Priest of powder

Anglican priest Neil Elliot is out to prove that snowboarding is spiritual. Logan Swayzi

Reverend Neil Elliot wants you to know that snowboarding is more than just a wintery divergence, it's spiritual.

And it is this idea that has earned the Anglican priest a PhD in Snowboarding. Elliot spent 10 years of "field-slope" research to prove his idea with a 308 page dissertation. Technically, his degree from Kingston University in British Columbia, is for Sociology of Religion. Snowboarding is the case study. He aims to make the case that action sports are a spiritual -- as much as a physical -- endeavor.

Elliot examined the idea of 'Soulriding' for a good excuse to go snowboarding and connect with 35 research subjects. More than a nutty professor, Elliot is intensely curious about the notion of spiritual experiences, what he calls 'Soulriding', during snowboarding and other action sports.

Elliot, 47, speaks with a stately English accent and wears a robe when he gives a homily. But that's where the stereotypes end. He handles words like 'stoke,' 'Gospel' and 'snowboard' with equal ease. In order to understand soulriding, one must first understand how Elliot's own snowboarding and spiritual roots are interwoven.

"Fifteen years ago, when I first became a priest, I started snowboarding because I had a day off on a Monday," said Elliot. But snow wasn't part of the experience. "In England there are a lot of dry slopes with short hills -- basically AstroTurf in narrow strips. It just hurt. I remember lying on the AstroTurf beating on it cause I couldn't get my turns."

Soon, he graduated to bigger and better "huge indoor freezers, like warehouses with indoor snow slopes." After six months, Elliot decided after all that punishment, "I deserve Lake Tahoe." He became lost in the beauty of Homewood, Calif., a mountain with soul -- and thigh-deep in powder.

That was before he'd heard the term "soulrider." Later, he was browsing a web forum, "when the term came up, I had the ka-ching moment and I recognized myself in it." Then came 10 years of research to explore and explain the spiritual phenomenon he experiences while snowboarding.

Elliot's research is comprised of interviews with snowboarders: 25 English and 10 Canadian blokes. Some were more serious than others but all of them seasoned. Some thought riding was just special, others spiritual.

"I was intrigued to see how it would come out. [The research] brings together three things he loves: snowboarding, God and thirst to be intellectually engaged," said Dr. Silvia Collins-Mayo, his thesis supervisor at Kingston University. "It follows in a certain trajectory of exploring spirituality in raves, culture or football."

With his PhD complete, Elliot is thinking of how soulriding transcends even his beloved snowboarding and applies to other action sports. "I think this kind of spirituality is much more located in [action] sports which are both individual and communal. Like surfing and rock climbing -- being able to just flow," he said. "Mostly, it's you against yourself and nature."

He says not all sports fit the criteria, though you can still try. "Golf would be very difficult because there is a different kind of competitiveness involved, with others and with self. Maybe, if you could just enjoy the flow swing."

Ultimately, Elliot is meditating on everything. "The aim is to enable people to find spirituality in everything they do. I'm learning to soulride hiking and typing. That's not necessarily a deep transcendent experience. Soulriding is the human soul reaching out for their maker."

"Neil brings a perspective on Church that isn't just Sunday morning, it's your whole life," said Len Pitman, who worships in Elliot's parish and calls his vicar a "boarding buddy." He says Elliot's approach is about connecting faith with "your whole life and being able to see God in small things."

Pitman's 17 year old twins are competitive snowboarders. Tommy was a gold medalist snowboard cross racer in the Canada Winter Games. He and Mitch will be shipping off to Italy representing Canada at the Junior World Championships later this month. "The boys see him [Elliot] up front with his collar and robes, and then after service we all go up for a run."