Kayak Yoga

That may seem a strange juxtaposition of words, but kayaking and yoga do indeed go very well together. Who has not draped themselves extravagantly over the stern of their kayak after a hard day’s paddling in order to enjoy the wonderful back muscle stretch that this affords? It has become the case that activities such as climbing now go hand-in-hand with yoga, with many climbing gyms offering yoga classes, and many leading climbers becoming proficient in both activities. This is extending to other sports and physical pursuits as the benefits of yoga are increasingly recognised. One need only refer to the definitive Sea Kayak: A Manual for Intermediate and Advanced Sea Kayakers by Gordon Brown (no, the other one) to find (on pages 33 to 40) a section on “Preparing Mind and Body”, which includes some useful yoga stretches and advice.

The reference to preparing the mind is, of course, highly pertinent. The ancient discipline of yoga is not simply about stretching. I confess that, at one time, that was all that I thought it comprised. I admit to watching attendees arrive for the lunchtime yoga class at my gym and to harbouring delusions of superiority. While they were om-ing away their lunchbreak, I was out there doing “proper” exercise and kicking butt on the running track/elliptical/stepper. I’ve learned a few things since then. First, while those yoga students were building strength and flexibility, I was building up to injury. Second, with the exception of my own ego, no-one actually cared whose butt I kicked in the gym or elsewhere.

It took me a while to come to those realisations and 2 situations were instrumental in leading me to yoga. One scenario was, indeed, that of physical injury. I discovered that, for all the running, biking, hiking etc I’d done, I had a weak lower back which led to a great deal of pain and discomfort on my acquisition of a garden. Gardening is the ultimate back workout, of course, and mine simply wasn’t up for it. Years of sitting at a desk, combined with ever-tightening hamstrings (from all the running, biking etc), and a total lack of conditioning of my back meant that bending down and standing became unbearable. This, in combination with hip flexor tendinitis, made running a non-starter. Being that going to see your GP with a sore back is the equivalent of going to see him/her with a cold, I realised that it was time to learn how to help myself. Around this timeframe, Alan and I were also dealing with some pretty trying life circumstances involving family illness, career changes, house/country moves etc, and a general sense of being overwhelmed. Similarly, I realised that I could either sink with it all, or learn to swim. During my research into the physical benefits of yoga, I uncovered a mine of information on the benefits that relate to the mind. In fact, it can be said that yoga is more about the mind than it is about the body, being essentially “moving meditation”.

So how exactly can this assist with kayaking? Obviously, there are the physical benefits of the holistic approach that yoga offers. It’s easy to focus on one or 2 areas of the body, whilst neglecting or overworking other areas that in turn could lead to injury elsewhere. By addressing the whole body, yoga ensures that all the interconnected muscles and tendons (right, left, front, back, top and bottom) are kept flexible and strong and therefore stand you in good stead for continuing years of “fitness” in the truest sense of the word. In addition, by linking movement with breath, we learn to calm our minds and I have certainly directly experienced the benefit of this, particularly when submerged in a failing roll. Yoga encourages you to check your ego at the door, to ignore the “monkey mind” that is busy telling you that you’re making an eejit of yourself, that everyone’s watching, that you’ll never learn to roll/brace/surf/do the lotus etc, and to simply breathe and be. Sometimes it’s difficult for your ego to accept that it doesn’t have to be the centre of attention, but eventually it will take a back seat and let you get on with the business of living more fully in the present moment.

There are many different styles of yoga, from beginners to advanced, from gentle to dynamic. I have the very good fortune of having an excellent yoga teacher in Cowal whose ashtanga classes I attend each week. I am attracted to the more dynamic forms of yoga, probaby because of my background in outdoor pursuits, but that doesn’t mean there is no appeal in the “gentler” styles. Some would argue that the less physically demanding forms are better for taming the mind and that, especially in today’s society, savasana (or corpse pose) is the most difficult pose of all.

It seems that I cannot locate the photo of me doing a headstand in my kayak that should accompany this entry. That’s probably because it’s never been taken (and likely never will). The important thing is that we are all exactly where we’re meant to be – in kayaking, in yoga, in life, and I’m grateful to yoga for allowing me to accept this.

“We are training in choicelessness and kindness. Giving up all hope of fruition, we recommit each day to doing the best we can”. Ani Pema Chödrön

Leave a Reply