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Going With the Flow: Floating yoga makes waves

Nov 27th, 2013
Zoë Sophos

Floating Yoga is all the rageFloating yoga is not for the faint of heart. Yes, it requires a large foam board and a body of calm, glassy water. Sure, it is done wearing spandex workout clothes or a bathing suit. And, yeah, chances are it’s 75 degrees and sunny outside, with a light breeze.

It’s the first downward dog that tests your bravery as well as your balance. An up-close view of deep water and the threat of tumbling into it forces you to control the wobble in your core. In the distance, intrigued wake boarders stare and seagulls squawk their amusement. Throw in sunburns, seaweed, sore muscles and the taste of salt water in your mouth and floating yoga makes for a true adventure. But you can bet your bhakti that it’s worth it.

“Physically, you’re toning your body and getting strong, and that feeling is exhilarating and confidence boosting,” says floating yoga instructor Mandy Burnstein from Paddle Into Fitness in Mission Beach, California. “After the class you mentally feel great about what you just did, and spiritually you can decompress and form a deep connection with the water.”

Also known as stand up paddle board (SUP) yoga, floating yoga combines paddle boarding with yoga for a full body workout that leaves you centered and sweaty. It’s one of the fastest growing water sports in the world, according to surfing legend Laird Hamilton’s website, with classes popping up in Canada, both coasts of the U.S. and swimming pools and lakes across the country. A few years ago, however, SUP yoga was virtually unheard of.

Scott Bumbalough started central Florida’s first paddleboard business in 2007, called Maui B’s Stand Up Paddle Boarding. Soon after, he came up with the idea to teach floating yoga, or “flo-yo” as he calls it. “I always did water sports, and I experimented with the idea of yoga on the boards with friends who were yoga instructors,” says Bumbalough. “Before you know it, everyone was really interested.”

Paddlers in Seattle, Washington were hooked by the idea of yoga on boards as well. Hasna Atry and Andrew Drake were the first to offer SUP yoga classes in the Puget Sound area last summer, formatting them as a subdivision of Drake’s Washington Surf Academy called WASUP Yoga. Much like Bumbalough, they discovered the sport on a whim. “I was already dong acrobatic yoga with friends on top of a board, and I figured two, three people on a board is way harder than one,” Atry says. “It simultaneously happened. It was really intuitive.”

The first step to enjoying a stand up paddle board yoga class is to abandon all preconceptions about both sports. “It’s a total fusion of the two activities,” according to Burnstein, so SUP yoga students must with deal with forces of nature — like wind, sun, glaring light or cold — that are never an issue in a traditional yoga studio. They must also assume a wide variety of physical positions that never come up in standard paddle boarding, all while taking care not to drift away from the group or fall in the water.

Although untraditional, SUP yoga is beginner friendly. It is usually recommended that students have some prior yoga experience, but newcomers are always welcome. “There’s a very quick learning curve on flat water,” Bumbalough says. “It takes about 15 minutes to get your sea legs.” He will teach beginners a few “nuances” of the sport, like proper stance, paddle stroke and eye placement, and in less than an hour students are up on the water safely and comfortably.

“Learning SUP yoga requires a certain modicum of where your body is in space, but if you don’t have that awareness, you learn fast that if you do certain things you go for a swim,” Atry says, good naturedly. “It’s not bad at all.”

A typical SUP yoga class lasts between 60 and 90 minutes and begins with on-land stretching, warm-up and a short paddle boarding tutorial for first timers. Then the group hits the water, spending about 15 minutes paddling out to a calm spot far from shore and the remainder of the time flowing between different yoga positions. Every so often, the natural currents of the water cause students to drift apart, and everyone will break from yoga to paddle back towards each other. Aside from shavasanas (a yoga position done lying flat on one’s back) in a thin layer of water that perpetually covers the board, it’s possible to stay dry the entire class if students avoid falling in and paddling through rough surf.

Any body of water will do for this sport, from a backyard pool to the Pacific Ocean. A good board and paddle are harder to find, however, and run about $1200 and $250 respectively, according to Burnstein. A one-hour class can run upwards of $50 an hour, but Atry and Drake charge $25 for a two-hour class, including all equipment and a wetsuit if its chilly out. Their intention by keeping the price relatively low is for people to make a practice out of the sport, so it won’t remain “just a novelty.”

Novelty or not, SUP yoga has many people eager to hop on board. The sport has a wide demographic as a low-impact, safe yet exciting activity that young and old alike can enjoy. SUP instructors find, however, that their main clientele is women. “Women really catch onto this sport fast,” Bumbalough says. This may be because “they have a better center of gravity and stronger legs than men have pound for pound.”

Burnstein has a different theory of why this sport appeals to females. “As women, we want to be connected to the ocean, so we try surfing and we get beat up, the board will smack us around, and we don’t get very far in the first few months. With paddle boarding we can see ourselves progress a lot more quickly, we’re in control and that really resonates with us,” the yoga instructor says. “You get physical strength, time away from the cell phone and time to connect with nature. It’s so empowering and you don’t get that in a lot of other places.”

The feeling of empowerment comes from paddle boarding’s demand for complete attention to one’s body and mind. “It gets you out of your brain into your body,” Atry says. “You can’t think of too many different things if you’re trying to balance and stay on the board.”

Bumbalough agrees that living in the moment is a huge part of the floating yoga experience. “We want to turn people on to something positive, to get out there and open those neural pathways and get out of their heads for a change,” he says. “We want them to live one paddle at a time.”

If being one with the water doesn’t come naturally, a good way to lower the pressure is to “Apply the word ‘yet,’ as in I’m not good at this yet,” Atry shares. “There’s a lot of room for growth if you identify with your limited ability at the time,” recognizing that things can only get easier.

Another tip from Paddle Into Fitness is to find a “drishti,” or gaze point on the board, such as a stripe, logo or any detailing near the middle top. Focusing your attention on one still image gives your practice stability and reminds you to be fully present.

As far as the future goes, Burnstein is optimistic. “The fact that there is so much demand for SUP yoga teacher trainings and such a strong product line behind it tells us that it is going in the right direction,” she says.

In fact, Paddle Into Fitness was invited to teach SUP yoga at Yoga Journal’s annual conference in July, to be held in San Diego, CA. The conferences are “a way for yoga enthusiasts to practice with the renowned teachers” that they read about in Yoga Journal, according to their website. The magazine is itself the unofficial source for all things yoga, and the fact that they are reaching out to the SUP yoga community lends legitimacy to the fledgling sport.

Although the future of floating yoga is still uncertain, its following becomes stronger with every paddle. As confident and smooth as the tide hitting the shore, every shavasana brings SUP yogis a quiet assurance of their existence in the world and their place among others. So bring on the waves and let the kayakers stare jealously from a distance. For students of paddle board yoga, everything except their breath and the board is just periphery.

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