I will overgeneralize and expose myself to the possible wrath of the internet, by saying that it has been my experience as a rolling mentor, that when learning and practicing kayak rolling, men overly rely on their strength.

I was recently mentoring at Pagaia, a kayaking event in Llançà, Catalonia. I was putting the group through their paces using a technique I call bombproofing. Bombproofing is about helping people to safely learn what happens to their kayak roll as they become tired and things start to fall apart. It came, as no surprise to me, that the two surviving paddlers, Dominique and Celsa, who made it all the way through the class without failing, were both women.

Learning to relax and use finesse, rather than strength, enables the minimum energy to be used in a roll. This becomes very important in real-world situations where a paddler’s strength is either diminished or needs to be preserved to extract themselves from a situation.
One’s mind can be a major hindrance in the quest to use finesse. The situationally provoked adrenaline can cause an instinctual fight response. Breath shortens, muscles contract, and we prepare to do whatever it takes, to surface and survive. So, what is stopping us relaxing, being present with the situation, examining it, and mindfully deciding what to do next?

According to the Yoga Sutras, Yoga is made up of eight limbs, or disciplines. Most westerners think of yoga as a physical discipline of movement and poses. The poses are a small part of yoga, they are the third discipline, Asana. The fourth discipline is Pranayama, or breath control. The seventh discipline is Dhyana, or meditation. I believe that by practicing Pranayama (breath control) and Dhyana (meditation) we can create space within our thoughts. A moment of time between the stress or stimulation, and our response. This time allows us to decide, rather than instinctively react. We can use these moments to make a conscious decision to use finesse rather than force to roll.

Breath focused meditation

The Buddhist tradition of Vipassana Meditation is a technique for the generation of mindfulness. Many people run away from meditation due to the overtones of spiritually. I have seen some claim it is satanic, just as yoga, in general, is misunderstood by some religious zealots as being devil worshiping! There is a large body of research that shows the positive changes in brain chemistry that take place after meditation practice, you can easily find it online if you need convincing. My personal experience has been that mediation has been the strongest medicine for fighting my own mental illness. I was surprised to discover last year that it also had a profoundly positive impact on my kayak rolling.

It goes without saying that I can roll a kayak. But what is less known is the sense of stress I felt when under water. Even though I was able to roll up in about 50 different ways (if you could both sides) I was constantly tense underwater and would rush to the surface if anything was not going well. I rarely tried more than twice to roll, my tension would consume my breath and I would resort to a quick over exerted muscle roll to ensure I popped up and could breathe. Last Spring after roughly six months of meditation practice I was rolling and noted that I was just hanging out upside down in a relaxed state, no longer rushing. Instead, I was taking the time to make conscious decisions and experiment with alternatives. This is the state I would like to help you achieve, and I believe you can do it through regularly practicing meditation. There are so many great texts on learning to meditate, having read many, the way that worked for me was to download an App on my smartphone called Headspace. I try to use it daily, it is self-explanatory, but here is the gist of the meditation practice:

  • Sit comfortably either on a chair or on the floor cross-legged. Make sure to be sitting upright, not slouched.
  • Softly focus on nothing looking straight ahead. Take three deep breathes, in through the nose and then out through the mouth. Then close your eyes.
  • Take a note of how you are feeling, are you tense, do you have pain anywhere. Scan through your body from head to toe, just noting your feelings, not trying to change anything.
  • Now listen, just obverse the noises around you.
  • Finally, start to pay attention to your breath as it moves in and out. Note how your body moves with each breath. I like to pay attention to the feeling of air coming in and out on my nostrils.
  • Start counting breaths, one for the in, two for the out, three for the in, four for the out. Stop at ten and start again at one.
  • Each time you find your mind has wandered away just say to yourself oh I had a thought, and start breath counting again at one.
    If you are like me, there are days I can’t get to the count of three without being interrupted. That means you are doing it right! Just keep practicing every day.
  • When your time is up, pause. Just relax your thinking. Come into the space paying attention to the sounds around you, open your eyes, and try to carry the sense of peace within you into your day.

Breathing in Shavasana – Diaphragmatic Breathing

Breathing is easy right? In out, in out, in out, so it goes on every minute, every hour of the day, without thought. When we get tense or stressed one of the first things that changes is our breathing. The breath pattern changes, becoming shallower and more rapid. By practicing Pranayama or breath control we arm ourselves with another tool to give ourselves an option to control our breath in times of stress, which in turn gives us the ability to calm ourselves and our minds.

There are many breath control exercises in Yoga, my favorite is one of the simplest; Diaphragmatic Breathing or Belly Breathing. I like to practice Belly Breathing lying down in bed, this has the added benefit of putting me into a state of calm and facilitating me falling asleep.
A simple version of belly breathing is accomplished lying down in relaxation pose (Corpse Pose or Shavasana). In this posture, the belly rises with each breath in and falls with each breath out. To feel this, do the following exercise:

  • Lie on your back. Support your head and neck with a soft pillow.
  • Focus your attention on your breath and feel the continuous cycle of exhalations and inhalations.
  • Relax your rib cage until it is almost motionless (if you breathe deeply, you will make the ribcage move, but this takes effort and misses the point of the exercise).
  • Next, feel the air movements further by lifting your arms over your head. This will accentuate the rise and fall of the belly.
  • After a few breathes, return your arms to your sides and continue to pay attention to your breathing for several minutes, allowing your body to relax.

Okay so this seems simple, and not really work. It is doing two things, one it is causing you to focus, two it is causing you to allow your belly to expand with each inhale and contract with each exhale. Too many of us just breathe in our chests without giving our lungs the opportunity to expand downwards. We tend instead to contract your abdomen during the inhale and expand during the exhale. With repeated practice, you will find yourself naturally belly breathing, taking deeper, slower breaths, and over time you will become more mindful of your breath.

By combining the practices of meditation and breathing I have seen a marked improvement in my ability to handle stress, especially underwater when rolling. When I think about why Dominique and Celsa outperformed the men in their group, I believe it is because they have learned to use their minds rather than their physique. They know that in a test of brute strength the men will likely win due to their genetic predisposition to musculature. The women have learned instead to out-think them, and they can do this by being mindful, present with the roll and make the best decision to use their strength efficiently rather than excessively.

That’s it, nothing to it, simply breathe and focus on your breath. This does, however, have the potential to be frustrating, demanding, challenging. Stick with it, I promise with time this will help you be calm underwater and give you a better opportunity to relax and roll well.