You're probably tuning up your skis right about now — is your equipment in better shape than your body? Good news: you can get your body and mind ready for the slopes with some simple yoga moves (and no, you don't have to chant OM while doing them).
What do yoga and skiing have in common? The need for balance, flexibility and focus. Yoga helps cultivate these qualities, so it follows that practicing yoga can help improve ski technique. Let's face it - we love skiing for its adrenaline rush. But the other side of this coin is the potential for injury that can arise from common ski scenarios, like ending up on a black when you meant to stay on a blue, weather changes, crossing paths with an out-of-control skier, etc. Think of yoga as insurance against injury and one of the best ways to improve your skills on the slopes. It does both by addressing your body's imbalances and fostering both strength and flexibility. Yoga also encourages a focus on the breath, which is the starting point for managing fear or a tense physical body. By being able to concentrate on your breathing, transitioning your movements with grace, and cultivating an awareness of body balance and alignment, any level of skier will get more out of their time on the mountain and be less injury-prone.
Now on to more technical stuff: let's start with our core as the foundation. In both yoga and skiing core strength is essential. If we have a strong, stable core we will be able to control our movements with more precision. In skiing, a strong core will help take the pressure off the knees, which typically end up bearing too much weight if the glutes, quads and back muscles are weak. We've all seen this happen (and have probably done it once or twice too): a skier jerking her upper body in order to turn, while her lower body remains facing the opposite direction - ouch. This person is disconnected from her center, which along with her knees and hips, should be in the driver's seat for a turn. In yoga class an often-heard refrain is "draw your navel in towards your spine. This helps cultivate an awareness of our core as the body's center and source of stability. A skier needs to get her core under control in order to be stable and direct other body parts' movements with precision, whether carving smooth, beautiful S-turns on a groomer or reacting quickly to unexpected terrain.
A few words about balance and alignment: both are indispensible for gliding down a mountain on two slippery sticks. Balance and alignment are also the cornerstones of a yoga practice. The way that you stand on your skis is going to affect how you get down the mountain; think about positioning yourself in as natural a stance as possible. This means feet hip width apart, knees soft, upper body and shoulders relaxed. The only thing that won't feel natural is the position of the hips; they should be tipped forward slightly (ski boots help with this). If we lean back and the hips tip back, your feet are going to come out from under you. It's a good idea to take a few moments to align yourself at the top of a trail. From this alignment your balance will be kept in check, but if you also practice yoga balancing postures regularly, you will notice a big difference on your skis.
Yoga helps you be in your body; it cultivates the mind-body connection that allows the brain to effectively direct the body with ease and grace. The more aware you are of your body's position in space, the better able you are to direct it. We're not just talking about knowing your right from left; it has more to do with an overall awareness that comes from familiarity with movement. Biologically our bodies are meant to be in motion, and our sedentary society (not to mention winter and more time spent indoors) can work against this. A sport like skiing makes many demands on our coordination skills that body awareness can help meet.
Lastly, if you're a sporadic skier or tend to hit the mountain with cold muscles, you're basically asking for it. It doesn't take much to bridge the gap between ski sessions with some yoga moves to keep your muscles limber, and you can use poses to stretch out before and après-ski.
Margaret Burns Vap is a yoga instructor and entrepreneur. She owns Big Sky Yoga Retreats in Bozeman, Montana. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.bigskyyogaretreats.com for more info on yoga and skiing retreats in Montana.
Click through the slideshows below to see three strengthening yoga sequences to help you stay in shape all season — try them a few times a week all winter long: