Assume the Posture
Yoga and the Backcountry Skier
By Kaj Bune
Originally published in Backcountry Magazine, 2002
My toes are gripping the carpet. Sweat is dripping from my body in the 103-degree heat and my gaze is set on my forehead in the mirror. Knees deeply bent, arms extended parallel to the floor, head up. I am in the first part of "awkward pose" in a room packed with people getting their 1-1/2 hours of yoga for the day. If I had the time to daydream I’d most likely be thinking about ripping skins for another powder run in the backcountry, but I’m in the moment, something that yoga seems to demand of it’s disciples.
With the heat, especially the heat, this form of exercise seems a universe away from backcountry skiing, but it is in reality one of the most powerful tools I have found to prepare my body and mind for adventure skiing, as well as almost every other aspect of my life. This is Bikram Yoga, a specific form of Hatha yoga in which a series of 26 postures are performed in order, twice each, one after another. The heat keeps the body pliable and the mirror allows the practitioner to make adjustments to his or her form. Because balance, strength, flexibility, cardiovascular depth, and a clear, calm mind are important tools to take along on a backcountry ski trip, yoga is a great training tool. It has an amazing effect on each of these areas of ski importance.
Yoga is a 5,000 year-old mind/body discipline developed in India and rapidly gaining adherents in 21st century western culture. Most western people are drawn to yoga in the hope of improving flexibility and it will certainly deliver more pliable muscles and connective tissue to the regular participant. But it does not take long for most folks to realize that there are many more positive aspects to regular yoga practice, including the exploration of one’s spirituality. But Yoga is truly a flexible discipline and students can concentrate on the spiritual, mental, or physical aspects alone or all three at once.
However you approach yoga you are unlikely to escape its benefits to your life and your skiing.
There is no doubt that regular yoga will have you touching your toes again, but there are so many other parts of the body that need attention that you don’t even know are tight. Take for example the elbows. When you first attend a yoga class you will undoubtedly find that your elbows have lost that last 1 or 2 degrees of extension that they had when you were a kid. Not an important thing for your skiing? Think about the last time your skins weren’t sticking and you had to use your arms to push you up the hill. Sore elbows were almost certainly the result. Yoga can help in just a few visits.
By improving your flexibility you will also reduce your chances of injury in a fall. Just take a look at one of those photos of someone slamming on skis and try to tell me that greater flexibility won’t help protect you from injury in such circumstances. But flexibility does not come from a few quick stretches at the trailhead; it is the result of regular, progressive hard work – yoga again.
Many of the postures in a session of Bikram yoga require elements of balance work. With regular attendance in class and occasional practice at home you will find, as I have, that standing on one foot in a demanding body position will enhance your skiing. Yoga will help you find your center and develop the muscles of the right and left side of your body. So many of the activities that we participate in tend to develop our bodies in an asymmetrical way while yoga challenges us to consider both sides of the body evenly. In many cases the first time you get into a posture you are standing on the left leg but the second time through you are on the right. This yin and yang treatment of the body even comes down to the way you hold your hands in a posture; first time through hands are clasped left in front of right, second time through they are reversed. After a while these seemingly micro treatments of the body begin to add up to major changes in how you feel your way through your sport.
When I mention to people that one of my strength workouts is yoga I get blank stares. It just does not compute that yoga has anything to do with strength, but the first time through a session of Bikram yoga will make anyone a believer. For me the source of this is the static nature of the postures. Each posture is held for first 60 seconds and then again for 30 seconds on the 2nd time through. These strength oriented static positions hit nearly every part of the body from the toes, the quads, the abdomen, and on up to the neck, just to name a few. While a given posture is asking one set of muscles to assist with balance it is requiring another set to support the body’s weight, and yet another group is being stretched. As with other aspects of yoga, it does not take long for the benefits to make themselves known. After a month of regular practice strength gains will be evident in even the fittest athlete.
This is another aspect of yoga that is surprising. Certain postures, held for 60 seconds raise the heart rate substantially. During a period of a year and a half when I was attending yoga class 2-3 times a week without fail, I found that my cardiovascular depth was quite similar to what I experience in other more traditional cardio support activities such as hiking and running. After each posture there is a 30 second resting pose and after most postures you can feel your pulse pounding in your head. There can be no doubt that your cardiovascular system is being expanded.
Much like the in-the-moment focus that we find on a ski run through the trees or a steep descent above a cliff band, yoga brings the mind to the moment. For 1-½ hours in a Bikram yoga class you find yourself focusing on the task at hand. Occasionally your mind wanders, but the tasks bring it back. The concerns of the day melt away and you are left with a clear mind capable of focus. Once again, with regular practice your ability to bring your mind to a state of clarity is improved and the most powerful tool any athlete possesses is set free to push the body to greater heights.
I know it all sounds too good to be true, and perhaps yoga is not for everyone, but every backcountry skier I know who has taken up yoga would tell you the same story. The fountain of youth is not something you drink; it’s something you do.
To find a Bikram yoga class near you and for more information about yoga visitwww.bikramyoga.com.