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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Surrender

Two weeks ago today, Beth’s heart stopped beating. I didn’t learn of it until the following morning, and when I did, my world changed instantly.

Beth was the younger sister of my best friend from high school. I didn’t know her well until we became Facebook friends and then, despite her being in Michigan and me being in North Carolina, I could finally see just how beautiful the light she carried was and how expansive was her love. She was a visual artist, a poet, a jeweler, a caregiver, a logophile who loved to play Scrabble and create puns, and no doubt countless other things of which I have no knowledge. In the last few months, we had been discussing her options for publishing her poems in a book, the guy she loved who didn’t love her the same way, and our mutual attempts to live a healthier lifestyle.

On some level, I was aware that Beth had begun to have medical issues and was on continuous oxygen. But because our relationship was a virtual one and the pictures she posted of herself were always from a Lake Michigan beach and showed her smiling, oxygen tube-free, into the camera, I was able to delude myself that her condition was not as serious as it was. So her death was a sudden shock.

The pathway to this particular shining light was abruptly lost; a door slammed shut at the end of a hallway that will never again open. It seemed incomprehensible that I would never see the little green dot next to her name in the right-hand column of Facebook, letting me know she was online. That I couldn’t just message her and expect a quick and cheerful response. After all, her Facebook page, with the photos of her on those Lake Michigan beaches and her artwork and all of her posts about how amazing it is to be alive, was still there, so how could she be gone? Friends who had heard the news before me had already begun to post their good-bye messages to her. I was alone at work and all I could do was scroll through her page and cry.

MichiganSunsetClouds

I have lost family members before, but never a friend and cohort. Losing someone so young screws with your head in a whole new way. Not only must you attempt to reconcile yourself to the fact that you will never see this person you loved alive again, but you are confronted with your own mortality in a much more immediate way. Death is now something that can happen to anyone at any time, not just something that will happen to you eventually in some far-off, foggy future. Of course, I knew this on a cognitive level, but until I was faced with the blow of Beth’s death, I didn’t know it on such a visceral level.

I am not a religious person and my body remained seated on the crazy, balance ball chair my boss bought me to help improve my posture, but in my mind, I was suddenly on my knees, arms raised over my head, all the energy drained from my body. I was in surrender.

I had lost all my strength to fight. There was nothing left with which to argue about politics, to have expectations, to hold onto disappointments, to strive to be anything other than I was in that moment. I was filled with a full-body ache that longed for nothing but gentleness. There was no space for anything except sadness and love. No anger; no worry; not even guilt – even though those emotions are usually strong enough to muscle their way into even the smallest cracks. My only wish, my only prayer, was that everyone in the world would treat all beings they encountered with kindness.

Of course, this is always my prayer, and it was probably Beth’s prayer, too. But usually that prayer is swimming in a sea of other wishes and desires and obligations and fears and hopes. It is quite an experience to have everything else stripped away and to be left with only that one hope, that one wish, that one desire, that one need.

I have spent the intervening days in uncharted territory, feeling too raw and vulnerable to be able to face much of the news of the world. Unfortunately, despite my wish to make love and kindness my primary mode of being in the world, my brittleness has caused me to slip over into the dark side on occasion and explode in anger at my husband – the only person at whom I can safely explode. My therapist says that she believes that you experience all the stages of loss at the same time, not sequentially as was once suggested, and that these angry outbursts are to be expected. Poor Hans.

And recently, in the last few days, I have forgotten how to breathe.

I have asthma, so perhaps this should not surprise me. But it does. It shows up most often when I’m driving on the freeway. Not a full blown panic attack – I’ve had those, so I know – but an inability to get a full breath. It’s as though I truly have forgotten how to breathe the correct way, deep into my belly and then into my lungs. Suddenly, I’m breathing only shallowly, unable to fill my lungs completely, unable to get air into my belly. Breathing – something that is so automatic – suddenly requires concentration. As a result, I have found myself returning to the breathing exercises I have learned from Andrew Weil, playing with relaxing breaths and balancing breaths until I find whatever works best in whatever situation I find myself. It feels a little ridiculous and I can’t quite explain why it’s happening. Apparently, it’s going to be with me awhile though, and I just have to keep smiling and concentrating and relearning how to breathe until the episodes pass.

Maybe this is just my inner wisdom or some higher power reminding me that I am alive and doing what is necessary to make sure I am fully immersed in the now of any given moment. I’m still struggling with my ability to be okay with who I am today while still having goals for who I want to become, still trying to accept that I am enough just as I am, still trying to figure out what are reasonable expectations for the use of my time and my energy in any given day. And I’m still on my knees in surrender, letting go of all that I can let go of and opening myself to whatever subtle, or not so subtle, messages the Universe has for me.