November 14, 2012

SUPside Down: What Makes a Good Yoga Mat? ~ Mel Johnson

Not burdened with life’s pressures.

Not weighed down with attachment. Floaty. Limitless. Liberated. Same but different. In this moment.

The first time I got on a surfboard was some time in the mid 90s. It never occurred to me to get on a board before then. After all, I’m a girl. And it’s not like my girlfriends flocked to surf back then. Actually, they never have. I didn’t even have a girlfriend who surfed till ten years later, when I moved to California. So, in the mid 90s on the east coast, I was one of three women in the water.

Every morning before class I’d be on dawn patrol with the longboarders. I’d be out on the water at first light, surfing the jetty with old timers—some of whom had been surfing as long as I’d been alive. I loved the community of peaceful, like-minded people who loved a practice that afforded a calm mind. And waves aren’t crowded with loud teenagers at sunrise; they’re smooth and peaceful and I could ride them all day long. The old timers were generous with waves, and they were Southern gentlemen who long-boardered taking long, luxurious rides.

What Would A Surfer Do?

The problem with my morning surf habit was that my pesky classes interfered. At first I’d hurry back to shower, drop my board off, shower, grab my books and go. Then I’d scrap the shower, bring my books to the beach and drop off my board on the way to class. Then I was bringing my board to school.

Finally, I’d drop the class. Eventually I dropped out of college altogether. The funny part? I also quit surfing.

I wasn’t in the “real” world long before I had to get back. Not to surfing, but my need to please my parents who didn’t care about surfing. It cared about school. And it won. So I went back to school. This time in California. Northern California, where the waves aren’t for the weak. Where dawn patrol means a thick wetsuit and shark infested waters with raging surf. And I’m a big chicken. But my very being was starving. I needed something. Anything.

Substitute Yoga.

I’d developed a yoga practice while I was in the “real” world, and it fit perfectly in my new NorCal hippie lifestyle. I’d been practicing for a few years when a studio owner in California noticed my practice and asked me to teach. Wow. Me? A yoga teacher? Sure! And I discovered another community of peaceful, like-minded people who loved a practice that afforded a calm mind. Yay!

But I wasn’t surfing.

I hiked epic hikes along the coastline. And swam in the chilly NorCal rivers. But I couldn’t bring myself to don the thick wetsuit that sat in my closet. Because I was deathly afraid of The Man In The Grey Suit. That’s what surfers affectionately call sharks. No thanks. So, I reveled in my yoga community because it gave me what surfing did. A healthy body and a calm mind. But it’s not the same. Or is it?

The Yoga of Water

I just came back from Niagara Falls and saw yoga everywhere. I didn’t see a single mat or attend a single class, but water means yoga to me. As long as I remember it’s been like this: I can’t stay out of the water. I don’t care if it’s salty or fresh, although I prefer salty. I even like baths. Crave them. Anything to be in the water. A shower won’t do. I must be immersed. By some accident of birth I was born inland, but that didn’t stop me from moving to the beach as soon as I could.

I discovered surfing before yoga, and put surfing on a shelf to pursue my education. I didn’t think I could have both. And now that I have a yoga practice I sometimes think yoga is only on the mat. I forget that my board can be a floating yoga mat. And I discovered that a kayak works like a yoga mat, too. Every time I travel, I find the water, because both my yoga practice and the water bring me into the moment—and both my body and mind know this.

The last two books I’ve devoured have been about the soul of surfing: Saltwater Buddha and West of Jesus. Each book has brought me to a better understanding of how utterly yogic it is to love the water. During both my yoga practice and surf sessions—or anything that involves being immersed in water or listening to its power—I feel buoyant. Mentally and physically. Not burdened with life’s pressures. Not weighed down with attachment. Floaty. Limitless. Liberated. Same but different. In this moment.

When I pay attention to it.


Mel Johnson: As a student of some fabulously—and sometimes brutally—honest girlfriends, world travel, my awesome adviser, various yogis and yoginis, yogic philosophy runs through my veins and lungs. I am a graduate teaching assistant at George Mason University, teacher of critical thinking and writing, yoga entrepreneur, paddleboarder, hiker, Buddhaphile, oenophile and smartass.



Editor: Evan Livesay 


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