Paddleboard yoga offers different challenges to your core — and to staying dry

(Eric England/SouthComm)


Anyone who practices yoga on a regular basis knows that each and every class adheres to basic principles that are universal, regardless of the instructor, the specific type of yoga, or the studio in which it is taught. Simply put, in pursuit of uniting body, mind and spirit, you start your practice by setting an intention, then move through a series of positions and end in the restorative, meditative pose, all the while being mindful of your breathing. You can expect to find these familiar elements whether you’re in an intense flow class or a deep stretch class, as they are essential to a mindful yoga practice that reaps physical and mental benefits.

Falling into the Cumberland River may not be one of these familiar elements, but with paddleboard yoga, it’s just par for the course.

“You will almost certainly fall in,” explained Emily Lamb, an instructor with Hot Yoga Plus, a local yoga studio that offers paddleboard yoga through Paddle Up TN at Rock Harbor Marine. “If people say, ‘I can’t do it, I’ll fall in,’ I say, ‘Of course you will!’ It’s a different style of yoga because it’s not quite as meditative — it’s more physical, because you’re working your core, and you’re working to stay on the board.”

Paddleboarding alone requires plenty of core work; you stand or kneel on a board, using a paddle to propel yourself across the water surface. Because it’s relatively easy to gain your balance and acclimate to standing and paddling on the board, paddleboarding has grown in popularity throughout the past several years, moving from an occasional pastime you might partake in on vacation to a regular exercise activity, even in a non-coastal region like Tennessee.

Hot Yoga Plus started paddleboard yoga at Paddle Up TN — which opened at Rock Harbor in August 2012 — in late May, and classes are planned throughout the summer. While Hot Yoga Plus offers a variety of classes in heated and non-heated rooms in their three Nashville-area studios, the paddleboard yoga class is a flow sequence incorporating sun salutations, warrior poses and balance postures. According to Lamb, the added challenge of practicing yoga on a paddleboard can enhance your experience off the board.

“Your balance is less stable on the paddleboard and on top of the water,” Lamb said. “So you learn when you’re doing the postures, because you figure out which parts of your body you really have to engage. If you take that into the hot room or into the yoga room, you remember what you were working. That’s the feeling you’re supposed to have in the yoga room; you’re supposed to be engaging your core and squeezing your legs. It’s actually a great way to get in tune with your body when you don’t have the stability beneath you.”

I’ve been practicing yoga for 15 years, but balance is an eternal struggle for me, so I was a little apprehensive when I first got on the board for my maiden paddleboard voyage. We started on our knees, paddling out past the dock, and I noticed that most of the other students were rising from their boards to a full standing position. I followed suit, shakily, and was shocked when I did not fall in. This isn’t so hard, I thought.

However, anyone will tell you that once you get cocky during your practice, the probability of karmic payback exponentially increases. We set our paddles, tethered to our boards so they couldn’t float away, in the water as Lamb guided us through the first warrior one position — legs approximately four feet apart; front leg bent to 90-degree angle, back leg extended and arms stretched towards the sky — I immediately faceplanted into the Cumberland.

As I climbed back on my board — a workout in itself — I was even more determined to nail each and every pose that Lamb called out, which meant several more crashes into the river. I was shocked at how some poses, while relatively simple on land, were extremely challenging on the paddleboard. Chair pose, in which you squat, feet and knees squeezed tightly together, and reach your arms to the ceiling — or today, to the sky — was infinitely harder on the water, but I somehow managed to stay upright. Alternately, a simple twist pose sent me shooting into the water in an extremely ungraceful sideways belly flop.

Despite my repeated falls into the river, I was surprised by how natural the board felt. It wasn’t slippery, as I had initially feared, and falling on water was preferable to falling onto a hard floor, so I was more adventurous in attempting poses that I loathe on terra firma, like headstand. Now, I probably held my headstand for only 1.2 seconds, but that’s beside the point. I’m not trying to join the circus.

The ultimate reward in every yoga class — the savasana, in which you lie on your back, arms and legs outstretched, receiving the glory of the work you’ve just done and meditating upon it — well, it was simply magical on the water. I could have floated all the way down the Cumberland and would have been none the wiser. I’ve never been able to get to such a calm, quiet place on my yoga mat, but on the paddleboard, it was effortless.

Even for the paddleboard novice, the 75-minute class really is open to all levels, although a basic knowledge of yoga postures is beneficial, since the board will drift and the practitioner will have to rely upon verbal cues from the teacher to follow the sequence. Lamb noted that paddleboard classes have a slower pace, as it takes a little longer for students to get into each posture, but it’s still hard work. You’ll work up a sweat in no time, and falling into the water — yes, even the Cumberland — will sound refreshing.

When I walked into the hot room for a flow class the following evening, I felt a dull ache in my core, and throughout my quads — the paddleboard had definitely forced me to utilize my muscles in different ways. I tried to remember what Lamb said about engaging my muscles on land like I had on water, and found myself reminding myself throughout class to do so.

Paddle Up TN also offers non-yoga paddleboard classes and group outings, and co-owner Neil Newton says the popular “Thirsty Thursday” classes — in which participants paddle for two hours on the Cumberland before enjoying drinks at nearby Blue Moon Waterfront Grille — have filled to capacity recently.

“We start at 5:30; we go out and paddle for a couple of hours on the river, play in the harbor, and somewhere around 7:30ish, we come back in,” Newton explained. “You can change if you’re wet, and we go to the Blue Moon and have a beverage or three. It really is fun.”

And for those of you who are terrified of the mere idea of falling in the Cumberland, Newton said most participants don’t fall in during a typical paddle class. But for you fearless warriors who want to try a paddleboard yoga class, I can attest: That Cumberland isn’t so scary.

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