The ascetic practices of Yoga and Greenland Rolling

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Forgive the exaggeration of the title, if you stick with me then maybe this post will help explain my intent. If you, like me, have or had no idea what ascetic means let me save you the time of searching for it:

as·cet·ic (əˈsedik)

adjective: characterized by or suggesting the practice of severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence, typically for religious reasons. synonyms: austere, self-denying, abstinent, abstemious, self-disciplined, self-abnegating;

noun: a person who practices severe self-discipline and abstention. synonyms: abstainer, puritan, recluse, hermit, anchorite, solitary

It is a part of my DNA driven inheritance that when I do something I generally do it to an obsessive degree. As examples, I can’t just be vegetarian I have to be vegan, I can’t just practice the physical aspects yoga once a week I need/have/am compelled to do it four or five days a week.

My obsessive-compulsive behavior inevitably extends to my Greenland kayaking too. In our basement I have a KayakPro ergo set up for me to allow me to train my forward stroke muscles when I can’t get afloat. Hung between stainless steel eyebolts are two theatrical curtain raising ropes, set at the perfect height for me to practice Allunaariaqattaarneq, Greenland rope gymnastics, which simulates kayak rolling moves. And finally, there are the next two kayaks I am building in the workshop; one a strip built expedition kayak to replace my fiberglass NDK Explorer with a Greenland inspired hull, and the second, a low volume rolling kayak for Jacquelyn to train in (She has her hand roll now in her Pilgrim and it’s time for her to advance to forward finishing rolls).

Aside from the “toys” in the basement there is my yoga practice. I had several aims when I started yoga, the primary one was to gain flexibility to assist with my Greenland rolls. Strong, long, flexible hamstrings, abs, trapezoids and thoracic muscles all are necessary to perform the more difficult rolls and as I have aged so I have noticed these muscles more rapidly shorten and lose their tone if I do not routinely work on them. The second reason was for my mental health, stress management, unwittingly this reason has also led to improvements in my rolling performance, as it has allowed me to create conscious space when under pressure.

The physical aspect of yoga has been incredible for me. I am more flexible, stronger, and leaner than I have ever been. This has enabled me to get my chest to the foredeck for forward-finishing rolls, arch my back still further to facilitate spine, elbow and other lay-back rolls that require profound lower back flexibility.

I recently changed my rolling training regimen. I now work through the “rolling list“, starting with the braces, alternating sides, working up in complexity, only repeating rolls when something fails or is not up to snuff. Once I have worked through all the rolls that I expect to work I start my practice on those that I want to develop.

My current targets are my left side elbow roll, the two forward finishing hand rolls, and the sculling rolls. I have developed a sloppy on the deck sculling roll and an occasional vertical sculling roll. My aim is by next year to comfortably be able to score above 200. My reliable score at the moment is 180. This seems realistic. If I focus on developing sculling rolls I feel that I should be able to apply it to all of them and that may quickly accelerate my score. Time will tell. Watching This is the Roll 2 has provided me some good insight that I need to apply to the sculling practice.

At some point I want to write about the yoga poses that I have found the most helpful. There seems to be a gap in the training material available, most of the “yoga for paddling” videos available focus on those movements and poses that helps one’s general paddling rather than specifically focusing on rolling. I need to take some good photographs to demonstrate them and pair them with rolling pictures to demonstrate why they help. However, this post isn’t about poses and posture, it’s about the mental aspects of yoga, which often seem to get overlooked as yoga gets portrayed as a fitness activity. Let me give you a couple of examples of the positive mental impacts of my yoga practice:

I remember an incident about 16 months ago when I was relentlessly practicing my elbow roll. Or more accurately attempting to get one. The day prior I had great success managing half a dozen in succession, a victorious, elating, experience. The next day I asked Jacquelyn to watch me and try and capture some on video. Nothing would go right. Every attempt failed. I grew more and more frustrated and angry at myself. I ended up banging my fists on the deck in angry as tear of frustration mixed with the lake water running down my face. That day I went backwards not forwards, due to my mental incapacity to give myself a break.

Last week Jacquelyn and I were driving to Duluth. We treated ourselves to coffees from a local store (Almond Milk Latte for this vegan). The first time I picked my cup up from the car’s cup holder, the top popped off, coffee gushed everywhere in a wave of cascading foam. I calmly held the cup up, as Jacquelyn mopped up the mess. She remarked later how calm I had been. I had not even thought about it, but it was true. Unlike my previous character or persona, I now was able to calmly create space and process the stimuli before I reacted. I knew that reacting in any way other than to facilitate the clean-up was not going to help me, I made a conscious choice as to how I reacted. This may seem like a trivial change in behavior, but it is actually profound. Apply this same mental processing to learning to roll. Now failure is not frustrating, it is something to examine and build upon, it is an opportunity to keep going and to aspire to higher performance.

I have been thinking about what has allowed this mental step forward to occur and I realize that it is both yoga and meditation. I am not sure if really there is a distinction between the two. The more yoga I practice the more I realize that yoga is simply about moving through poses until I reach that meditative state of Shavasana, शवासन. Yes, yoga is a physical practice, but the mental benefits are more profound. The breath control, the mental space it creates, they are gently turning me into a better person. I hope I can continue this obsessive journey, I need to.


Samiddhi Sutta translated by Thanissaro:

My friend, I’m not dropping what’s visible here-and-now in pursuit of what’s subject to time. I’m dropping what’s subject to time in pursuit of what’s visible here-and-now.


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