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

Creative Release

I have been doing too much and not doing enough.

I have been expending energy but not necessarily in the right ways.

I know about the four quadrants Stephen Covey outlines regarding time management in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I understand the energy management principles described by Jim Loehr of the Human Performance Institute in The Power of Full Engagement.  I have read about managing my attention deficit challenges through diet, exercise, interpersonal interactions, and physical challenges that utilize various segments of my brain in books by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey.

I used to teach time management skills to college students, and I can be very good at managing my own time – up to a point.  As long as I know the length of time my diligence will be required – say, for a semester or until a particularly large project is completed – I am able to remain focused and excel.  As soon as that deadline disappears, however, and I am faced with simply having to live an organized, efficient lifestyle every day with no end in sight,  all of those skills go out the window.

Of course, anyone who read the preceding paragraphs closely will point out that I said I understand the principles outlined by those various writers–not that I had practiced them with any regularity.  As part of my time management counseling, I would tell clients they had to practice time management and study skills for thirty to sixty days before they would begin to feel like habits, so, clearly, I understand the need for practice.  In my defense I might argue, as many of my clients did, that I don’t have the time to practice or that I can’t figure out which skills to practice first or that I can’t possibly implement all of these great ideas in my life and I get overwhelmed trying to figure out where to start.

But the truth is, if I am doing what I love, I am focused, effective, and fulfilled.

When I begin to see my focus fade and my energy dwindle, when I start dreading the next day before I go to bed at night, and when I have a hard time dragging myself out of bed in the morning, those are the signs telling me I’ve somehow lost my way.

I discovered several years ago that I am what Barbara Sher calls a Scanner.  I am always scanning the horizon for the next interesting thing.  I can get intensely interested in something for a period of time and then put that aside, often without warning, and dive with great joy into something completely different.  This doesn’t make sense to the people around me and gives me one of the craziest resumes you can imagine – I have to organize it around the skills I’ve used in each job, because people freak out when they see it chronologically.  And as crazy as this kind of life looks on the outside, it can be quite confusing and draining from the inside, too.

It takes a LOT of energy to try to remain engaged with work that has lost its ability to excite you.  It takes a lot of energy to try to find some small corner in that work that can excite you.  It takes a lot of energy to try to convince yourself, as a grown-up with grown-up obligations, that if you only expended a little more energy you would be able to grow your work in a new, exciting direction and your overall passion would return, bringing your focus with it.

Luckily, I have discovered I don’t have to be excited by every aspect of my life, provided I am sufficiently excited by some aspects of my life.  Recently, to reenergize my life and recapture my focus, I’ve signed up to race a sprint triathlon.  This has reminded me that I am capable of following a training schedule, that I really do love working out (especially swimming and biking, although the running hasn’t completely sucked), and that I am capable of following through on commitments I make to myself.  Swimming before work puts me in a great mood and helps me get into an early groove that carries me through the day.  It also makes me feel strong and gives me more confidence that shows in how I carry myself.

I have also decided to publish electronic versions of Your Mileage May Vary, the memoir I wrote about the cross-country bike trip I did with the American Lung Association, and have found an editor and had several friends read the manuscript to give me feedback.  As soon as I made this decision to do something for myself, to move some small part of my independent, creative life forward, my energy at work went through the roof and I was able to find plenty to keep me interested.

Recently, I’ve had to struggle a bit to maintain that level of engagement, however.  When I admitted that I’d lost some steam yesterday to an artist I’m coming to know, she said, “You’ve stopped working on your book, haven’t you?”  I was suprised that she nailed it so quickly, but she was absolutely right – I have stopped working on the book, allowing myself to be side-tracked by other things and getting caught up in doubts about whether or not I really should publish the book or whether it will just embarrass me in the long run.  I’ve been keeping up the workouts – even increasing the number, intensity, and duration – but I haven’t written anything new or even looked at anything old in several weeks.  And this lack of creative exploration, this lack of taking care of myself on what for me is a fundamental level, has taken its toll on the rest of my life.  Stress has built up in my body, causing me to feel tight in my shoulders, chest, and back.  I’ve actually been angry and antsy, even telling my husband on Thursday night that if I didn’t spend an hour writing sometime this week I was going to go crazy.  (He suggested that I spend several hours writing to undo some of the crazy I’ve already gone.)

On the way home from work yesterday in rush hour Friday night traffic (unfortunately, I spend about three hours a day commuting these days), I got the urge to release some of the energy in my upper body vocally.  I didn’t scream exactly, I just opened my mouth and “sang” a single, sustained note at very high volume.  I was shocked, actually, by what came out of my body.  For one thing, I didn’t know I had the lung capacity to make such a loud or long noise.  But I was also surprised by what the sound sounded like.  It was totally foreign, a part of me I don’t think I’ve ever touched before.  For fun, I opened my mouth a second time and sang a different, sustained note to see what that felt like.  Amazingly, the tension in my shoulders, chest, and throat melted right away!

When I got home, I walked and fed Kaija, our American Hairless Terrier, and immediately began writing something new.  I slept well last night, had no bad dreams, and felt rested this morning when I set off for my thirteen mile bike ride at 8:00 a.m.

What about you?  What areas of your life have you been neglecting?  What effect does this neglect have on the rest of your life?  Can you do one small thing, today, right now, that will bring you back into touch with one fundamental aspect of yourself that you have been ignoring?