I’ve been doing yoga for almost as long as I can remember, but in 2010 I made the choice to pursue yoga differently, undergoing a month long Yoga teacher training course at the Kripalu Institute. The four weeks I spent living and breathing yoga at Kripalu in the winter of 2010 have continued to shape and influence how I approach almost every part of my life, but none more so than my paddling.
From the physical to the emotional, here are a few ways to bring what I have found to be the most helpful yoga lessons to bring off the mat to the river.
1. Remember to Breathe.
In yoga, breath is referred to as prana, or life force. Pranayama, or breath control exercises are used to connect your mind and soul to your body, to cultivate consciousness and awareness, and to focus and settle your mind into a meditative state, or concentrate heat and energy into your body and Asanas. This makes your breath a powerful tool to bring off the yoga mat and onto the river. I use it most often to calm or settle myself before a rapid I am nervous for, or before a competition run to focus my mind and visualize the ride I want.
Try it for your self- Close your eyes if you like. Then try to settle your mind to focus on one thing- the tip of your nose, the bow of your boat- and inhale. Breathe in as you feel your stomach expand pressing against your skirt, widening your ribcage against your PFD, and lifting your collarbones. Exhale slowly, letting your chest fall, ribs draw together, and stomach contract. Try to inhale for a count of 4, and exhale for a count of 6. Visualize the line you want to have.
For more on Pranayama excercises, check http://www.yogajournal.com/category/poses/types/pranayama/
2. Respect and Love Your Body. Stretch it out!
Kayaking is hard on your body physically, and we all get sore sometimes, especially when spending long or consecutive days in our boats.
Taking the time to address where my body hurts and using Asanas, or yoga poses has made long days sitting in a kayak more comfortable, manageable and enjoyable for me.
Personally, this comes primarily through stretches that open my hips and lengthen my hamstrings to counteract the position we sit in. I try to do a few stretches most mornings on the river bank or lying in bed. Try some of my short and sweet favorites:
* Shoulder Rolls: Inhale, and scrunch your shoulders up to your ears. Exhale, roll them back behind you and down, as if you were placing your shoulder blades in your back pockets.
* Lying twist: Lie flat on your back. Inhale, draw your knees into your chest, and exhale, drop them down to the left. Left hand can rest on your knees. Open your right arm out the side, and let your eyes look towards your fingertips. Repeat on the opposite side.
* Figure Four: This stretch can be done sitting, standing, or lying down. However you are positioned, inhale as you draw your right knee into your chest. Exhale, rotate your knee to the right, bringing your right ankle onto your left thigh, making a four with your legs. If you are standing, slowly bend down into the stretch. If you are seated or standing, draw your legs in towards your chest.
3. Torso Rotation and Core strength.
Both of these are key pieces in paddling, whether it be flatwater, extreme racing, or freestyle. Strength, stability, and power can all be developed off the water, and yoga can help do it. Check out these articles for some of my favorite kayak related core builders.
4. “Finding your edge.”
This is something I play with constantly both in my yoga practice and my paddling. It is about riding the edge of your comfort zone, and pushing past the limit or point where you want to quit. It is both a physical and a mental battle of being in the moment where things are hard, and learning how to cultivate your response to them.
In yoga, this can come from the challenge of holding a posture longer than is comfortable, and working through the physical challenge, but also the mental: the wave of emotions that comes from being pushed.
This is the voice inside your head telling you to quit, asking what you are doing, making you angry. I’ve had many moments like this paddling- when I am in over my head on a river or a rapid, battling through the decision of whether or not to run something, and a few memorable moments portaging.
Learning to moderate your emotions and reactions to in a wilderness or outdoor setting is a challenge for kayakers and other athletes as our sport is a constant pushing of boundaries and comfort zones. It is how we improve, how we find new ways of making our sport interesting and exciting. Having our boundaries pushed to their limits is often what attracts us and keeps us coming back to our boats again and again. Play with your limits off the water, so you can become mentally stronger on the water, pushing your self even further, remembering that you can- whether it is running a hard rapid, or setting up for one more roll before pulling your skirt.
5. Be present: Take time to find joy and appreciate your surroundings.
Yoga is about being present, being engaged in the moment, or fully focused on one moment. Whether it is the feeling of a perfectly timed boof, or trying to make it into an eddy or carve on a wave, kayaking provides endless opportunities for meditation in motion, where your hold world hangs on the balance of one stroke. More importantly, kayaking brings us to some of the most beautiful places in the world! Always make sure to stop, pause, and take a minute to be present in the moment, and appreciate the beauty around you.