The Chemistry of Yoga and Paddling
The initial yoga session I had the opportunity to attend was five years ago, and was held at the local community center in a small paddling town in Southwest Pennsylvania called Ohiopyle. A recreational paddling section of river, The Youghegenhy River, ran through the center of the town. Needless to say, the yoga community’s’ center studio was a prime place for an active person, like myself. Excited to be out of the “rookie” status, I was about to begin my second season of raft guiding- when my friend, a competitive kayaker said, “You should go to yoga, you’d really like it.” Just like any normal reaction to new experiences, I was hesitant. I was nervous about looking funny and worried about not being flexible enough. However, my curiosity was stronger than my reservations, so I took a leap of faith. It was summer then and when I arrived there were heaters on! The temperature was about 85-95 degrees. In the yoga world that is considered “warm”, not hot. In Bikram yoga the temapture is held around 105 degrees. The first session began, and as I watched the clock the minutes ticked on leisurely. About half way through the 90 minute class, I realized all I could think about was how I was getting sweaty and tired; so I followed the teachers instructions to curl up into a ball face down on the mat in a rest posed called, “child’s pose”. The teacher had explained during the introduction, “to go into this pose any time you need a rest.” Child’s pose seemed to be my new best friend after holding an intense down dog; which I later discovered is also considered a rest pose. When I finally felt rejuvenated enough to join the class who were executing an “upper push-up-position”, the teacher said, “we’re almost through the warm ups.” I began to feel defeated. What, we haven’t even gotten through the warm-ups yet? I’m not going to make it through this. But instead of maintaining this pessimistic attitude, I simply followed the instruction of the teacher and eventually realized I could hang. In some poses I was flexible and in others not so much. The poses that I felt flexible in gave me confidence to continue the practice. Eventually, I started using a deep breathing technique called Ujjayi. While exercising this description of breathing, I started to maintain stillness by looking at a point that wasn’t moving, called the drishti. With this breathing assistance and my competitive personality, I was able to push myself to deepen my poses while maintaining form, strength and stillness. Don’t get me wrong, for about the first year or two of going to yoga two times a week, and sometimes three in the summer, the day after I would be so sore- it even hurt to laugh.
The transitions of my body, mind, and over all self that I watched myself go through kept my attendance at a recurrent structure. My body was gaining muscle and I could see the difference. I was feeling physically stronger while shedding body fat. I had a few situations where I felt that if I wasn’t doing this practice that stretched and strengthened my ligaments, I would have suffered a serious injury. For instance, my knee was dislocated while sking, and my friend was able to put it back into place, and I wore a brace for about a month. I started using certain yoga techniques to rehabilitate and was able to avoid the possibility of surgery. Yoga prevents injury through strengthening core muscles and maintaining overall flexibility. During this time, not only was my body improving, but my mind was becoming more at peace as well. Fast-paced and instant gratification was my mindset and the name of the game for me prior. Yoga taught me how to be still and patient. Through moments of slight pain, I found comfort in the difficulty. I knew that I was totally being pushed to a level I had yet gone in yoga and life. This is when I learned to live in the moment and enjoy what I was granted during anytime during each day. At times that meant looking at one point and maintaining deep breaths, and during other instances I had to do that same application in my everyday life to maintain calm and bliss through hardships. If I felt resistance in a specific place of my body while in a pose, I would focus my breathing to that area of the body. I believe that in this mentality the breath would go to the physical place on my body and calm it. The feeling that I gained after the sessions made me feel weightless, comfortable and most of all confident in my being. I felt centered.
Maintaining that feeling through everyday life and paddling wasn’t easy and continually presents challenges. “What if I have to miss a class; will I stay centered?” After four years of going to yoga regularly in Pennsylvania, I moved to Colorado to chase my passion of guiding and paddling into a new exciting place, on a different river ready to be explored. As soon I arrived at the local mountain coffee shop, I saw a flyer for yoga. Immediately, I started practice with a new instructor. During my first class in my new town, the teacher adjusted my Down-Dog pose as well as my Standing-Straight pose. My ego wanted to jump right in and demand that I knew what I was doing. But instead, I opened my mind to the idea that I may have more to learn in this environment. This Colorado teacher was much keener on posture. For example, she would say to us, “shoulders on the back body,” which meant your tummy needs to be tucked in and should blades touching.
The winter after my first Arkansas River raft season, I was asked to join a competitive white water raft team, called Red Lady Raft Racing, Co. I loved the idea of integrating my love for healthy competition and whitewater together. I soon came to understand that practice and training were part of being on the team. My body was quick to get sore after paddling and I knew yoga had to be a priority in part of the training. There was a coincidence that seemed to happen. Synonymies in yoga and doing the race paddle stroke. The teacher continued to say, shoulders on the back body, during the same time my team members were telling me that I was “losing my neck” while paddling the race stroke. One day it occurred to me, I was “loosing my neck” while paddling because the position of shrugging my shoulders was a normal/comfortable stance for me. Having strong shoulders left me doing everything with my back hunched over and shoulders rolled forward. In class, one day the teacher finally grabbed me by the shoulders, pulling them back, making my blades touch on my back body. It had clicked. My neck began to lengthen and I soon stood up taller and paddled harder. To this day I still have to say that quote from my teacher, “shoulders on the back body.” Because of this connection and education, yoga has transformed me into a better paddler and athlete.
Now that the beginning of the next race season is rapidly approaching, I realize that raft racing isn’t just a hobby, it’s a lifestyle. Training and staying focus is a part of my daily routine. Because of the correlation of yoga and my training, my body isn’t as sore with each day and I am less-stressed. Yoga before a race puts me in a positive mental state and centers me. Plus having proper posture drilled into me with each yoga training session, it enables me to keep my racing form neat and on par. Yoga is a technique that can assist in all aspects of living, but now that I have witnessed the results of its payoff I can say that I am truly a stronger competitor in the sport I am most passionate about.