Emma Hadden Headstand on Barton Pond, in Ann Arbor. Photo by Sarah Kennedy.

Seeing Past Fear: How SUP has Made me Braver & More Independent

I stood on the edge of the water with my feet buried in the cold sand and my heart beating in my ears. I paddled a few circles and realized that race turns would be out of the question as white caps tossed my SUP around and I watched my fellow racers fall in. I was panicking. I slowed my breathing. Yoga breath was always there to keep me grounded. I watched my thoughts, another skill acquired from yoga, and tried to rein them in as they told me over and over again that I couldn’t do it. I compared what I felt on the inside to the way the other racers looked on the outside. They looked confident. They looked ready. Their boards looked narrower and faster, they looked like they could do it. I did not feel like I could.

The SUP race

A few other racers stood around me and I tried to make small talk. I was shocked that everyone was so friendly. After I reluctantly admitted that it was my first race, the other competitors gave me tips. Talking made my thoughts slow, and built my confidence. The others seemed nervous too, and I felt like they were also relieved to talk to someone.

Sometimes I get trapped in a state of mind thinking that the whole world is hoping that I will fail, but opening up to those other racers helped me see that we really are all in this together. Racers are a community with one goal in common; finish as quickly as possible.

I stepped into control. “If you want to fail then you will, but you don’t want to fail. You can do this. You are strong enough. You have great paddling form. You have paddled this distance.” I repeated this like a mantra, stomping out any doubts, at least temporarily.

I was in awe that I got to participate in something that I’d watched religiously on Facebook live videos. Here I was paddling out to a buoy in rough water and I could still see the race leaders, almost as if they were in reach. It made me tear up with an overwhelming feeling of awe and gratitude that I’d pushed myself to be a part of this tenacious sport.

That initial joy was quickly destroyed by the ever-present waves slamming towards shore and my persistent efforts to paddle parallel to the shoreline. My right shoulder and left wrist were aching from only being able to paddle on the left side and I had lost all confidence that this was something I could achieve. I made it about half a mile before falling in. The cold water felt so good; the stillness of my arms, the weight off my legs and feet. I was back on my board feeling refreshed and knowing I had no other choice but to do the best I could. I paddled on.

Although I was exhausted, by the end of the race I was cheering on my competitors. Encouraging them encouraged me to keep going. The wind was strong the whole race but my determination was stronger and I never fell in again. Waves of self-doubt would come and go, but I learned what was more important was what I did with those thoughts. If I took them as truth, they started to turn to panic. If I let them go, I was able to see how strong I was.
After six grueling miles, I jumped off my board to find my legs felt like jello. I doubted their ability to support me as I ran up the beach to the finish line, paddle in hand. I felt so exhausted and yet somehow exhilarated. I had finished third out of five women. I got to stand up on the podium with one of the women who had been giving me pointers in the beginning of the race. I felt so encouraged by the community and couldn’t wait to race again.
Emma Hadden doing Crow in the Huron River, Ann Arbor. Photo by Sue Hadden.
Crow pose on the Huron River in Ann Arbor. Photo by Sue Hadden.

Teaching SUP yoga

SUP yoga seemed like a different challenge altogether. As a teacher I knew that I would have to be talking to everyone around me, coordinating their movements instead of my own. I soon found that both of these challenges shed light on a negative, anxious mindset that was holding me back.

I stood on the edge of the river, watching the water stream by. All 10 dam gates were open just upstream, and I was terrified of how I’d teach my first paddleboard yoga class on a river with such a fast current. My mind rushed to all of the possible worst-case scenarios. I was running through horror stories as quickly as the water flew by in front of me.

“They’ll all get pushed down the river at different speeds, if someone falls they’ll be seriously hurt, we won’t be able to do any yoga.” I thought.

As the truck pulled up carrying a fleet of paddle boards, I took a deep breath and smiled. The owner of the SUP company was so warm and welcoming, talking to him started to put me at ease. I calmed down even further when he told me that he had anchors for the 16 paddle boards that would be on the water. I breathed as slowly as I could and remembered my training. I realized that I had to hold space for these students no matter the conditions.

I made the best out of a challenging situation and set up class as far out of the current as I could. I directed the students onto the water and anchored them the best that I could. I graciously took support from the owner of the SUP company as he helped me get the boards on the water. I smiled and taught an hour class and right away knew that I was doing what I was meant to do.

The more I talked the more I felt my fear replaced with a steady confidence.

I even felt more energized after teaching than I had before. I still wished the conditions could have been more favorable but I was proud of what I was able to accomplish in my first class.

Huron River SUP Yoga. Photo by Emma Hadden.
Huron River SUP Yoga. Photo by Emma Hadden.

Yoga’s lasting effects

Every race I’ve done, every class I’ve taught, every mile I paddle has started to make me feel more at home on the water and at home within myself. It’s made that fearful voice quieter and has allowed my confidence to shine through. That is not to say that I never get scared, or never slip into self-doubt, because I still do all the time. Iffy weather conditions, feeling tired, burned out, or having a hard week can all add up to negative thinking that starts to send me back down that path. But that is why it is a practice.

This is where I take my yoga off the board and into the everyday situations of my life. This is the work. The practice is to continue to stay strong even when I think negatively, to shift my perspective when I’m doubting my abilities and to not get discouraged that I still slip into old patterns of thought.

I feel that my teaching is relatable because I don’t have it all figured out and I never will. I get to learn every day, every week, every year; the growth will never stop. I’ll always face struggles, within and outside of myself. I try to look at these struggles as empowering instead of defeating, I think about how many times I’ve overcome a discouraging perspective, how many anxiety and panic attacks I’ve made it through, how much time there now is between them. These are the things that make me realize how strong I am. Not the victories, or podium finishes, not the sold-out classes, or beautiful photo shoots, but my ability to show up for my students and share my real self with them. To be confident and hold a safe space for them on the water, whether I’m feeling 100% or 10%.

Not only does life on a paddleboard teach you to go with the flow and make the best of the conditions, but it also helps to shift your perspective on and off the water. I hope that I can share this with my students. I want to show how negative thinking can limit what they think is possible. I know that paddleboarding can help students to break free of negative thought patterns as it has helped me.

There’s something magical about the look in someone’s eyes when they grow exponentially comfortable on a SUP and within themselves during a class. What’s even better is when I see that they are able to take this with them off the board and into their lives. So the next time you hear that self-doubting dialogue run through your mind, sign up for the race, get on the board and take a risk. How else will you find out how strong you really are?


About the writer

Emma Hadden is a Michigan-based yoga teacher who loves the feelings of connectedness and calm that yoga brings to her life and the lives of her students. 

You can learn more about SUP yoga with Emma by checking out the business she co-owns at root-sup.com. You can even practice yoga remotely via Emma’s audio yoga classes at emszagrace.com. Follow along with Emma’s yoga adventures on Instagram.

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