From the ages of 10 to 20, I was a competitive kayaker. Now, a few years into my 20s, I paddle recreationally. It was never all about the competition for me. When I started at age 10, I wasn’t a good racer at all; in fact, in my first race ever, I fell out of my boat at the start line! Still, I kept going back to the canoe club. As clichéd as it sounds, there was something immensely pleasurable about being on the water, feeling the hot sun (or, occasionally, the cool rain) on my face and drifting by pretty scenery. In the stable beginner boats, I could even sit in a patch of lily pads, pick flowers and relax. As a child who usually struggled with sports, it was nice to find a sporting activity I enjoyed.

I’d struggled with sports because I was uncoordinated and it seemed that my mind sometimes lacked a strong connection with my body. I was constantly bumping into things, and I had trouble serving a volleyball or hitting a badminton birdie. However, when I was in the boat, using the paddle, it seemed as though those apparatuses acted as stabilizers for my sometimes wayward body. Since the water seemed like a different world, I could forget about what I’d been thinking of on land that day, and do what my coaches instructed me to do: be mindful of each stroke by setting up the paddle, inserting it in the water, and then pulling it backward by rotating with my waist. Then, I would repeat the process on the other side, then back to the original side, and so on. Each stroke should be focused on separately, but all of the strokes should flow together in a continuous motion. Being mindful of each stroke in this way was something I continued into my older, more competitive years, whether I was practicing for a race or out kayaking for fun. The general aim of this strategy is to improve stroking technique, and it also benefits the competitive process as one learns to focus on their own race and block out potentially distracting actions by competitors. However, mindful attention to each stroke provided the extra benefit of helping kayaking become a therapeutic, head-clearing activity for me.

As I got older, I began to have worries outside of kayaking, such as my school grades, what universities and programs to apply to, and finding a job (I actually ended up as a kayaking coach for my first job). By then, I was more physically coordinated as my experience while in the boat seemed to translate into better bodily coordination outside the boat. However, I could still benefit psychologically from using my stroke patterns. If I hadn’t kayaked in high school, I would’ve dwelled on my somewhat trivial worries all day, but I was forced to let them go when I entered the boat. Before I got in the boat, I would often be having difficulty making up my mind about a certain issue, but astonishingly enough, after my paddle the answer to my ponderings would seem crystal clear. The time spent in mindful focus without letting myself be distracted by other thoughts was extremely beneficial to my decision-making process, as it refreshed and re-energized me. Without kayaking, I likely wouldn’t have been as successful in school because I would’ve let my worries constantly invade my brain with no reprieve, and that would’ve just rendered me confused or discouraged.

Even when I go kayaking now, a number of years after I quit kayaking every day, my mind and body are so trained in the mindful stroking process that I automatically go back to it and kayaking has the same effect on me as it did in the past. I don’t get to go as often as I would like to, but when I do, I still notice when I return to the dock my life suddenly seems much simpler and clearer than it did when I headed out. During the stretches of time when I don’t go kayaking, I’m more prone to depression or anxiety than I am when I do. Some other people who kayak, although they don’t use the term mindfulness, report similar effects. For anyone who has become too intense and pressured about their life and the goals within it, I would recommend that they take up a sporting activity and practice mindfulness within it as I did.

photo courtesy anoldent (CC-BY-SA)