Dive into Danger! Learning Tai Chi on Skis
By Pat Gorman. Reprinted from Tai Chi Press of 1995
Uncle Wayne Nichols, master of skiing and tai Chi of the mountainside, was 83 when I met him. My tai chi friends, Ty and Helene (he a luge Olympian, she an expert ice skater) said, “Go to Alta and study skiing with this man.”
Utah seemed very far away to go to learn to ski. But we made our reservations and arrived at the tiny town of Alta on the mountain of the same name around midnight, in the middle of a blizzard. In the morning, looking out the window of our cozy rom at Alta Lodge at the enormous mountain of rock and snow, I felt totally intimidated. I’d like to just stay here and light a fire, I thought…but I was due to meet Uncle Wayne at 8:00 a.m. at the ski lift.
He was about 5 feet tall, and all bundled up he looked almost as wide. He had cataracts over his liquid blue eyes, yet could pick out a cute single woman in a moment on the ski line. He never rode up alone. We liked to fantasize that with his chi he’d fathered half the mountain. In the days before ski lifts he would climb to the top of Alta, an incredibly tall mountain, wearing snowshoes and carrying his skis, then ski down, repeating this process several times a day.
Like Patrick Watson, Uncle Wayne loved beginners. He liked to get them before they developed bad habits, and he repeated what Patrick said, “It’s much harder to unlearn than to learn.” He never taught from fear: the Snowplow, a move that points the toes of the skis in and is always taught to beginners so they can stop or proceed slowly, was tossed from Wayne’s repertoire. “It’s out of principle,” he’s say. “You’re just going to cross your toes some day when you’re going fast and kill yourself.” Patrick would never teach us the usual “tricks” in Push Hands either because he said they’d lead us to expect and commit to something other than being in the moment.
Uncle Wayne said you had to feel the mountain under your feet at all times and that the feet had to be relaxed and open; the whole body relaxing down and riding on an even plane while the knees and legs do all the adjusting below.
To watch Uncle Wayne was to witness what it would have been like to see Professor or Patrick on skis, just add some flying robes or urban camouflage pants. Wayne never twisted at the waist, as is often popular; his torso moved as a whole, angled downhill. If you took the angle of the mountain and made it flat, he’s be standing straight up, knees bent.
To get you to trust this paradoxical forward lean – which is not actually a lean in relation to the angle of the ground and speed of forward motion downhill – his favorite phrase was, ,”Roll ‘em and dive! Dive into danger!” To have this tiny man in his eighties take you to a steep, terrifying ridge and order you to hurl yourself over the top of it with nothing to trust but principle, reminded me of the terrifying moments Patrick bid me play Push Hands with those whose ability far exceeded my own. Only here the vast mountain was my Push Hands partner, and all reactions came from the dantian though the feet. No hands! Wayne made me give up poles for a while – reminiscent of one of the Professor’s sayings, Wayne told me to “imagine that I have no arms.” Later I could balance my poles ahead of me as though delicately balancing a tray as I careened down the mountainside.
Uncle Wayne’s Main Principles
- Parallel feet at all times
- Shift form 70-30 weight distribution to single weighted-ness. Never 50-50 or “double weighted.” A pivot line is kept between the top of the head, the belly and the weighted foot.
- The downhill ski bears the weight, varying from 70% to 100%.
- The body transfers all mass and pressure though the weighted foot, which is relaxed and spread out inside the foot.
- The body is angled forward in proportion to the angle of the hill. So, essentially, you’re “straight” if the ground were flattened with you at the angle.
- Knees are bent; belly (dantian) rides smoothly and knees and legs adjust to changes in the surface of the mountain. This instantaneous adjusting can only be done with an empty mind, while staying in the moment.
- Roll ‘em and Dive! Dare to angle your body appropriately down the slope. The “rolling” part refers to angling the dantian and whole pivot line (and therefore the side-to-side angle of the weighted ski) to the left or right to achieve a turn in that direction. Though this does not sound in principle at first, in reality, the momentum of “falling” or “diving” down the mountain allows this “roll” in the same way that you lean in when turning a bicycle. Just enough makes the curve efficient and keeps the “root” descending from the pivot line through to the ground. Not enough makes things slow and awkward; too much will cause a fall.
- When I talked to Patrick about Uncle Wayne, Patrick said, “Yes, he’s got it.” Patrick loved to play with speed, momentum and gravity on his beloved BMW motorcycle, taking curves at speed and at steep angles. “This,” he said, “is where you must feel the straightness inside, or you’re lost. The combination of angles, speed, and the pull of gravity tell your body what straightness is in relation to them. All great athletes have this ability.”
- Uncle Wayne, my tai chi master on skis, passed away in a hot tub at 85, having skied 125 days of the last season of his life. “I was lazy this year,” he told me a few weeks before his death when we took him to dinner on the mountain at Alta Lodge. Then, just like Patrick, he made me get out my book and write all the principles down so I wouldn’t forget. And I won’t.
At the time of this article, Pat Gorman had been skiing for 8 years, the first two of which were sadly misdirected before finding Uncle Wayne.