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Zen and the Art of Skiing

What an Olympian can teach you about being stress-free

Some people worship in a church. The mountain is Jillian Vogtli’s temple. 

“My mind is the clearest when I’m outside,” the two-time Olympian and moguls master told me when we met at the St. Regis Deer Valley in Park City, Utah, where Jillian is a ski ambassador.

Petite with a smile that literally gleams, Jillian gave me a hug the first time we met. Within moments of speaking to her, I felt like we had been girlfriends for more than a decade, and I immediately liked and trusted her.

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Five minutes into our ride up the Mountaineer lift, we discovered our mutual love for yoga, meditation, chocolate croissants, and the book The Celestine Prophecy.

It's pretty hard not to love this chick
Skiing might not be considered the most mindful of sports, but Jillian thinks it should be. 

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“I think about skiing like a moving meditation,” she told me. “I don’t care how good you are, you have no choice but to be present and aware of what you are doing and what others are doing when you are on the mountain.”

Had I ever been in a zen state on the mountain? Competitive, yes. Nervous, yes. Never mindful. I’ve always chased that particular blend of elation, fear, and adrenaline that only sports like skiing and skydiving can provide.

Jillian insisted that we begin our practice in the zen of skiing immediately after exiting the chairlift. Instead of zooming right down the first trail, we paused. We gazed out over the expanse of the Wasatch mountains.

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“I like to start by being grateful. I get up here, and I look out, take a deep breath, and I am thankful that I get to be here,” Jillian said. 

For a brief moment, we ignored the rush of skiers exiting the lift, the bleating of kids camp instructors to their army of tiny charges, and the whir of the snowmaking machines. I pulled a strong breath into my belly and felt it rise against the taut elastic of my ski pants.

My God. I was really freaking grateful to be on this mountain. How many people have a job that lets them spend the morning skiing with an Olympic athlete?

With the gratitude, I felt a rush of relaxation. My shoulders, always tight from hunching over a laptop for 12 hours a day, slid downward.

Jillian and I attempt a moment of eagle pose zen. We failed, but we still had fun
“Feels good, right?” Jillian said to me. It did.

What does taking a moment for gratitude do? The human brain has a tendency toward negative bias, meaning that if we have a great run but lose our balance in one spot, we’ll tend to focus on that small mistake instead of how incredible the rest of the way down the mountain was. Taking time for gratitude reminds you to hold on to that positivity.

With that, we took off.

There is a flow to skiing. When you’re in the zone, it can feel like you’re soaring. For years, Jillian literally flew over moguls and into the air off freestyle jumps.

Jillian jumps off the first ramp in her race in the finals of Women's Moguls at Sauze d'Oulx, Italy, on Feb. 11, 2006
She encouraged me to feel a sense of lightness on the snow, to ghost through the silky fresh powder, letting the mountain lead me instead of me trying to lead the mountain, the way I try to control most other things in my life. In so many ways, skiing is exactly that. You can train and you can practice, but at the end of the day, you are indeed surrendering yourself to the mountain.

Then there was the breathing. Her advice was simple. Jillian just wanted me to keep doing it. When we are anxious, our breathing becomes halted and more shallow, which activates a fight-or-flight mechanism in our bodies as a means of survival. This reaction, which can be paralyzing, most often manifests when you lose your balance on a steep downhill or when you attempt to conquer some serious moguls.

Jillian reminded me about the breathing just as we were about to try our hand at the latter. I had been there so many times, face-first in the ice, my mind casting about for something to blame, embarrassed as self-assured, 5-year-old little rippers crisscross me with ease.

“Anticipate your movements. Don’t react,” she said. “Breathe deeply. Keep your knees supple.” And as I looked back at her one last time, she added, “Enjoy it.” 

Joy on the mountain. Literally.
Joy is a big thing for Jillian. 

“Whether I am skiing, teaching workshops, or training people, my goal is always mindfulness and living from a place of honesty with self and others, mixed with a bag of joy,” she told me.

I always say I hate moguls. I hated them because I was bad at them. They never brought me joy.

Pushing those negative thoughts out of my mind, I chose a path and began to breathe. I let each breath take its course, and I started breathing anew with each new mogul.

Panic gave way to an actual pleasure.

Thirteen pivots later, for the very first time in my entire life, I made it through a small set of moguls in one fell shot without once plowing into a mound of powder and braying expletives at the snow and the universe.

I was exhilarated and addled with happiness in addition to being coated in a fine layer of sweat. The anticipation had led me there, but it was the breathing that kept me going.

I was wrong to think that skiing isn’t a mindful activity. In a lot of ways, it is one of the more mindful things we can do. It’s hard to be absorbed in our smartphones while we ski. It’s difficult to even talk to one another. Essentially, skiing is about you and the mountain and finding a place of peace.

This piece was originally posted on Yahoo Travel and is part of a new Yahoo Travel series, #StressFreeTravel, dedicated to making travel better in every way possible.

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