I am fresh home from a trip to the mountains. It had been five years since my last ski trip. Flurries in the air, flurries in my stomach, as we clomped through the line of the gondola and finally made our first ascent up the mountain. The thinner the air became the more the flurries spun about. As soon as boots clipped into skis hundreds of hours of lessons and rides came rushing back to my legs and the blizzard disappeared as quickly as it had blown in.

Although it had been half-a-decade since the last time I found myself exploring a mountain with slippery stems under my feet it was by far the fastest, hardest, strongest, and most graceful I have ever felt traversing the snow. My agility improved throughout the week along with my confidence, and my confidence was boosted with the help of the motivated pack of boarders and skiers  who encouraged me all over the front side and back bowls of Vail. My comrades challenged me through their enthusiasm for speed and splendor. We moved along trails, down slopes, through powder, and around trees as a group – making sure that no one was lost along the way. Even though we moved as a unit, we roamed our own paths. Although flowing down the same mountain some of us chose the safest routes available as the white landscape unfolded moment to moment caution was in the wind; some of us led the way, and then disappeared into the descent with speed and courage, but then stood waiting right at the moment when you weren’t sure if you should go right or left,  like a shepherd, to let you know you made it one more pass; some of us easily traversed through trees and into uncharted territory testing our ability to be present no matter the speed; some flirted so affectionately with the edges of the catwalks that powder dusted over the edge and dripped down the cliffs; one friend flirted so closely that over the edge he went – luckily a bank of snow awaited him and with a smile on his face he reappeared on the safer side of the mountain; some of us practiced patience; some of us performed tricks, jumps, even 360 degree turns; all of us fell and got back up again.

I have done little in terms of physical activity in the last five years except for yoga, and walking all over the city. Growing up I was an athlete of many sports, so it was with great pleasure that I experienced the gifts of good fitness, and agility that my yoga practice has afforded me. Never before had I been so conscious of my breath as I skied, and in addition to the way that my friends challenged me to be a better skier by being such graceful role models, I challenged myself to improve by staying in the moment to moment of my movements. I found a balance between looking down at the hill as I skied to see the immediate terrain as well as looking up to choose the path I wanted to take. I breathed mindfully.  The inhales allowed me to open up and find speed down the mountain, the exhales brought me back under control as I turned and edged the speed down. In the past I was always too afraid to go fast, but I learned this week that it is safe to go faster if your ability to concentrate and stay conscious can match your speed.

I did take one bad fall. It happened just after a moment that I don’t remember at all. (That was lesson #1 in staying present on the mountain.) It was just after lunch and my boyfriend was excited to head back to the bowls. I knew I was tired, but I didn’t realize how much so or what the consequences would be. We weren’t quite sure where we were going, and as can happen in Colorado, suddenly we found ourselves in deep powder and stacked moguls leading down to a narrow ridge of ice between trees. I was spinning along confidently when all of a sudden and out of nowhere I felt one ski pop off, and then the other, but the velocity  kept me going face first down the mountain face. The powder was too thick for the fall to hurt, but it was also too thick and steep for me to get my skis back on. Even if I could have gotten my skis back on I was trembling and not feeling so good about the narrow pass up ahead.

The wind kept carrying more and more snow down upon us, and no other skiers or boarders were arriving on the scene.  Still unable to get my skis on and not sure when the lifts were closing I was faced with the decesion: and unlike facing our fears in yoga class when we can simply choose to forgo that handstand I had to somehow or another make my way down this mountain. So, I did the logical thing. I scooted on my butt.

As I arrived at a firm mogul just before the narrow pass into the ridge between two mountains a ski instructor came hopping down between the moguls like it was as simple as walking down the cellar stairs. We flagged him down and he helped to clarify that in order to get your skis back on the bindings need to be down, not up. He helped knock the ice off my boots and waited until I was secure in my bindings. He gave me a few pointers for making it around the ice, and he was off. I was glad for the tips, which I heeded carefully, and slowly, slowly I made it through without having to scoot any further on my butt.

The fall was a great teacher for me. I learned where my limits where and what skills I needed to work on so as not to make the same mistake again. I understood the importance of my vigilance. I was humbled by what was beyond my control. I know that whether on the slopes, on the mat, or in my relationships my breath always keeps me anchored in the moment, and that to whatever degree I can be in control of my circumstances my ability to be mindful and present gives me the greatest advantage for enjoying the ride.


About Joyce Englander

I teach weekly yoga classes in New York City, which focus on moving mindfully and gracefully with the breath. I believe that learning yoga is similar to learning a language, and the more you are around it the more fluent you become. This blog is an opportunity to share my thoughts and re-visit lessons from class; to create a bridge for students to translate their classroom experience into real life. I am interested in how practicing yoga can help to improve people's lives and reduce needless suffering.
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One Response to Skiing

  1. mrariellevy says:

    What a joy it twas to be in a Winter Wonderland with the ice princess herself! Your strength and presence on the mountain parallel your demeanor on the mat and your outlook on life. Focus on the breathe, conscious of your surroundings and aware of your abilities were what enabled you to achieve more and excel at new heights and challenges. Great Job Babba! Hope to see ya on the slopes again soon.

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