While commuting on the Cross Bay Bridge or dining at Rockaway’s bayside restaurants, Bungalow Bar or Thai Rock, you may have observed a group of people floating on what looks like surfboards, executing a variety of yoga poses. You might have wondered—what the heck is that? It’s stand-up paddleboard (SUP) yoga, a fun water sport activity that according to instructor, Leah Matthews, will bring strength, flexibility and calm in your life. And what’s even more alluring—with the open sky as the ceiling and a paddleboard as the mat—you get to practice a mindful fitness practice with nature right on Jamaica Bay.
According to Yogapedia, SUP yoga unites the sport of stand-up paddleboarding, which originated in Hawaii in the 1940s, with the ancient practice of yoga, which has its roots in India. The sport, which is practiced on a calm body of water such as a lake, bay or slow river, combines yoga poses with a variation of stand-up paddleboard surfing on a 10- to 12-foot paddleboard. In the short time SUP yoga has existed, it has grown to include aficionados worldwide.
Rockaway Jet Ski is the only venue offering SUP yoga on the peninsula, and one of a handful offering the practice in all the five boroughs, with Matthews taking it a step further by not only teaching yoga, but also pilates on the paddleboard.
Matthews, who has been teaching at Rockaway Jet Ski since 2016, explains that practicing yoga or pilates on a surface that is moving—like the paddleboard—engages the core muscles and strengthens other muscles which wouldn't otherwise be used in earth-bound practice.
“I teach you how to get on the board and how to either balance in a sitting, kneeling or standing position, and lead you into yoga or pilates (depending on the class selected) poses as if on a mat,” she said.
Matthews’ class starts off with a brief tutorial on the deck, where participants are taught the layout of the board and how to maneuver it with a paddle. Then for the next 10 to 20 minutes, everyone practices paddling towards a safe spot, where the board is anchored. Then for 40 to 50 minutes, yoga (or pilates) poses are taught. “What’s especially even more assuring for students is that the Rockaway Jet Ski staff are always there in the water to help if someone’s board is getting pulled out with the bay’s currents. Personal floatation devices are also provided for all participants.
“I base the class on a number of factors including the water conditions such as wind, high tide or low tide, the current, other vehicles in the bay, and of course, attendees’ fitness and comfort levels. Anyone can do this class. You don’t have to a yogi, acrobat or Olympic gymnast. I have taught pregnant women, people recovering from an injury and folks who are absolute newbies to yoga. SUP yoga is an all-around fun and fulfilling practice for your body, mind and soul. Of course, it’s challenging because different muscles are being incorporated and you have to be completely mentally present. Yoga is a mindful activity, and doing it on a board requires intense focus because transitioning between poses requires concentration to keep the board steady,” Matthews said.
So how did born-and bred-New Yorker, Matthews, get into SUP yoga? “I trained in modern dance and gymnastics through childhood, and started practicing yoga at my high school, LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, to complement my dance training. While I attained my undergraduate degree in anthropology at New York University, I worked the front desk at the Jivamukti Yoga School. In 2005, I received a full scholarship funded by hip hop mogul, Russell Simmons, to attend yoga teacher training at Jivamukti. Two teachers that really nurtured my yoga journey and practice were Sista Shree and Krishna Kaur, both African Americans, and with their support, I got to travel the world, deepening my yoga practice within my identity as a woman of color.”
However, it was after a trial at paddleboarding in Miami, Matthews said she introduced herself to SUP yoga. “I had already been surfing on and off a few years and thought SUP yoga would be right up my ally. I found a school and signed up for a class, but when the teacher arrived, he wasn’t the yoga teacher, just a person teaching paddling. Paddleboarding was challenging and relaxing, but I just started trying yoga poses on my own. When I returned to NY, I found a SUP yoga training in the Hamptons, and signed up, and well, I became hooked!” Matthews said.
The water yogi said she has practiced SUP yoga in several venues but doing it in Jamaica Bay is something special. “Here you are on the water, surrounded by nature with ducks, geese and other wildlife, but then you see the A-train zoom past or planes flying above, and a view of the Manhattan skyline. There is this surreal experience of being with nature, yet in the profound reality of being home, not in some far away exotic place, but right here surrounded by NYC’s fast-paced energy. I’m a yogi, but foremost a New Yorker blessed to be a part of both worlds—both spiritual, just different, and that feeling really gets the adrenaline going,” Matthews shared.
For folks who are worried about falling off the board, Matthews says that’s fun too! “Even the most experienced yogi will have balance issues. No one, even me, is immune to that. It’s a fun challenge, and if you practice regularly, you will begin to appreciate the muscular changes in your body and mental focus level,” she said.
Matthews’ SUP yoga/pilates classes are held at Rockaway Jet Ski (375 Beach 92nd Street), Fridays and Sundays at 11 a.m., and Sundays and Mondays at 10 a.m. With the $40 class fee, all attendees are supplied with paddleboards from local surf/skate shop, Boarders, and personal floatation devices. To reserve your spot, visit: rockawayjetski.com. Matthews also teaches a by-donation meditation/yoga class with Jamie Schultz on Sundays at 11:30 a.m. at Rockaway Retreat House (164 Beach 91st Street). Also, upcoming this summer, she is teaming up with local Daniel Nuñez through Station RBNY to host a yoga/surfing class. For more info, visit: leahmatthewstraining.com
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