10 Best Reasons To Learn How To Paddle a Kayak or Paddleboard
KAYAK AND PADDLEBOARD TO YOUR FLOW
I have paddled my whole life in wonderful places throughout the world. This includes halfway around Australia, Alaska, Patagonia, The Galapagos Islands, British Virgin Islands, San Juan Islands, Scotland, Maine, SF Bay, Florida Keys, Bahamas, Kauai, Costa Rica, Brittany, Bavaria. Then, there are the thousands of miles in the New York Metropolitan area, upstate NY, and Long Island.
However, whenever I have been asked: “Where is your favorite place to paddle?” I always say, “in the boat or on the board”. I have always loved the connection to the water through my paddle, body, boat, or board and search for rhythm, harmony, the glide and grace of motion. It’s a Waltz, Tango, a dance with the water. The more I think about it, the more I realize I am merging with the FLOW.
MY KINGDOM FOR THE FLOW
What is Flow? Well, the more you research it, the more you’ll find out how and why Flow just might be the Elixir of Life itself. Moreover, the bottle of this elixir is INSIDE every one of you.
What is Flow?
A quick definition is: In positive psychology, a flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.
I read Mihaly’s book, but it is Steven Kotler who takes Flow and turns a lake into an ocean of understanding in his book The Rise of The Superman.
One of my most dedicated students for the last decade and half, Peter Collins, a former high-speed motorcycle track racer, expert skier, ultra endurance runner, adventure racer, downhill rollerblader, advanced kayak and SUP paddler, and most importantly, a warm chipper chap, gave this book to me for my birthday. Within two pages, I felt a symphony of illumination and a chorus of ah-ha moments.
On page 106— the full wave landed on my head as Doug Ammons, one of the best whitewater kayakers in the world and a rare 21st century renaissance man stated:
“Action and adventure sports demand deep embodiment…especially kayaking. Big Rivers accelerate you in every direction at once. This puts your vestibular system into overdrive, this isn’t just your mind paying more attention – suddenly your entire body is paying attention. What happens is outside your conscious capabilities. There are no words. Our language becomes that of the river. All the features of the river speak to you and you to them through motion. There is tension, threat, there is joy and release, and overall a deep, deep sense of flow. You are literally part of the flow of the world.”
Doug Ammons did the vast majority of his big river paddling well before the age of YouTube. Luckily a modern paddler of Doug’s pedigree named Steve Fisher can show you what Doug is referring to here:
Kotler says: “Ammon’s desire for river intimacy is rooted in an even bigger desire: the deep ache to participate in the fundamental components of creation: elemental powers, eons of time.”
I like to call this desire Primal. I believe it is rooted in all of us. This is why I kayak, SUP, and surf ski, and why I believe you should too. Paddle sports easily provide the three strongest external triggers to enter flow:
1. HIGH RISK
2. RICH ENVIRONMENT
3. DEEP EMBODIMENT
Moreover, these sports keep on giving as you progress. Higher risks, richer environments, deeper embodiment, ad infinitum.
We can see it in the present moment in the super-focused flow of whitewater, surf, downwind, or paddling in confused seas. This Flow lives on the Fun/Survival edge. It can be the Flow of long distance, hypnotic, super-rhythmic paddling, perhaps into and through the night. This is paddling at a cadence that joins with your heartbeat, changes the perception of time, and seems like it can go forever. This is better know to most as “the runner’s high” and it’s what got me and Tony Brown across the Gulf of Carpentaria with no sleep for 5 nights.`
To put this in perspective, for the beginner, just showing up for your first paddling lesson often checks the Risk box. The new boat or board and body of water you’re on checks the Rich Environment box. Then, your whole body is adjusting to this new activity…which is Deep Embodiment aplenty.
There’s better than a coin toss chance you’ll enter a mild Flow state in this first lesson. The key is that the instructors give you clear goals, immediate feedback, and keep the challenge-to-skill ratio right at the cusp of your capabilities. The chances for flow to happen get higher with each of the following lessons.
GO SLOW TO FLOW
All of us, when beginners, first have to struggle. There are no two ways about it. This is really about taking one step backwards to go two, three, or more forward. This is the natural “fear of the unknown” with its its chemical bodyguard named cortisol. It says, “fight or flee” and it has a cousin named adrenalin. We need to sneak past them to get past fear and find our flow’s ON button. If we do this right, we can convince cortisol and adrenalin to give us a quick boost so we can get there sooner.
Once discovered, it can unleash the most potent combination of chemicals the human body has to offer: norepinephrine, nitric oxide, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin, and oxytocin. Flow is a multi-trillion dollar pharmaceutical industry already inside of you. Frankly, it’s how we humans have gotten here. Without it, our species would have withered on the vine a long ago. Some call it magic.
In order to achieve flow on a consistent basis, you’ll need to have some skills and and keep developing them over time. Then you start tapping into “Peak Performance” and unleash more Flow, and so on.
FLOW: WORK OR FUN?
Wow, that sounds like a lot of work! I thought kayaking and stand-up paddle boarding were supposed to be easy and fun?
Most “Top 10 Reason Lists” for why you should kayak or SUP will often include these words: because its’ easy, fun, and anyone can do it.
BETTER THAN ANY BOTTLE
All these reasons to paddle kayaks and paddle boards are quite time tested and true! Often, you can achieve basic flow states by just being out of the office, on a beautiful patch of water, in nature, on a calm sunny day, with no place to be. Then, add some paddling, or maybe casting with your favorite fishing rod. For many, this is just what the doctor or your soul ordered. A simple activity, yet a true blessing. For most people, this pure “recreational” paddling is just right to help balance a busy life.
Moreover, just being near or on water has proven to be its own wonder drug in recent studies. Check out: Wallace Nichols Book called Blue Mind.
When interviewed by a writer for NY Mag many years ago, I said: ” I believe that teaching New Yorkers how to kayak could dramatically reduce Prozac prescriptions.”
I would also say that learning how to ply NYC waters in a paddling craft is more important for more people than ever. The digital world, with all its apps and screens, is frying our nervous systems. It is keeping us in a diametrically opposed state – a hyperactive beta state. This is often felt as anxiety, with the potential to merge into depression. Think of the “Bad Angel” constantly streaming in front of your eyes, instead of whispering in your ear.
This contrast of plying an ancient waterway, the Hudson River, under ones’ own power, past the most dramatic man-made collection of buildings in the world, fosters some real Hiawatha-meets-Ayn Rand moments.
THERE’S A CATCH
Here’s the rub. For many people, and certainly many New Yorkers (aka Type A’s), Flow is a slippery slope. If you are a quick learner, high achiever, and big goal setter, then you’ll need to have more skills to both enter and stay in the game of Flow. Recreational paddling simply won’t do the trick. You’ll find yourself going to another activity like kick boxing or climbing. Chances are, just as you are getting pretty good at those, you may also get bored; “Been there, done that…next!”. Flow is fleeting and not too deep on this path.
Now I know it’s a tall order to become a MASTER at something and even an expert is a big reach too. However, to learn something deeper than face value, to get to its core, to know its language and then to go further, to make it a permanent part of your muscle memory – is to go past dabbling to become really good at it. Something you can tap into for your whole life in environments like oceans, rivers, lakes, islands, forests and mountains. This is really and truly worth giving it “the proper go”, as my English friend Peter would say.
It all starts with learning the technique. In paddle sports, the “proper” technique is counter intuitive. This means it is quite rare that you’ll teach yourself the best way to do it by simply getting in a kayak, or on a SUP with a paddle, and going for it. Sure, you may get pretty strong and fit, you may be able to beat the rest of your buddies across the lake every time until one day, somebody half your size with great technique cruises by on a windy day. You go back and watch 3 hours of YouTube, return to the lake, and the same result.
Good technique is 70% of paddling capacity. It easily outweighs strength and endurance in the long run. It’s the ultimate game changer when paddling conditions get more challenging and complicated. You’ll achieve it rapidly in the presence of a good instructor who can teach and encourage. A teacher provides basic goals and immediate feedback, yet knows when to let you practice on your own. Just one good lesson can change the paradigm. Then even the YouTube videos will make more sense.
GET TO FLOW RIGHT HERE, RIGHT NOW!
Manhattan Kayak can get you to your ON Flow button. It starts with getting good technique. Then, add some fitness and experience, then more technique, and so on.
And yes, more often than not, it’s best to go slow to Flow. Taking one lesson at a time and practice those skills through rentals.
Then, take another lesson. Let the skills bake in, let the body adapt, and then challenge it again. Some very fit people with a background in paddle sports, surf, or swimming may be able to go a bit faster (i.e. take SUP 1 and 2 on same day).
The 4th class is your intro to the power of the Hudson River and the FLOW GAMES begin in earnest. If this was a bit much, downshift and practice some more and try again. Once you are on your way, then we keep you FLOWING with a menu of progressive tours from shorter and calmer to longer and harder, as you see fit.
PADDLING WITH OTHERS = GROUP FLOW
After 30 years of teaching paddlers and then paddling with them far and wide, I would change my answer to the question “where is your favorite place to paddle?” The most fun and the most flow comes from being in my boat, or on my board, sharing it with others. In hindsight, this was always the case. It just happens that Flow Science can prove it now.
I cherish the memories of taking my early childhood friends Mark Sevasta and Warren Newman to the Delaware River with my dad. I will never forget the first one-week kayak/camping expedition with my dad at age 12 in the Adirondacks. Then, it was the semi epic one-week dash with my high school and college buddies covering the whole Chesapeake Bay. The term FLOW as applied to positive psychology was barely born and Dr. Mihaly was just starting to change his diapers.
For most of you, you will find flow easier with a tribe of approximately equal paddlers who can blend their egos harmoniously. Others with higher skills will love (and find flow) teaching family, friends, and colleagues. Universally, it is optimal when a group of very capable paddlers are applying their skills and teamwork in a challenging, and perhaps risky, environment. This is a full Group Flow dynamic: the adventure, the new environment, the growing friendships.
ULTIMATE NEW YORK CITY PADDLE FLOW
For advanced SUP enthusiasts, there is the annual awesome SEA PADDLE around Manhattan.
The Bottom Line
We can use a lot more FLOW in our lives and learning how to kayak or SUP well can turn on our FLOW more often than not. When combined with the meditative potency of being on the water, plus the cardiovascular strength and benefits of self propulsion, you have a potent combination for health, happiness, and joy.
For those of you who have taken our Kayak or SUP Basics 1-2-3-4 Lessons, please consider any and all of our advanced paddling lessons and keep your FLOW turned ON for whenever and wherever you paddle.