I didn't know stand-up paddleboard (or SUP) yoga was even a thing until a few weeks ago, when a friend mentioned that a local studio led classes on rivers and lakes in our area. Almost immediately, I recruited a friend to try a class with me because it sounded so fun. (With a board rental it cost $50)
Yoga is a regular part of my fitness routine (in fact, I recently challenged myself to practice every single morning, without excuses, for two weeks), but I struggle to focus my mind on the poses instead of the to-do list that awaits me after class. I figured trying to balance on a paddleboard while doing yoga would fix that problem, and instructors agree.
"While practicing on the water, you are more likely to remain focused on each pose and the transition of the poses for the basic fear of losing balance and falling in," says instructor Melanie Smith. "This helps us control the mind to be more present. … I'm not thinking about what I'm going to have for dinner or that I forgot to feed the dog before I left."
Of course, falling into the water on a hot summer day isn't such a bad thing.
Before we float out to the alcove in the reservoir where we'll anchor our boards and do yoga, Brooke takes about 30 minutes to set us up with gear and teach us SUP 101 (basically, how to paddle efficiently and steer). Our group is tiny—just one other woman along with my friend and me—so it feels like a private class. The boards are wide and designed for easy balance, so it's surprisingly quick to get the hang of paddling and glide over to our spot. When we get there, I let out a happy squeak because I spot a family of ducks rustling out of the reeds. Yep, way better than on land.
The roughly 45-minute class that follows convinces me that everyone should try SUP yoga. Here's why:
1. You are forced to focus on your own movement.
As we come up onto our hands and knees in tabletop position, Brooke begins to instruct us through poses, and I’m tempted to look over at my friend to make sure I’m following along correctly. But then I feel the board wobble on the water below and recenter myself with my gaze downward. You pretty much have to pay attention to your body alone to find stability, and since teachers are always stressing that this is your practice and everyone moves differently through poses, I see this as a huge benefit of SUP yoga. And it’s definitely not the only one:
"SUP yoga improves balance and flexibility, increases strength, stamina, endurance, concentration, coordination, and core power, and builds confidence," says physical therapist and yoga instructor Debbie Bisaccia. "It requires focus and concentration and encourages seasoned yogis to get off autopilot and move mindfully."
2. You engage different muscles than in a regular yoga class.
Yoga instructors often tell you to press through all corners of your feet in mountain pose or all your fingertips when pressing back into down dog. By necessity, I feel myself doing this as I hold postures on the paddleboard.
"SUP yoga brings an entirely new dimension to yoga practice because all the small intrinsic stabilising muscles that we don't utilise in our everyday land-based practice are activated and simultaneously recruited" for balance, explains Bisaccia. Intrinsic muscles are those contained within the same body part (like the foot or hand), so by working them, you end up strengthening that entire part's function. If, like me, you're a runner or walker, activating these core muscles in your feet may even out your stride and make you less prone to injury.
Smith says learning to balance in poses on a board will also improve your regular practice. "In the studio you're on solid ground, so the more time you spend working on your balance on the board the further forward you can move in the studio, especially in one leg standing poses."
3. You learn to correct imbalances.
I'm very aware of the fact that I have a weak core because my orthopedist blamed it for my recent piriformis (aka butt muscle) strain, and also because I struggle to hold boat pose for extended lengths of time. Postures like bird dog, where you move from all fours to lift and extend opposite arm and leg, make my core weakness very obvious to me because I can feel my hips trying to shift out of alignment to compensate. Holding bird dog on the water is super helpful because I can feel the board wiggle when one of my hips drops. Oops.
4. You get a bonus arm and core workout.
Though we didn't travel very far to reach this yoga spot—and I know it'll only take 10 or 15 minutes to stroke back after we say "namaste"—the time spent paddling definitely adds another layer to my SUP workout. To control my movement through the water, I need to stabilise my core to balance, squat down and work my glutes, and of course, paddle using my arm muscles.
"Paddling is a core-centered activity, and a healthy core is essential for a healthy spine," says Smith. "A strong core in yoga helps tremendously with back-bending poses like cobra or up dog, inversions such as headstand and forearm stand, as well as arm balances."
5. It's the most peaceful thing ever.
Before we relax into savasana (aka corpse or final resting pose), Brooke encourages us to turn 90 degrees on our boards to rest our backs on the surface while splaying arms and legs off into the cool water. I try it, dipping my fingers and toes in and then letting myself ease into the position completely. Lying there, I hear the water rippling, birds calling, and wind gently whooshing plants on shore—it's bliss.
"Yoga in the Sanskrit language means 'to yoke together' or 'to unite,'" says Smith. "Taking your practice onto the water brings together the Earth elements of water and air, plus you have all of the natural bird sounds, fish jumping out of water, the sound of the wind blowing through the trees and sunsets... all of those things help us to connect to the moment that we are in on the water."
Smith says the number-one comment she hears from people who take her SUP yoga classes is that they experienced their best savasana ever. And I have to say, I totally agree.