Within your own backyard lies adventure that will transport you to a place that feels miles from home. So leave your passport behind and start exploring The Nearest Faraway Place.
“Find your center of axis,” I am told by my yoga instructor. She is lovely, serene, blond, and tan, just like the vast majority of yoga instructors I have had during my time dabbling in the activity. However, this sojourn isn’t relaxing as much as an adrenaline rush.
I am clutching the relatively thin surface beneath me, a stand-up paddleboard (SUP). I’ve paddled out from the dock, and I am tethered to a line with about half-a-dozen other participants.
I am wobbly and, it goes without saying, terrified as I struggle during my first SUP yoga class in the middle of the Hudson River. But I also feel that little flurry of pride that I haven’t tipped over yet. I am also still a bit shocked that I am floating in the Hudson—something I, and many New Yorkers, would normally conceive as only possible after an altercation with the mob.
Stretching and balancing in yoga is difficult enough on a traditional mat above a hardwood floor. It is nothing short of impossible after venturing out to Pier 84. And today is remarkably cold and windy for mid-May in Manhattan—and for practicing SUP Yoga.
“It lends itself well to calm waters,” Eric Stiller, the founder and owner of the Manhattan Kayak Company, which offers the class. “You just happen to be here on a day where we’re getting hit by the type of wind that’s most difficult for us. Ninety-nine point nine percent of the time, SUP yoga is going to be done in a much calmer and quieter environment.”
“Swell,” I think as I struggle to even fathom doing a downward facing dog on my SUP board.
Then, I look to my right and realize I am feet away from the USS Intrepid, the famous aircraft carrier stationed at Pier 86 at West 46th and 12th Ave. It is nothing short of breathtaking to feel so close and so small next to that massive vessel. It happens to be days before Fleet Week and what appears to be a destroyer is coming by on the river. I forget all my fearful reservations. It is one of those New York City moments of adventure that immediately imprints on your brain.
The sport of stand-up paddleboarding began in Hawaii in the mid-1990s thanks to surfer Laird Hamilton, according to Stiller. “Almost on a lark, he and his group of Hawaiian watermen took a long canoe paddle and a big long surfboard and started using a paddle on a surfboard to catch more waves, let’s say in 1996 or 1997,” Stiller told me.
While Hamilton and his gang are credited with starting modern SUP-ing, “you can look back in antiquity and find times and places where people were standing up on things using paddles,” said Stiller. “It goes way, way back.”
While SUP-ing first caught on in the typical tropical places you’d expect—Hawaii, California, Florida—it has spread across the States. Stiller said it has become especially popular in middle America where it can be practiced on calm lakes and pools.
Stiller says that the idea to do yoga on SUP boards began shortly after the sport took off. “When you get one of these stand-up paddle boards, it’s interesting it almost invites you to play on the surface,” he said. “For instance, as soon as we got the board, I immediately started doing exercises on it.”
For the many yoga lovers of New York who flock to traditional studios on land, the SUP element can add an intensity that only deepens the meditative experience.
“It makes very good yoginis find a deeper place of calm,” Stiller said. “Whenever you’re in a yoga class, you hear ‘deep breaths, find your center.’ Out there, you have to take that to another level. You have to be more peaceful. It’s almost like doing yoga when there’s a slight earthquake happening.”
But SUP-ing in the New York City area provides a completely unique and beautiful experience that neither the Pacific nor the calm waters of the Great Lakes can offer.
“This is a dynamic waterway. New York Harbor is very powerful. It has been for thousands of years,” Stiller explained. “We get the ocean coming in twice a day through a narrow gap and a powerful river that starts up in the Adirondack mountains, a strong beautiful, freshwater river. When that much water is moving five miles an hour in one direction, and you try to go against it, you’ve got a force to reckon with.”
That’s why many SUP devotees prefer the Hudson to the more traditional aquatic venues.
“For a paddler’s paddler, it’s challenging,” Stiller said. “If you’re into fitness, then this is going to bring it. It’s not going to bring it the same way 20-foot surf wave does. It’s not going to bring it the same way a rough whitewater river brings it, which is very obvious [because] you hear it. It brings it with almost more subtle power.”
And SUP-ing in New York offers more than a physical challenge.
“In New York City, our mountain range is our skyline,” said Stiller. “I’ll get people visiting me from Alaska, California, and Colorado saying ‘This is amazing.’ Why? Instead of a mountain range or forest or trees, they’re seeing a man-made mountain range.”
Unlike other regions of the country, Stiller says, NYC lends itself especially well to nighttime SUP-ing.
“That skyline lights up. If you’re in Alaska or Colorado on a lake and it gets dark, the mountains disappear. In our case, [there is] a massive amount of lights. It’s magnificent,” said Stiller.
I don’t doubt the majesty of paddling out on the Hudson as the moon rises and the Manhattan skyline is aglow. Regardless of the hour of day, going out on the Hudson on a SUP board offers a thrill one would never think to find in New York City. Against the concrete jungle, there is the natural backyard I had all but forgotten about exploring.