Yoga Yaking: The Way to a Healthy Back by Ed Quin
One of the many new skills the novice kayaker soon learns to develop is good posture. The alternative is an aching back and a depressed outlook toward paddling. Fortunately, kayaking helps develop correct posture, since efficient paddling demands it.
The achievement of just the right foot pressure, a comfortable grip on the paddle, and the subtle consciousness of one's whole body working in a smooth rhythm are parts of the joy of learning to kayak. To establish this flow, the middle of the body must be strong to gracefully permit the balance of stabilization and movement that exemplifies the union between boat and body.
"Union" is one of the most commonly offered translations of the Sanskrit word "yoga". Yoga is described as the union between mind and body, which certainly describes a great paddling experience. But another translation of the word "yoga" is "yoke," meaning that the "yogi" (male) or "yogini" (female) practitioner submits to the discipline of yogic principles and practices. Yoking yourself up to a few basic yoga postures will free you up from the drag of an aching back.
Try this: take a deep breath. Did you sit up straighter? If not , take a deeper breath! Efficient breathing is only possible with correct posture. Efficient paddling is only possible with correct posture. Therefore correct breathing equals efficient paddling! Coordinating breath, movement, posture and consciousness is the basic goal of the yogic asanas (poses) and of the happy yaker.
Here are three basic, but extremely powerful asanas that will strengthen your back, breath and brain. You're already used to feeling like a different animal when paddling (something like a flying fish) so it will be easy for you to pretend you're a snake. The famous cobra pose incorporates two especially snake-like aspects. First, when doing the cobra, think of your body as one piece - no arms, no legs. The elbows are kept close to the ribs and the legs and feet are held firmly together. Second, as you raise your torso out and up, think of the graceful movement of a cobra, instead of jerking up like a dog who's just heard the refrigerator door open.
With those two ideas in mind, lay face down on a yoga mat or towel on the floor. Touch your toes together and let the heels splay out, allowing the legs to rotate medially (inward - the knees toward each other in front). Bring your arms by your sides, palms facing the ceiling and head turned toward the right. Rest completely and breathe through your nose. Between each active pose immediately but gracefully return to this resting pose for a few breaths, turning your head to alternate sides.
Now, rest your chin on the floor. Place the palms of your hands on the floor next to your shoulders, bringing your elbows next to your ribs. You will not be pressing on your hands. Tighten your legs and push down into the floor with the tops of your feet and your shin bones. Once your body is one strong unit, inhale deeply and lift your torso out of your hips and up. Look all the way up at the ceiling or sky. Lift your chest by filling it more deeply with air. Use the strength of your back to lift, and resist the urge to use your arm strength. Slowly come down, turn your head to the left, splay the feet, bring the arms back by your sides and relax completely.
Repeat twice more for a total of three repetitions of complete, disciplined, patient poses. Patient means without straining like you're trying to give birth and pose means focus in both the yearning upward and the complete surrender phases. Find a rhythm.
If you'd like, make the cobra raising her face towards the sun last as long as you can continue to inhale through your nose. Exhale as you come down into complete relaxation and let your breath have its way for three repetitions, maintaining the discipline of breathing through your nose.
Now let's try the full locust. After the last series of relaxing breaths in cobra, switch the position of your hands to palms down and move your arms straight out from your body like wings. Rest your chin on the floor, make your legs straight and firm and point the toes away from you. Reach as far backwards as you can through your legs and reach as far sideways as you can through your arms. Take a deep breath in through your nose, push your belly firmly into the floor, look up at the sky and lift! That's right - lift everything but your belly high into the air. Your face remains relaxed, but your eyes reach upward along with your head, your chest, the backs of your legs and the tops of your straightened arms and hands.
It doesn't matter if you only come up one quarter of an inch. Keep inhaling through your nose, then gently and with control come down ino the same complete relaxation pose you learned in cobra.
Please allow yourself the complete benefit of the pose by letting your heart rate and breathing come back to normal. Without this part of the pose there is no pose. Repeat twice more, letting yourself play with the pose like you play in your kayak, keeping the basic form of your paddling stroke correct, but noticing the different sensations and possibilities within the movement.
Now its time to counterbalance these powerful back bends with the child's pose by simply coming up onto your hands and knees and then gently lowering your behind down to your heels. Your hands have remained right where they began, so your arms are now straightened. Now gently lower your forehead onto the floor and just rest. Let the lower back surrender to the gentle pull created and let yourself breath deeply through your nose. Breathing in this folded position strengthens the diaphragm, massages the inner organs and also stretches the lower back. Let your back open sideways as well. Relax your shoulders; let your nose almost touch the floor and listen to what your body whispers to you.
When you are ready, slowly raise yourself until you are sitting on your heels and place your hands on your knees. It is traditional at this point to bow one's head and enjoy the feeling of gratitude for life.
The cobra, the full locust and the counterbalancing child's pose will bring space, strength and stability to your back and make paddling a pleasure. Doing them daily will make you reach for more yoga as your body begins to feel the poses do themselves, just like your kayak seems to draw you forward on its own. Both journeys call us, beautifully, gracefully, powerfully.
(That alert and expectant dog will have his day when we learn the vital dog poses next time. Namaste.)
Ed Quin is an assistant Guide at Atlantic Coast Kayak Company in Pompano Beach, Florida.