The Alchemy of Yoga into a Journey of Service

Incorporating yoga in your paddle training plan.

How my yoga practice complimented my training for Crossing For CF.

I was desiring to utilize what I have learned and acquired from my yoga practice—learning poses, practicing conscious breathing patterns and sitting on a cushion alone in the quiet— and transform that into serving those who are in need and faced with extreme challenge. I wanted to do this because I believe we can make the world a place that supports the needs of each others and that we can transform suffering into caring and challenge into compassion.

The method employed for this was my participation in 2019’s Crossing for Cystic Fibrosis. I paddled my SUP, with support boat in tow, across the Gulf Stream from Bimini, Bahamas to Lake Worth, Florida, a journey that covered 80 miles and had to be completed within 18 hours. This journey was a fundraiser to benefit Piper’s Angels. The money we raised, close to $700,000, will be utilized to help those with Cystic Fibrosis and their families by providing financial support that can improve their quality of life.

Why did I participate in the Crossing? I wanted to try to do something that seemed impossible! I wanted to move outside my own personal space of comfort to see what I was made of. When I first heard about the Crossing I had paddled about 2 miles toward the Jupiter Inlet in Florida and looked out at the Atlantic Ocean. My feet hurt, my back was sore and I was tired. Thinking about going out into the ocean and paddling from the Bahamas seemed absurd. Could I do this?

I believe we can transform suffering into caring and challenge into compassion.

It is always good to let a big idea sit for a few days so I did a little research. When I learned that the event was created by a father (Travis Suit) who was inspired by his daughter’s diagnosis to help others with this life threatening illness, it turned that spark into a fire. I have children, and holding them close and wanting the best for them is something that stirs my heart. The combination of attempting the seemingly impossible while driving awareness and support for a community that needs it seemed like a perfect match. Watching the video that documents the 2018 Crossing called Epic Love I felt electricity in my body and tears well up from within as I realized I was going to go through with registering for this event.

Endeavors to challenge the human soul and the body’s fortitude can often be seen as selfish and unproductive for the greater good. When we have busy lives and families that need our time and attention, to pull from that can appear selfish. Participating in The Crossing gave me the feeling that I could challenge myself and potentially help someone else. This is what in the world of Yoga is considered Karma Yoga—acting for the benefit of others while expecting nothing in return. In summary, by being of service, I could potentially explore the practice of Yoga further.

The first time that I saw a video of Laird Hamiliton riding a SUP on the waves in Hawaii the hair stood up on the back of my neck. Living in Florida the waves are very inconsistent and SUP opened up a completely new avenue to enjoy the ocean and get fit at the same time.

SUP has a history, included a link here, that has strong roots in Polynesian culture and today it’s popularity is global. The sport is similar to Yoga which has a history that potentially spans the course of several thousands of years. Paddling oceans and rivers was a way that humankind traversed the globe long before the combustion engine. When I am out in the ocean with the solitude of my board, my paddle and my thoughts I feel it gives me the freedom to connect with our ancestors. I can transcend the boundaries between the modern era of hyper technology and the age old practice of moving forward through the stroke of a paddle. It is very grounding to feel the fluidity of movement of my muscles while paddling as much the same as it feels when practicing yoga.

Crossing Crusaders practicing yoga in Bimini before crossing.
Crossing Crusaders practicing yoga in Bimini before crossing.
Photo by Chasin’ A Dream Photography

There are three core elements I have learned to cultivate through yoga practice that seem to compliment the practice of paddling. The first is balance. The coordination that comes from balance in Yoga is enormously beneficial when confronted with conditions faced on the Stand Up Paddle board. Paddling while standing up on a narrow board in turbulent and constantly changing surface such as the ocean requires an impeccable amount of balance and coordination. My working definition of balance is the ability to make fine motor muscle adjustments at any given instant that allows one to maintain a specific position. Yoga practice includes practicing standing on either both feet and/or one foot while making as many different possible positions with the upper body and limbs as possible. Holding challenging postures for longer periods of time has helped me tremendously with developing my strength and coordination and my overall balance ability. 

Holding challenging postures for longer periods of time has helped me tremendously with developing my strength and coordination and my overall balance ability. 

The second core element of yoga practice that ties in wonderfully with SUP is the engagement of core and the cultivation of abdominal and pelvic floor muscle strength. I suffered a large amount of back pain when I started training for this event. So much so that I really started to doubt myself and my ability to make the entire journey. In my yoga practice I have been trying to cultivate abdominal and pelvic floor strength which in yoga terms is called Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha. One of the purposes of learning to strengthen core is so that more challenging poses we can be sustained by stabilizing the center to support the overall structure. Putting this theory to practice can be a building block to complicated yoga pose design. I began to practice paddling and simultaneously engaging the pelvic floor muscles and use the contraction of my abdomen. Once I began to exercise these practices while paddling I noticed that my back pain went away quickly thereafter. 

The third core element that links yoga practice with paddling is the conscious application of both breathing and meditation. I find that when I am really struggling while I am paddling, when my body is super sore, sweat is pouring out of every pore, and I am reaching exhaustion, trying to consciously relax and breath deeply and synchronize my stroke with my breath helps, thus bringing the element of what in yoga terms is called vinyasa, which means breath and movement coordination, to my paddling. The basic premise is to inhale while lifting the paddle out of the water and then when the paddle enters the water exhale through the stroke and sync these two actions together seamlessly over and over again. 

I am finding my paddling practice is enhancing my yoga practice and visa versa.

I also believe that we can enhance our experience of life by lending support and compassion to those that need and welcome it. 

Read more from Todd on his blog Native Yoga.

–Todd McLaughlin, 2019 Crossing Crusader

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