Whitley column: The yoga of skiing | PostIndependent.com

Whitley column: The yoga of skiing

Carla Jean Whitley practices Warrior Three at Hanging Lake in January 2016.
Heather Gardner

Inhale, deep and slowly through your nose. Lengthen the spine and reach the crown of your head skyward. Draw the back of your head back so your skull is centered atop your neck. Exhale.

It’s the same whether I’m on my yoga mat or on the slopes. Yoga and skiing both root me in the moment.

That’s been a lifelong challenge; even as a child, I spent more time dreaming than running around with friends. I’d ride my bike around the neighborhood with the other kids and occasionally join in a game of baseball in the cul-de-sac near our house. Then I’d walk inside and pick up the latest Babysitters Club or Sweet Valley High book. Almost immediately, I’d be lost to the world of my imagination. If a character was ill, it would take several minutes after I put down the book to realize I was healthy.

Glenn Doyle Melton writes in her 2016 memoir “Love Warrior,” “My first escape was books. Oh, books! I lived for books. I took one everywhere I went. To the pool, to the babysitter’s, to friends’ houses in case things got awkward. I was constantly in a corner with my head down in a book — there but not there at all. Books are how I learned to disappear, to live in a world other than the uncomfortable physical one.”

Amen, sister.

I’ve always found it easy to slip into the world of my mind. I spent hours in elementary school sprawled out on my bed, graph paper and pencil in hand as I designed floor plans. Writing has always come naturally to me; it’s an outpouring of that mental activity. I’m happy to lie in bed and think.

There are advantages to this: I don’t bore easily, for one. I enjoy problem solving and I’m great at focusing on a task.

But I’ve always struggled to be present.

I first tasted the delicious here-and-now-ness of skiing during a 2008 trip to Telluride. After a couple of hours of bunny-slope lessons, I left the group behind and raced to the bottom of the hill. There was nothing fancy about that moment, skill wise, but it was a revelation. As I abandoned the pizza-wedge ski formation for french fries, I entered a world where conversation wasn’t necessary and the world around me demanded my attention.

Of course, days later I left that sense of immediacy behind. Vacation doesn’t last forever. I dove back into my daily routine at an Alabama magazine, but every morning I gazed out my bedroom window and longed for the mountains.

I didn’t find that sensation again until 2011. As I approached my 30th birthday, I knew I should consider becoming more active. I’ve always been naturally slim, but thin and healthy aren’t synonymous. If I’m going to live a long life, I’d like to do it in good physical shape, I thought. I want to enjoy myself.

So I picked up a yoga mat and gave it a try. A discounted unlimited month at an area yoga studio was enough to hook me; I’ve practiced ever since, and in 2014 began teaching yoga.

I showed up for the physical benefits, and I appreciate them. I feel stronger and more confident than at any other point in my life. But the mind-body connection kept me coming back.

The two activities may not seem related on the surface: You can show up for yoga barefooted (that’s preferable, actually). It doesn’t much matter what you wear, although you should be able to move comfortably. A mat helps. Skiing, on the other hand, requires a good bit more equipment and clothing. Yoga is often practiced inside a studio; skiing is, by necessity, outdoors. One is year-round, the other is seasonal. You get the idea.

If you come into a headstand, focusing on your to-do list instead of your breath and hand placement, you will almost certainly find yourself flat on the floor. It’s the same with skiing, at least for me (and I am a beginner). I’m comfortable flying down at least a few of Sunlight’s runs. But when I get lost in my mind, instead of in the moment, I feel my balance give way.

Again, Melton’s memoir resonates with me:

“In yoga, instead of using my mind to download wisdom, I use my body. Allison (her teacher) tells me to do something with my legs, ‘Settle into Warrior Two, stand firm, ground your legs and you won’t fall; balance is created by equal forces pressing in on an object.’ I stand there, pressing my legs together, and it hits me: Wait, what? I’ve been trying to find my balance by eliminating pressure from my life. The demands of work, friendship and family all felt so heavy. But what if all this pressure isn’t what’s throwing me off, but what’s holding me steady? What if pressure is just love and love is what keeps me anchored? Complete shift. My body is teaching my mind.”

If you see me in the mountains or on my mat, you’ll understand. I’m seeking balance. With every breath, I’m seeking peace.

Carla Jean Whitley is features editor at the Glenwood Springs Post Independent. Her favorite yoga pose is bakasana, and her life has improved immeasurably by moving within 10 miles of a ski resort. Email her at cj@postindependent.com.

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