Kristen Ulmer & Zen Skiing | 5 Spot | Salt Lake City Weekly

Kristen Ulmer & Zen Skiing 

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Kristen Ulmer, a former U.S. Ski Team member and international extreme skier, skis curiously, not furiously. Ulmer’s unique ski workshop, Ski to Live, now in its eighth year, takes an Eastern-philosophy-meets-Western-psychology approach to the sport. In addition to private instruction, she’s offering two workshops, Feb. 11-13 and April 1-3, at Alta Ski Resort (

How does Zen apply to extreme sports?
Zen comes from Zen Buddhism, which is a religion with many different forms. Buddhism is about the teachings of the Buddha; Zen is trying to feel what the Buddha felt. It’s more experience than theology: “to become one with.” In the context of Zen Skiing, it’s to become one with skiing.

What was the process of starting Ski to Live?
I almost feel like the dharma is a disease and I am a host. I feel like I have no choice. I don’t remember starting Ski to Live; it was started through me. I know that sounds New Age-y, but it’s true. I hired Genpo Roshi [of Salt Lake City’s Zen Center] to lead my second Ski to Live camp and I didn’t know anything about him. I started these clinics because I felt like I hadn’t learned anything from the sport of skiing. Well, either I had learned everything—hedonism and gratification of my ego—or nothing. I learned more in the first 10 minutes of listening to him about who I was as a skier than I ever had. I knew this guy could show me the path. The skeptic in me looked around to see if there was anyone else and there wasn’t. So, I committed to the dharma. In reality, it doesn’t matter what practice you choose or the teacher as long as you’re trying to gain self-awareness. I chose Genpo Roshi, and that was the best decision I ever made.

What is Zen?
It’s really funny to realize what people think Zen to be. The image of the guy on a cushion all blessed-out is hard to shake. That’s most people’s impression. Zen is not about being happy and peaceful. It’s about: If you’re angry, be fucking angry; if you’re afraid, be afraid, but without judgment; and so on.

It’s not more Zen to be poor and humble; it’s equally Zen to be rich and happy. It’s about what is true for you “now.” It’s about a radical acceptance for all states of being and seeing the wisdom in all of it. That is, if you are aware of it.

Basically, I’m marrying the concept of Western ego and Eastern collective consciousness. It’s been really hard to translate Eastern philosophy to the Western mind. It’s just about submitting to your life: the horrible and wonderful condition of being a human being. “To submit” to someone in the West is like pouring scalding water over them.

How is your coaching different than a regular ski coach’s?
Sports psychiatry, in mindset sports, starts with the premise that there’s something wrong with you that needs to be fixed. But with a Zen coach, all the sudden, you start with the premise that you’re exactly perfect and then you have a conscious perspective with your sport. In doing so, you check in where you’re currently stuck, and we are always stuck. The reason why a lot of people are stuck is because they believe the self to be solid and substantial—the habitual self. By engaging in voice dialogue, you begin to understand that the self is ever-changing. Maybe someone skis in the voice of “Everybody is waiting on me” or “I’m not good enough.” Just to realize that, then you have all these choices of how to think when skiing. As a professional skier, I was in a habitual pattern of being in “aggressive,” “forward,” “yes” or “reaching” and that was my whole experience. Because of that, I became the best in the world at my sport. The voice I choose to ski in now is “curiosity” or “observer.” I’m not all about being a badass now. I’m only interested in what I’m learning.

What is a typical “Ski to Live” workshop like?
Trying to describe what it’s like is like describing the color purple to a blind person. People ask me that and I don’t know. I’m not teaching anyone anything. I’m just a facilitator. People just basically uncover their own wisdom and then they can give themselves their best advice. I take people on an emotional journey and have them express their emotions through the sport of skiing.

How does dealing with fear work into Ski to Live?
Overcoming fear is a New Age movement. Embracing fear is Zen.

I’m running a business, right? People don’t know what they want. If they knew, they’d have already realized it. In advertising, I’m playing to what people have told me they’re looking for. When people think of mindset, they immediately think of fear. Somehow by being fearless people think they can become the person they want to be. Now think about that: You would last exactly two seconds in this world without fear. The bottom line is that people are stuck, they know it, but they usually don’t know where—be it in skiing or in life. Fear is only part of that.

You’ve been doing these for eight years. What now?
I don’t know. It feels right to do the camps. I know I want to work more with professional athletes, but I’m still getting a lot from attending all of workshops. You know, I attend; I’m not just a facilitator. I can say it’s the coolest thing I’ve even done in my life.

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