Watching Ted Ligety race is like watching yoga in motion.  The angles he eclipses as he arcs around the gates seem impossible.  Looking at pictures of him in stop action, when you can see every turn and tuck of his body as he leans in — all physics angles — is surreal. 

I started alpine skiing this year, after a big hiatus from the snow. Prior to that I had only gone snowboarding. I knew snow, understood edges, knew about fall lines.  But having two boards on your feet and learning to turn them while going downhill is a mighty different thing.  It brought me instantly back to beginner’s mind.  And I started, just as a beginner, on the “magic carpet” lift for the little kids to learn about skiing. 

We talked about that a lot this year in yoga class: this idea of beginner’s mind.  How can you come to something that you’ve done over and over again, anew, as if for the first time?  In our yoga practice, in the beginning, we’re excited and inspired — it’s all about the discovery and the leaps forward.  After a sustained time of practice, there can be moments of boredom, or inattention; moments of gaps in our practice or maybe even a desire to quit.  Those are often interspersed by some peak experiences.  But often, as time goes by, pushing yourself to practice can be difficult.  So we try to cultivate beginner’s mind to come to the practice with curiosity and freshness.  As you build mastery from your practice, you still come to it new.  You never want to fall into the jaded place of the inattentive master.  For that is the moment you slip and fall.

Learning something new, especially anything in-depth such as a language or a sport, or something that involves multiple steps, like cooking or woodworking or yoga — especially over the age of 35 — is a powerful tool for keeping the synapses of the brain firing and the brain plastic and able to move and grow and heal and remember.  In essence, it keeps us young.

It was during the Olympics that I started watching Ted Ligety ski.  For some reason he caught my eye, and I started watching his angles and how he set himself up for the turns and how easeful and light he was in his body, and how focused and present he was in his racing.  He is a yogi.  There’s no other way to say it. The way he gets so deep into his body, his amazing presence.  That is, after all, the meaning of yoga: union.  And he has it: union with the race.Skiier meditates

All that watching was doing something in my mind and body too. It was the pure power of visualization and I didn’t even realize it. After watching him race, I started to feel my body ski they way I saw him skiing. The words "Ligety Ligety Ligety" resounded in my mind and became my mantra.

Every time I got into any trouble, when my foot was sliding out from under me, or if I was leaning too far over, too far back, or too far forward, there it would be in my head: "Ligety Ligety Ligety." I’d hold on. I’d dig deep. 

In yoga, a mantra is used to help focus the mind so you can experience inner stillness.  In the same way, you have to find that still point within you to ski.  To be able to do anything well really, you have to find that zone.  Mantra is one of the four ways that you can instantly burn up old karma.  It’s that powerful.  Many of the mantras are the names of different gods and goddesses, and repeating them lends the sayer the qualities of those deities — like power or abundance or the ability to remove obstacles.  All mantras have a harmonic resonance that affects the user of the chant in different ways.

My confidence built on itself, and I still called on my mantra nearly every run: "Ligety Ligety Ligety." And then it happened: it seemed all of the sudden I knew how to ski.  I was still slow, and not as strong as I needed be.  I took lots of breaks, and skied lots of easy runs.  But I also skied all over the mountain, the double black diamonds, and the hikes out to the creeks, out of bounds, and back in on steep, deep powder lines.

It was so obvious to me from watching Ted Ligety that he is a master.  From his gold medal and podium wins this year, he is clearly at the top of his game. And it was clear that every time he got to the starting gate, he was in both mastery mind and beginner’s mind.  Each turn was something new.  He never lost sight of the freshness and inquisitiveness, the ultimate ingredients that make a champion.

I tried to use one of my sanskrit mantras to keep myself centered on the slopes, and it would work for a little while.  But again and again I’d come back to "Ligety Ligety Ligety."  It was beyond my conscious mind, and it was working as a mantra should.  I was being infused with the power and focus and somatic learning experience of a gold medalist.  Beginner’s mind and mastery were infusing into me with my "Ligety" mantra.  This is yoga in its highest form — unexpected, new and powerful.

Related stories on MNN:

Photo credit: Gary Blakeley/Shutterstock