A Bit of the Back Story
Several years ago Kelly and I began to dabble in whitewater kayaking. After many years of living in the Arizona desert, we were thrilled to move to San Marcos, TX where there was a little whitewater park called Rio Vista about 5 minutes from where we live. The San Marcos River is an amazing river- it is a clear, beautiful, spring-fed river that is 72 degrees year-round, making it one of the warmest rivers around and pleasure to boat in.
So back in 2006, Kelly and I took an introductory kayak courses with Power Olympic Outdoor Center and Ben Kavlani, a former Olympic Athlete. All in all, we got a great introduction from an expert boater, we fell in love with the sport and we learned a new way to be outdoors together, be in the water, tackle fun challenges in the water and we learned a few tricks. Over the next few years, we would spend some time down in San Marcos playing in the waves and enjoying great camaraderie fellow boaters and outdoor enthusiasts. We gained confidence, a few skills and had a ton of fun.
Welcome to Buena Vista, Colorado
Kelly and I came up to Buena Vista, Colorado on July 4th to enjoy the cool mountain air, the great hiking, biking and kayaking opportunities that abound here. (This also has a bit of back story but if I keep telling back stories we are never going to get to the point of this blog!)
Buena Vista sits at the foot of the Collegiate Mountain Range and on the banks of the Arkansas River. Right in town there is this awesome whitewater playpark. Monday, Kelly and I were down in the first wave playing in our boats and there was another boater in the water who was getting lessons from his coach, who was sitting up on the rocks in a chair observing, giving tips, etc. Kelly and I introduced ourselves to the coach (Dustin) and the boater (Max) and played for a while which for me, mostly consists of getting in the wave, getting thrown around, spinning if I am lucky until I flip over and get tossed out of the wave. (I say this to describe my basic "style" of boating which is somewhat haphazard and also super fun. But I am also outlining this part to make a contrast later in my story between "skill-based fun" and "haphazard fun". More coming on that topic)
So, later that night Kelly is looking up boats online and runs across a video about the new boat he was interested in and saw that the guy who was promoting his boat was named Dustin. A few youtube searches later and we find out that the guy we met at the wave is kind of a big deal. You can see some footage below about Dustin Urban, his wife Katie and Katie's brother, Jed. Take the time to watch- it is pretty amazing stuff.
Small Town Goodness
And so, like in any small town, where relationships cross boundaries and connections cross-pollinate, we came to learn that Katie, Dustin's wife, is a yoga student of Jenna Pfingston, who has a lovely yoga studio here and who is a long-time student of mine. So Wednesday night, Sam, Rachel, Kelly and I went down to the local brewery after boating all day (another fun story!) and ran into Dustin, Katie and another local business owner and put some of these connections together. The conversation went kind of like this:
Katie- "Oh my god, you are Christina Sell, right?"
Dustin- "Like the yoga teacher? Wow, I didn't know I was watching Christina Sell in the wave..."
Me-"Yes, well, dude, I looked you up and I had no idea Dustin Urban was actually watching me in the wave. That's a little embarrassing."
and so on... It was more than a little funny.
So to make a long story short, Katie and Dustin offered to take us out on water and give us some help with our boating. We make a plan and on Friday we meet up for our lesson.
So, Friday morning we meet up on the river. (We actually ran into each other at the local distillery the night before when we were all there listening to music. That gave me plenty of time to warn them that I am not a good boater and to give my usual disclaimers about my ability and lack thereof.) Dustin asked us what we wanted to learn and I told him that mostly, I wanted to learn some skills that would give me some control in the wave and that while I can roll my kayak and while I enjoy being in the wave and occasionally can do some cool tricks in the wave, it is mostly accidental and haphazard. I explained I haven't had lessons since 2006 and so mostly I just play and try to figure things out with greater and lessor degrees of success. So I explained I would love to take some of the accidental component out of my boating and bring in some intelligent skill. So that was my learning goal: To be a less haphazard boater.
So, there we are with Katie and Dustin who, if you watched the video above, you now know can do front flips in the wave in their kayaks and they can turn cartwheels in their boats and so on and are well, shall we say, um, champions in their sport. (So like, they are really good.) And guess what the experts teach us first? The lesson begins with -- get this-- the importance of posture. Turns out sitting up straight is the first lesson in kayaking. Who knew kayaking had the equivalent of tadasana or mountain pose and that everything in play boating starts from sitting upright the same way everything in yoga begins from standing upright? How cool is that? Of course Lesson #1 also involved me learning that I sit way too far back and Kelly learning that he sits way too far forward so we got the lesson in optimal and the bad news that we have some habits that are not-so-optimal. So far so good. I am into it.
And another interesting insight about this posture lesson is that one of the things I started doing on my own in the wave back home is leaning way far back in boat to surf the wave. It is super fun and I can zip back and forth along the wave just leaning back and having a great time. So this, in and of itself, is no problem- it is fun and I am a recreational boater. I like fun. Fun is well... fun! The problem with this self-taught/self-discovered approach is that this particular body position is very limited. It is somewhat of a dead-end when it comes to play boating because I can't really do anything else from that position, where as from upright I could, theoretically, do many different tricks. For instance you set up flips, cartwheels and spins from upright but the only thing you do from leaning way back is well, lean back.
Of course I saw yoga parallels right away because I know lots of yoga practitioners who like to do yoga how they like to do it. They have a way of executing the postures that is fun for them, feels good and is just fine. And there is nothing wrong with that. (Remember, fun is fun.) But some approaches lead to deeper postures and some don't. For instance, you can do bakasana with bent arms. You really can. But if you want to learn kukkutasana, it is going to come much easier if you have learned how to get your arms straight in bakasana. So the poses have a progressive relationships to each other. The technique and the alignment on the basic postures teach us how to execute the harder stuff. So even though the Level 1 pose may not need such precision and is often more fun to do without the details, eventually, we hit dead ends without good technique and access to more advanced poses is denied. This dead-end aspect is just like my learning back approach to kayaking. Leaning back is fun for what it is but it will never take me beyond itself, whereas an upright posture will set me up for more possibilities in the future and help me improve faster.
The Basics teach the Advanced Moves
The lesson continued with basic drills in how to get control in the wave, how to clean up our stroke technique and how to spin and even continued to some fancier stuff. I have a list of insights about the length of my arm to share from my time on the water with Katie and Dustin but a few things really stand out in addition to the posture lesson, the first of which is that the basics of Kayaking 101 form the foundation for all of the fancy tricks.
It is kind of mind-boggling to look at someone turning flips and cartwheels in those fluid, gymnastic-like ways and to really grok that those power-moves can be broken down into component parts such as knowing which side of your boat is high, where your paddle is in the water and in relationship to your boat, where you look and when, and basic stroke technique. A cartwheel is a composition of basic skills the same way advanced yoga postures are a composition of basic postures and actions. And while what Dustin and Katie did in the wave appeared to be intuitive, they actually can analyze and explain the exact placement of their paddle, their boat, their posture, their gaze, etc. while being in a moving medium like the water that is constantly changing. Talk about presence of mind and yogic awareness! Really, it was pretty awesome to witness.
Since we have been here, several people have told me that "Dustin is a natural" but I have to tell you that it is rare to meet "naturals" in any field who are that analytical, that able to explain the "how-to" to others and who are that clear about the step-by-step progression involved in what they are doing and who can explain it to other people to help them further along in their own progress. Nope, I think mastery is too often confused with "being a natural." Mastery is more often a result of hard work meeting talent and passion through sustained practice. Just saying.
I have so much more to write about my lesson but this has already gotten long so I will save that for my next entry. I had such a rich time on the water learning from such great teachers and this entry is really just scratching the surface. Next time- more on the basics, on giving up "fun" now for boring technique can yield a a "bigger fun" later, on how intentionality and focus makes all the difference in the world, and much more.
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