Mindful kayak rolling, the ultimate cleanse?

by | May 2, 2017 | kayaking, meditation, mindfulness, yoga

Whilst delving into the oft resurfacing colloquy of publicly sharing my intimate contemplations, my inamorata suggested, that I linger on the Jekyll and Hyde conundrum that rears its head when ruminating about the societal response to mental illness. Or as my wife says:

Why is it that I find it easier to espouse on and telegraph my own situation than it is to individually accept it?

The unconscious bias, that exists within me, equates mental illness with weakness. I guess the extension may also be true, that all conditions, that all illnesses are weaknesses. Take a step back in time to primal man, sickness was your death-knell, one might postulate that the individual existed and survived based only upon their own abilities. I recently read a book that contradicts this notion of independent survival, suggesting instead that all mammals are instinctively programmed to care. This behavior is perhaps demonstrated best by the relationship between a new-born and their mother. Both parties rapidly build bonds, and the mother cares for the child. The baby seeks out the comfort of caring, which the mother provides.

I care for my children, I care for my wife. They care for me. Should I be wounded, not only do they care for me, but I care for myself. I rest. I, or they, tend to my wound, and I lay off the injured limb. Why then is it so hard to bridge the gap from the TLC that I provide myself when wounded with the appropriate care when afflicted with mental illness.

The answer I believe exists in the challenge of the mind body connection. Is the mind, our mental processing unit, a physical entity that is treatable or is it some occult driven non-entity? Many great indecipherable works have been written by philosophers over the years trying to argue either the occult or the physical entity position. Personally, I remain unconvinced by their writings, instead preferring to believe in the evidence of FMRI scanning which clearly shows the variation in electrical activity in the brain caused by mental processing. Without a doubt the mind is physically manifested within the tissue of our brain and the thoughts are electronic pathways buried deep within it. Most pharmacological treatments of brain function affect the transmission or reception of the electrical charges.

I finally understood and accepted that treatment is necessary to correct the electrical functions, but am struggling with the leap to remove the internal stigma that would allow myself to provide myself the same level of care as I do for myself when wounded.

I am however making huge strides forward. First the recognition of the need for pharmacology support, second the acknowledgment of the physicality of the mind, third the need for not just physical but mental self-care (compassion).

At the moment my mental self-care is about being present. Allowing, my thoughts to come and go, and instead of reacting to them, just observing and letting them pass on. To do this I need focus, I need space within the thought cycle to insert the crucial steps. Clearing or cleansing the mind is the best way I have found to create space.

I know of three methods to clear my mind; meditation, yoga and kayak rolling. They all share a similar trait, that of intense absorption. They each require near 100% attention.

I now meditate twice a day. I use the Headspace app, and I also listen to the teachings of Leo Babauta who has an excellent program on “Turning Uncertainty & Discomfort into Mindful Openness”. I have been meditating daily now for forty days. I can keep my mind clear of intruding thoughts for roughly 6 minutes now, a considerable step forward from the maybe ten to fifteen seconds I could achieve when I started. I like to use repetitive mantra techniques to maintain focus.

Side Crow, a yoga pose, while hiking in Florida.

My yoga practice has now passed its one year anniversary. I consider it started when I joined the local studio and started practicing regularly. In the past twelve month I attended ninety-eight hours of yoga classes and numerous hours of informal practice at home and on vacation. Not only am I benefiting physically, I now find that throughout my practice the focus that is required to maintain the Ujjayi Pranayama breathing technique is akin to meditation and without absolute focus my breathing drifts away. Just as with mediation, noting the loss of control and then returning to the pattern enables me to retain focus. I suspect I can retain the breathing control for far greater periods that when I am performing a seated meditation. I suspect the occupation of my mind with achieving the appropriate physical alignment helps block mental distractions.

Kayak rolling has always been a cleansing activity for me. As with yoga and meditation, rolling is an intense activity. It requires repetition, practice and learning of muscle and mind control. It requires concentration and focus. Personally, rolling creates an acute positive emotional response; I have written previously about the mental clarity achieved and the physical feeling of love that it creates within me. I have been looking for an explanation for the feelings created by rolling.

Recently I read some research on the production of oxytocin (the “cuddle” hormone, also that involved in childbirth and breast feeding in women) in males through physical contact and sexual activity. Why should I or you care about oxytocin? Some recent research suggests that the hormone may help with the formation of social memories, it helps us remember the good social interactions we have, it helps us to enjoy our relationships. Some psychologists are now recommending self-hugging as it was shown to spike the production of the hormone. I wonder if the feeling of intimacy and hugging of the water during rolling are having the same affect, and leading to increased oxytocin production?

Both yoga and kayak rolling are intense physical work outs, so it should come as no surprise that they both then assist in the creation of serotonin the mood boosting neurotransmitter, plus potentially dopamine. Both are stress relieving (well rolling is now that I am competent) activities help in the balance of estrogen production (yes men do have estrogen we just make it differently than women).

So, I would posit, that rolling impacts at least three different mood affecting chemicals within the brain/mind (serotonin, oxytocin and estrogen) and so it should come as no surprise that I come off the water feeling refreshed, happy and cleansed, much like when I walk out of the yoga studio or get up after a meditation.

This summer I plan on working to create a practice combining all three, to integrate yoga and meditation into the way I roll kayaks. I am hoping to develop this into something that I can share with others, in the hope that they can benefit from the same chemical changes and derived emotional responses.

Mindful yogic kayak rolling, the ultimate mental cleanse.