On a brisk, cloudy morning in Laguna Beach, California, three dolphins break the glassy, blue-grey ocean surface just beyond the giant kelp beds.
The only sounds are those of the incoming swells breaking onto the rocks and washing up the sandy beach, or the occasional caw-caw of a passing seagull. It’s an utterly peaceful setting, ideal for the six women on giant surfboards who have just pressed themselves into their first down dog stretch of the session.
The boards, which are all nearly 10-feet in length and the width of a linebackers shoulder pads, move subtly with the swells, enough to challenge the women to remain completely focused, but not quite enough to send them overboard into the chilly waters just below. Well, not usually.
“Clearly, it happens,” says Taylor Chaput, the 24-year-old founder of Paddleboard Bliss, her clothes still soaked after taking a spill while attempting a headstand.
Watching from shore, if you take away all the elements of nature—the sea breeze, the rays of sunshine reflecting off the ocean’s surface, and the shifting surface—it’s essentially the same class that’s happening in tens of thousands of yoga studios across the country.
Except that those elements are present. They do play a role. And they create an experience unlike any class on hardwood floors.
“The main draw with people who already do yoga and are coming onto water is that every pose comes from your core, and being on the water creates such an intense focus and concentration,” she says, “which, in yoga, is what you want.”
“It makes the most basic poses insanely challenging,” adds Erin Nealy, who’s been working as an instructor with Paddleboard Bliss for several months. “It’s a lot more muscular energy, a lot more hugging.
“The stability factor is crazy,” she continues. “You’re literally utilizing every muscle in your body to stabilize, and your mat, your board, is moving constantly, so you’re having to adjust and re-adjust and that consistent movement makes you really have to work and focus that much harder.”
Taylor’s idea to start doing yoga on Stand-Up Paddleboards (SUPs) began “goofing around with poses” during long paddles up and down the coastline with her mom, who’s a fitness instructor. Over time, Taylor realized that she could combine the two fitness practices into one, and that there might be some people who would be interested in joining her on the water.
Taylor founded the company over a year ago, and has slowly grown it from a couple of friends coming to class, to multiple sessions per weekend. The hope is to spread SUP Yoga to nearby beaches.
Part of the expansion process is what brought Erin into the fold. She’d been a studio yoga instructor for over eight years, and practicing for nearly 10 years. Prior to finding her passion for yoga, Nealy was a competitive snowboarder. She’d long been seeking a happy medium between her competitive past and her yoga-centric present.
“When I met Taylor, there was this instant connection with what she was doing,” Nealy says. “I’ve always wanted to find a way to be able to bring together my love of yoga and my love for adventure and surfing and new challenges. You always hear that yoga shouldn’t be about competition, but really, if that’s your nature, if you enjoy pushing yourself, being competitive in your own ability, than this is the perfect place to exert that healthy competitiveness.”
The hour to hour-and-a-half classes begin on the beach with a “boot camp warm-up” and a few warm-up yoga stretches. The classes usually range from four to eight students, and take place in the morning, when the ocean is typically in its calmest state.
There does tend to be an uneasy introduction phase for students new to yoga or SUP or being on the ocean. Taylor and Erin try to embrace their feminine instincts and will be “comforting, reassuring and nurturing,” but ultimately, it’s on the person to want to embrace the sense of adventure that first brought them to a class.
With some it took longer than with others, but nearly every student the pair has brought onto the water has overcome any early apprehension and embraced practicing their yoga in a new medium.
“We all get so stoked for one another,” Nearly says. “For us, it’s seeing them paddling into waves and swell and trying new poses, and they’re excited and charged-up and maybe there’s a little bit of fear, but that excitement, the rush, the adrenaline, it’s compelling, it’s empowering, and it shows them the power and potential of their abilities.”
The demand for classes has increased; they’re now offered every day of the week (schedule on paddleboardbliss.com). And for now, they’re the only option in town. As word spreads, as new women and men come to classes and get to partake in this idyllic pairing of yoga and nature, that may change.
For now, Taylor and Erin are loving what they’ve created and anxious to share it with surfers, yogis, athletes or anyone willing and able to try something new.
“Yoga at its core, its essence, is to recognize connection to everything,” Nealy says. “So when you’re in an environment like this, it automatically yields to recognition of that connection; you can’t help but recognize the interconnectedness of everything when you’re out here.”
Chasen Marshall is a freelance writer and photographer based in Orange County, Calif. Most of his writing circulates around sports and the ocean lifestyle, and has been published by ESPN, Surfline.com, The Huffington Post and various media outlets around the world. You can read more of his work on his website, chasenmarshall.com.
Editor: Brianna Bemel