Some time ago, I wrote about vague plans I had to learn to paddleboard. I am now very happy to say that I have discovered a wonderful new hobby. Within about a month, I have fallen in love with paddleboarding.
I have had two lessons with my friend Alex. One on the sea in Cornwall, and one on the river in Cardiff. I think it is safe to say, I now have the paddleboarding bug. Alex has kindly lent me a board, I have had a wetsuit. On Friday, I did my first successful solo paddle on the river in Cardiff.
I had to conquer a lot of fears to even contemplate trying. A lifelong fear of being underwater led to a lot of resistance, and I had to tackle that before I would even consider it. With this fear overcome, paddleboarding gave me a great gift before I even set foot on one. I can now enjoy being in the sea I love so much, rather than simply looking at it.
Paddleboarding is a wonderful way to spend time. It is great exercise, but more than that, it is a wonderful mindfulness practice, with much connection with Yoga, and offers many useful lessons that can be applied to life.
Staying upright on a board on the water, of course, requires balance. I think one of the reasons Alex was so keen to encourage me to learn was that, as a Yoga teacher, he expected I would take to it easily. It seems that he was right.
I have learned to balance quite well over the years of my yoga practice, and know that balance is as much about the mind as it is the body. Maintaining mental focus and staying stable in my balance when my students are all wobbling in front of me has prepared me well for the challenge of balancing on the water.
When I teach balance, I tell my students to look at a focus point in front of them, so that they aren’t distracted by movement around them. I also get them to make sure that the foot on the floor is forming a firm foundation, and that their weight is evenly distributed. I teach them to relax their breath and their body, that balance does not come from unnecessary tension.
This is what Alex taught me about being on the paddleboard. The first thing I learned was the best way to position my feet to ensure that my weight is evenly distributed on the board. He encouraged me to relax, and to be mindful of my breath. And he gave me frequent focus points to aim not only the board, but also my attention towards.
When you learn to stand in a Yoga balance, there is often a lot of wobbling. This wobbling teaches you a lot about how to bring your body back to balance. This is a skill you soon learn on a paddleboard, as your stability on the board is influenced by something completely beyond your control.
When I teach Yoga, I encourage my students to align movement and breath. This is a powerful practice that can be taken off the Yoga mat and applied effectively in daily life. This is very true of paddleboarding. On my first lesson, Alex taught me to match my breath to the movement of the paddle. This meant that I was conscious of both my breath and my movement, and was breathing in a way that kept me calm and grounded (emotionally if not literally!). We can very effectively manage our emotional state through the breath. I was very relieved to know this, particularly when on the river on my own for this first time. I had to take some deep breaths to even get started, as a few moments of fear almost threatened to stop me even trying.
This meant that in the moments when I started to wobble, I was often able to right myself and find my balance. It also meant that in the two moments when I didn’t manage it, and fell in, I was calm and relaxed, and came up from my dip laughing. For a woman who had been terrified of being under the water just a few weeks earlier, this was real progress!
Yoga is very much about training the mind to be fully present in the moment. It teaches us to let go of distractions, and to focus on what we are doing right now.
Paddleboarding does the same. Being present to the moment means that you can notice what is happening in the water beneath your feet, and respond accordingly. It alerts to you to wobbling, and gives you the space to adjust your position so you can avoid falling in. You become very aware of what is in the water in front of you, and what is ahead of you. That boat in the distance might be in the distance now, but it won’t be for long, will you need to respond to it?
You notice your breath, and your emotional state, as the board seems to react to these things. The times I felt least stable on the board were the times when I felt the most anxious about falling in. You learn to tune out external distractions that aren’t necessary, as they can take your focus away from what you are doing.
There is a lot to be gained from being present in the body, and letting go of the mental chatter. Yoga teaches many techniques that help to train the mind to do this, and paddleboarding also offers this. I felt more connected to my body, and was less concerned with anything going on in my mind.
In life as well as on the water, being present in the moment, fully engage with what we are doing and not allowing distractions to sidetrack us, is the best recipe for success and wellbeing. Overwhelm and distraction seems to be the guiding spirit of modern living. As I write this I have several tabs open on my browser, all offering tantalising distractions I am being tempted by. Staying focused in a world that is trying to distract you every second of the day is no mean feat, and being on the water, on a paddleboard, is as good a place to learn this as on a yoga mat.
Letting go of control
Being on the water, with other people and the forces of nature acting around you as you try to stay upright on a paddleboard will quickly teach you the importance of letting go of control. Once on the water, I was utterly incapable of controlling what happened around me. The sea and river were most definitely going to do their own thing, regardless of what I wanted to happen. Other people enjoying the water might slow down, or move aside to accommodate me, but their boats etc were going to impact on me. A boat on the one side of the river sends waves that reach the other side, no matter how slowly it is going.
I had to completely surrender control over external events, and recognise that I could only control my reaction. I could take control of my emotional state, through conscious breathing and reminding myself that I knew what to do. If I saw large waves approaching, I can get on my knees, where I have a firmer base. And I can accept that if I fall in, it isn’t a disaster, so there is no need to be too worried even if the ‘worst thing’ happens.
Swami Gitananda used to teach his students that the only way to approach life is ‘Do your Best, and Leave the Rest’. This is true of all aspects of life, and one that I practised lots on the board. I did what I have been taught to do, and didn’t let external events adversely impact my experience. I merely shifted my actions and expectations to accommodate them.
We are all connected
Standing on a board on a river or sea, with nature and other people impacting on what is happening to you is a very quick way to remember that we are all deeply connected to each other and to the world we live in. While it is true that we can learn to take responsibility for our emotional response to what is happening around us. But the world does impact us, and we impact it. We can choose how we show up to other people and the planet, whether we are going to do so mindfully and compassionately, or not.
On my first river paddle with Alex, we passed a group of men in a boat. As they approached us, they turned their engine down to minimise the impact their journey had on us. In that moment of consideration for fellow humans, there was a moment of connection and appreciation. The impact they had on us was positive. We exchanged friendly greetings, and they upped their speed when we were safely out of harm’s way. It could have been different.
We would have been ok of course, had they not done that. Alex had taught me what to do if boats created waves, and he already knew what to do. But the choice they made in that moment would have impacted on us, and how we viewed them. The same is true of how we show up in the world every day. How are the choices you make impacting on others?
Spending time in deep connection with nature also allows you to see at close hand how humans impact it. There was a shocking amount of litter on the water. It was particularly noticeable under bridges where people walk and casually discard their rubbish over the bridge.
We are part of nature
When on a paddleboard, you are acutely aware of the power of nature over us humans. My first attempt at solo paddleboarding was in Southerndown. The waves were strong that day. I was unable to stand up for more than 3 seconds, if it was even that long. While I had a lot of fun that day, I quickly learned that the sea, not me, was in charge.
There is something very healing about spending time in nature. I am a keen mountain walker, and have experienced quite profound healing through being out in the hills. I have experienced great peace and calm from being by the sea. But interacting with the sea on a paddleboard was an entirely different connection experience.
The sounds of the water moving in response to the paddle are very soothing to the mind. They can really help you to stay focused and present. Learning to adjust my body in response to the movement of the water was powerfully grounding.
We are part of nature. We cannot control it, but we can work with it. When we do this, we can live in harmony with nature. I think that this is something we desperately need to remember as a species at large. Our disconnection from nature is causing untold damage to all life on earth, including ours.
Paddleboarding will, I am sure, teach me much more as I develop in my practice. There are so many lessons we can learn when we challenge ourselves, connect to nature, and connect to our body. I am excited to learn more, to improve my technique, and to grow through and in paddleboarding. It’s going to be a lot of fun!
What about you?
What do you love to do in nature? How do you connect to the world around you, and to your body? Do share in the comments and let me know how you find your space to breathe in nature.
d to your body? Do share in the comments and let me know how you find your space to breathe in nature.