With one leg stretched skyward and hands planted on the ground, I found myself in a pleasantly uncomfortable pose known in yoga as one-legged downward dog. The familiarity of the posture would have set me at ease had it not been for the water on either side of me or the unsteady paddleboard holding my weight.
Two girls – no more than 8 years old – wading in the American River’s shallow banks pointed in our direction, wondering what a handful of contortionists were doing floating downstream.
Admittedly, stand-up paddleboard yoga, or more commonly known as SUP yoga, is an unconventional sight – and just as difficult as it looks. Yet, the practice provides an unconventional reprieve from the grasp of onshore civilization.
If the name isn’t telling enough, SUP yoga fuses the position with stand-up paddleboarding, yielding a novel fitness trend that’s gained a local niche following.
SUP yoga classes begin onshore with basic paddleboard and yoga instruction. With a SUP board, a paddle and a mandated fanny pack-style floating device, practitioners take to the water for 10 to 15 minutes of free paddling to get comfortable on the water.
Once the group reconvenes, an instructor guides the class through a series of Vinyasa-style poses, which gradually progress from low to higher difficulty.
Although it’s yet too soon to put numbers on the SUP yoga industry, it’s the crossover of two lucrative fitness trends.
About 24 million practitioners spent more than $10 billion on yoga in the United States in 2012, according to a study by the publication Yoga Journal. Meanwhile, stand-up paddleboarding drew 9.6 million participants, and billions of dollars of revenue, that same year, according to consumer analytics company Channel Signal.
SUP yoga originated in India and planted its roots in in Hawaii, Southern California and Florida around 2010. It’s now practiced across the country where oceans, lakes, rivers and even private pools are found. States such as Colorado and Tennessee also feature mass followings, said BOGA Stand Up Paddleboards brand manager Jeramie Vaine.
“Because of its lakes and rivers, Sacramento has an amazing potential for SUP yoga,” Vaine said. “It’s got a huge emerging market and still a lot of room to grow.”
Locally, classes are taught on the American River, Folsom Lake and Roseville’s Wake Island aquatic park. For those seeking a change of scenery, SUP yoga purveyors in Tahoe and San Francisco offer private and group SUP yoga options. Classes range from $15 to $30, plus the cost of equipment rentals.
Local floating studios welcome clients across a spectrum of age and ability: thrill-seekers and fitness buffs, experienced yogis with no paddle experience and SUP pros who’ve never set foot in a studio.
Most classes are filled with first-timers looking for a unique experience, said Lake Tahoe Yoga owner Jenay Aiksnoras. Some seasoned yogis hit the water seeking to increase strength and balance for in-studio practice.
“People come to me with concerns because they’re inexperienced in either SUP or yoga, or both,” said Aiksnoras. “I say everyone can and should try (SUP yoga), and I fine-tune instruction to meet my classes’ needs.”
Regardless of ability, a thigh burn and next-day soreness are likely.
Limited board space requires fierce mental focus and deep muscular engagement – one false step or jerky movement may send you right into the water. It’s rare that anyone falls, although it’s often encouraged early to push past fear, Aiksnoras said.
“First-timers usually begin class struggling to find center and are wary of falling,” said Sacramento SUP yoga instructor Summer Ward. “But by the time it’s time to head back to shore, a certain confidence has washed over them. They look like completely different people – the fear is gone.”
SUP yoga also provides an opportunity for whimsical play and an outlet for those trying to escape the rigidity of prototypical fitness classes, said Sacramento SUP yoga instructor Summer Ward.
While some instructors wrap up class by inviting their clients to request poses, others dismiss the class to play or paddle around.
Many classes are taught while free floating, rather than securing boards with a special anchoring device.
Although it means frequent regrouping, free floating emphasizes what Ward said was the unconfined nature of yoga.
“In yoga, we call this ‘spanda’ – the natural pulling apart and contractions of life,” Aiksnoras said.
“Yoga is about learning to go with the flow, being subject to nature and then tuning into that. The water’s unpredictability teaches us to practice yoga at all times, in all areas of life.”
And getting out of the studio isn’t so bad, either.
“On the water, you aren’t enclosed within four walls – you experience so much open space,” Aiksnoras said of her Lake Tahoe classes. “It’s hard not to find a sense of calm amidst the warm sun, sound of birds chirping, sapphire blue waters and beautiful mountain views.”