On any given day at the mountain, I’ll be darned if I’m not having the most fun out there and if you saw me you’d likely agree, however most skiers don’t see me as I spend my days in the steeps, deeps, trees, and in the backcountry :-)
While I may be ‘going big’ and often times doing ‘top to bottoms’, I work way less for it. Because my parts are in line and I know how to manage the terrain and equipment, it’s only a nudge or shift rather than a pushing or pulling, fighting myself and the mountain. And while I grew up skiing, am a (reasonably) gifted athlete, and workout (fairly) regularly giving me a big advantage out there, it wasn’t until I studied Tai chi [Tai what?] that I became so well versed in what it takes and able to quickly identify what’s off and how to put it back on. I’ve given lots of lessons to all levels of skier.
Good news: These lessons are much the same regardless of your ability. It’s how you may apply them that varies based on your experience and willingness.
More good news: there’s always room for improvement and improving feels good and makes skiing even more fun, as well as easier so you can enjoy more of it.
So long as you’re willing, let’s now examine the art of skiing through the mind’s eye of a tai chi master.
When teaching tai chi, lesson #1 that must often be repeated is to BEND YOUR KNEES. The legs really do all the work and can only function properly with the knees engaged. Bending the knees allows for an up and down movement that presses and releases tension in the skis making them bend and arc. It’s that tension that helps us carve a turn at high speeds, as well as switch from edge to edge with ease.
I encourage students to focus on the up and down movements, and let the skis do the side to side (turns). The human body is designed for vertical (up and down) movements more so than lateral (side to side) or horizontal (forward and back).
Go ahead and try these movements while standing there… Where do you feel the most balance and power? Forward, back, and side to side all throw you off balance and weaken your stance. When moving up and down you should remain stable and powerful, able to jump and land without losing your balance. *Now try to do it with your knees locked and you will get nowhere fast!
When moving up and down, how much bend in your knees is optimal? I think you’ll find that bending beyond 90degrees is not ideal. You are likely most powerful and responsive between 10-60degrees or so.
If when bending down your butt starts sticking out, it’s a sign that your spine is not properly aligned and/or you’re going too low for your ability, losing power along the way. Try keeping your tail tucked and spine in vertical alignment. This will help you find your sweet spot, where you get optimal performance with minimal effort.
Envisioning the ideal skier you will note that the upper body moves very little and remains erect (no bending over at the waist) allowing this vertical or piston-like power throughout the turn.
When you’re in your skis try hopping up and down while stationary on the flats to get warmed and powered up. It’s this movement that will transform your skiing.
From the 1st lesson, let’s jump ahead to the last. Once the student gains understanding and know-how in this regard, they are prepared to practice on their own to refine and apply the brilliance of tai chi for a lifetime and in all aspects of your physical/active life.
This last lesson shows us how to center our Qi (energy) in the “dantian” where we say ‘all movement should originate and return to’. The dantian is known as our energetic AND anatomical center located a couple inches below the belly button and a couple inches deep. This place acts as our center of gravity and by focusing on the positioning of the lower belly we can most optimally align our whole body. Once found we can adjust and move our whole body much more efficiently and fully.
To find your dantian, press into your belly just below the umbilicus with 1 or 2 fingers to find the soft or “empty” point. Find it? Now press out your lower abdomen and push your fingers out of the hole. You’ve just filled and engaged your dantian. When you did that an interesting thing likely happened, your whole lower torso filled up or expanded creating a even more full center of gravity, improving balance and power.
Try it again and this time place your other hand over your lower back. Feel it expanding? That expansion is energizing your “gate of fire” giving you extra stamina and courage that will no doubt serve you well on and off the mountain.
Since this post is about tai chi’ing your skiing, let’s return our focus to getting you down the mountain in the most effective way. In skiing we speak of the “fall line” as the direction going most downhill versus across or angled. The fall line helps give you a dynamic turn by maximizing the centrifugal force between ski and snow. Challenge is that this direction is constantly changing based on the terrain and your chosen path, therefore you can’t really intellectualize it and instead need to feel it. Here’s where the dantian comes in…
We want our center of gravity to be in the direction we are heading and may accomplish this by projecting a beam of light from our dantian toward our destination. Incredibly, the rest of the body will come into alignment almost automatically, especially for an advanced skier.
Focusing on your lower belly gets you out of your head and into your body. The feeling of a full dantian with it’s centering and energizing effects is no small thing as countless masters of mind-body disciples will confirm. While the steps to get there are simple enough, there are usually many obstructions along the way. To keep things simple, I recommend focusing on posture and breath.
Posture first relates to the spine. We want it elongated rather than compressed. Compression leads to tightness in muscles and injury to joints. Elongation leads to great flexibility in the muscles and range of motion in the joints. In Tai Chi we imagine a string coming from the heavens lifting us from the top of our head and another dropping to the center of the earth, thus we are suspended between heaven and earth, both grounded and uplifted at the same time.
Breath speaks of a full inhale and exhale that is powered by the lower belly. Too many of us have lost this natural breath due to stressful lives filled with worry, anxiety, and fear. These emotions initiate the flight or fight response pulling resources away from the organs and into the muscles and leaving us very tight and under nourished. The breath oxygenates body tissues and removes toxins leading to all kinds of health benefits and sports enhancements. Let your belly lead both the inhale and exhale. Be sure to relax the muscles of the lower abdomen… Tension obstructs the flow of Qi, much like resistance limits the flow of electricity.
Good turns (talking about carving turns versus sliding them out) are not about rolling the ski onto its edge, nor moving the hips side-to-side. A good turn is about pressurizing the ski in the right direction with the right intensity. Your challenge is how to stay centered over the skis while pressurizing them to do your bidding.
There’s a lot to learn about the physics of skiing (Weight x Mass x Velocity /Torque x Friction / Direction…) which I will leave for another post. [I did speak about the physics of tai chi here]
Skiing and Tai Chi are best learned by doing. The physics, terrain, and snow conditions are all interesting discussions, but real knowing is doing. By keeping lessons simple it is my hope is to free your mind from thinking and get it into feeling. Feeling requires all the senses. It’s hard to think/speak and feel/listen at the same time. Feeling is like an internal dialogue where you’re doing the listening; whereas thinking is like an internal dialogue where you’re doing all the talking.
Listen/feel your breath and posture, while skiing. Your body (and mind) naturally wants to be in a place of balance and power. Often gaining awareness is all one needs. I leave you with that, and hope to connect our turns soon!