September-October 2015 | Featured Article

Paddleboard Yoga

A class combines paddleboarding and yoga on a quiet stretch off the C&O Canal

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AS WATER SOFTLY ripples by on a late-May morning, a group of women attempt a yoga pose on stand-up paddleboards in the Widewater stretch of the C&O Canal. Nearby, three kids—not part of the yoga crew—are playfully jumping into the lakelike water from a large rock, so the class instructor has to speak a little louder as her students move into crow pose, a tricky arm-balancing maneuver with knees positioned right above elbows. The more advanced (or, perhaps, more willing to get wet) yogis go for it, while others cling to a sense of balance, keeping at least one foot on the board. No one topples over. This time.

Potomac Paddlesports offers stand-up paddleboard (SUP) yoga classes from May through September. Photo by Skip Brown.

Potomac Paddlesports’ stand-up paddleboard (SUP) yoga classes tend to be filled with yogis who’ve never tried water sports, paddlers who’ve never tried yoga, and those who fall somewhere in between. That’s part of what makes the classes interesting.

“You can’t master the water. Even though I may be able to do more tricks, we’re all at the same level,” says Lisa Marie Riggins, a Potomac Paddlesports SUP yoga instructor who lives in Cabin John. “And falling in is fun—as soon as one person falls, the next person’s concentration goes off and they fall. Sometimes it’s like a domino effect.”

SUP yoga classes move similarly to those in a studio, flowing from pose to pose in the asana style and ending in savasana, or total relaxation, with students lying flat on a board instead of a mat. But movements are slower, more deliberate and tailored to the water. A warrior 1 pose, normally similar to a lunge with arms extended overhead, is performed with one knee on the board. The paddle acts as a prop for some poses—students use it to help with balance or hold it overhead when they’re stretching.

Participants, mostly women and occasionally a few men, come to classes wearing athletic swimsuits, running gear or yoga clothes. Some show up in bikinis. Anything goes, and comfort is key. While sunglasses might seem like a good idea, an insecure pair could easily disappear underwater—a reminder that hardwood floors have been swapped for water, and walls and ceilings have been replaced by trees and sky.

In SUP yoga, the paddle acts a prop for some poses—students use it to help with balance or stretching. If one person falls into the water, others often follow. Photo by Skip Brown.

“When you paddle out of the canal and it opens up into Widewater, and you see the little rock formation island, people are like, ‘Wow, I had no idea this was here,’ ” says Potomac Paddle-sports SUP yoga program director Krissee D’Aguiar, who lives in Oak Hill, Virginia, and teaches many of the classes. “It’s a beautiful space. You can come after work and be transplanted to a completely pristine area, out of the city. There are no buildings in the skyline—people are really struck by that.”

ON THE COVER of the May catalog for fitnesswear company Athleta, a toned model arches in bow pose, her belly pressed to a stand-up paddleboard, arms stretched back grasping her ankles. Water glistens below her. It looks cool and serene, not like something you’d see near Great Falls in Maryland, right outside of Washington, D.C.

For the past two years, however, SUP yoga classes have drawn yogis out of the studio and guided paddle-lovers into pretzel poses. Potomac Paddle- sports started offering the classes after staff noticed the growing popularity of stand-up paddleboarding and a yogi suggested they try teaching yoga on the boards. A handful of other outfits in the Washington, D.C., area now offer SUP yoga, including Boating in DC and the REI Outdoor School, which holds classes in Widewater.

Classes end in savasana, or total relaxation, with students lying flat on an inflatable paddleboard instead of a mat. Photo by Skip Brown.

Potomac Paddlesports has SUP yoga classes on Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings from May through September, as well as Saturday afternoons in June and July. The fee—$39 for a single 1½-hour class, $325 for a package of 10—includes equipment, and instructors are certified to teach paddleboarding and yoga.  

The idea of practicing yoga on a paddleboard might sound a bit like jogging on a tightrope, but the inflatable boards are actually sturdy and thick, more like surfboards than pool rafts.

The boards weigh 26 pounds, not easy to carry in one arm when you have a paddle in the other, and once you reach the water’s edge, it’s an ankle-deep, often wobbly step to get on them. (It’s even harder to haul the board uphill after a class.)

Students are encouraged to wear shoes that are made to get wet and stay secure on their feet. Everyone is outfitted with a board, an adjustable paddle and a personal floatation device. Because no experience is required, instructors do a quick rundown on stand-up paddleboarding before every class. Participants then paddle out on their knees, with their boards spaced so they don’t bump each other.

“It’s this beautiful, relaxing paddle where you can coordinate your movement with breath, which is yoga in and of itself,” D’Aguiar says. “It’s like a moving meditation.”

THE VIEW FROM the canal, several feet below the towpath, is different from what you see when you’re walking. It’s partly the lower vantage point, partly the focus that’s needed to stay on the board, partly the group exercise experience. If you didn’t appreciate the area’s natural beauty before, it’s hard to miss once you’re in the water. Students may be treated to a beautiful sunset, the gentle patter of raindrops or a majestic layer of steam fog. There might be a waft of honeysuckle coming from the banks, turtle heads popping up from the water, a bald eagle soaring overhead.

“The pedestrians that are walking on the C&O path say, ‘Hi, that looks so cool, what are you guys doing?’ ” says Bethesda resident Leslie Edsall, a health coach who teaches yoga in a studio. “They just chime in and chat with the classes, which is kind of fun.”

Students meet in the parking lot across from the Old Angler’s Inn, and classes set up in an area of Widewater that’s 15 to 20 feet deep. The water might seem a bit murky, but Scott Jorss, director of stand-up paddleboarding at Potomac Paddlesports, says the quality is good, and that the only time to give pause is after a heavy rain.

The breeze and gentle waves cause boards to spin around during class, but nobody drifts away. Participants clip their boards to an anchor system—one small anchor on a rope per board, attached to a line with floating bobbers—which the instructor drops into the water.

Students say yoga poses that put the body into a plane, with one foot directly in front of the other, rather than side by side, are the most difficult. The fewer points of contact with the board, the more difficult the moves. “You can’t be doing every crazy pose that you can pull off on the ground,” Edsall says. “The poses are more basic or modified on the boards. But you can still throw in balancing poses, headstands.”

WHEN D'AGUIAR teaches yoga in a studio, she cautions students about what she calls “monkey mind,” when your thoughts start to wander away from the mat. It’s different on the water: Students can’t get too distracted or they might lose their balance.

“There’s nothing you can do on that board without focusing,” Riggins says. “Otherwise, you’re going over sideways. It’s humbling in a really good way.”

The result of all that balancing is a challenging core workout. “The first few times, I was a little sore from the SUP yoga because you’re using different muscles, and it’s a lot harder to do yoga on a board than it is in the studio,” says Laura Kelleher of Bethesda, who started practicing yoga in 2007 and has taken several SUP yoga classes.

D’Aguiar calls the mix of SUP yoga participants a “cool cross-contamination of interests,” and she’s even seen romances blossom among paddlers and yogis who’ve taken her classes. Some yogis go on to more SUP instruction, while paddlers may decide to pursue studio yoga.

Frank Cook of Germantown, an avid stand-up paddleboarder who also teaches the sport, had only taken one yoga class before trying SUP yoga. “I was trying to look around and see what other people were doing because I wasn’t clear on what the poses are,” Cook says. He liked SUP yoga’s full-body workout so much that he now takes hot yoga classes in a studio.

Once students have finished the poses for the day, they lie down just as they would in a studio. “Being on the water, and being able to dip your hands in the water if you want to for savasana and hearing the birds and the nature around you, it gives you the opportunity to go a little deeper with your meditation at the end than you would get in a studio class,” Edsall says.

For some, having to carve out a couple hours in the day makes SUP yoga more of a special outing than a regular workout. Others come a few times a month. No two classes are alike, and the surprises can be memorable.

Kelleher recalls paddling back to shore and spotting a family of Canada geese. “The parents got separated from some of the babies, and everybody stopped and just waited,” she says. “These cute little baby geese just swam in front of us, and then they were reunited with their parents. It was a nice moment.”

Kathleen Seiler Neary of Kensington is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post and Parenting, among other publications.