Self-discovery can be limitless when practicing yoga and meditation atop a paddleboard.
With eyes shut, I feel the water take hold of my board and pull me further away from shore and into Lake Mendota. I run through the rehearsed mental process: your thoughts are clouds, let each one drift on by, never hold on to one too long. I begin to feel my mind ebb and flow, matching the rhythm of the water. My mind centers, the board shifts, the water surges on, and I push back into downward-facing dog.
“It’s an adrenaline kick that’s new and exciting, slows down your busy mind to focus and relax and find balance and stability,” says Maureen Hebl, a stand-up paddleboard, or SUP, yoga instructor based in Madison.
No one is completely certain when SUP yoga began, but it is thought to have risen from the shores of California within the last decade, according to Marina Andriola of the Standup Journal.
In urban sprawls such as Madison and Milwaukee, it becomes increasingly difficult to be healthy in both body and mind. Our daily stresses weigh heavy on our spirits, but we can restore our mindfulness by taking ourselves outdoors and onto a paddleboard. SUP yoga is a hybrid activity, blending the rigor of an outdoor sport with the meditative nature of yoga, allowing us to practice athleticism and mindfulness, while immersing ourselves in nature.
SUP yoga recently sprouted in Wisconsin. In a state filled with bountiful lakes, the practice rapidly grew in popularity as a warm-weather activity. Tyler Leeper, owner of Brittingham and Wingra Boats, says he wanted to bring SUP yoga to Madison because it’s a unique opportunity for anyone to explore the water.
“While it may seem like an extreme sport on the surface, it’s definitely accessible for all ages,” Leeper says.
This past summer, Leeper broke the Guinness World Record for the largest SUP yoga class at the Midwest Stand-Up Paddle Festival, with 207 participants plus one fearless cat. Suki Warda, a SUP yoga instructor, led the record-breaking class. She places an emphasis on the physical and athletic experience of SUP while using yoga breathing, focus and alignment.
“The way I teach, it is more free-flowing, it’s more unstable, and I’m showing them yoga postures but in a way that can be applied to paddleboard technique,” Warda says.
The challenge of SUP yoga lies heavily in the balance and muscle control necessary to remain on your board and go through the “asanas,” or yoga poses. For regular indoor yoga practitioners, going from mat to board can initially be a shock to the system.
“Part of practicing SUP yoga, you don’t take your mat for granted because it’s solid,” Warda says.
Finding your footing on a moving board can be a challenge and can make any experienced yogi feel like a beginner again, all while bringing a new perspective to their normal practice.
“Having the water underneath you helps you find balance and strength using the entire body versus muscling your way into a pose,” says Erin Highland, an instructor for both indoor and SUP yoga at Milwaukee Power Yoga.
“The most basic poses such as Warrior II are incredibly difficult because we come into it just as we do on land, but eventually we slow down, breathe and work from where we are,” Highland says. “This of course translates into practicing in a studio, because, as humans, we tend to get comfortable and find patterns or shortcuts.”
After going through a series of poses, we begin to paddle around the lake. While it’s jarring at first, paddling becomes second nature. My mind soon begins to zone out. I let the worries of the day begin to wash away—the doctor’s appointment I have coming up, emails I need to send and the exam I need to study for. They all recede to the recesses of my mind. I breathe, long and deep.
When out on the paddleboard, you are not just an observer of nature but an active participant. Many studies show that spending time outdoors is physically and mentally beneficial.
“Experimental research has demonstrated that exposure to views of nature can improve people’s health and well-being by providing restoration from stress and mental fatigue,” according to Environmental Science & Technology.
Hebl notes that a benefit of practicing SUP yoga is the meditative state our minds enter as a result of being out in nature, which is both a reprieve and escape from the stresses of urban life.
Besides their health benefits, yoga and meditation are two practices with long, interwoven histories. In some schools of thought, asana is a means of preparing the body for meditation. Some practitioners, such as Warda, say it takes years of practice until one can meditate for 30 minutes or longer, but anyone can meditate for just a few minutes.
Tom Vanasse, the president of the Diamond Way Buddhist Center at UW-Madison, knows from personal experience just how stressful daily campus life can be. He says meditation is a useful outlet for motivation, decision-making and relaxation.
“When you meditate enough, I feel like you can sort of tune into that brain pattern and it becomes easier,” Vanasse says. “Whatever it is, whether you’re caught up in an email or an argument, you can step away from your emotions and recognize the impermanence of things and also you can bring fresh and constructive attitudes to whatever you’re doing.”
Meditation goes hand in hand with moving through postures on the paddleboard during SUP yoga.
“I think that the benefits of being out there on the board in nature is that it helps you relax your mind so that you can enjoy just being present in a moment with something,” Hebl says. “A lot of the times when we’re in the indoors we may be distracted by someone’s breath or movement…but when you’re on that board it’s you and your practice.”
Initially turning to yoga as a therapy after a bike accident, Hebl focuses on bringing a meditation-centered focus to her students.
“The benefits really are to slow down your mind, so even when you’re in a situation and you’re going to react, you can kind of observe your thoughts and how you’re feeling in your mind and body,” Hebl says. “It becomes less of an emotional reaction and more of an observation, of noticing self and understanding one’s self before you react.”
Being outside on the water makes all the difference. SUP yoga is a multisensory experience: we can see the landscape, hear the water ebb and flow around the board and touch the water with our bodies. Hebl notes that being out on the water on the board allows for people to find their sense of place in the world and taps into the thought space of being a part of something bigger than ourselves.
A wave, bigger than the others, sweeps towards us and I brace myself for the worst. We rock a bit but manage to maintain our footing. “Let’s try some sun salutations,” my friend suggests. We raise our arms above our heads, take a deep breath, move into chaturanga–a low plank pose–and then downward dog. I lift my left leg high into the air, and as I do, I lose my balance and immediately fall off the board and into the water. I resurface, let out a big laugh and pull my body back on top of the board, determined to try the pose one more time.
SUP yoga not only provides a healthy dose of mindfulness and physical activity. It also gives people in Madison and Milwaukee an opportunity to leave city life and clear their minds in nature.
“We’re racing around with little time to relax, wanting more things and working hard to get them,” Hebl says. “Being outdoors in nature, you learn how to move through life with confidence, fluidity and balance. Standing tall on the paddleboard with a soft gaze looking over the horizon, you feel empowered.”
With opportunities to try SUP yoga at several lakes in Madison and Milwaukee, the chance to get away from urban life and experience nature is just one paddle away.
“Although Milwaukee is a large city and definitely has its urban qualities, people live here because of the proximity to outdoor activities as well,” Highland says. “We forget how lucky we are to have Lake Michigan and several other lakes in the surrounding area.”
If the city can coexist in proximity to nature, we should aspire to do the same. Hebl says that taking a moment to reflect outside and not let our emotions get in the way of our reactions and decision-making are powerful antidotes to restoring a mindful state of being. We can take what we learn from the paddleboard and apply it to our everyday life.
“SUP yoga gives you the feeling and appearance of walking on water. Like you’re floating on a magical yoga mat, calming the senses, connecting with nature. The water cools your mind and body and leaves you feeling more at ease,” Hebl says. “You learn if you fall off the board, as in life, you get back up and try again.”
The Homebody’s Guide to Yoga
Take your practice from the studio to your home with these easy-to-follow yoga postures.
Burning Bright: Easy Sun Salutation
1. Begin by taking a deep breath, inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth and raising your arms above your head to mountain pose.
2. Lower your arms, then your upper body into a forward fold. Take a few breaths as you feel the backs of your legs begin to fire up with the stretch.
3. Inhale into a halfway lift, moving your upper body so it is parallel to the floor and your body makes an “L” shape. Try to keep your back as flat as possible by supporting it through your core.
4. Exhale, place your hands on the floor and step back into a high plank position. Take a moment to place your entire hands on the floor so that your weight is distributed evenly.
5. Breathe in and lower your body until it is inches from the floor in chaturanga. Inhale and exhale while in this pose and focus on grounding yourself to your mat or floor.
6. From chaturanga, lift your torso and straighten your arms while simultaneously shifting from the balls of your feet to laying the top of your feet flat on the ground, moving into upward-facing dog. Take a deep, long inhale until your lungs are completely full.
7. Shift your feet so you are back on the balls of your feet, lower your torso and pull back into downward dog. Your hands should be placed fully on the ground, arms straight, as your gravity pulls your heels towards the ground. When you feel like you are in the position, shift back towards your heels slightly for an even deeper stretch. Take a breath or several in this pose, clearing out the mind of any stresses or worries.
Following the Wind: Emphasis on Breath
1. Begin by sitting cross-legged on the floor or in any comfortable seated position. Close your eyes and take several long, cleansing breaths. Inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth. As you focus on your breath, your mind should begin to settle into a calming, meditative state. If you find throughout the exercise that you begin to lose hold of this feeling, bring your attention back to your breath and find this place again.
2. Raise your right arm and bring it over your head, hollowing out a space in the left side of your body. Imagine your breath rushing into your side, expanding your lungs to fill out the space. Repeat the process on your right side.
3. Next, lift your left leg and cross it over your right leg, sole on the floor, knee-bent. Take your right arm and place it on the outside of your left knee, breathing into a full spinal twist. Repeat the exercise on the opposite side as well.
4. After opening up the side-body and spine, your breath should be able to flow freely throughout the body like wind. To finish, spread your knees wide and have your toes touch and lay your arms out in front of you as you lower into child’s pose. This pose is another great opportunity to feel the support of the earth as you breathe deeply and sink lower into that meditative state.
Rooted in the Earth: Finding your Inner Balance
1. Begin this sequence by inhaling, raising your arms above your head and lifting your gaze to the sky in mountain pose. For this series of poses, center your thoughts on your feet and how rooted you can get not only to the floor, but to the earth underneath it. Let the earth support you as you move through the sequence.
2. To enter tree pose, stand with both feet firmly planted into the floor. Then, lift one leg and place the sole of your foot either on the calf or thigh (not the knee). Place your hands in prayer fold against your chest or above your head and distribute your weight in the one foot left on the floor. Repeat on the other side.
3. After entering tree pose on both sides, grab a hold of the raised leg with the arm of the same side and raise your opposite arm to the sky. Then, slowly lean forward with your outstretched arm leading the way as your torso becomes parallel to the floor and you lift your bent leg up into dancer pose. You may find that you lose your balance often or are not able to sustain the pose for a long period of time. This is normal and diminishes with practice. Stay rooted to the earth with your supporting leg and work with gravity, not against it, as you dip forward. Repeat on the other side.
4. After finishing the second side, release your hold on your foot and raise your arms once more into mountain pose. Take a deep, long breath and lower your arms.
Photos by Keegan Hasbrook
Modeled by Natalie Bowman