Meet Kirsten Cooper! A former professional ski racer and current yoga teacher, Kirsten’s thirst for knowledge about the human body is hard to beat. This year she is teaming up with our Creative Manager Julia Clarke to offer Ancient Wisdom, Modern Body a single-day Colorado School of Yoga teacher’s immersion where they’ll dive into the effects of stress on the body and mind and how to tailor yoga to counter these effects. The two of them sat down for a chat recently, here’s the scoop!
JC: First of all, tell me about your life as a professional ski racer?
KC: Oh boy, my life as a professional ski racer was quite and adventure! I was so fortunate to grow up in that sport, I gained experiences that many don’t get in a life time. I got to travel the world and chase a dream I decided on at 3 years old. The discipline and work ethic that came from it are invaluable and have been so beneficial to everything I’ve done since. On the other hand, it was the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. I spent every waking hour training in some respect, be it training, lifting weights, eating to perform, doing video analysis, etc., and when I was no longer able to compete, that loss was devastating.
JC: How has that informed your yoga practice and teaching?
KC: The loss of something that was largely how I identified myself was heart-wrenching. I found yoga towards the end of my career and when I retired, It became another training pitch of sorts; being in a truly uncomfortable yoga pose afforded me some valuable tools and practice in dealing with the discomfort that was so present in my life in retirement. I was dealing with so much heartache and guilt and self loathing and it all would inevitably arise when I got on my mat, I learned how to manage it while in a safe space so I could manage it better elsewhere in life. Furthermore, I had really destroyed my body in the course of my career and I was fortunate enough to come across a PT/Yoga Teacher who really helped me heal. After numerous surgeries to repair the things my body couldn’t heal on it’s own, yoga replaced years of physical training as my way of feeling healthy, strong, vital, and pain free.
Those things have really informed the “Why?” in my teaching. I believe strongly in the capacity of the human spirit and I believe we can create the life we want with a sense of vigor and vitality. I teach in a way that intelligently strengthens the body and increases range of motion so we can all continue to use our bodies in all the ways we want to. On top of that, I aim to create a space in which people can have their own experience and allow for whatever challenges they’re facing to arise. This way, hopefully they have some tools to take out in the world for when shit hits the fan.
JC: And further, do you still ski and does yoga now inform your skiing?
KC: I do still ski! Maybe not life i did at 18 but that’s ok. Actually, my favorite part of skiing nowadays is what yoga has brought to it. Skiing is so innate for me that I really don’t have to think about it; It’s now a very meditative practice for me in which I am completely in the moment and I can feel the power of my body. That sounds braggy… I don’t mean it that way. When I truly stop to think about how my body moves so precisely without conscious thought, I’m sort of blown away at what our bodies do. It’s a true practice in gratitude now, which is amazing considering how much psychological and physical pain the sport caused me through the years.
JC: You have a BS in physiology and are pursuing your master’s in Sports Psychology. What are your plans for your education?
KC: Yes… well, a BA and MA. Don’t get me started on why I have an arts degree in a science field… gee, this a loaded question for me right now, I have a broad vision of where I want it to lead but I have no catchy one liner for it as of yet. Like I said, I’m a true believer in the amazing capacity of the human spirit and in my work, I want to advocate for people and help them recognize that in themselves. I love having a background in physiology, knowing the body inside and out gives me the nuts and bolts aspect of building a strong connection between body and spirit. The Sports Psychology piece is where I think the true heart of my passion lies however. In my experience as an athlete, I learned skills to create sustainable habits and use emotion and logic together to push through limitations. I want to harness those skills into something I can teach anyone, not just athletes, to create those sustainable habits in order to achieve their goals whether it be to lose weight, land a job, find a partner, whatever. So… life coach? I guess that’s what you might call it. 🙂
JC: You have had surgery to fuse your spine, which is not uncommon here in the mountains. How have you adapted your practice following this, if at all? And do you have a favorite yoga pose for low back injuries?
KC: Yes, I have L5-S1 fused. it’s certainly not uncommon up here, we like to play hard. My practice has adapted into something that is not so straight and narrow anymore which is fun. It used to be fairly easy for me to get into poses but now I have slightly limited mobility in my low back and I have limited mobility in my hamstrings because I have neural tension in the backs of my legs. Now I have to be smarter about getting there, I have to warm up and increase range of motion in other parts of my body to make up for the motion I lack in those places. It’s given me a whole new perspective on sequencing as a teacher. Surgery was also humbling in a major way, I went from doing Kurmasana the day before surgery to no being able to cross my legs in a matter of 4 days. I got a very fortunate opportunity to remember what it’s like to NOT be able to do something. That’s given me a great deal of empathy and an invigorated love for teaching very basic beginners. When they tell me they will never touch their toes I can say, “ya, I know how you feel, I couldn’t touch my knees for a while, let alone my toes. Let’s work on that together.”
As far as my favorite yoga poses for my back, Supported Bridge. I feel better just thinking about it. Legs up the wall, Janu Sirsasana, and Gomukasana are also my faves, I spend a lot of time on my floor in those poses.
JC: You’ve spent a lot of your life in Vail! Do you have a favorite spot here?
KC: There are so many great spots here! I feel like I’m still discovering new things all the time! I think my favorite pastime is Mountain Biking up Boneyard and then down Ice Rink in Eagle, followed by a stop into Bonfire brewing for a Mole Mole Mole Stout. I also love hiking to Lionshead Rock and happy hour on the deck at the Maya in the Westin, you cannot beat the view from either of those places!