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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Keeping Your Eyes on the Still Point

 

Giant Wheel, WindSeeker and Troika at Cedar Point

Cedar Point: Giant Wheel, WindSeeker, and Troika by Andrew Borgen, Flickr Creative Commons

It was an August day to rival the best of memories from my midwestern childhood: high clouds floating through an azure sky, bright sun, and a light breeze off Lake Erie that made standing outdoors in long lines of people at an amusement park a pleasant, rather than miserable, experience. That morning, Tad, a friend so important to me that I think of him not as a friend but as my chosen family, and I had driven four hours from his home in Grand Rapids, Michigan to Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio. We had just boarded the WindSeeker, a giant swing mere steps from a sandy beach, and our first ride of the day. We were seated in a bright red, two-person chair suspended from a floor-less carousel ringed with identical seats. The ride started out slowly, lifting us off the ground and smoothly moving us straight up, our legs dangling in the air. Then as we reached our final height, a mere 301 feet above the ground, the carousel began to spin. We were arcing through the air in a wide, counter-clockwise circle that alternately swung us in the direction of the rest of the park and the shimmering water of one of the world’s largest lakes. I began to get dizzy. A memory of a particularly scary event years earlier involving the Mad Tea Party ride at Disney World with my four-year-old nephew who continuously commanded that I spin our tea cup faster flashed through my mind. I grabbed Tad’s hand where it rested on the restraining bar and demanded, “Where do I put my eyes?”

I survived that ride two years ago with no major vertigo, and Tad and I rode happily until the park closed at midnight.

A few weeks ago, I found myself experiencing a different kind of panic, a different kind of vertigo. As I was driving in my car thinking of who might be able to help me get my bearings, I heard myself implore the version of Tad that lives in my head for an answer to that exact same question: Where do I put my eyes?

Living in this world has been even more difficult than usual lately. I hardly need to enumerate the reasons: a renewed war in the Middle East; humanitarian crises in Syria, Iraq, the Central African Republic, and Sudan; Ebola outbreaks in Africa; tensions between Ukraine and Russia; beheadings of journalists; and here in the U.S., a Congress that has done less than any other Congress in history; a record number of children risking their lives to arrive at our borders in hopes of seeking refuge from the violence in their own countries that is fueled, at least in part, by American demand for illegal drugs; and, clashes between the police and public after the shooting of a young black man by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. In my own state of North Carolina, the legislature lifted the moratorium on fracking, and, after promising that we would have the most stringent air and water safety standards in the country, our Mining and Energy Commission now offers us some of the weakest. This, when scientists are finding disparate evidence that climate change is happening at a pace much faster than anticipated – suggesting we need to implement alternatives to fossil fuels quickly and leave fossil fuels in the ground – and the U.S. is dealing with record droughts and an unending season of fires on the West Coast.

On top of all of that, Robin Williams, a man who lived to make the rest of us laugh hysterically and feel deeply, took his own life.

It was as if someone had written a new ending to The Dead Poets’ Society, one in which the world-wise teacher – Oh Captain, My Captain! – comes to see, too, the futility of striving to live a creative, self-directed, happy life in this world and follows his student’s example in committing suicide. What am I supposed to do with that?

Suicides scare most people, I’m sure. But, as someone who has lived with depression on-and-off at least since my teen years, I think it scares those of us who may have contemplated suicide in the past in a special way. Even if you’re currently feeling fine, some little voice way back in the depths says, “see, even brilliant, talented, well-loved people eventually come to see suicide as  the best – the only – solution….” You can almost hear the devilish laugh as some dark shape clicks a person-counter and celebrates another win for its “side.” And some tiny, or maybe not so tiny?, part of you begins to wonder about your own future and maybe even about whether you made the right decision in the past.

I last sought therapy for depression two years ago, having had my first session just days before the trip to Cedar Point. In fact, I was so desperate, in the beginning I saw two therapists in the hopes that at least one of them would be able to help me. Not only did I want to break free from the current tangle of overwhelm and sadness that ensnared me, but I wanted to learn the skills I needed to reduce the likelihood of the symptoms returning in the future. I was incredibly fortunate to have health insurance that gave me access to wonderful mental health professionals and that reduced the cost of treatment, as well as friends and family who understand the importance of taking depression seriously. While I got some relief almost immediately and was no longer depressed within a matter of weeks, I continued my sessions until June of this year, when my therapist left private practice, in an effort to bolster my “depression immunity” by building a healthy thought and habit foundation.

During that time, I also discovered the through-line that enables me to communicate how all of my myriad interests – especially writing, creativity, and nature – fit together. It is encapsulated in this tagline: Reconnecting People to the Planet Through Wonder. So, given that, how does a person who wants to be part of the solution, who wants to help find creative ways forward through some of the most challenging situations our species has ever encountered, and who wants to live in and inspire wonder stay positive in the face of all that is happening in the world? Surely, Mr. Williams asked himself a similar question, probably on many occasions: how does a person whose purpose in life is to make others laugh continue to find humor in the face of all of this turmoil? It would appear he couldn’t find an answer to that question the last time he asked. Contemplating all of this that day in my car, I could feel the darkness creep in around the edges. Vertigo. The beginnings of panic.

If I still had a therapist, I would have scheduled an emergency meeting. Instead, I began to run through the list of friends I could call. Immediately, I landed on Tad. Poor Tad, who has already been on the receiving end of too many sad, teary, or panicky conversations. And as soon as I heard myself ask, “where do I put my eyes?” I realized he had already given me an answer, albeit a somewhat oblique one.

He wrote it in this song, “Still Point,” which he debuted as part of his cantata Lightfall.

And he wrote it to me in an email:

“Remember your still point, dearest.  There is an essential good in you that does not depend on the state of your work, your body, or your relationships.  Enumerate those states if you must to establish a sense of balance in your temporal world, but that is not where your true existence or your true worth is based, and it is not from whence your true happiness derives.”

Right. Deep breath.

My instinct has always been to first look outside myself for reassurance that I’m okay, all the while ignoring the internal messages that my higher self might be sending me. And here was my “virtual Tad,” nudging me back to myself–and not myself. For while I am one with all who are suffering in the world and one with all who are causing the suffering, I am also something separate. I do carry a still place somewhere inside me that is not rocked by all the stories I tell myself or all of the stories being lived around me. I am of this time and of this place, and yet I am also something that is eternal and at home everywhere in the Universe. When I stop to breathe, to come back to my body, to fill myself up with love and light, I can almost see that being. Almost.

The craziness and injustice and cruelty and division in the world show no signs that they are going to disappear any time soon. I am choosing to be resilient. I am choosing to stay. I am choosing to bear witness. And I am choosing to continue to do all I can to immunize myself against the depression that whispers in dark corners.

As human beings who can easily be pulled into the swirl of chaos, we need to remember that, when we are searching for goodness and hope in the world and wondering where to look for encouragement, we need to find that still point–however we each define that and wherever we carry it–and remember that we are alive and that each of us, as with all life, is a miracle.