Board warriors: Local yogis fall for paddleboard yoga classes on the water

When she returned to Charlottesville, Catherine McMahon began teaching stand up paddleboard yoga classes to stay connected to the water and exercise. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto When she returned to Charlottesville, Catherine McMahon began teaching stand up paddleboard yoga classes to stay connected to the water and exercise. Photo: Rammelkamp Foto

Catherine McMahon knows what everyone’s primary concern is when they sign up for their first stand up paddleboard yoga (SUP yoga) class, and she nips it in the bud before even getting in the water.

“I totally encourage falling in,” she said to a group of first-timers at last week’s Monday morning class at Montfair Resort Farm in Crozet. McMahon noted that the boards are more stable than they look, and most people don’t actually make the splash—if they do, it’s easy to hop back on*. “When you fall you realize it’s only water.”

SUP yoga is exactly what it sounds like: practicing yoga poses on top of a paddleboard (which looks a lot like a surfboard) in the middle of a body of water. The core-strengthening combination of yoga and paddling has been increasing in popularity since McMahon returned to Charlottesville seven years ago, and it’s no surprise that she’s found herself teaching SUP yoga classes in her hometown.

McMahon lived in California for about 15 years after growing up in Charlottesville. A longtime swimmer, lifeguard and kayaker, McMahon built her West Coast life around water, studying marine biology in college and spending every free minute in the ocean with her surfboard. A desire to be closer to home brought her back to Charlottesville in 2012, and she immediately started looking for new outlets for her love of all things water.

“I never realized the beauty of the waters around here,” she said. “I had never considered the Charlottesville area a place where you could recreate on the water.”

After getting certified to teach SUP yoga (which requires a 200-hour yoga teacher certification first), McMahon founded Mango Yoga Adventures and taught her first class in July 2013.

The poses McMahon cycled through during last week’s class were all familiar to a yogi of any level—down dog, lunges, warriors one and two. But even the simplest movements, like shifting weight in mountain pose or stretching a little further in a forward fold, require a heightened sense of awareness and balance.

“Doing those fundamental poses on the water really re-informs your whole practice,” McMahon said.

It’s easy to let your mind wander during a yoga class, especially if your body is flowing through a sequence that’s become second nature. But muscle memory won’t do you much good when you’re trying to balance on one foot on an unstable surface floating in the middle of a lake—there’s no room for grocery lists or meeting agendas when every ounce of brainpower and physical energy is spent maintaining tree pose while trying not to topple into the water.

“You have to use your core to stay steady and you have to stay present,” McMahon said. “If your mind does wander you keep coming right back. I call it instant zen.”

The balancing challenge aside, there’s something almost magical about practicing yoga outside in the elements, surrounded by mountains and lily pads instead of mirrors and yoga mats. It’s certainly not for the perfectionist or control freak though—be prepared to drift away from the group, bump into neighbors, and put your pose on hold to paddle back to the center of the lake. It’s a different kind of practice for sure, but there’s nothing in the world like lying in savasana in the sun with your fingers in the water.

For more information, check out the Mango Yoga Adventures Facebook page, or e-mail McMahon at Classes are held at Montfair Resort Farm and Beaver Creek, and McMahon also offers private sessions as well as SUP classes sans yoga.

Clarification: Swimming is allowed at Montfair, but it is not allowed at Beaver Creek and only in designated areas at Chris Greene and Walnut Creek. In non-swimming areas, McMahon encourages paddleboard yogis to immediately return onto their boards in the case of falling in. 

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