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SUP Yoga: Naturally Social Distanced Classes

Students who attend my Stand-Up Paddleboard (SUP) Yoga classes or yoga workout for the first time are seriously determined: They’re not going to fall in. For almost everyone, this is their concept of success coming into class.

But it’s surprisingly easy to daydream about what’s for dinner when you also happen to be in Warrior I. Do that on a SUP, and you’re wet.

That’s when I get to watch real Yoga in action. It’s like slow motion: Their focus flickers and they lose their balance. I watch as their faces twist into a sudden disappointing realization that they’re going overboard, and into the water they go. That’s when the magic happens.

Why? Because usually, the weather is lovely, and the students have worked up a nice sweat. The water feels great! Cooling off isn’t failure after all. As these students emerge from the water and shimmy their way back on to their boards, they bring with them new concepts of success and failure. What else in their lives did they think was failure, but wasn’t?

After all, the lessons of Yoga aren’t just how to touch foreheads to calves. You’re not closer to enlightenment just because you can put your foot behind your head. Success in Yoga comes not from being “Insta-worthy,” but from facing life’s challenges on and off the mat with a smile.

SUP Yoga, an activity that involves balancing on a wobbly “yoga mat” in water, can be a fun challenge for you and your students.

Getting The Gear

Stand-up paddleboarding has been around since the 1940s, when surfers started experimenting in Waikiki, Hawaii. But unlike boards that are designed to catch waves or cut quickly through flatwater, you’ll want to search for a SUP that’s more buoyant.

Boards that are best for Yoga classes are hybrid styles, either made of fiberglass, sturdier plastic, or are inflatable. They should be about as wide as your yoga mat. Steer clear of the performance boards with pointed bows or lengths less than 9.5 feet as they tend to be slightly less sturdy.

Often, yoga teachers can connect with small businesses that rent paddleboards near waterways. I negotiated a 50-50 split with a company with plenty of gear and experience to help determine where on the water to avoid winds for a safe, fun class. Some teachers just invest in a fleet for themselves.

Beyond boards for you and your students, you’ll also need:

  • Life preservers for each student, which will be strapped to the front of the board.
  • Adjustable paddles (To measure, stand and stretch your arm toward the sky; the handle should be as high as your hand).
  • A whistle, which you’ll wear and use in case of an emergency.
  • Ways to anchor the boards in one place, which I’ll discuss later on.
  • Plenty of water, sunscreen, and a neck strap for your sunglasses.

Plan Your SUP Flow

When it comes to planning a SUP Yoga workout, remember that everything is balance. Successful balancing comes from three things: focus, alignment, and strength. If you’re missing one of those things, you’re tumbling. Remind your students of this reality.

The class can be broken into four basic sections:

1. Warm Up and Safety Protocol

Once everyone is on the waterfront, I ask everyone two questions: Can you swim, and have you practiced Yoga before? The first question demands a yes, but the second question does not.

However, keep in mind that as a teacher, you’ll be unable to provide hands-on adjustments to new students. It’s crucial to provide clear instruction and demonstrations throughout practice so everyone can follow along.

Next, go over the vocabulary of the board. For example, if I cue to step from down dog to the handle (that’s the center of balance on a SUP, so that’s where you stand instead of the “top of the mat.”), students need to know where that is. The sides of the SUP, for example, are called rails.

Teach students to paddle with the backside of the slanted blade. It’s “spreading butter, not scooping ice cream.” Your top arm should be out straight and integrated with the torso, so your body twists while paddling.

Once everyone is comfortable with their boards and have adjusted their paddles appropriately, it’s time to start moving. While still off the boards and on land, move through the six movements of the spine. Paddling is a workout, so warm up appropriately.

2. Paddle to the Class Spot

Encourage the class to be mindful and begin their mental Yoga as they get on their boards. Many students have never been on a SUP before, and it takes some practice to gain efficiency in your strokes. As a teacher, provide cues for improving posture, like keeping knees bend and holding the paddle correctly.

Some SUP Yoga classes take place in a pool, while others are in flat waters that are protected by the wind. It’s crucial that the water is deep enough for a safe fall.

You’ll need a system to make sure students don’t float off. This can be as simple as connecting a long rope tied around an old weight as an anchor, and it can be as elaborate as an installed clipping system that has every board attached to a single rope.

I prefer having each student anchored separately. That way, if one person falls in, it won’t impact the others.

It can take time to set up class; the “mats” keep moving around! Paddles can be secured either in bungees at the top of the board or with the Velcro of the leash wrapped around the top. Budget in extra time to get everyone settled in.

3. Enjoy the Flow

SUP Class

Practicing outdoors offers excellent opportunities to be present, so encourage your students to listen for birds or the gentle lapping of waves before going inside to stillness. The actual practice is quite similar to how you’d teach in a classroom, except balance is constantly tested.

There’s no need to practice Vrikshasana on the SUP. Instead, set your students up for success by cueing them to keep their stance wide in Warrior I. For Warrior II, you can come down to the back knee, with the back foot wrapped around the rail of the board and the front foot planted and facing forward. Search YouTube for other modification ideas.

Unlike in a studio, I find that I must demonstrate the entire class when teaching from my SUP. If I stop moving to watch for needed alignment refinements, often the students will stop as well. That’s why careful, clear, and loud cueing is so important with SUP Yoga.

Savasana is extra blissful on the water. Allow your students to luxuriate and simply float before bringing them back to a seated position.

4. Pull Anchors and Paddle Back

After class, the workout continues with SUP Yoga. Students may be in a state of bliss and require some encouragement to pull anchors and paddle back to shore. As a teacher, I just love watching the calm change wash over my students since they first left land. I am grateful to have the opportunity to lead them on an adventure within.

SUP Yoga: Social Distanced Practice

Years ago, SUP Yoga might have been considered a novelty, rather than a regular, weekly practice. But with many studios just opening back up and offering limited space during the coronavirus pandemic, outdoor activities that are naturally socially distanced are more popular than ever. Now is a perfect time to create and market a SUP Yoga workout or class. 

To grow your SUP classes, make sure your students connect with you on social media. Ask them to leave reviews with online listing sites like Google Maps and Yelp if you are working with a paddleboard rental company. Consider offering a discount if students bring their friends. I also worked with yoga studios, so students could sign up for the SUP Yoga class through MindBody.

Keep an eye on the weather, and most importantly, have fun!

Suzanne Wentley
Suzanne Wentley
Having taught yoga on four continents, Suzanne Wentley is a full-time nomad who seeks out yoga classes everywhere she travels. She has taught 1-year-olds and 91-year-olds (and many in between) in nearly all forms of practice, including breath work and meditation. She is also Reiki master, professional writer, vegetarian and ukulele player. Learn more at www.thelovelightproject.com