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Sport: Zen and the Art of Skiing

Impossible. That’s the word that once would have come to mind when confronted with such a challenge as the steep and narrow Lone Pine Chute, an uncharted run adjacent to Stone Crusher at Alta Ski Area in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains. Unable to see the white space between the trees and rocks from my perch at the top of the chute, I would have expected disaster, fearing that I would fail to initiate the crucial first turn quickly enough and consequently would slam head-on into that solitary pine from which the run derives its name.

Today, however, I feel confident as I power through a mogul field. With my body embracing the fall line, each pole plant is deliberate, and there is nary a twinge of uncertainty. “Who are you?” my instructor asks at the bottom of the run. “I am enlightened,” I reply without even a hint of irony—another skeptic converted by Ski to Live, a four-day program founded by former extreme skier Kristen Ulmer that combines yoga, meditation, life-coaching sessions, and ski instruction to help participants better understand themselves and improve their skiing.


Doubtless some of the program’s other 17 participants shared my initial skepticism, but they too were willing to open their minds to some Carl Jung-meets-Buddha spiritualism if it would make them better skiers. And so we began each day with a session of yoga that included a view of the sun rising over the 11,000-foot peaks. Bodies loose and minds relaxed, we hit the slopes, where we chose mantras to reinforce our skiing techniques. I selected “calm,” but when I employed a relaxed stance to pick my way through a field of heavy, sun-warmed snow, my instructor compared my technique to that of a child who has the ability but does not apply herself. It seemed I had selected the wrong mantra; calm may not be the optimal state of mind when skiing the steeps of Alta. “Conscious” was a better choice.

While we spent the days turning our way down Alta’s 2,200 acres, the evenings were dedicated to an accelerated education in the Zen of Dennis Genpo Merzel, Roshi. When he proclaimed that we would learn 20 years’ worth of Zen teachings in three days, I was certain that no one in the room believed him, and so was he. “Skepticism is the seed of doubt. Doubt is the seed of great enlightenment,” he explained. Roshi then planted a few more seeds when he asked to talk to the controller, the skeptic, the inner child, the damaged self, fear, and the seeker—some of the many aspects of the self that we would explore. “By the time we are finished, we will have dissected the self in many pieces,” he said. “When we see that we are whole, then we can relax and be ourselves.”

Roshi apparently got through to some of my selves in that initial session, because the next day I was energized, alert, and enjoying every moment on the hill. I entered the evening session less apprehensive, but still skeptical. The notion that this man could change my life in four days still seemed dubious, but at least the skiing was great. That night we learned to meditate, instructed to let thoughts float in and out of our heads like clouds, before Roshi introduced us to a few more voices of the self: feminine and masculine compassion, the non-seeker, the negator, the big mind, and the big heart.

By the end of the program’s fourth and final day, after I have conquered more snow-covered terrain and met the remaining facets of the self, the conversion is complete. I feel happier, calmer, and more compassionate than when I arrived, and although I am not certain whether credit lies with the ski instruction, the mantra, or the instant Zen, I have become a better skier.

Ski to Live



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