"There is a perfect skier lurking beneath the surface of every one of us," the skiing yogi said as we lined up for the chairlift, and I wanted desperately to believe him.
After years of ski lessons and ski vacations all over the world, I still got scared at the top of expert runs, even though I'd coped with equality difficult trails in the past. I tensed up when faced with any adverse condition -- ice, poor visibility, extreme cold, flat light -- and reverted to stem turns and sideslipping. Worst of all, skiing under chairlifts made me nervous: I imagined that everyone sitting on the lift above was watching me thinking, "What a turkey!"
To add some inner peace to skiing, I took a lesson with Arne Leuchs, an instructor at the Gray Rocks Inn in St. Jovite, Quebec, considered by many to be the best ski school in North America. Leuchs has combined Canadian ski techniques with the yoga principles he uses in his summer job as a teacher at the Sinvananda Yoga Camp in Val Morin, Quebec, to create yoga skiing, an approach to the sport that he says works well with beginners and experts alike.
Leuchs, a native of Germany, and Patricia Skalka, a Chicago-based writer, are co-authors of a book on the subject, Ski With Yoga -- Conditioning for the Mind and Body (Great Lakes Living Press).
The book makes a good case for combining yoga with skiing. Yoga -- the word means "union" -- is a discipline that seeks to unite mind and body, and the mind has been too often neglected in other methods of teaching skiing. When the yoga skier eliminates outside distractions from the mind and focuses entirely upon the body, the book claims, he will become a perfect skier and experience a kind of ecstasy as he glides down the slope. And if more persuasion is needed, Jean Claude Killy, Hank Kashiwa and Steve McKinny are successful skiers who practice yoga.
"The biggest problems that plague most skiers," Leuchs told me as we rode up the lift, "are fear and ambition."
"My only ambition is to look good when I ski under the chairlift," I said. It didn't seem like much to ask.
"There's a big difference between the person who's skiing and the one who's aware he supposed to be skiing," he said, looking like a wise old guru.
When we reached the top, we did a series of stretching exercises on skis, and he began to tell his story of yoga skiing. "According to yoga teachings, there is a focal point of power and energy just below your navel, called the ki . When you ski, you must imagine that the ki is just between the tips of the skis, touching the snow."
It sounded easy to imagine, since my navel has hit the snow more than a few times, but it turned out to be difficult. I stared tensely at the tips of my skis.
"It's not something you see, but something you feel," he corrected. "Imagine you are dancing with someone you love," he added in a non-yogic lapse.
He later suggested a meditation device to improve concentration. "Have you ever said a mantra while you ski?" he asked.
"No, but I once got down a horrendous mogul field singing 'Jesus Is Just All Right with Me.'"
He asked me to say so-ham every time I made a turn. So-ham means I am he," that is, I am the mountain, I am part of part of my environment. I used the mantra and found that it gave my skiing a nice un-self-conscious rhythm.
As the lesson continued, we tried other yoga exercise: concentrating on the way the left arm feels, or the right foot; listening to the sound the skis make on the snow; paying attention to breathing. I spread out my arms and pretended to be a bird, skied with my eyes closed. At the end of each run, he bombarded me with questions. "Did you feel your ankles pressing forward?" "How did your arms feel?" "Where were your hips?" At first I had no answers, but quickly learned to concentrate on the way my body felt so I could respond to his questions.
As the lesson drew to an end, I asked, "If I really want to find the ultimate skier within me, how much of this stuff would I have to do?"
"When you wake up in the morning, you should do an hour of yoga postures and 20 minutes of breathing exercises. Going up on the lift, you should relax your entire body by auto-suggestion and concentrate on your breathing. After you've limbered up on top, increase your awareness of your surroundings. Feel as though you're one with the environment, breath it in, then exale with one long relaxed breath and start down the hill, saying your mantra as you go. If you do this every time you ski, you'll begin to feel a real ecstasy after a while."
I was about to say that this seemed like a lot of work when he added, "Of course, you'll want to alter your apres ski activities, as well."
"What's wrong with going to the bar?" I asked, surprised. It's one thing to bring a little Eastern culture to skiing, but eliminating the customary nighttime drinking, dancing and merry-making would shake the very foundations of the sport.
"You can't just leave your yoga principles behind when you take off your skis," he said."I don't want to turn you into a hermit, but it's not necessary always to pursue the frantic nightlife you associate with ski resorts." He suggested that I relax, soak in a hot tub, do some more yoga postures, perhaps have a friend give me a massage or sit in front of a fireplace and stare at the flames. It sounded almost as pleasant as the carousing.
The lesson was over. He said, "Om shanti " and skied away leaving me to ponder whether yoga skiing would ever work.
The answer came the next morning. I arrived at the summit of nearby Mt. Tremblant to find the mountain engulfed in a cloud of dense fog. Visibility was maybe ten feet. I was terrified. No other skiers could be seen. I couldn't see where the trail ended and the trees began. I couldn't see rocks or bumps, or much beyond the tips of my skis.
Instead of dissolving into a panic, I concentrated on my breathing. I tried to think of the fog and the mountain and myself as one. I pictured myself skiing down the hill gracefully without fear, and suddenly I was doing it. The lesson began to work: I became the ultimate skier. I was only aware of my breathing and the sound of the skis on the snow. Moving effortlessly through the pure white fog, I arrived feeling confident at the bottom of what otherwise would have been a scary run. Jonathan Livingston Seagull on skis.
Since then, I've skied well and badly. Yoga helps a lot, but it requires concentration, and you have to work at it all the time. I'm going to keep working at it. I still feel like a turkey when I ski under the chairlift.