SUP Yoga: Breath, Balance, Fear

warrior one on the shore. cheating? maybe.

To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily.  To not dare is to lose oneself. 
~ Kierkegaard

Stepping onto a stand up paddleboard (SUP) didn’t change me, and neither did taking my yoga practice onto the wobbly surfboard shaped mat. I didn’t leave the two hours on the SUP thinking that this was going to be my yoga practice from now on. I didn’t have some miraculous experience of complete balance on the water with a life changing awareness of myself as a yogi (quite the opposite, in face).  But I loved every minute of the practice. I would even go so far to say that because of my SUP yoga experience, I understand more keenly the importance of taking risks rather than staying in stagnancy- now that’s a pretty big deal.

Back story: I purchased a deal on Living Social several months ago for 3 sessions of SUP yoga for a nominal fee. I couldn’t seem to find a friend to go with me, and I was considering not going because of my nervousness of trying something new/ scary/ different. I finally decided that I had a very narrow window of warm weather in Seattle, and I was being un-adventurous (which is unacceptable). If I didn’t go I was not only wasting money, but I was possibly missing out on something really great. So I registered for a class online and ventured down to Washington Surf Academy just south of Shilshole Marina on a gorgeous day in mid September. I rented a wetsuit and sat in a chair waiting nervously for the others to arrive for class (I’m nearly always unfashionably early).

After sitting awkwardly on a bench  in the wetsuit, I finally decided to forego it for the comfort of my own yoga clothes (the first of many risky moves). This was partially prompted by the fact that nobody else had a wetsuit on. I made my way with the group of very fit yogis to the beach where we set off for our practice space.  We paddled along shore and across a main waterway where boats set off waves and sea lions jumped in their search for migrating salmon. My sea legs were barely forming and there I was, teetering on a skinny little board in the Puget Sound alongside seven other people. We had all hooked our SUP’s to a rope that was connected between two buoys, but even still we drifted with the current and bobbed with the waves. I loved the sun on my skin and the sounds of water, birds and boats around me, but I struggled with keeping myself steady as we moved our practice from standing to sitting to actually attempting poses that require balance and attention to the breath. Every breath felt like I could pitch myself into the water. Every movement felt like a dangerous experiment. For the first time in years, I was petrified of yoga postures. It was lovely.

Something happens with fear that isn’t life threatening; it makes the body come alive to the senses. I felt my heart in my chest and could hear pulsing in my ears. I could see with a bit more clarity and I tasted the salty quality of the air on my lips. When we closed our eyes to begin our practice, my ears perked up to sounds around me. I tried relaxing and realized that the best I could do was to surrender to the fact that I was in this predicament and I just had to try; another opportunity to practice surrendering. Thanks, Universe.

I listened attentively to the instructor, Hasna Altry (who is truly blessed at teaching SUP yoga- or any type of yoga, for that matter), and I attempted nearly every pose (aside from wheel or headstand, which just felt like asking for a swim). I pushed my hands and feet into the board in downward dog, working to point my tailbone to the sky as if my life depended on me forming the perfect V. I balanced on my board with my arms and legs spread in a wide warrior pose and I worked hard to settle the chatter in my mind. I moved slowly through the asana noticing details that I rarely pay attention to when I’m on dry land; like what happens when I focus more on listening for approaching waves than on my body and breath (answer: complete loss of balance).

We have come into this exquisite world to experience ever and ever more deeply our divine courage, freedom and light.

What I learned in SUP yoga more than anything is that I need to experience little bits of fear from time to time, just to feel my pulse and remind myself that I’m alive. I need to slow down enough to notice the details of what’s going on in my body when I’m scared and to observe the ways I hold panic when it’s not about life and death but more about taking a risk.  I’ve lived through some pretty big ordeals, and I’ve made it through relatively unscathed (scars aside, I’m pretty fortunate). I need to remind myself that I’m courageous. And SUP yoga helped me to realize that it’s not only important to confront my fears, but that it’s an act of bravery to admit them.

I confess openly that SUP yoga was scary, but I can also say that I’ve never experienced a better savasana (corpse pose- final relaxation) than the one in SUP yoga- envision the sounds of water lapping underneath, sea birds overhead and sunshine pouring over your entire body. It’s magical. And it was the perfect way to end an act of courage- to connect to the universe in complete and utter relaxation. This is all there is. I am in control of my body and mind. And if I fall in, I get wet. So what?

scars are beautiful.

photo by Melissa O’Hearn- July 08 (prior to surgery)

scar 1
1. A mark left on the skin after a surface injury or wound has healed.
2. A lingering sign of damage or injury, either mental or physical: nightmares, anxiety, and other enduring scars of wartime experiences.
3. Botany A mark indicating a former attachment, as of a leaf to a stem.
4. A mark, such as a dent, resulting from use or contact.
v. scarred, scar·ring, scars
1. To mark with a scar.
2. To leave lasting signs of damage on: a wretched childhood that scarred his psyche.
1. To form a scar: The pustule healed and scarred.
2. To become scarred: delicate skin that scars easily.

Everyone is scarred in some way or another. Can’t get away from the fact that life brings opportunities for pain; physical and mental. Even prior to my mastectomy, my body was filled with scars that remind me of moments in time- the scar on my elbow of the time I flipped over the handlebars of my big sister’s 10 speed bike in my sassy turquoise swimsuit on the way to the swimming hole at Newman Lake; there’s a half inch line near my knee from an unfortunate shaving accident when I was sixteen; I have a funny mark near my shoulder from the time I walked up too close to the face of an unknown horse on a dare from a friend. I could go on. Life hurts sometimes, and it’s what we learn from the experiences and how we settle into the rest of our lives with the marks left as memory that matters.  

I believe that if we don’t tend to our big hurts or share the stories that belong to the large wounds in our lives, we are at risk of losing an important part of our identity. The essential task is to allow our scars or our wounds to be seen from time to time- to acknowledge that they exist and to believe that we’re still whole and beautiful despite them. And then, in time, the scars soften and become less apparent. We may even forget about them on occasion, only to be jolted into awareness upon a glance in the mirror (this is all too familiar to me) or by looking at an image from prior to the injury.

We are metaphorical scars from the moment we are literally cut from our mothers, leaving a stub of umbilical cord that eventually dies off like a scab, forming our bellybuttons. We enter the world, for the most part, bright red, gasping for breath, possibly screaming and seeking the comfort of the womb from which we just left. Into our adulthood, human beings are often searching for a way to be seen, heard, and understood. In the best of circumstances, we are nurtured and cared for, gently tended from oozing into a full blown disaster. And eventually, we work into our adulthood as manifestations of our past. We might continue to fester, or we might begin the trajectory of softening. Either way, the paths we take or the course of events in our lives inform the way in which we show up in the world. We could be jagged and angry, barely visible, or we could be a recognizable symbol of what we hope to represent in the world.

Our scars, emotional and physical, are what make us uniquely us. And this is what makes us more beautiful. Flawlessness does not exist, and thank God for that. The yoga studio where I study and teach often reminds students that “we are perfect and whole exactly as we are”- regardless of and including our scars, challenges, limitations, and emotional status. I don’t know about the perfection part, because I think perfection is overrated. But in the large scheme of things, who am I to say that imperfection can’t be the new perfection? “Perfect” can be large enough to hold it all; scars and all.

These fragments I have shored against my ruins–
The cosmos works by harmony of tensions, like the lyre and bow
And so it was I entered the broken world
Turning shadow into transient beauty–
Once upon a time, we knew the world from birth

The INTERSTICES of Terry Tempest Williams from Finding Beauty in a Broken World and T.S. Elliot “The Wasteland”

a yogi’s pilgrimage


 As I make my slow pilgrimage through the world, a certain sense of beautiful mystery seems to gather and grow.
–A.C. Benson

I watched a documentary last night that was filmed by people all around the world capturing moments of their life on a single day: July 24, 2010. Everything from kissing to eating to working to dancing to preparing food to celebrating to grieving to being. Moments that aren’t particularly spiritual or profound, but that together formed what I experienced as a spiritually tantalizing film and another reminder of the thin line between the sacred and the mundane.

Watching this movie got me thinking again about the idea of pilgrimage- not as a colossal sacred journey that requires travelling across the world in search of God, but as a daily experience of living intentionally. As a dear yogi friend reminded me at the yoga studio the other day, the sacred can be found in silence. No need to go anywhere but within. And then she sent Kabir’s poem A Great Pilgrimage to me:

 I felt in need of a great pilgrimage

so I sat still for three


 and God came

to me.

I read those words, and I had a moment of great relief. There is nothing I need to do to find the Divine, and perhaps “doing” gets in the way sometimes. Or, maybe, working too hard gets in the way (especially when I’m on the yoga mat). Either way, it seems to me that the most important lesson is to live life and to take time to notice everything from the people I love to the experiences of self (body, mind, and spirit) to those small and seemingly insignificant times.

I’ve been trying to look at my life lately as a metaphorical pathway, and the people that I’ve met and continue to meet along the way as potential life guides. Even the people in my life who have been incredibly challenging or frustrating have at times been my greatest teachers- sometimes because of the way they acted (or didn’t), and sometimes because of what I learned from my own response. And, obviously, I have been shaped by my experiences (good, bad, and everything in between) and the places I’ve been and the things I’ve done or have had done to me. This doesn’t make me special, but it makes me uniquely me.

I think of my most recent pilgrimage beginning nearly three years ago when I first received the call telling me that I was diagnosed with cancer. An ordinary day that was instantly and drastically changed by a few words. Suddenly, I was snapped into seeing my own body and my future in a radically different light. Those words made me pack my figurative bags and set out on a pilgrimage of sorts without looking back at the burning building that was my life.

Several years later, I’m still searching. And maybe even more intensely now that I’ve distanced myself from labels and expectations. Every pilgrim needs time to rest, and my own rest involved trashy magazines, long weekends of watching predictable movies on the couch with my sweetheart, and comfort food. All of these acts (as well as the others I refuse to name) helped to prepare me for the space that I’m in now; living my yoga and seeking a connection with something bigger than myself. It’s the idea of throwing a pebble in a pond and watching the ripples reach shore, throwing the ecosphere into just a little bit of a different space than it was before that rock was lifted from the beach. Every instant holds the possibility of transformation.

What I’m struck by lately is that everyone in this world has complexity- not one person is absent a unique story. Occasionally this idea overwhelms me, but then there are the times when I have an appreciation for the connections that can be created when people open up to share just a little of their story. This week alone, I experienced and was witness to deep personal connections both in a training at my yoga studio and again in a volunteer training at my work; occasions for people to share a bit about what brought them forth to engage in work that requires compassionately offering support to people who need it. And both reminders that though my story is unique, I am not even close to unique in my need for connection or my complex history of personal loss.

The scars on my body serve to remind me of a blend of my humanness, my mortality, strength, courage, faults, mystery, beauty, and normalness; my everything and my nothing all at the same time. I am not these scars. Just like nobody is. But my scars represent a part of my journey- my path- and they are a map, of sorts, to a place that my journey began. My experience of having cancer helped me to enter into what I consider a pilgrimage; a journey into the unknown and, hopefully, into the sacred. I am a yogi wayfarer. And I never want to quit shedding my skin to make the journey  lighter.