A Deep Dive With a Snow-shredding Yogi.
By Ted Reckas
“Before I had studied Ch’an (Zen) for thirty years, I saw mountains as mountains, and rivers as rivers. When I arrived at a more intimate knowledge, I came to the point where I saw that mountains are not mountains, and rivers are not rivers. But now that I have got its very substance I am at rest. For it’s just that I see mountains once again as mountains, and rivers once again as rivers.” — Qingyuan Weixin, as translated by D T Suzuki
Lance Pitman was raised in the big mountain setting of Jackson, WY.
He snowboarded steep, all-or-nothing lines and flew off huge kickers with such abandon that it might have been called recklessness if you didn’t know his skill.
He was one of the world’s very best snowboarders of the 1990s and early aughts. He traveled the world as a kid – New Zealand un-chaperoned at 16. Portillo, Pucon, Saas-Fee, Las Lenas, Zugspitze, Gerlos, Niseko, Hakuba, Alaska. In competition at 17 years old, he flew too close to the sun and destroyed his knee like an Icarus wing, and learned the healing power of the mind in the process.
He dove into the craft of snowboarding, making his own equipment and building Illuminati Snowboards into a respected brand for backcountry freestyle aficionados. All the while he fought lifelong asthma, using it as fuel to prove his mettle. He’s ridden through several avalanches that were a hair’s breadth from being his death. He has watched as others weren’t so fortunate.
Lance confronted his mortality, saw the impermanence of his position, and asked, “How long can you be at risk? What is achievement?” He knew he needed to step off the samsara wheel at some point, and did it while he still had enough youth, energy and health to get to the bottom of…something.
He is an explorer of altered states of consciousness, and deep amid the layers of life, he found a new self – one that had always been there – and the courage to free it. Now he’s passing his wisdom to the next generation’s up and coming snowboarders, the Jackson Hole Free Ride team, and coaches them in a manner that is as much mental as it is physical.
We discussed his path, and the next phase of life he is building in Tetonia, Idaho.
TR: How did you start practicing yoga?
LP: Ten years ago, I was really suffering from asthma and I ran into a friend who teaches yoga. She invited me to her house to do yoga, and that night I slept through the night for the first time without any trouble breathing.
TR: Then what?
LP: Right after that she was co-hosting a yoga retreat on Maui. I hadn’t left Jackson in five years and I said, “I’m doing it.” It was on this amazing biodynamic farm, with two yoga classes a day and transformational workshop classes and all this raw food. I went back three more times over the next few years. That’s where I first started really waking up to the reality that I was basically a damaged human being from so much asthma trauma, and I really needed to make some hard decisions around whether I was going to try to figure it out or just continue to suffer.
TR: You had asthma trauma?
LP: I was diagnosed asthmatic at age two. I would awaken in the middle of the night having “attacks” three to five days per week until I was about 10. I used an inhaler multiple times a day til I was 27. I was hospitalized quite a few times. Now I realize I was addicted to the inhaler, and used it as a tool for energy and focus, but it was a crutch, like a snake that I couldn’t see would bite me when I slept. A life of asthma attacks had me so traumatized that I developed a psychological complex around “being physically capable” and “afraid of death.”
TR: Did this lead you to do crazy things snowboarding?
LP: Crazy for me and my abilities / boundaries anyway. There’s a moment of surrender when committing to a trick, especially over rocks and trees or whatever it is, that makes it that much scarier. If I pulled it off, I would get a feeling of success and accomplishment, and a sort of feeling that I could push myself right to the edge, where one mistake could mean death, and then to come out of it not only unharmed, but with nearly flawless execution. It gave me the sense that something was looking out for me. It built up my faith in a way.
The shadow side of that success and accomplishment is the need to prove capability, thus self-worth. As awareness builds, the polarity of the psychology shows itself. Before I started waking up, I would say that I was stuck in the belief, “I’m skilled and in control.” As I began to unwind the trauma and heal, I gained a sense that I was actually blindly pursuing the edge of death in an attempt to heal, and I would likely die if I kept it up. That sense of “I’m skilled” began to shift into, “I’ve been looked out for,” at which point a deeper faith and gratitude started to enter my life.
TR: That’s a heavy realization. What did you do with that? What came next?
LP: All these synchronicities started happening. A book came into my life, called Soul Craft. It talked about a point in a person’s life where they start feeling a calling, and can choose to resist it or they can choose to fully engage with it and see where it goes. It talked a lot about traditional cultures and their initiation processes, and how you come out of these processes with a new role in the community, and sense of identity. And about how in our culture, when that calling starts to happen, for a lot of people it can be really disruptive to their life, especially when they resist it. It can lead to all these health problems and full-on breakdowns.
It was very timely for me, and I chose to really, fully engage with it and close my snowboard shop in Jackson. For other people it may have looked like I was having a full mental breakdown, throwing my career away and all that. But most of the guys I was really close to with the snowboard company, I think they did get it.
TR: So you stopped running Illuminati Snowboards, and what did you do?
LP: Well there was this simultaneous thing playing out. When I came back into cell phone range after that yoga retreat on Maui, there was a voicemail saying, “You need to call this guy. He wants to invest in Illuminati Snowboards.” Three weeks later I had a round one seed investment in the company, and an opportunity to potentially have millions of dollars invested into my snowboard company. On the other hand, I had an opportunity to really participate in these awakening practices and heal myself. I was trying to juggle both of them, and it was splitting me in two, in a way. I had a big heart-to-heart with our investor and we agreed that it was OK for me to not move forward with his investment.
I don’t want to paint this like I had this opportunity to make millions of dollars and I chose healing myself over it. It wasn’t that simple. There were multiple sides to that story. But essentially it doesn’t matter because I did make a pretty conscious choice to dive deep into a healing process.
TR: What did you do when you closed Illuminati Snowboards? What was diving in like?
LP: I made the decision to close the snowboard company and I moved out of Jackson, over here to Victor (Idaho). I was having these big awakening/opening type experiences and I didn’t really know what to make of it. I was studying, Stanislav Grof – he’s a psychologist who has written books about healing and altered states of consciousness — I was reading his books and they were really helpful. This led me to working with Grof and training in Holotropic Breathwork, which led me to a year long training program in transpersonal psychology and coaching in Palo Alto.
TR: Does this come into play with the snowboard coaching you’re doing for the Jackson Hole Freeride Team?
LP: Yes, but it’s quite different. One aspect of the coaching is really getting a handle on your thoughts and speech, and actions, and how to align those things. Before contest runs I have the kids do centering exercises, and I’m walking them through meditative visualizations of their runs. It starts with them saying, “This is what I’m going to do in my contest run,” and working on seeing it in the mind and then going out and doing it.
Snowboarding is such an interesting context for it because it happens so fast. In the adult world of, like, real life, the coaching and the results of “success” or “failure” don’t all happen in one minute and 30 seconds, so it’s much more like an integrative process I would say. You might make a commitment like, “Ok, tomorrow I’m going to ask my boss for a raise.” And you could spend an entire coaching session just getting someone prepared to have the guts to ask their boss a question like that. And then the next coaching session might be, “Did you do that? Ok, how did that go?” But in the snowboard world it’s way more physical, and your results are thrown in your face potentially minutes later.
TR: That must be helpful to 14 years olds.
LP: Yeah you can have success or failure many times over in a single day. All you’re trying to do on a snowboard is tricks, and if you keep trying and refining your technique, most likely you will start to figure it out and have those successes. And then if you’re super unconscious about what you’re doing, you’ll get totally bitch slapped and end up in a sled going down to the clinic.
TR: Did that ever happen to you?
LP: Oh yeah. It’s something I talk about with the kids a lot. When I was 17 years old I asked another rider how much speed do you need to take on this jump. And he was like, “As much as you can get.” This is back in the days when the only big table top jump you ever saw was a big pile of snow pushed up at the bottom of a half pipe. So I just dropped in and pointed it straight down the middle of the pipe and I hit this jump and I went like 30 feet over the landing and landed completely out in the flats on my knees and dislocated my kneecap.
So I tell all these kids this as a story. You shouldn’t trust other people’s ideas on how much speed you need to take on a jump. You need to go and ride up the take off yourself, and if you’re not feeling comfortable you need to ride around it, analyze the jump and figure it out. But they just want to be told, “Go straight from here.” And I’m like, “I can tell you that and it might result in you breaking your leg. So you really need to figure this stuff out on your own.”
TR: That must have been brutal on you at 17, with your career ramping up.
LP: It’s a prime example of how really amazing things can happen out of seemingly devastating circumstances. I thought I broke my femur because it hurt so bad in the top area of my knee, but they told me my knee cap was still out and they had me resting in the gurney. A book I had been reading had this meditation technique in it, and I realized I was sitting in this gurney in the exact position the book suggested, and I was just trying to calm myself down and manage the pain, so I started doing meditation. I was visualizing a ball of light moving up my feet and around my legs and once I had my whole lower body surrounded by this light in my mind, my kneecap went back into place on its own. I didn’t end up having to have knee surgery, and the doctor was genuinely confused about how I got my patella back in. I told him the story and he was like, “I don’t know about any of that crap, but you’re just extremely lucky, because normally when someone comes in with your injury we have to force the kneecap back into place and often you’ll tear all your ligaments in the process.”
I never really thought about it that much again until I was doing yoga, and engaging in Holotropic Breathwork and learning about healing through the power of the mind, and all of a sudden I realized wow, I had this amazing experience when I was young.
TR: You had the propensity to be on this path earlier than you realized. You had little hints of it.
LP: Yeah, totally. Many years later I was going to be participating in a holotropic breathwork session and days before, I start having asthma again, completely out of the blue. During the session this song came on that was really unique. It was some monks chanting and my body started speaking to me: “Sing along with them.” And all of a sudden I’m doing it. Moving the sound energy up and down my respiratory column, changing the vowel from an ah, to an oh, and it’s moving from my throat chakra down to my root and it’s massaging my airway. After that I had zero asthma again for years. And it piqued a strong interest in me for sound as a healing modality. I started getting some books and learning about chakras and the relationship between sounds and vowels and tones.
TR: Sounds like you’re exploring a lot of non-physical aspects of yoga, which not as many people seem to do these days.
LP: Yeah, but I’ve had these intense physical experiences that lead to opening too. Right before the retreat, I stayed with a friend who brought me to a yoga class at an Anusara studio on Maui. We did this really hardcore class. It was all level 2-3 poses. Tons of standing, one legged – it completely kicked my ass and during Savasana I completely broke down. I started sobbing and crying. In a public space. Which was something I had never experienced. I was profoundly affected by it. That Savasana experience was so powerful, I wanted more. I felt this breath I had never experienced before and along with that breath I received this message: it’s your breath. And you deserve it. And it’s ok for you to breathe freely. It’s YOUR breath. Getting that message while simultaneously feeling this breath just rocked me to the core. So what appeals to me about a more rigorous yoga experience is the possibility that I might get to be broken down and allow myself to be vulnerable.
TR: Wait, you’re not in it for six pack abs and handstands?
LP: (Laughs) I was looking at this book about indigenous cultures, and it became so apparent we as a culture have been taught things that are almost polar opposite to the way indigenous cultures look at things. Like boys don’t cry, or it’s a sign of weakness to cry. In native cultures it’s very much accepted, and known that for a man to allow himself to cry in front of others takes strength. Which is just so backward from what I understood growing up in America.
TR: Yeah, sure does seem like our culture gets off track sometimes. So what are you doing now? Coaching and other work too?
LP: Now Erin, my girlfriend, and I have been doing these works shops combining yoga, breath work, chanting, mantra. We’ve seen some pretty incredible results. I play my handpan in savasana. It’s a blend of modalities and we’re doing these workshops on the solstices and equinoxes. (www.path.work for more) We just bought a piece of land together. We‘re going to build a ceremonial space where we can do retreat style workshops, Breathwork. There’s water that runs on the property, mature trees, a totally magical land that came into our existence. We went and sat in a healing circle in November, and right after we came out of that, it just popped up on our radar. Erin found it and we started working it intentionally. We sat in a group and did some drumming and spoke our intentions about how we wanted to manifest this piece of land and align to it, and we got the owners to finance us and it all came.
Yoga has been a major part of my process in moving from living in the world as someone fascinated by the process of manifestation and creation for personal gain, to using those spiritual tools for healing myself and others. It centers me, keeps me in gratitude and allows me to be a kinder, gentler man with more capacity to hold space for others.