I Tried It: SUP Yoga

A Landlubber Takes to the Sea to Try Yoga on a Paddle Board

SUP Yoga in Miami. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It didn't seem like it could possibly work out. In one corner, you have me, a committed landlubber who has been known to get seasick while lying on an inflatable raft in a placid swimming pool. Not only do I not care for the motion of the ocean, I have what I consider a sensible aversion to exposing my skin to the sun's harsh rays. At the community pool, my family is the one in rash guards and wide-brimmed hats. And while I am too much of a vinyasa-lover to call myself a yoga purist, I don't really feel a need to take my practice anywhere but a clean, well-lighted yoga studio.

In the other corner was my worthy opponent, the newest trend: yoga on a stand-up paddle board. Let the games begin.

Stand-Up Paddle Board Basics

Stand-up paddle boarding (SUP) first emerged in the beaches of Hawaii in the 1960s and began to make inroads on the mainland about 10 years ago. Aside from the coasts, it is particularly popular on urban waterways, where it provides a unique vantage point from which to interact with city life while skimming past it. Standing erect at the water's surface level gives you the feeling, and appearance, of walking on water. It's also a great way to get fit, as you work the legs and core to stay up on the board and the arms and back to propel yourself. The board is broad and stable enough that someone got the bright idea of treating it like a floating yoga mat, and SUP yoga was born.

SUP Yoga

I recently set out to test the waters (sorry) myself. First, I had to become proficient in handling the board, which surprised me by being easy and intuitive, despite the fact that the last time I remember rowing anything was at sleep-away camp several decades ago. After getting comfortable paddling around the boat dock, we headed for open water (otherwise known as about 100 yards toward the middle of the lake). From here on out, I was led in a surprisingly "normal" yoga class. There was breath work, sun salutations, back bending and even an inversion. Transitions were slow and much of my attention went to not falling into the drink, but I managed credible versions of the classic poses. Practicing on the paddle board strangely reminded me of the yoga on the Wii Fit. Just like the Wii Balance Board, the paddle board reveals whether you are leaning more heavily into one foot or the other and reminds you to really engage your legs in standing poses. But while the Wii stakes are relatively low, a lack of balance on the paddle board results in an unexpected dip.

The paddle board also offers much better scenery; my favorite poses were done lying on my back with a view of the clouds passing overhead. Savasana, with my hands trailing in the water, was blissful, though my relaxation was interspersed with the nagging worry that I'd be hit by an oncoming boat or suffer a sunburn on my exposed legs. Unable to decide which fate would be worse, I finally let go and floated away.

The Result

I enjoyed SUP yoga much more than I expected to, but I can't see it becoming a regular thing for me. For one thing, it's expensive. A 90 minutes class was $25, about $10 more than I'd expect to pay for a studio class. Yoga on a paddle board is definitely a good work-out (my thighs, shoulders, and core were sore the next day), but the yoga becomes secondary to the board. While I'll keep my yoga on nice, dry land, Signe Wendt, a yoga teacher and SUP yoga enthusiast who takes classes with Say Om Paddle Yoga 404 in Austin, Texas, has a different view. "The challenge of the additional instability [of the board] really seems to bring a deeper level of mindfulness to my practice," she says. Wendt also appreciates the feeling of connection with nature that SUP yoga offers. "At the same time that the instability is really internalizing my experience, the vastness of nature is enlarging my experience," she adds. My advice? Head to your nearest large body of water to find out if SUP yoga floats your boat.

SUP Yoga Tips

  • A swimsuit or sports tank and shorts are the most appropriate attire. Add a rash guard top to protect yourself from the sun.
  • Hats and sunglasses may seem like a good idea, but they fall off easily in poses like downward dog.
  • Hydrate well before heading out since it's hard to carry anything onto the board.
  • Bring your sense of playfulness.
  • Prepare to get wet!