“We’re all in the same boat!” a report from women’s kayak classes

Two smiling women in kayaks, performing an assisted rescue in a lake.

A few weeks ago I went to a weekend-long kayak symposium (yes, they call it a symposium) at James Island County Park near Charleston, SC.  The weather was warm and so was the water, so I was really looking forward to getting back in a boat after a long winter on dry land.

The event, called the East Coast Paddlesports Symposium (as a philosopher, this term cracks me up every time), features classes for kayakers, stand-up paddleboarders (SUPers), and canoeists of all levels.  I was looking to firm up my basic kayaking skills– paddling, getting in and out of the boat (yes, that’s a thing), boat handling techniques like edging and bracing, and solo and assisted rescues (getting myself and others back in our boats when we fall out, which happens).

The venue was crowded and festive, with vendors, loads of people trying out water craft of all types, and loads of people running around with paddles and PFDs (life jackets, now called Personal Flotation Devices).

Lots of people walking on a path, with kayaks, canoes, vendor tents and demos all around.

Lots of people walking on a path, with kayaks, canoes, vendor tents and demos all around.

My classes mostly consisted of being in (or out of) a kayak in this lovely sheltered lake area, and some nearby coves.  On Friday I took an edging and bracing class, where you learn how to shift your weight to put your boat (sort of) on edge while paddling to help control the direction of your boat, to compensate for currents and wind.

One particularly hilarious exercise we did, for which I was the first volunteer, was a surprise bracing lesson.  The instructor asked me to help him with a demo; I said yes.  Then he got out of his boat, swam over to mine, and proceeded to throw himself onto my front deck, sitting up and pushing my boat all over the place.  This resulted in lots of splashing, me screaming with laughter, delight and a little panic, and using my paddle to brace on either side to keep the boat upright.  Win.

The next Friday class was a solo and assisted rescue class.  I’ve done these sorts of classes a bunch of times, but still can’t consistently and confidently do a solo rescue– that is, get myself back in my kayak by myself in deep water.  We worked on both assisted rescues and solo ones, but I made little progress.  I left the class feeling a bit discouraged.

The next day– Saturday– was a real eye-opener for me.  I had signed up for all women’s only kayak classes.  They had dopey names–  “The Feminine Edge” and (ready to grit your teeth?) “Damsels in Distress, No More”.  Sigh.  Do we really need to set women’s courses apart in these ways?  Methinks not.  But I digress.

In every other way, though, these classes changed the way I think about myself and kayaking.  Seriously.

What do I mean here?  Well, up to then I had thought of myself as particularly ill-suited to sea kayaking because:

  1. I have lots of trouble getting in and out of the boat– I’m not graceful or comfortable or quick to settle myself in the cockpit.  I am really uncomfortable getting out of the boat– sometimes I just turn over in the surf and drag myself out.
  2. I feel major stress and fear of fat shaming when getting outfitted (I don’t own my own equipment…yet), as I worry about finding a boat big enough for me, as well as other equipment that will fit.  As a result, my rental PDFs never seem to fit (they float up to my ears when I’m in the water– a bad thing) and the cockpit never feels right.  I have been fat shamed (and felt fat shamed) most of the times I’ve gotten rental gear.  That’s no fun.
  3. I don’t feel strong enough, lithe enough, thin enough, etc. to perform solo rescues and some other techniques.  I get discouraged and tired and just want to quit.

After reading the above, you might think, “Well, Catherine, since life is short, maybe you might want to consider some other sport”.  Believe me, I have resolved to quit kayaking many times.  But I somehow keep finding my way back to the water.  When I can get away from the above worries, I have a wonderful time.  But I have to deal with these challenges.  Hence the women’s kayak classes.

So, what happened?

Well, first, let me say that almost all of the women in my classes had their own boats and had a lot of experience kayaking (some 15+ years).  Some of them had some pretty impressive skills.

But guess what?  It turns out that all of them had many of the same fears and same problems I have.  Sure, some of the women had more skills than I did, but:

ALL of them thought that solo rescues were really hard.

ALMOST ALL of them couldn’t do the standardly taught “cowboy” solo rescue without some help.

MANY of them were really nervous doing assisted rescues.

ALL of the large-breasted women complained about the fit of their PFDs, so I was in good company.

ALL of the women with their own boats told me that I would get a lot more comfortable if I bought my own boat.  And make sure to get it fitted properly– many women end up with boats that are actually too big for them, which doesn’t work.

So I learned that, when it comes to dealing with fears and worries about kayaking skills and stamina and gear, we’re all in the same boat.

What a relief.

Here’s me at the end of the day, smiling and happy (just before I turned my boat over in the surf and walked proudly, if soggily, onto shore).

Catherine, the happy paddler, returning at the end of the day.

Catherine, the happy paddler, returning at the end of the day.

Now to keep my eyes open for good used kayaks that are right for me.  Stay tuned.

Readers, have you had any eye-opening experiences when you took a women’s only physical activity or sport class?  I’d love to hear from you.



The Reverse Weekend Warrior

My exercise routine has been sporadic this past month. There were caregiving responsibilities, March break with my family, and a nasty cold. 

I reviewed my activity data and was surprised to find my most active days for fitness were weekdays. What? In the warm weather I’m a Weekend Warrior, doing lots on weekends but little activity or exercise during the week. 

This winter and early spring are the exact opposite, I’ve become The Reverse Weekend Warrior by walking my commute and scheduling four half-hour workouts during the week. 

Natalie stares at the camera ruddy faced, her short mousy brown hair a mess in the background are brown lockers
It hasn’t been pretty but I do feel good in my body. I never got around to spinning on Thursdays and Saturdays. The previous winters I did spin for up to an hour on Saturdays and a few times during the week. Not this year. 

Four bicycles lean against a brown bedroom wall under a window. The room has trainers, bicycle pumps and other sundry items strewn about.
Poor Ethel, my bicycle, has sat unloved. 

I’m looking forward to the warmer weather so I can garden, ride my bicycle and have drinks on my porch. Who knows, my weekends may even catch up to my weekday activities. 

If that happens I’ve no idea what I’ll call myself!

Throwing money at the problem: my kayak investment plans for 2017

women throwing money in the air

In 2015 I spent more time kayaking with friends. I started venturing into the ocean and discovered (unsurprisingly) that sea kayaking is a whole different world, requiring not only skills I didn’t have, but skills I didn’t even know about. My first foray into open ocean (with waves and currents and big rocks to maneuver around) was a real eye-opener. It was, frankly, scary to me. But after some time, I came to enjoy—even revel in—the incredible beauty of an ocean environment. While still being a bit scared, I admit.

In 2016, I did some kayaking here and there, and then took the plunge (literally—man, is the water in Maine cold!) by doing a weekend intensive sea kayaking course with Maine Island Kayak (and of course my friend Janet). That course did two things for me:

1) It made abundantly clear how much I DON’T know about sea kayaking, like understanding tidal current, wave and weather effects. Oh, and navigation. And being actually comfortable and roughly in control of my boat bobbing around in the ocean.

2) It gave me a clear plan if I do want to develop my sea kayaking skills. I need to learn to roll a kayak, get comfortable in the boat under a variety of conditions, do lots of practicing of all sorts of techniques, and above all: log more time in a kayak on the water. This means I really need to buy my own sea kayak. Sure, you can rent them, but it limits you in where you can put in, or you have to transport it somewhere else and return it, etc. Streamlining the process of doing a sport makes that sport more doable.

So, for 2017, I’m investing some time and money on the following:

Rolling classes: I’m taking some indoor pool rolling classes with Kevin at Rock Paddle Surf Kayak in Salem. Last year I did one rolling class. And in the fine tradition of 2016 sports lessons, I learned how much effort and time it’s going to take for me to learn to roll (namely, a LOT). So this year I signed up for a series of 3 classes. I may have a partial roll by then, but certainly it will help move me forward.

Another weekend intensive: Janet and I are going to do the 3-day East Coast Paddlesports Symposium near Charleston in April. This is the perfect venue for me. The water will be warm, I can rent a boat and necessary gear easily, and it offers a big variety of on and off-water courses for a bunch of levels. This means Janet can go off and learn to fight sharks with her paddle while I work on rolling and other handling techniques in warm (did I mention the water is warm there?) water and under adult supervision. I learned so much from 3 days of intensive instruction last year that it’s worth some time and money to do it again this year. And likely I’ll go back to Maine for more kayak instruction and paddling in lovely Casco Bay (even though the water is cold…)

Possible/likely/uh… sea kayak purchase: I’ve been hemming and hawing for a year about buying my own sea kayak, but this is probably the year to do it. Kayaks are like bicycles: you can spend a little money ($700ish) or a lot of money ($5000+). I haven’t figured out what my entry-level boat will be like, but I will be asking around and trying out different ones. Kayaks are also like bikes in that you buy an entry-level one, and then can trade up. Or out—like bikes, kayaks come in multiple designs for multiple purposes: touring, surfing, fishing, etc.

Unlike bikes, though, a kayak cannot be stored in my (non-walk-in) basement, because it will be at least 15 feet long. So I have to leave it outside or talk a friend into storing it at their house. Not all the details have been worked out yet, but the process is moving along.

It’s a bit daunting, diving headlong into a new or different sport. I’ve been toying with sea kayaking for a while now. I guess it’s time to put my money where my mouth is.

Readers, what experiences have you had with deciding to plunge in (or not) and devoting some time and money to a sport or activity? Was it hard? Was it easy? I’d love to hear from you.

I like to kick, stretch, and kick and I’m 30

Sally O’Malley

A couple of moments have stood out to me lately – fitness-wise. One was during the cool down in my Zumba class (to the tune of R. Kelly’s “The Greatest.” I didn’t pick the song, and Mr. Kelly’s past indiscretions can be discussed another day) surrounded by women 10-20+ years older than me, and the other was this past Monday night – finishing up a dance class, surrounded by women 10-15+ years younger than me. And I was good with all of it. If this is fitness at 30, I’ll happily take it.

When I actually turned 30 in March, I was surprised by the reactions of those in my peer group. Some noted how excited I seemed about turning 30, almost relieved (maybe they had nothing to fear!), others blatantly informed me that they didn’t want to turn 30 and were absolutely terrified. What that tells me is that we’re all still dealing with a lot of fears around life milestone “shoulds” and other delightful expectations.

However, the journey I did not expect to really appreciate at this age was the fitness one. I think back to when I was in my mid-to-late teens, seeing adults in the gym or in dance classes, and wondering what my body would be doing at their ages. I am grateful to say I’m in much better shape than that mid-to-late teenage Jess and that is cool!

I am also grateful that for the most part my life has embraced physical fitness in a body-positive way. It’s become my outlet, my way of getting back to myself, and my way of letting off steam. And in the past 3-5 years, my way of showing appreciation to my body.

Watching my grandma, who loved to dance and was mobile until her 80s, lose her ability to walk made me realize that I wanted nothing more than to move as much as I could, while I could. I sprinted, I danced, I punched, kicked, grappled, and lately, I have even come to love jump lunges. Yes, that’s right! JUMP. LUNGES. Give me a HIIT class any day, I eat that stuff right up now. My body is eating it up. It actually wants it.

I stretch every morning, and I say thank you. I sweat every day (even just 15 minutes if that’s all I have free) and I say thank you. I enjoy food immensely and I refuse to beat myself up, and I say thank you. I rest more than I ever did, I say thank you, and I still kill my work outs! (Because burning out is what will truly make you feel “old.”)

Someone told me once that as you get older, you give fewer fucks. And it’s true! But you give more fucks around what matters. I will give a fuck about my health. But not about looking a certain way, or choosing not to do the advanced yoga move this class, or being around people who are better than me, younger than me, or older than me. Instead, I smile to myself a lot more when I’m moving my body because I can say I’m here, bring it on, I’m ready. And then I jump lunge the shit out of it.

Excited to see where the next decade takes me, and I hope I can encourage others to get excited too.

JESSICA IRELAND-4In addition to jump lunges, Jess has been dancing for the past 20+ years of her life, the last few years as part of the Breath in Mvmt. dance company in London, Ontario (involving some of the most amazing humans in the city). She’s also been MMA-ing for four, and doing whatever else she can to keep moving, including axe-throwing, indoor rock climbing, interval training and more. She is a practicing (but not perfect) vegan, a full-on vegetarian, and generally an open book. She is a feminist (and sometimes an angry one). She loves crystals, astrology and is a bit of a peace-loving unicorn, unless you piss her off. She sometimes has a bit of a trucker mouth. But generally, Jess feels pretty lucky to be spinning around on this big blue ball with everyone else

“No excuses” no more: Fitness instructing from a place of body positivity (Guest post)

loveLast week, Tracy posted about her transition from indoor to outdoor cycling. In her post, she mentioned some of the things she likes about indoor cycling (everyone stays together, none of the unpredictability of the road, to name a few). She also mentioned some of the things she doesn’t, namely, being stuck right next to me:

“I may have grumbled a little bit about my winter of basement biking on the trainer. I’m not a huge fan of loud music. And one of the reasons I avoid fitness classes is that I get irritated when instructors holler out commands and tell us to work hard.  It motivates some, but it’s not my cup of tea. The other day I had the dreaded spot right beside the instructor. Cheryl is great, but please don’t put me right beside her with the speaker two feet behind me ever again.”

That’s right, I’m the Cheryl that busted Tracy’s eardrums and probably flung sweat on her in our coach’s sweaty basement. I’m also one of her former students, a freelance writer, and a blogger myself at Happy is the New Healthy.

Continue reading

Being asked to smile in yoga (Guest Post)

One of my strategies for supporting my mental health, lower blood pressure and dealing with muscle fatigue from triathlon training is to go to yoga classes and do short routines at home.

There are many schools of yoga, some focus on flowing through postures, others holding postures for long periods of time. I like them all because I always learn new things from each instructor through their approach and methodology.

The one thing I struggle with is being asked to smile during yoga. A few weeks back I was having a run of very stressful days. They were days where it was all I could do to get to work, not cry, then come home and support my family. It is those kind of days where yoga helps me stretch my clenched muscles and relax my face. My typical yoga face is expressionless, flat, and slack-jawed. I feel serene and beyond the stress of my day in that face.

On this night I was in a new class with an instructor I didn’t know so I had no expectations. Her approach is from a restorative yoga perspective and she focuses on alignment. I learned a great deal on how to move my feet to take pressure off my knees, how to use the creases in my wrists to align my arms in plank, really good stuff, then she asked us to smile.

I was so grossly unhappy that day I had used up all my energy just not crying and presenting a neutral face to the world. I have epic grumpy faces and I sometimes post them on my facebook feed because I’m a big drama queen. For example, I made this face once simply because I had to make my own coffee at work one day:


So here I am, barely keeping it together, when the instructor asked us all to smile then went from person to person gently chastising those who weren’t then insisting we smile. She uses this technique as a measure to see if a student is pushing themselves too hard in class. Her thought being if you lose your smile ease back on the stance. It’s a great idea. That night though the effort to try and even gently turn up the corner of my mouth was painful. I was truly sad and the small smile seared a tunnel down into my well of unhappiness and I started to cry. Tears streamed down my face. I just wanted peace that night and here I was openly weeping in front of strangers and an instructor I didn’t know. It felt terrible. I was embarrassed and sad and thankful the lights in the studio were turned down low. I was able to keep myself from sobbing and I went through the postures, tears soaking my mat during child’s pose and downward dog. I got through the class and thought, that will never happen again.

The next week the exact same thing happened. The disconnect between smiling and not feeling happy was just more than I could bear. This was not what I was looking for from my yoga sessions. I stopped going for a couple weeks.

Part of what bugged me was my personal history of receiving messages that, as a women, I ought to always smile, that I should smile to be more pleasing to others, to hide my feelings and be less scary. I think I have a great smile because it is genuine and I don’t stretch my lips across my teeth in a weird, fake way. I am not stingy with my smiles but I also don’t throw them around willy-nilly. More simply put, if I’m happy, I smile.

Fast forward to this past Monday, the smile asking instructor was subbing in for my usual power yoga instructor and I was nervous. It turned out Anita, who runs with Tracy, goes to my gym and was coming to this class. We chatted a bit before class and were laughing at the absurdity of our lives as we grapple with growing humans. (I think we both agree that parenting is, like, way hard.)

Class started and I realized I was a bit self-conscious doing yoga alongside Anita. (Huh, wonder what that was about.) I don’t remember who laughed/groaned/admitted distress first  but I had a lot of fun and when it came to asking us to smile I did and felt great. Maybe I was having a better day, maybe it was being relaxed with my new friend, who knows, but it felt genuine and awesome and that is pretty cool, in fact, it felt a whole lot like this face:


Giving Up Giving Up: On Becoming an “Athletic Learner” (Guest Post)

  • I can’t.
  • I’m going to be no good.
  • I don’t know how.
  • I give up.

Never in my life have I thought of myself as an Athlete. In high school gym class, and later in social activities and sports as an adult, I have always had just enough coordination to pick up the basics, but never enough inherent athletic talent to excel or become an expert.

But the biggest impediment to my non-starter athletic career has been my deep, long-standing fear of failure. Fear of living up to my potential. Fear of letting the team down. Fear of getting hurt and being in pain. Fear of giving 100% that still results in a poor performance.

These fears have been cultivated not within a culture of sports but within academics. High achieving students and faculty have strong intrinsic motivation to achieve excellence, but they work in a demanding culture that can be extremely competitive and heartbreakingly critical. Even if one’s work never makes it to the general public, academic writing and teaching are very much public performances that serve up for scrutiny one’s intellectual talents to colleagues, peers, and students.

The most ambitious and confident folks do well in such a culture—particularly in the face of academic journals with low acceptance rates, single job postings with hundreds of applicants, and students who apparently evaluate teaching effectiveness based on their instructor’s appearance. Self-assurance, along with determination and perseverance—are traits of successful scholars and athletes alike.

And, unfortunately for me, as a recent PhD graduate all that negative self-talk (I can’t, I’m no good, I don’t know how, I give up) had been causing psychological “injuries” from which I was failing to recover. The fear that held me back from pursuing an academic career was not dissimilar from the fear that kept me from joining rec leagues. There were other reasons that I eventually took a university staff position, some perfectly reasonable. Looking back, though, I can admit that, I can’t had started to become I shouldn’t—and my self-talk about improving for the next academic success had become talk about giving up.

However, three years later—as a result of my fantastic “alt-ac” job whose one down side is that I sit sedentary at a computer most days—I’ve decided to become not an Athlete but an Athletic Learner. In the past four months I’ve started cardio-kick boxing, running, and soccer. Recently I’ve been to a yoga class, a step class, and (next week) a Zumba class. I even look like a lunatic walking up and down the stairs of my building when I take breaks.

For every new sport or activity, I try do my research. I focus not on my lack of inherent talent but rather on learning the rules, the strategy, the steps, and the mechanics. I also attempt to understand the implications of these activities for my short and long term health.

Have I failed in Athletic Learning? Well, in the very first game of soccer in my adult life I managed to score not one but two goals in a row on my own team, the ball ricocheting directly off my elbows into our net. (Not surprisingly, after the game I was the one asked to set up a team practice).

Meanwhile, in kick-boxing I still can’t roundhouse kick as hard or as long as others. In the intermediate step class, I could barely keep from getting my feet tangled up. In yoga, corpse pose was pretty much the only position I was 100% sure I had mastered.

But although I’m very, very far from expert status, through these activities I’ve met some new people and re-connected with old friends. I’ve been drilled in soccer by a bunch of sweet, precocious 10-year olds girls (whose mothers are on my soccer team), and I’ve learned a ton about how my body works. These day my lower back is often upset with me, but I’ve also learned that even pain acquired by Athletic Learning is more pleasurable than feeling nothing as a result of doing nothing (which was pretty much all that I was doing previously).

So, this year my self-talk around my lack of mastery of athletics sounds more like:

  • I can’t refuse a new and fun activity.
  • I’m going to be no good at being so hard on myself.
  • I don’t know how I’m going to do this [insert sport], but gosh-darn it I’m doing it anyway.
  • I give up giving up.

I am not, and probably never will be, an expert Athlete. Instead, my plan is to continue striving to be an Athletic Learner. And fortunately, this mental and attitudnal shift has made it impossible for me to fail…because success means that, no matter how poor my performance, I’ve at least learned something new.

cat yoga

Photo by Lisa Campeau, 2011. Reproduced with permission (CC BY 2.0).