SUP, Everyone?

Stand Up Paddleboard Silhouette (Version 2) by Chris Goldberg

Version 2: Stand Up Paddleboard Silhouette – Monmouth, Maine by Chris Goldberg; Flickr Creative Commons

I didn’t join my first standup paddleboard yoga class to get closer to nature; I joined because I wasn’t paying close enough attention. One of my friends posted a link to the class on Facebook—the place where you are conditioned to Like and Share other people’s posts without too much thought—and asked, “Standup paddleboard yoga, anyone?”

Without reading the details, I simply said, “Yeah! Sounds fun!” (I now have reservations to float down the Amazon River in Peru with two people I’ve never met because of a similar abundance of enthusiasm paired with a similar lack of attention to detail. You’d think I’d learn my lesson.)

So there I was, standing with a group of 26 other women, the instructor, and her assistant on the shore of Jordan Lake at 6:00 p.m. on a Thursday night. I was still stressed from a long day of work, hungry, and not looking forward to getting into that lake which was a choppy grey under an equally grey sky. Despite the warm, July air, the waves made the water look cold and the clouds threatened rain. Still, I dutifully took off my shoes, hobbled over the rocky beach with my sand bag anchor and a long, plastic paddle in my left hand and an aqua blue, rented standup paddleboard hiked under my right arm, and waddled into the water up to my knees. The lake bottom was composed of that squishy, clay-like substance that sucks onto your feet and makes it difficult to walk, so getting my anchor attached to the zip-tie at the back of my board and getting out of that water was a priority. I situated myself on all fours on the board, then managed to sit up on just my knees and use my paddle to move, in a small zig-zag pattern as I paddled first on one side and then the other, out toward the buoys that led into deeper water.

As we headed out into the lake, a bald eagle—the first I’d seen in my twelve years in North Carolina—took off from the treetops on our left and flew over our heads toward the center of the large lake. A chorus of “oooh!”s rose from us as we appreciated this welcoming omen at the start of our adventure.

If I had been happy to stay on my knees a little longer, the rest of my adventure might have been more successful. But, instead, I decided I needed to move into a standing position almost immediately, whether to prove to myself I could or to prove it to everyone else, I’m not quite sure. As a result, I was one of the first women to stand on her board, and the first one to fall off. Unfortunately, I was still in very shallow water and landed on my knees and hands on the bottom, jarring my spine in a truly unpleasant way.

I got back onto the board, remaining on my now scraped-up knees, and paddled hard, trying to make up for the time I’d lost, only to find I was getting nowhere. The other women paddled farther and farther away, toward the cove where we would begin the yoga practice, while I stayed virtually stationary. Maria, the instructor, came up from behind and realized I was dragging my sand bag anchor and fished it out of the water for me with her paddle, then escorted me the rest of the way out to the cove where the others waited.

After we all dropped our anchors, the practice started gently with each of us lying on our back on our board, looking up at the clouds. I needed this time to catch my breath and try to let go of the initial frustrations of this endeavor. I let my hands dangle, palms facing the sky, in the lapping water, closed my eyes, and tried, as Maria instructed, to let everything else fall away and be fully present on this board, on this lake, in this moment.

After a few moments of stillness, we sat up, found our way to all fours again, and began a sequence of Cat-Cow, alternately arching our backs while looking back through our legs and flattening our backs and lifting our heads to look straight ahead, moving with our breath. After that, the practice became something of a blur. There was Plank, Downward Facing Dog, Upward Facing Dog, Warrior I, Tree, Bridge and Wheel. All I know is that I didn’t stand again on the board, but instead spent a great deal of time on my knees or in Plank or in one form of hip-opener or another, all of my muscles taut, focusing intensely on not tipping over, while Maria’s voice called across the water, in my mind speaking specifically to me, “All variations on this pose are welcome.”

Despite my focus on remaining on the board, I eventually stretched beyond my limits and pitched head-first into the water. I surfaced quickly, found my board, clinging to it as though I had never swam before in my life, and realized no one had taught me how to get back on. Maria’s assistant, Jennifer, quickly paddled over and held my board steady while I hauled my body out of the water and landed, at an odd angle, across it. She waited while I dragged my legs out of the water, too, and was able to resume my trusty all-fours position. At some point during the class, I did manage to find my way into Side Plank, balancing on one hand and one knee with the other hand raised toward the sky, and was elated the next day to learn that there was photographic evidence of this feat! Before we could finish the practice and enjoy another rest in Shivasana on our backs, it began to rain and Maria called for us to head back to shore.

Whatever contortions I had invented or positions I had managed in the last hour had caused a build-up of heat in my body, so the rain was refreshing. In fact, paddling back toward shore in a large pack of women while rain drops zinged against my skin might have been my favorite part of the evening. I still refused to stand on the board and my knees were screaming in pain, but there was an excitement in the air as we raced the quick onset of darkness and the threat of lightning. There was something else, too. Something that made me feel that this experience, of being on the water with others, on boards with paddles, was somehow a primitive, ancient experience. That other people, in far away places and other times, had experienced something similar, and I was getting just a glimpse of what their lives might have been like.

By the time we hauled the boards out of the water, took a group photo, and I drove an hour to my house, I arrived home still damp, sandy, and smelling of lake water—and exhausted and sore from head to toe. The next morning, I found I could not turn my head, but as I looked at the photos from our class that had been posted on Facebook, there was something still calling me back to the water.

Yoga Paddle Sur Le Lac by Benoit Mouren; Flickr Creative Commons

Yoga Paddle Sur Le Lac by Benoit Mouren; Flickr Creative Commons

Apparently it was calling my friends back, too, and so it was that we found ourselves again, one month later, standing on the same shore on another Thursday evening preparing for our second SUP Yoga experience. This time, we were a smaller contingent of only nine participants, again all women, along with Maria and her assistant, Jennifer. The late August sun was still high in the sky with no threatening clouds to be found, the water was flat, and we were in great spirits as we set out from the shore.

This time, I paddled all the way out to the buoys before attempting to stand up. A tip from Jennifer to widen my stance on the board took me from a very shaky start to a much more confident standup paddle all the way to the cove. This evening, as we all found our way to our feet and headed out into the deeper water, a blue heron greeted us, taking off from the shore and flying nearly the same path the eagle had taken the month before.

The combination of the smaller class and the fact that this was our second time on the boards made for a completely different experience. We began our yoga practice in the cove the same way we had before, resting on our backs on our boards to center ourselves, and then moving through the same sequence of poses, but this time, at least for me, with more playfulness and more confidence. I was amazed to find that I could keep up with the poses this time, thinking about where to place my hands and feet for best success in balancing the board, and going so far as to get my hands off the board and to my front knee during Warrior I—a forward lunge pose—and even attempting to lift one foot off the board in Tree. It was during my Tree attempt that I found myself again taking a dive into the lake. The water was a golden brown as I kicked toward the surface, found my board, and pulled my body out of the water onto it without assistance.

Something in me had released since my first session. I was less tense, less concerned about outcomes, less scared of ending up in the lake, and so, more present, more capable, and, most importantly, more joyful.

Before I knew it, we had progressed through the series of poses and were on our backs enjoying Shivasana. Or, at least attempting to enjoy Shivasana, as it was difficult to decide whether to swat the black fly that was biting first my ankle, then my elbow, or preserve the stillness and let the black fly continue its feast. And then it was time to paddle back to the bank from which we’d come. We paddled slowly, enjoying the evening and the sunset, wishing we didn’t have to leave the water. The sun had officially sunk behind the trees by the time I neared the shore and the water, still flat, was a pale pink as I sank to my knees inside the bouys and paddled the remaining few feet to the beach.

This was the feeling I had come in search of. This peace. This sense of accomplishment, this sense of community, this sense of strength. This experience of being absolutely present. I was hooked. Yoga on the floor was simply not going to do it for me any more. This practice on the water brought me into my body, brought me into balance, brought me back to myself. It brought me back into connection with nature—water, birds, insects, the pines that rimmed the lake, clouds, sky, color. It taught me, again, how to pay attention…though, I will not promise that my sense of adventure will not outstrip my better judgment at various points in my future.

Rando BBQ au NCY SUP by Benoit Mouren

Rando BBQ au NCY SUP by Benoit Mouren; Flickr Creative Commons

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Observation, Observation, Observation

Last Monday, I asked you to do a week of observation on one aspect of your life. How did that go? Do you feel more observation would be helpful or did you exhaust your topic? Did the experiment lead you to want to do more observation in other areas of your life? Did it help you ask questions you hadn’t asked yet?

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In permaculture, before a designer creates a plan for a piece of land, she will ideally study that piece of land for a full year so she can observe it in every season. She will track how much water, in the form of rain or creeks, flows through the land; where the arc of the sun is in each season; where the predominant winds (that could bring pests or fire) come from and move across the land; how the outside world interacts with the land; how often each segment of the land is used by humans in the regular course of their day; what species inhabit each segment and what are their resource needs and what roles do they perform in the ecosystem. She will analyze the soils in different locations along with the water quality. She will become as familiar as she can with the land and the humans and animals that use it in the hopes that she can ultimately make the land richer and healthier for all concerned.

Similarly, it may take a full year to effectively implement the “Observe and Interact” principle in areas of your personal or professional life that involve thought or behavior change. As humans, our routines vary throughout the seasons due to changes in the weather and available sunlight, holidays, school schedules, sports schedules, even television and movie release schedules. Electricity that gives us light and helps us heat and cool our homes for year-round comfort and the globalization of our food production that makes it possible for an American to eat a fresh strawberry or tomato any day of the year have made our ties to the seasons less visible, but when you look, they are still there.

As we’ve already discussed, the observation phase is one that is easily ignored in the design process due to our impatience to fix, re-invent, or simply change for change’s sake any area of our life that is not as fulfilling as we expect it should be. We want to be always moving forward and don’t like to sit with discomfort or uncertainty, but deep observation and the ability to withhold judgment and refrain from making quick decisions are exactly what we need to insure that the solutions we ultimately devise will have the greatest likelihood of success in creating enriching, long-term, healthy, life-sustaining solutions.

Perma-wha???

When I decided to write a novel about a character who disappears down the permaculture rabbit hole, I had only a vague sense what permaculture was. When I arrived in Los Altos, California last month for my permaculture design certification course, I still had only a vague sense of what that word might mean. In fact, several days into the course I had no concrete definition, only a strong feeling that it somehow encompassed much of what interests me.

So, now that I have a bonafide permaculture certification do I know what permaculture is? I would say, yes. Mostly.

For me, permaculture is a lens through which a person might view the world and her place in it. My own definition is that permaculture applies principles observed in nature to the design of the human world with the goal of creating a regenerative environment and healthy, sustainable culture. In short, permaculture is a way for humans to work with the rest of nature to support a good quality of life for all Life on this planet.

Bradford Pear Blossoms, Easter 2013

That’s a pretty tall order, but I think as more people adopt this lens of viewing their own lives in relation to the lives of other living beings and systems, we will more closely approximate the harmony permaculture aims to deliver.

One of the biggest take-away lessons I got from my permaculture training is that “sustainable” is no longer a good enough goal. We must instead adopt the goal of regeneration. We have to repair the damage that has already been done and look for ways that our new structures and systems can enrich the environment in which they exist, rather than continue to deplete it. Think about it: what if the buildings we live and work in cleaned the air and the water (just as plants do) and produced more energy than they consumed? How amazing would that world be?

If all the world’s people consumed resources at the same rate as we currently do in America, we would need 5 Earths to provide that standard of living. The rest of the world is not likely to stop trying to catch up to us, so those of us in highly “developed” countries must lead the way in reducing consumption and pioneering ways to live happily within the Earth’s means. The Earth is, after all, a single ecosystem, a single living organism. We have to consider the health of every system within it if we hope to maintain that ecosystem and continue the evolution of Life on this planet.

I understand how truly monumental that task is. How can we ask an amorphous group of individuals and corporations called “society” to willfully change its habits and learn to live within its means when it is difficult to do these things on even the personal and family level?

So that’s where I’m starting from with this blog. In the coming year I will look at the twelve permaculture principles that permaculture co-originator David Holmgren defines in his book Permaculture: Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability and I will try to implement these principles in my own life–in my interior, mental life; in my personal habits; and in my home. I will also share ways people around the world are implementing these principles on the community level. This really will be an exploration for me, as I don’t yet have a well-defined set of goals for what my life might look like at the end of this first year of implementation. I do know that I need to learn to live within a financial budget, an energetic budget (think learning to say “no” when necessary and giving up my perfectionist tendencies), and a caloric budget. And I know that there are certain foundational behaviors I need to develop to make me more resilient, more prone to happiness than depression, and more able to focus on the positive rather than the negative. So I will start there.

What about you? Have you been toying with the idea of respecting a new, self-imposed boundary or two? Or maybe you already lead a well-disciplined life and could offer advice on how to motivate oneself to live within one’s means and resist temptations? Wherever you find yourself, I hope you’ll check back in and share your experiences and comments! Next week, we’ll start with the first principle, Observe and Interact. See you then!

And if you can’t wait and want to know what’s coming, check out this fun song by David Griswold.
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