Zen And The Art Of Staying Off Your Rear

So here I am, a cynical New York journalist and longtime skier, sitting in a room in Vermont early on a Saturday morning with 12 other seemingly sensible adults. I'm about to immerse myself in the Zen of skiing, otherwise known as Centered Skiing, a workshop given at Sugarbush Ski


For the next three days, this group of thirty- and fortysomethings will hand itself over to ski-guru Paul McKinnie and his four assistants as we try an unorthodox Eastern approach to a sport we have been struggling with for years. We will visualize, we will meditate, we will free our consciousness, we will become one with the mountain--and we will try not to feel silly.

We have all traveled different paths to get to this same place: the dreaded "plateau." Plateaued skiers are the ones who have been stuck for some time at that high-intermediate/low-expert level that keeps us off the steepest trails, away from the scariest mogul runs, and ensures that we avoid skiing under any chairlift carrying someone we know. Plateauing is the bane of the ski industry because many aficionados of the sport get bored or frustrated and drop out at that point. An epidemic of plateauing in the aging baby boomer ski set is often blamed for the slowing popularity of the sport.

NOT CHEAP. That's where Sugarbush's Centered Skiing course comes in. Plateauing is a mental state more than anything else: We think we can't, therefore we cannot. Denise McCluggage, a onetime Vermont resident, former race car driver, and full time t'ai chi teacher, had the same problem but overcame it by applying Oriental concepts to skiing. She laid out her philosophy in a book, The Centered Skier. Its gist: "being centered over your skis, centered in your being and doing, and centered in your environment."

McCluggage helped set up the first Centered Skiing workshops at Sugarbush in 1975, but the course died out in 1982, after she moved to Santa Fe. McKinnie, a former student, reinstated the workshops in 1991, as both a three-day and five-day program.

McKinnie, an extremely mellow 50-year-old veteran of all things New Age, is a pharmacist in the summer and full-time ski instructor the rest of the time. He wants his students to see skiing as a metaphor for life: "I always promise each workshop that people will have a breakthrough as to who they are."

Breakthroughs of that magnitude don't come from going down a hill practicing turns. In fact, Centered Skiing isn't that interested in the technical details of skiing at all. It's about thinking of your body and the mountain as a single unit, instead of worrying about the placement of your poles or the bend of your knees. To accomplish this transmutation, the first two hours of each class are spent indoors, where we practice breathing from our center (a mystical place somewhere above the navel), balancing, and conquering fear.

The course isn't cheap--$339 for three days and $499 for five, including lift tickets, about one-third more than a standard course. But the teacher-student ratio is high, with 5 instructors for 12 students. The instructors include a former professional dancer and a British skier, Kennie Cummings, who admits that it's unlikely a course like this would go over big in Europe.

SORRY SPECTACLE. We Americans, however, really get into the swing of centeredness. We learn ballet steps, switch places with each other on a balance beam, close our eyes and fall on each other in a circle, and make sorry attempts at juggling. The exercises are designed to help us understand the yin and yang of balance, pressure, and gravity. All the while, our instructors encourage us to get in touch with our inner selves, to visualize ourselves wrapped in a "white light" moving us down the mountain.

My workshop includes two Centered Skiing loyalists whose enthusiasm helps loosen up the rest of us. Jeff and Patty Simmons of Lincoln, Mass., both psychiatrists, are on their third workshop. "It renews you every time you take it," says Patty, 44. On their first try the Simmonses got just the breakthrough McKinnie talks about. "It got us to change a lot of things about our life mode," says Patty. "It really got us to slow down, to be more reflective."

The rest of us take a little longer to catch on. When we first hit the slopes, we are right back skiing from our knees or some other noncentered spot. But the instructors aren't about to let a non-Zen gloom set in. They drown us in encouragement, and we adore it. Leave the ranting coaches to the downhill racers. We just want to be loved.

LOOK, MA! The first day of the course is all gentle runs as we try to reengineer our attitude. At one point, we try skiing on just our boots, to get the feel of how our bodies should be moving without those annoying skis in the way. On the second day, we put on the "big feet." These are tiny, wide skis only slightly larger than a ski boot, with very sharp edges. Strap these things on, and suddenly you have no choice but to ski in the center. Lean over forward, you do a face plant; lean backward, you're on your back. Hopping around on these contraptions can make you feel a little foolish, but we beg to stay on them all day anyway.

Which means quite a shock to the body when we switch back to skis on the third day. Recentering over long boards takes some doing, but two days of confidence-building exercises pull us through. By the end of the day, the entire class is schussing down some of the toughest trails on the mountain, and what we lack in finesse we make up for in determination.

The big test for me comes two weeks later, when I am back at Sugarbush on my own. Would three days of mind exercises make a difference? It's hard to say whether I ski better, but I do ski faster--and with more confidence. I still feel a clutch of fear when I look down a trail with moguls as tall as I am, but I find that I'm willing to try it instead of sliding over to the intermediate trails. I don't think the rest of my life is any more centered, but at least I'm moving off the plateau.

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