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Waves and Warriors

Published on 11th July 2015
All photos: James Ram

It’s my first time on a stand-up paddleboard. I gingerly launch myself from the shallow beach and stand with my feet planted side by side in the centre of a giant, semi-inflatable board. It feels like cheating. There is no wind and the water is flat- calm – it’s a far cry from nose-diving over the front of a surfboard or trying to stand up on a waterski. When did watersports get so easy? I put my paddle in the water and draw it back, then switch sides and repeat. “Bend your knees slightly,” suggests Lucy, my predictably lissom SUP-yoga teacher. “The closer you keep your paddle to your board, the straighter you go,” she adds as she watches me correct my style. And that’s it. Suddenly I am cruising, my arms and shoulders are working smoothly and I simply can’t believe it. I am standing up on the water without clinging on to a windsurf sail or desperately trying to keep my balance on a wave.

Minutes later, we drop anchors over the edge of our boards and I begin to shakily follow Lucy’s instructions. I am a yoga novice. I have done it on dry land plenty of times, but still feel like an absolute beginner every time I strike a pose. It doesn’t feel much different on a board. Ensuring that my feet are in the right place is vital. Step one foot too far backward and your body lurches, the board wobbles and you fight to compensate. I don’t fall in, but a few times I feel pretty close. I’d go halfway into a pose and have to correct myself, sometimes coming out of the pose. I have to fight the frustration of starting to feel the stretch, ‘getting it’, and then having to stop because I am wobbling again.

How does a yoga aficionado like Lucy take up a completely new discipline and not feel similar frustration? After all, she’s been teaching Iyengar yoga for 18 years – surely even she struggled with the whole wobbly off-balance thing at first? Back on dry land, soaking up the sunshine outside her stone cottage in Carbis Bay, she explains a thing or two about her mindset. Having been convinced to give SUP-yoga a go by friend Lawrence Smith, who runs Ocean High watersports company, her first thoughts were: “It’s a fad. It’s not real yoga.” She tried it anyway: “And I thought – this is not real yoga. This is not what I’m trained to do.” So what changed her mind, I ask, slightly disconcerted by the fact that she is doing her yoga practice while answering my questions. “I love being on the sea, being surrounded by salt water... I think I’m a mermaid at heart. I swim in the sea every morning” – all year round, without a wetsuit – “and I used to surf. But surfing was either the BEST thing in the world or I was the WORST surfer ever. It was like having an unpredictable friend. Stand-up paddleboarding is like having a friend who will either join you for a stroll or go for a race.” Lucy claims that the adjustment from teaching Iyengar to SUP-yoga is not so difficult. “In Iyengar, we’re taught to see every practice with a beginner’s mind,” she explains while stretching out in an implausibly bendy seated pose, “so it’s a joy to be taught and be learning new stuff.”

In my experience, Iyengar is a particularly regimented form of yoga, with every pose being precisely corrected, using props such as wooden bricks, chairs, raises and straps to help you get into the perfect position. Presumably, this kind of accuracy gets put aside when you have people teetering about on a big plank in the sea? “For me, it is still all about the alignment of Iyengar,” says Lucy. “It is the Iyengar training that holds you firm when you’re on an unstable surface. But let’s get this clear – SUP-yoga is not Iyengar. In fact, I prefer to call it SUP-pose. It is a different discipline – a fun way of coming into your body.”

Ever since I first saw a picture of a heinously toned Jennifer Aniston in a bikini on a stand-up paddleboard, I’ve been reading that it is one of the best ways to get in shape and improve fitness. At that time, I was living in London, trying to get to grips with motherhood for the first time, and the very idea of it seemed faintly ridiculous. Since living in Cornwall, the possibilities for watersports have opened up a little more – although getting a really thick wetsuit and a boogie board for Christmas is about as far as I’ve got. Lucy espouses the theory that SUP is good for you: “You can work your body really hard. It genuinely is a good workout.” It is easy to look at the super-toned celebrities (and Lucy herself) and think that SUP-yoga is probably the best way to get flawless legs and a rock-hard stomach. We hear a lot about ‘the core’ – fitness instructors are forever telling you to ‘hold your core tight’ and I have been told more times than I care to admit that my ‘core is not strong’. Most of us know that the ‘core’ is the part of the body that automatically engages when we try to balance – particularly on wobbly surfaces. So the expectation is that one simply has to get on a stand- up paddleboard and do some yoga poses, and we will automatically look ripped. Right?

Lucy lifts out of a flawless downward dog pose, and looks at me somewhat derisively. “Everybody is obsessed with the core. But if you drove a car
and only used first gear, it would just wear out very quickly. All the muscles of the body need to be used together. The core muscles are the deeper ones that support the spine and provide good postural alignment. You need proper core strength to exercise correctly and safely. So working on an unstable surface like a paddleboard challenges these stabilisers, helping them to respond, lengthen, and strengthen.”

But it will not actually give you rock-hard abs or reduce belly fat. However, the cardio-vascular aspect of stand-up paddleboarding (if you really push it to the point that you’re breathing heavily) clearly burns calories. Combine that with the many documented physical health benefits of yoga and the engaging of core muscles while on an unstable surface, and there is a clear argument that SUP-yoga (or SUP-pose) is good for you.

When I was on the paddleboard and trying to find my balance in a warrior pose, I realized that I couldn’t think about anything else. I was pressing
my toes into the board, I was concentrating on every part of my body and trying to get it into the correct alignment. My previous experiences with yoga have been all about mind-chatter – questioning whether I’m doing the poses right, checking other class members to see if they are doing it better, wondering how much it’s supposed to hurt, challenging myself to go further into each stretch... On a paddleboard, the chatter stops. I just had to breathe and go as far as I could. There was no pain (I never got deep enough into a pose) and there was no checking other people (even moving your head out of alignment can make your board tip up). ‘Mindfulness’ – like ‘the core’ – is very much in the zeitgeist right now. Lucy moves effortlessly into a full lotus position with the sun gleaming on her mermaid-like tresses. “On
a paddleboard, you don’t want to fall in,” she says. “That makes you focus on what you’re doing right now. In that sense, you’re taken out of what you want to achieve and into what your body is capable of. In this moment. And that’s how it becomes mindful.”