberate the full healthy range of movement of all the joints. the muscles will be both strong and pliable and the nervous system will be highly tuned so that the body can be reactive and adaptive finding stability, equilibrium and effortlessness in all situations.
This is where personalization of practice is absolutely key. If you already know or discover while practicing yoga that your quadriceps are really tight you need postures to lengthen those muscles and the connective tissue that surrounds them. Through the course of this blog series I will introduce four yoga concepts and explaining how these concepts pair beautifully with the efficient performance of key skiing skills.
The very first concept is the most important to personalizing the practice. I call it feel. You will need to feel your body in a way that may be new or foreign to you. It won't happen right away but I promise that with regular practice you will learn to become very sensitive to what your body needs and how to provide that. There is of course no replacement for a good teacher guiding this discovery. However, the teacher is just that, a guide. The practitioner bears the responsibility for knowing her body and giving it what it needs. Only then will the practice really work.
Holding the postures for at least 45 seconds to one minute is absolutely critical in strengthening the ability to pay careful attention to feelings arising within the body and mind. Fast moving flowing sequences of postures are very beneficial on many levels but often do not allow enough time in each pose for the beginner to properly sharpen the tool of attention. I recommend Hatha, Iyengar and Anusara style classes for their slower pace and emphasis on introspection and alignment.
Yoga cultivates feel through strengthening our capacity to willfully focus our attention on sensation. It also develops structural balance in the body giving the practitioner the full use of her body and the capacity to recognize optimal alignment. By teaching the principle of balancing effort and surrender the yoga student learns how to resist and release forces to generate power in the turn. Finally by blending breath movement and focus the yoga practitioner turns flowing on the yoga mat into flowing down the mountain.
Christine Davidson is a Ski Instructor, Yoga Teacher and Peak Performance Coach on a mission to make humans awesome!