By Teresa Bigelow
Dotted across the sparkling water of Mission Bay in San Diego, a number of activities take on any given sunny day: jet skiers zip by in adrenaline-induced glee; a group of young kids take part in a day camp sailing adventure; wake boarders flip and somersault through the air like human kites.
But tucked away in a corner of this popular Southern California destination is a glimmer of long, blonde hair and a small group of people floating behind its owner. The hair belongs to Gillian Gibree, a Roxy athlete, surfer and owner of Paddle Into Fitness, a small, but thriving, standup paddleboard business. She floats confidently in front of the group as they transition in unison into downward dog, a position the floating yoga class knows all too well—but this time, the sweaty studio has been replaced with glassy water and a cool ocean breeze.
We’re all aware of the benefits that yoga has on our physical and mental well-being, but what happens when vinyasa flow becomes nautical flow?
Gillian, along with various other water-sport enthusiasts around the world, is experimenting with just that. What she’s found is a seemingly intangible harmony of spirit, body and nature.
Standup paddleboard yoga is the newest trend in fitness and spiritual health. It’s how water sports say “namaste,” and according to Gillian, it’s where yoga meets nature in its finest form.
“You can have a seal pop up next to you, the seagulls flying above you, you’re in a bathing suit getting tan,” she says. “It’s so peaceful. It completely changes your normal yoga routine.”
Of course, Gillian says she recommends first mastering the routine of standup paddleboarding, commonly known as SUP, before paddling out to show off your floating Dancer’s Pose.
SUP, which can be performed in any body of water, involves a large, oval board that resembles a wide surf board, a one-ended paddle and a whole lot of balance. Standing with feet shoulder-width apart, the paddleboarder strokes the water, alternating from side to side in order to keep a straight line, make turns or reverse.
The sport is relatively new within the last decade, and has been growing in popularity since Hawaiian surfers began using paddles to push themselves out to off-shore waves while standing up for better visibility. In fact, what we know today as “paddleboards” were originally a form of transportation for Polynesians thousands of years ago. Today, it’s caught on as a fun way to get in shape, and according to Gillian, the sport is catching on with women, in particular.
“There are always men in my classes, but definitely more females,” she says. “I think females really love SUP because it is pretty low impact.”
That’s not to say women can’t handle a challenge.
Yoga enthusiasts who want to try a little floating flow, can choose to make minor changes, or no changes, to the traditional yoga positions while practicing on a paddleboard. This makes the activity a full-body workout that calms your mind while challenging your balance and flexibility in a way that an average gym sesh just can’t beat.
Gillian, who offers lessons in San Diego and Orange County and holds retreats in locations such as Tahiti and Bora Bora, modifies a few of the more challenging yoga positions like Side Plank and Warrior Pose.
Side Plank is usually performed by laying on one side and then lifting your hips toward the sky, using just one arm and your feet for balance. In SUP yoga, Gillian suggests keeping one leg on the board (the left leg when in left Side Plank and the right leg when in right Side Plank), then shifting your leg from the knee down until it is perpendicular to the board. This allows you to hook your foot over the rail of the board for added stability while the side of your torso and hips remain pointed upward.
Warrior Pose, which involves a deep lunge in which the back leg typically remains straight, is also modified by dropping the back knee to the board while lunging forward.
Other modifications can be made as desired, making SUP yoga an activity that can be performed by almost anyone.
“SUP is very beginner-friendly,” Gillian says. “I can teach families, from little kids to grandma and grandpa.”
She adds that many people who come to her for lessons are often former athletes who were injured and can no longer participate in many sport activities. Because of the low-impact nature of SUP, even people with injuries are able to benefit from the paddleboard workout.
She recommends Starboards made with carbon fiber. It’s an investment, but these boards are durable, she says.
And you don’t have to live by the beach to explore the benefits of SUP and SUP yoga. While Hawaii and Southern California remain primary destinations for the sport, don’t shrug it off as a beach-vacation-only activity just yet. The sport can be practiced anywhere that a standup paddleboard can float. That means lakes, ponds or even rivers. (Whitewater SUPing, anyone?)
As for the seals and seagulls–well, you might have to make a trip out to Mission Bay for that experience. Just follow Gillian and a floating crew of downward dog-ers.
Teresa Bigelow recently graduated from San Diego State University, where she studied journalism and French. An avid traveler and culture enthusiast, she is pursuing a career in travel writing or humanitarian reporting. Twitter handle: @TeresaBigelow