Beyond Yoga Skiing Skiing, Triathlon and Sports

Rehab Badge of Honour

Today is two weeks post-ACL reconstruction surgery. I’ve awarded myself a badge. Just like Instagram pics of babies with a three-months sticker, knee surgery people get to use weekly milestones to gauge progress.

three month baby
The tyranny of progress

Two weeks!

I can…
Bend my knee to 90 degrees
Crutch to the mailbox
Walk upstairs

 I like…
Watching Youtube
Pedalling 1/4 revolutions
Visiting my physiotherapist

Badge of Honour

And just like new mothers who hear endless advice about how to raise their children; the internet, surgeons and physios and everyone at the gym have opinions about a recovery timeline after surgery.

Where you at? Ten degrees of extension and 90 degrees of flexion? Hmm. That’s not good enough for two weeks post-op. You should have zero degrees of extension by now.

Do you have a cryocuff? You’ve gotta use the cryocuff to get that swelling down. Fifteen minutes on, 45 minutes off.

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Don’t get in the pool until 28 days post-surgery. You’ll get an infection.

A Facebook Friend triumphantly returns to the pool post-surgery

But it turns out that mothers throw away the baby books because there isn’t a specific formula for raising a child. And I’m skeptical that surgical recovery adheres to precise numbers. Rehabilitation is the aggregate of rest, patience and hard work, but it’s different for everyone.

In his twelve rules for life, Jordan Peterson is clear that instincts dictate the difference between good habits and bad. Just like constantly scrolling Instagram and eating chips for dinner are bad habits, instincts for knee rehabilitation are accurate as well. Don’t just lie around on the couch, but don’t push the trail running too early either. Pay attention to your instincts and don’t be overly prescriptive in your recovery schedule.

We all want some kind of validation that we’re doing enough. Mothers want to be told that the kid is walking and talking at the appropriate age; post-op patients want to know they’re progressing at the correct pace to get back to sport.

the singular goal is to get back to sport

But I wonder if measuring specific targets is overly-prescriptive. I wonder if recovery  should be predicated on intuition instead? The medical system is busy. Physiotherapists and physicians hear the same story every day. Oh you were skiing and you blew your knee? Not very original. But here’s a nine-month program to get you from surgery to skis.

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It makes sense that there is a rough guideline and one should refrain from “dangerous” activities like skiing, surfing or soccer earlier than nine months (apparently that’s how long it takes the graft to adhere), but milestones along the way are loosely paved.

Abiding by a tyrannical schedule will create anxiety.  If you can’t achieve 120 degrees of flexion three weeks after surgery, you’re not doomed to arthritis. Trust your instincts! You know if you’ve done enough squats for the day. You know if you wasted a whole day lounging on the couch. Find the right balance of rest and rehab.

Surgeons and physios do everything they can to help, but they can’t know what you’re feeling and they can’t do the work. If the physiotherapist says to do 30 knee bends once an hour, do it. If the doctor says to elevate and ice, then do that. They offer a prescriptive strategy for recuperating, but it’s individual intuition that asks the right questions and guides the appropriate amount of work.

Doctor’s orders

Mothers know when something “just doesn’t feel right” in their kid’s development. Injured skiers know how much to push and when to back off on the road to recovery. It’s all based on experience and observation.

Judging progress by a weekly schedule is incongruent with skiing. With exception to athletes who are training, skiers don’t mark their progress with checkmarks. Imagine your buddy is just starting out on skis. You aren’t going to give him a schedule that says by day 100 he should be skiing all black runs, by day 200 he should have acquired a backcountry setup and by day 800, he better have ticked off some big ones like Corbets, Cosmiques and Saudan Couloir. This is an arbitrary metric to gauge skiing and fails to account for individual variables. My point is that rehabilitation follows a unique path and is based on athletic ability, personal goals, fitness level, flexibility, strength and appropriate rest.

If you don’t have a backcountry setup by Day 200, are you even a skier?

So with this, I’m going to stop reading the internet in search of validation. I doubt that having my knee pin-straight two weeks after surgery is critical to long term recovery. I’ll weigh advice from gym people against my intuition. In spite of the guy on the bike saying I must have exactly 120 degrees of flexion by now (but no more, lest I cause laxity!), I’m just going to go with my instincts.

Just like ultramarathoners who abandon heart monitors in favour of RPE and refer to it as “training by feel,” I think rehabilitation by instinct is a crucial part of the process. New mothers eventually reject the baby books, developing skiers abide by their own agenda, and post-op patients should go by intuition as well.

not an ultramarathoner, but training by feel nonetheless

This doesn’t mean I’ll stop awarding myself progress badges or start ignoring physio advice. It’s a big deal to pedal a full revolution or finally do a one-legged squat. Those are important milestones and prescribed by professional empirical observation. Intuitive rehabilitation is just relief from the tyranny of the schedule.  It’s worth noting weekly milestones, but the rigid prescribed schedule isn’t the only way back up from the operating table.

from OR….
….back to skis


puppy nine months
apparently puppies aren’t exempt from the tyranny of achievement either
Skiing Yoga

Meditation and Rehabilitation

Meditation is the art of freeing yourself from life’s annoying circumstances. Life’s ups and downs happen all around. Highs and lows. Pain and ecstasy. Love and loss. Meditation is the tool to free yourself from suffering and feel at ease in your circumstances.

A couple of weeks ago, I tore my ACL. Behind me is the foolishness of my pre-injured youthful self. Now I’m a grim-faced gimp. In a moment of inattention, I metamorphosed from an egotistical and childish skier who didn’t know the debilitation of injury into a sedate and crippled adult humbled by the limits of my own body.

Since I can’t ski right now, I’ve illustrated this article with gratuitous shots of my friends skiing.

Where formerly I would roll my eyes at friend’s descriptions of injuries to meniscus and patella, now I understand the anatomy of the knee with the same clinical accuracy that Jordan Peterson defends gendered pronouns. I hadn’t heard the sickening pop of a torn ligament and I was blissfully uninformed of the difference between MCL, ACL and PCL. They were just acronyms and I was just skiing. “No more conversation about knees…” I’d plead and loudly sigh as yet another friend detailed ACL injury and subsequent rehabilitation.

This is actually a conference on knees and skis. More than one person is bored listening to his friend talk about knee surgery.

But those days are over. Skiing and normal activities stripped away in a moment of complacency; the road to recovery lies ahead. The banality of a knee injury is not lost on me. For skiers, it’s as common as a cold. The tedium of thinking about my knee is oppressive. I’m obsessed with it’s healing, I’m terrified of slipping on the sidewalk and I can’t fathom the elasticity it’s going to take to get back in my ski boots, let alone on to my skis.

posing in the sun
Here’s a bored snowboarder unable to withstand the tedium of her skiing counterparts talking about their knees.

So what to do? So far, I’ve made it up and down a few flights of stairs and done some step-ups onto a 4-inch box. Those feats are a significant departure from bootpacking a 500-metre couloir or even doing consecutive box jumps.

Keyhole - Chamonix
First – walking up the stairs. Then – back to bootpacking

But it doesn’t matter what I could do before. All that matters is what I can do right now. Circumstances can’t be changed, regret is a waste of time and the only thing to do is whatever it takes to heal and get back to the mountain. And that includes yoga.

road to recovery
The road to recovery – one step at a time

I’ve told countless injured friends over the years that they should get on the yoga mat. Regardless of injury, regardless of perceived inability to “do” yoga. “I can’t go to yoga because my back/neck/knee hurts.” Well, you should go to yoga because your back/neck/knee hurts. I’ve said this to injured friends, with tyrannical authority, but I didn’t have any first-hand experience on the logistics of getting an injured body onto the mat and into the practice. Until now. Bitterly tasting my own medicine.

It’s a deep season that I chose to miss. Cayoosh – January 2019

On the day after the injury, I went to yoga. I wanted to stay home and watch Netflix. I was unhappy about being hurt. It was all so predictable. Skier injures knee. How typical, how prosaic. I was despondent and defeated by my circumstances. Yoga, meditation and the accompanying introspection was the last thing I wanted to do. I didn’t want to accept my circumstances; I didn’t want to be free from suffering. I was furious. This was the strongest I’d felt in years. This season was going to be mine. But that strength and confidence was gone. And I wanted to wallow in self-pity, not meditate on the gift of the present moment.

Shredding the present moment

But on crutches, in pain and feeling sorry for myself, I wobbled into the yoga studio. And at risk of sounding imperious, I’m here to emphasize that yoga is, indeed, the thing. Logistically, I couldn’t do many of the poses. In fact, doing any poses was out of the question. But I could lie there and quietly breathe, do a few knee bends and focus on cultivating a positive attitude. And as cliche and over-stated a positive attitude is, it really is all we’ve got. A positive attitude, unshakeable by circumstances, is the means to survive all of life’s disagreeable circumstances. Yoga and the accompanying meditation teaches comfort with discomfort.

DOA + Whistler
Keeping your skis going fall-line is the best strategy against knee injury

Yoga is so much more than the poses. The poses are only 12.5 percent of the practice. I’ve said this before, but I don’t think I truly got it until I was lying there unable to do any of the asana, but still participating in the class just by being present. The other 87.5 percent of the practice exists in the mind. Concentration, discipline, meditation, freedom from suffering.

up and away
Freedom from suffering in perfect pow

It’s the freedom from suffering that is central to yoga and the tool to manage life’s circumstances. A knee injury is not the worst tragedy to befall anyone. It’s not really even a crisis, but it’s a temporarily debilitating detail in my story. We all have debilitating details in our stories. Whether it’s the unanticipated loss of a job, illness of a parent, being a victim of burglary, paralysis following a car accident. These are all tragic circumstances. The hard truth though is everything could always be worse. But it could also be better. The point is that good and bad things happen with equal regularity.  Meditation teaches that surviving the ups and downs is possible. By meditating on the present moment, you teach yourself that the collection of experiences that populate your life’s story are not the totality of your existence. Furthermore, the collection of experiences that cause pain and difficulty do not need to equate to suffering.

Spruceman on skintrack
The wise (spruce)man on top of a mountain.

The myth of the wise man sitting on top of the mountain is an archetype of someone escaping the confines of life experience in order to seek enlightenment and avoid suffering. It’s a story to illustrate meditation as a transcendent and literal state of being. But glorifying meditation in this unlikely scenario is a hyperbolic way of viewing the practice. Literally escaping the trappings of society and its accompanying pain and sorrows isn’t necessary because meditation provides an avenue to metaphorically escape the confines of difficult circumstances. The trick is to use meditation to pay attention to the present moment, cultivate a positive outlook and refuse to suffer from unfortunate circumstances.

On the skintrack
Forward locomotion – still doable with a torn ACL (apparently)

Experiences and circumstances are sometimes beyond control. Events that cause pain are unavoidable. But choosing to suffer (or not) is definitely within your control.  Practice meditation as a strategy for accepting and coping with difficult circumstances. Learn to be comfortable with discomfort and maintain a sense of ease through all life’s injuries.

Comfort with discomfort in the mountains

Lying on my yoga mat with a swollen knee, I didn’t feel prepared to accept my circumstances. But recovery will follow a specific trajectory and there isn’t any way to expedite the healing. I can’t change what happened and my ski season is over. So many details in my life are different now: the inability to walk the dog, waking up to searing pain because my knee twisted in the sheets, boredom with the only cardiovascular exercise I can currently do (swimming). But my ability to tolerate these frustrating changes and to thrive as a contributing member of society is predicated on making the conscious choice not to suffer.

Suffering is optional


Suffering from these circumstances is easy. Using meditation to alleviate suffering and to understand my intrinsic worth is hard. Living a worldly existence populated by experiences and injuries is easy. When something as consuming as injury happens, it can be hard not to obsess with the story and the healing. But circumstance does not represent the totality of existence. Meditation is freedom from preoccupation with circumstances. Pain and difficulty is mandatory. Suffering is not.

Black dusk + skiers
Three pairs of knees functioning at full range-of-motion



Making the most of it

Sitting in the sun, staring up at the snowless French Alps that are soaring above my head, I know that I should not be pouting, but I am. I am frustrated, irritated and annoyed at myself for getting into this predicament. You see, I was banished from my home mountain of WhistlerBlackcomb for one calendar year on Feb 17, 2014. Banished because I got caught skiing a closed run: an area on the mountain that isn’t allowed to be skied.

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Make no mistake, there are plenty of signs and warnings not to ski such places and I knew full well the consequences of my actions, but I did it anyway. And I got caught. So here I am, spending a winter in the Alps, but missing my home resort, my community, the fabled coastal storms of December and the lifestyle that I have carved out in Whistler.

I know, boo hoo. Winter in the Alps, how tragic. But when there is no snow, it is tragic. It’s tragic to carry skis and gear all the way over here, pay for a lift pass, rent a chalet, and dream of skiing when the skies remain frustratingly blue and the foehn winds prevail. The boredom and the frustration of not skiing are palpable and difficult to manage. It is mid-December, and I’ve only skied twice.

You can’t always control the things that happen to you, but you can control the way you react to them.

February 17 2014. Storm brewing at Whistler Blackcomb. Strong winds from the south and 33cm of fresh snow. Spanky’s Ladder was closed, but other alpine access remained open. Discussion on the chair led to the unanimous decision that it was a good day to break the rules and ski the forbidden. Offlimits. Out of bounds. Permanently Closed. The corporation of Whistler Blackcomb and the authorities who work on her behalf make no pretenses about the outcome of getting caught skiing in a permanently closed area, or a PC, as they’re colloquially known. Lift access privileges will be revoked. But a lot of people do it. Rarely do they get caught and the boisterous lunch crew at Glacier Creek Lodge will advise you to run away if you do get caught. “Don’t ever stop” are the words of wisdom. Fine wisdom to share and pontificate but difficult words to follow when actually faced with the authority of ski patrol.

So we dismounted the chairlift, climbed to the access area and one at a time ducked the rope towards the magical forbidden zone on the other side. First I was struck by the silence; no hooting and hollering from fellow snow lovers, no liftline chatter, no discussion between us. Just the sweet tranquility of deep, untouched snow and a blank, shimmering, white canvas stretched out before us. We silently pushed our way across the ridge, our skis slicing through the snow, out of sight, away from the busy resort and to a side of the mountain that I had never seen before. Tucked away in between two popular and frequently skied zones is deep, soft, untouched snow.

One by one, we pushed off, rolled over the slight convexity, quietly navigated the steep rocks at the top and then gleefully shushed down the apron in the middle, finally pointing our skis fall line down the gully before re-emerging into the resort, victorious and undetected.

Or at least that was the plan. The actual story went like this: after the flat apron in the middle, we reconvened and agreed not to stop at the bottom, “just keep going and wait at the top of the chairlift.” Rocketing out the bottom of the funnel-shaped run, I was surprised to see my friend frantically waving from the side of the cat-track and hiding behind a rock. This was not “just keep going and wait at the top of the chairlift!” But there was a patroller on a snowmobile standing in the middle of the cat track.

Waiting for us?

Had he seen us?

We didn’t know.

And so there we were. Adults hiding behind a boulder, frantically hissing at each other “what do we do? What do we DOO?” “oh shit” “oh shit.” In retrospect, the comedy of the scenario is ridiculous, but at the time it felt like the end of the world.

Objectively, loss of lift access privileges is not a terrible fate, but when the lifestyle I have carved out for myself is predicated on skiing every day and being part of the resort scene, not skiing and not seeing all my friends and colleagues is disheartening, to say the least. Our season passes we’re clipped, and we were coldly informed “You’re done. You skied a closure? You’re done.”

So I pouted a bit, pleaded with the authorities who garnished our passes, but in the end the rule is clear: ski closure, lose pass. So my fate was sealed, I was banned from Whistler Blackcomb for one calendar year.

But with acceptance of that consequence revealed the positive outcome from the situation. For one thing, if they won’t let you up the lift, then you better get walking. I explored north and south of the resort and rediscovered the joy of ski touring. Ski touring is like skiing closures every day. Always fresh, always quiet, never crowded.

Always fresh, never crowded.
Always fresh, never crowded.

More importantly, and the reason why I’m writing this article as I bemoan the foehn winds and the sunshine in the Alps, a ban from Whistler Blackcomb opens the possibility of skiing at any other ski resort in the world. Seriously. All it took was the forceful removal from the place I love, a little bit of cash, and I was untethered.

And so here I am. Sitting in the sun, waiting for the snow to come to Chamonix. Over here, apparently, nothing is closed. Truly. I can go wherever I want. Big cliff? Tight couloir? No snow? Whatever. Ski at your own risk. Your choice, your life, your run. Is it because Europeans are less litigious than North Americans? Is it because the resort and skiing itself is older and more developed over here? Is it because the Euros are perceived to have more sense than foolish Canadians and thus need to be governed less? Is it because the mountains over here are bigger and therefore control is less possible? Stay tuned. When the snow comes and the chairlifts start spinning, I’ll ponder all those questions.

In the Alps, "closed" is just a suggestion
In the Alps, “closed” is just a suggestion

For now, Whistler, enjoy your precipitation. I heard it rained last week, but I know most of you sniffed out some good skiing in the rain. I’ll miss the coastal slush that is the only powder I’ve ever known and I’ll miss laughing with friends on the chair in howling winds and whiteout storms. I’ll miss the pace of the resort. The race up Spanky’s ladder and the Peak Chair snowball fights. This is the first season since I was three years old that I haven’t skied at Whistler Blackcomb, and I’ll be back.

For now, I practice my rope skills and my crevasse rescue strategies. I hike and bike the trails that flank this French valley and I wait and hope for a snowy season in the Alps.