SKATEBOARDING AS A MIND-BODY PRACTICE: Greg Shewchuk's new Arthur column debuts

“Advanced Standing” by Greg Shewchuk

from Arthur Magazine No. 29/May 2008

Anyone who claims to know what skateboarding is “all about” is full of shit. To define it as sport, art, science, transportation, play, culture, lifestyle, or anything else is to minimize the unlimited potential within the form. Skateboarding is inherently meaningless. Its lack of meaning is what allows it to be such a progressive and influential experience.

The origin of skateboarding cannot be localized to any single point. The skateboard was never invented; it was discovered by children across America simultaneously as apple-crate scooters of the 1940s and 50s were broken down and converted into the legendary 2×4″ with roller-skate trucks. Thus, the skateboard has no intention behind it: no inventor, no purpose, no ownership, no goal, no rules. Nothing in the creation or design of the skateboard assumes any meaning or value. It is a perfectly uninhibited vehicle of action-oriented possibility.

As the skateboard was refined with technical advancements (urethane wheels, slight changes in board and truck design) and influenced by surf culture and technique, it evolved and attracted the daredevils and visionaries who crafted the form as we recognize it today. The terrain of streets and sidewalks led to ramps and pools and drainpipes, and eventually begat massive concrete skateparks. Journalists and photographers and filmmakers developed a symbiotic relationship with the athletes, documenting the physical forms and commenting on the culture and surrounding artworks and personalities.

The masters of the form, the leaders and great events of skateboard history, the varied terrain and infrastructure: all of this has been documented and pored over by an appreciating audience. And yet, for all of the journalism and vicarious entertainment that surrounds skateboarding, there’s never really been a deeper examination of the form— specifically the subtle internal and energetic processes—of skateboarding itself.

The technique of actually riding on a skateboard is not that different than standing still. The skateboard is a vehicle, with wheels and axles and a platform to stand upon, but there is no drivetrain. A skateboard moves by the kinetic energy of being pushed, or by taking advantage of its potential energy positioned at the top of a hill or transitional wall. Once the skateboard is up to speed, the majority of the techniques start and end with simply riding along—standing still on the platform of the skateboard, while the world rolls beneath one’s feet, occasionally in excess of 40 miles an hour. In this standing position, the skateboard and rider may cover larger distances, they may roll up and down steep inclines, they may ride up circular transitions above and beyond the vertical axis, they may launch into the air and cover great distances through empty space before returning to solid ground. The skateboarder, more than anything, must shift his or her weight and stance to accommodate these changes in trajectory. The technical aspects of contemporary trick performance include a lot of board flipping and body spinning and sideways sliding and shifting and grinding, but the foundation of riding a skateboard in a casual, two-footed stance remains.
The standing skateboarder experiences dramatic changes in acceleration and frame of reference. Dropping into a ramp or bowl sets the rider off on a path of varying degrees of linear and radial acceleration. Physics students are aware that radial acceleration—the way a skateboarder will circumnavigate a bowled transition, or a planet will orbit a star— results in acceleration towards the center of the curve. This curious feature of Newtonian physics segues neatly into Einstein’s theory of relativity, involving acceleration along the curvature of space-time. Einstein postulated a geometric interpretation of the “force” of gravity, and this revelation completely changed the way we view and understand our world.

This means that the skateboarder, in his ongoing dance with gravity and acceleration, can use the fine instrument of the central nervous system to examine the most dramatic and fundamental forces in the universe. This movement affects physiological change, in the form of blood flow and oxygenation and chemical release and so on, but also affects awareness and psychological change. Finding the center in these dramatic curves, attaining balance in the midst of this tremendous spiraling movement, is as much an internal discipline as an external one.

Over the past ten years I have considered skateboarding in the light of two disciplines which are often grouped together as “mind-body” practices, Taiji (also Taijiquan, T’ai Chi) and Yoga (specifically Hatha Yoga). While the comparisons have been made before, a deeper investigation is overdue. Taiji and Yoga are physical practices with corresponding philosophies that have endured for literally thousands of years, drawing from the sophisticated and profoundly spiritual cultures that spawned them: Taiji evolved with Chinese Taoism, and Yoga evolved with Indian Hinduism and Buddhism. A greatly simplified explanation of their intention is to prepare the human participant for the discipline of deep meditation.

Taiji and Yoga use the body-mind correlation to enhance and actualize the understanding and expression of spiritual connectedness. In Yoga, the intention is to “yoke” or unite with the divine through mental refinement and physical alignment in the flow of universal energy. The intention of Taiji is to follow the way—the Tao—by “uniting heaven and earth”, balancing the opposing forces of the universe internally and externally. The famous “yin yang” symbol is actually called the Taiji—it means supreme ultimate, and is intended to suggest that the universe in its true state is in perfect balance.

Considering skateboarding as a mind-body activity and relating it to Yoga and Taiji can allow insight into the less than obvious internal processes at work. It is not sheer athleticism—strength, endurance, etc.—that make a good skateboarder; a good skateboarder must be a master of balance, focus, perseverance, creative ingenuity, and fear management. It takes heart and vision (and a good sense of humor) to ride a skateboard, not muscle. Cultivation of the heart and vision are among the primary intentions of a traditional mind-body activity, and they do not involve a painstaking enhancement of the ego, but quite the opposite. Skateboarders have as much to learn about the physical aspects of their craft from these ancient disciplines as they do about the internal, mental, and spiritual aspects.

Regardless of whether these systems are studied or adopted by skateboarders, the point is that there is an opening here for some higher purpose. When you are skateboarding, any goals or obligations are self-created. The intention of your skateboard practice is up to you. For someone who has been skating for 20 or 30 years, the reasons for skateboarding have probably changed greatly. What begins as sport, art, play, a job, etc. can become an opportunity to merge a physically balanced form with open-minded spiritual potential. This can take place by studying Yoga or Taiji, or by incorporating another religious philosophy (Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Zen Buddhism, and so on) into the mix. It is certainly not necessary, but the choice is yours.

Whatever you choose, you will not be alone on your path. In 50 years skateboarding has developed into a worldwide culture with millions of participants, growing and evolving at the speed of life, and every flavor of humanity and human achievement is accounted for. This progressive, diverse living community is more available to spiritual development than perhaps any other group of people in the history of the world. In America, where freedom of such pursuit is a constitutional right, we have a unique opportunity to follow our own path and uncover personal insight into the deepest workings of the universe, a balanced experience that might as well take place while standing on a wooden plank with trucks and urethane wheels.

I don’t want to try and define skateboarding, nor do I want to attach any extra importance to it. Its meaninglessness is its ultimate value, and any rewards are up to the invididual to discern. That said, the internal processes of skateboarding are available for anyone at any level to explore—but to do so you will have to see beyond the obvious, and you are well-advised to take a cue from some ancient wisdom. Skateboarding goes deep, and it can be about a lot more than fame or success or being cool; it can quickly transcend any imaginary differences between human souls. Skateboarding is a real, life-long spiritual trip, a profound relationship with a higher power. Skateboarding will require you to open up to the unknown, and confront it without fear or judgment. Then you may bear witness to the freedom within the form.

Greg Shewchuk is the director of the Land of Plenty Skateboard Foundation. www.thelandofplenty.org


6 thoughts on “SKATEBOARDING AS A MIND-BODY PRACTICE: Greg Shewchuk's new Arthur column debuts

  1. Pingback: MAGPIE » Finding balance through…skateboarding. - Arthur Magazine blogs for you...

  2. Hey there, nice article. I googled “skateboarding yoga” and found few results, but your article was one of them. I have been into certain aspects of yoga since I was 19 (before I realized that I could categorize what I was doing as “yogic”). It came to a point that people used to tell me that it looked like I was walking on air, I was so aware of my body’s allignment and how best to “move it through space”. I met some skaters a few years back who lived in the same apartment as me and sensed a connection with them (it wasn’t necesarily unique to them though) because they seemed so raw in the present. Basically there is a Buddhist/nihilistic quality to people who devote themselves to skating. Perhaps this comes from the need to give of oneself entirely to the present.
    I do have a point here… my fascination with the raw elegant creativity of skateboarding and its shared features with yoga led me to buying a longboard last year with the intention of progressing to a skateboard. I put it aside and only till yesterday (I had strong motivations that compelled me to ride again) did I try it out again. Today I tried walking on it and facing different directions while moving… and noticed that I use the same lower abdominal muscles for balance as I do for yoga. I tried jumping 180degrees on the board and noticed that my feet needed to have that “light as air” feeling I get whenever I am doing walking meditation or consciously walking somewhere.

    The cool thing about skateboarding is that it inadvertantly brings those who do it into the present. People do it to have fun, while those who go into eastern practices that help people gain a sense of the present do it with a certain “fixation” in mind.

    In addition to the intense focus shared between yoga and skateboarding another similarity between the two is that you are really your own teacher. In yoga the authority to excell (the thing that gives you permission to believe in yourself and learn) comes from yourself, while in skateboarding the teacher is the board which is really an extension of yourself. While in other sports, like say basketball there are rules and other minds (arguably also an extension of yourself… but I’ll avoid arguing why a skatebaord is an extension of yourself but another person not) you have to interact with.

    While skateboarding and other “flow” sports like dance and horsebackriding share similar “yogic” qualities they are different because skateboarding requires bravery and trust (omit partner dancing). THe same with spiritual practices such as yoga, sometimes you might get bored but like in the movie Waking Life, is it really fear or laziness that prevents people from self-development?

    Ok, just wanted to get this out somewhere. Thanks.

  3. Sweet man. That was awesome. Thank you for illustrating the deeper connections in skating. As a life long skateboarder (20+ years) and spiritually aware Being, I have always felt the awesome underlying and subtle spiritual connection in all that we skateboaders do. The connecting of ones belief in what their doing with a faith in the intended outcome and then the letting go and allowing of what is intended to be, to be, I find so amazing. And I don’t know that too many kids are hip to just how amazing skating really is. I would love to help further the understanding of skating and spirituality for those out there interested.
    Last night here in duluth Minnesota there was a demo and contest at our indoor park, run by a Youth For Christ organization where the Untitled christian based skateboard team came, demoed and shared their testimony about their relationship with Christ. It was one more piece of confirmation for me to realize that I would love to do the same thing but with a less dogmatic message. More along the lines of, “you are the fullness of being expressed as You and all is The One and here are some wonderfully magical examples of how awesome your infinate potential is.” An uplifting message to a huge crowd of outside the box thinkers without any fear or judgements. Millions of skaters who already know how wack the whole system is, and are looking for a deeper meaning or experience within it all. I do have this blog I put some stuff on a while back, and I’ve got a bunch of writings and recordings related to the inner connectivity of all things and our relationship with All-That-Is. I would love some feedback or some guidance or any other ideas as to where to go with all this inspiration. There is an amazing inner world happening all around us and I would love to be another voice in the bringing to light the new world that is emerging. The only goal is to help others let go of fear and find their own Self Love. Any help is much appreciated. Thank you.

  4. I have been a skateboarder for about 15 years now, have done martial arts for longer, and have practiced gymnastics for quite some time too. It is amazing how much skateboarding has in common with martial arts in terms of body-mind relationship, improvement, and self didacticism. With skateboarding I feel, in addition, a greater sense of freedom and creativity. There are many forms of creativity -being a software developer by heart, I know how it feels like to imagine something new and build it- but in skateboarding the kind of creativity that is possible is different: overcoming self-doubt and fear, one performs a physical maneuver taking advantage of the surrounding architecture in a particular way. It is really difficult to put into words.
    Although many people say they skate because it is fun, I think there is something much deeper and transcendent about it and that the body-mind relationship that is developed through “focus, perseverance, creative ingenuity, and fear management”, as the author brilliantly puts it, is at the core of it.
    I sometimes feel sad that this is so difficult to see for non-skateboarders, as most of them think of it as some noisy, dangerous sport kids do, when in fact it is as profound and beautiful as any martial art or creative discipline.

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