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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Shiny, Happy Person

jar of glassOn Monday, I posted about the first permaculture principle, Observe & Interact, and asked if you’d like to choose an area of your life to observe over the coming week. How’s that going? Are you having difficulty refraining from labeling what you observe as good or bad? Do you want to explain immediately why the thing you have observed happens? Do you have the urge to jump forward to a “solution” rather than just staying with the process of observation?

I consider myself to be a fairly self-aware person, but I know that if I am not clear with myself that I am only observing, I will be judging myself left and right and planning little changes (or, more likely, dramatic ones) at every opportunity.

Which is why it is helpful for me to have someone partnering with me in my observations, as well as in the behavioral experiments that will follow. At various times in my life, these partners have consisted of friends or my husband, but since August, my observation partner has been my therapist. And because depression was the main reason I had sought help, it only made sense that my first project be that of observing my depression – in the hopes of eventually diminishing it. It is true that once you start observing a phenomenon, the phenomenon shifts. The mere act of finding a therapist, taking an hour each week to focus on my well being, and being able to talk to someone about why I felt so sad and overwhelmed helped the depression begin to lift.

I knew from experience (observation!) that focusing on the behaviors I wanted to change was not the most effective way for me to make change. A strategy that seemed more useful to me would be to focus on filling my life up with the things that make me happy rather than trying to rid my life of the things that made me unhappy. The hope was that the happy things would slowly squeeze out the unhappy, depressing things and the balance would tip.

So then began the process of observing which things, people, activities, and ideas in my life already brought me some happiness. It turned out that despite my longstanding night-owl nature, getting a full night’s sleep actually made my life easier and happier. It also turned out that eating a vegan diet with recipes from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine 21-Day Vegan Challenge brought me both pleasure and satisfaction. The recipes were quick and easy and always, to my surprise, really flavorful. I already knew that yoga made me happy, so I began doing it three nights a week with my husband in our living room and found the practice even more rewarding. It was one more thing I could share with my husband and the gentle moves and deep breathing helped me release stress at the end of my work day. Similarly, I knew that exercise, writing, spending time with my family, being outdoors, and cuddling with my dog all made me happy.

So next came the process of implementing these things in my life in small doses to determine how much of each thing is enough to make me happy, how much lands me in overwhelm, and what is the right balance of all of these things so that I feel I’m hitting all the right notes and recharging my energy instead of draining it.

This is where I still am and probably will be for many months. Things are definitely moving in the right direction, but there is still much experimentation and skills-building to be done.

Of course, the easy, and maybe even advisable, strategy would have been to begin taking an antidepressant immediately. I went so far as to obtain a prescription from my doctor, but I couldn’t bring myself to begin this course of treatment. Research has shown that 30 minutes of exercise is as effective at reducing depression as medication, and since I needed the exercise anyway, it made the most sense to me to try to figure out a mechanism that would help me get to the gym on a regular basis. So, I hired a personal trainer and have worked with her for the past six weeks. She has helped me get stronger and stay focused on improving my physical health. There have definitely been days when I would have stayed in bed if I didn’t have her waiting to meet me at 6:30 a.m. One day I hope to have such a strong exercise habit that her assistance is no longer needed, but for now, I’m still building the systems I need to help me self-regulate and I am happy to pay her for her service.

Even though I have moved on to the “interact” portion of this permaculture principle, it only works if I also continue to observe my feelings and thoughts throughout the process. It’s fun to think of my life as a series of little experiments and it reduces my anxiety level because if something doesn’t cause the desired effect, it is not the end of the world; I can just try something else.

Shiny, Happy PersonOne last tip I would like to offer, if you are observing something in your own life and want to experiment with behavior change, is to make sure that even the ways in which you are tracking your observations and data make you happy. I found that creating a check list of every activity and behavior I wanted to participate in caused me anxiety and focused my thoughts on all the things that I didn’t accomplish on any given day. Counting calories and fat and carbs was too complicated to keep up with and made me feel deprived. So instead I found a tall, pretty juice bottle and a bunch of glass beads in various colors that I had bought for an art project that I never started, and began using them to track the behaviors that made me happy. For example, if I ate a vegan meal, I dropped a blue bead in the jar. If I went to the gym, I dropped in a green one. The small pink beads were for writing sessions and the large clear ones were for tackling an activity that scared me. This is fairly simple to keep up with (I played around with much more elaborate schemes, like trying to use the beads to make an image but knew, again from experience, that they would end in failure) and it’s shiny and colorful and makes me happy when I see it. Plus, dropping one of the glass beads into the jar makes a satisfying “plink” that is reminiscent of how good it felt to put a quarter in my piggy bank when I was a child.

I hope your observation experiment is going well, and I would love to hear about your process! Please leave me a note below, and I’ll be back on Monday – provided I survive tomorrow’s Camp NaNoWriMo novel-writing marathon! (Wish me luck!)