In a new age world where people can find spirituality anywhere from indoor fountains to backyard gardens, Rev. Neil Elliot managed to convince his superiors to approve a PhD thesis in the spirituality of snowboarding.
A chaplain at the University of Central England in Birmingham who is currently on a clergy exchange in British Columbia, Mr. Elliot happily acknowledges that many express skepticism with his thesis.
"The study combines a number of interests," he wrote in a background paper about his thesis. "Firstly, it brings together my main hobby and my profession. Secondly, it gives me another perspective on the university; I am a student as well as a part of the institution. Thirdly, it enables me to study an academic field I have been interested in for a long time, sociology. Finally (and by no means least significantly) I have to go out and do interviews and ride with snowboarders. Academic life can be really tough."
Mr. Elliot's start in snowboarding came about six years ago. Already a traditional skier, he took to the more "extreme" sport immediately and began reading about the pastime and watching snowboarding videos. It was there that he discovered the term "soul riding" in the snowboarding lexicon. He traces the expression back to Craig Kelly, a professional snowboarder who died in a January 2003 avalanche in Revelstoke, B.C. Mr. Kelly was credited with popularizing backcountry snowboarding – considered to be a peaceful, solo version of the sport, rather than concentrating on being the fastest boarder or doing the best turns and slaloms.
"There's just a feeling you get from certain things you do in life that just kind of feel pure and independent of what's actually, physically, going on," Mr. Kelly said in a 2000 interview with a snowboarding magazine. "All of a sudden you have this feeling of clarity. Backcountry snowboarding has really done a lot to boost that feeling in me."
Those comments echo what Mr. Elliot has heard from those who are passionate about snowboarding.
"Soul riders are not seeking the glamour of video and magazine coverage, but the peace and solitude of riding ‘out of bounds,'" observed Mr. Elliot, who has interviewed more than 30 snowboarders.
"People say ‘riding is spiritual for me,' but they don't know what they mean," said Mr. Elliot. "I'm giving them the vocabulary."
Most of those he has interviewed have identified danger and risk as key elements of soul riding.
"There is a sense of our own mortality, that life is finite. That is often a springboard to spirituality, encouraging us to think about who we are and what we're about," said the priest.
Also identified by many snowboarders as elements of soul riding are freedom, the elements of play, rhythm and flow and an awareness of nature and transcendence.
"For some riders, and I include myself in this, there is an out-of-body experience (in snowboarding)," said Mr. Elliot. "You're there but you're not there. Your riding becomes a meditation; it takes you out of yourself. It's similar to some spiritual exercises like meditation, breathing, the rosary."
Being a snowboarder and a priest has helped Mr. Elliot in structuring his interviews.
"Often with people, I'm taking them on a journey to their own subconscious," said the priest. "They're not aware of what they wanted to say until they start talking about it."
Mr. Elliot will interview a few more snowboarders in B.C., then will take about three years to write his thesis. Eventually, he said, he would also like to teach soul riding to others. "The program I'm looking at running is about helping people develop a more holistic approach to their riding."
For Mr. Elliot, whose university chaplaincy similarly revolves around many who are unchurched, recognizing spirituality in perhaps unlikely places and people is all in a day's work.
"Sixty per cent of Christians are bored in church. How the hell do we get other people into church when we're bored? We have to connect with people where they are," he said. "We have to be validating people's existing spirituality and not rubbishing it; we have to be showing that we have something to contribute to that."