A Comprehensive Guide to SUP Yoga
SUP yoga has exploded in popularity in recent years. Find out it's origins, what to look for in a yoga SUP board and some routines to get you started.
Yoga enthusiasts have gravitated towards yoga SUP over the last 12 years or so as the popularity of yoga has increased in general. A few manufacturers have created their own dedicated yoga board to accommodate these adventurous yoga enthusiasts who have traded in their yoga mat for a SUP deck pad.
In this guide, we'll discuss the reasons for the popularity of paddle board yoga and how you can become proficient at your yoga sessions on a yoga board. We'll also cover the features that you will want to look for in a yoga paddle board and the various yoga routines that work well on a SUP yoga board as well as the reason to consider yoga paddle boards over all around SUPs.
How did yoga paddle boards become a thing?
SUP yoga combines two activities whose roots go back millenia. Modern stand up paddle boarding can trace its roots back to the 1940's and 50's when the beach boys of Waikiki would paddle to their surf clients on long surf boards with tall paddles that they created. Stand up paddling can trace its origins much farther back as it's known that the ancient Egyptians would move items along the Nile while standing and paddling a small craft.
Yoga's origins can be traced to northern India over 5,000 years ago. The word "yoga" first appeared in ancient sacred texts called the Rig Veda. People have been practicing yoga for thousands of years in order to find "sama", the yogi term for balance, both mentally and physically.
Yoga provides quite a few benefits for practitioners of the discipline. It is essentially a meditation practice that will also improve strength, flexibility, balance and bone health. On the mental side of the ledger, it also relieves stress and anxiety, improves sleep, and can improve brain functionality.
Moving your practice to a yoga stand up paddle board challenges your physical balance far more than you ever could on stable ground. SUP yoga also helps with your mental balance as you get more in touch with the world around you.
Yoga board vs yoga studio
Most of us have tried yoga in a studio and have found it challenging enough, why would we want to combine it with an unstable platform and water? One of the downsides of the yoga studio is that being in a confined space with a lot of other sweaty bodies can get a bit, um, pungent. Being outside means that you are breathing fresh air throughout your yoga practice.
Yoga paddle boards give you a completely different perspective of your practice. Being out in nature as you feel the water lapping against your board is far more relaxing than being cooped up inside. You also have the added benefit of being able to get your daily dose of vitamin D.
Why yoga SUP is more fun
Paddling out on your yoga SUP board to meet your class is part of the fun as most dedicated yoga instructors will change up the spots where they hold their classes. Being out in the elements also adds unknown variables so every SUP yoga class is a bit difference.
More than anything, the fun comes from the fact that you could possibly fall into the water at any moment. Letting go of that fear of falling in is one of the major appeals of SUP yoga. It's empowering to overcome ones fears while you are turbo charging your balance and fitness.
If it's a hot enough day, you may decide to rejuvenate yourself by jumping in. Even if you just reach out and touch the water while in corpse pose, you will feel more connected to nature.
What to look for in a yoga paddle board
First and foremost, you will need to decide if you want a dedicated yoga board. Many of those practicing yoga on a paddle board start with all around SUPs. A good yoga board will be a more stable board in most cases than an all around SUP which is designed or everything from whitewater SUP to paddle board surfing.
All around SUPs are usually more maneuverable than yoga SUPs but once you become more dedicated to your practice, you are going to want a yoga SUP board that has the more stable platform.
Most important features in a dedicated yoga board
There are a lot of paddle board manufacturers that have rebranded their all around paddle boards as SUP yoga boards. If you are serious about doing yoga on a SUP board, you will be far better off buying a paddle board that was specifically designed by yogis for yogis with the features outlined below.
Full length deck pad
A full length deck pad is extremely important in a dedicated yoga SUP because you will want your deck pad to be at least the length of a typical yoga mat. More importantly, you will want to make sure that the deck pad is an EVA foam deck pad.
An EVA foam deck pad is both soft and sturdy. You definitely won't want a deck pad that has grip nodules on it as you will find them quite uncomfortable when you are kneeling or lying on the deck pad.
For a SUP yoga board that looks better for longer, make sure that you have a full length deck pad that is made from die cut EVA foam. If the deck pad simply has graphics or colors that have been silkscreened on, you can be sure that they will fade in the sun pretty quickly. SUP boards with a die cut eva foam deck pad have colors that go all the way through them so you can be assured that they won't fade nearly as much a silk screened deck pad.
Shapes of yoga boards
The key differences between a traditional paddle board and a yoga paddleboard are in the shape of the paddle board. A SUP yoga board has a wide deck - typically 35 inches wide or so. This width makes the board incredibly stable which is what you want when you are attempting challenging poses.
Most yoga SUPs have a more rounded nose as the rounded shape gives the yogi a little more deck space. Some of the hard yoga paddle boards have a modified prow at the bottom of the nose. This prow acts much like a displacement hull and gives the board improved tracking.
You are usually in calm water when doing SUP yoga but occasionally you will run into boat wakes on the way to your yoga class spot. In those cases, having modified prows on yoga boards helps to cut through the chop.
The best yoga SUPs will take advantage of the wider nose by having a bungee system to hold your personal flotation device and will act as a paddle holder as well. The bungee system is also handy to store a bottle of water.
Center fin vs side fins
Many paddle boards come with a tri fin setup these days. A tri fin setup consists of a center fin that has side fins on each side of it. The purpose of the side fins is to give a surfer more stability as they turn on the paddle boards rails (sides of the board) while gliding down a wave.
Anything more than a center fin, is really overkill on yoga boards. Side fins won't help your yoga and they are just additional parts that can be lost or broken.
The main thing that you want to look for in regards to the center fin is that the SUP brand uses a U.S. fin box. A U.S. fin box allows you to use a center fin from most center fin manufacturers on the market. A center fin will break from time to time so being able to replace it easily is important.
If you do end up with side fins on your yoga board, make sure that they are removable fins as opposed to being welded on. This rule of thumb goes for the center fin as well. If welded on fins break, you are now stuck with a faulty yoga SUP board.
SUP fins tend to cause quite a bit of confusion. To learn more, check out our article on: Paddle board fins: Everything you wanted to know but were afraid to ask.
SUP board rails
The rails of the paddle board refer to the sides of the paddle board. The rails on a typical SUP board tend to take a fair amount of abuse from paddle strikes and being dropped.
A yoga SUP doesn't tend to get that much abuse because most the time you are just doing yoga poses on it so there is no need for carbon fiber rails. Carbon rails are just going to increase the weight of the board and ideally you are looking for a light weight board that has a high weight capacity.
Inflatable SUPs with multi layers of PVC on the rails have plenty of protection on the rails. If the hard yoga board has a polymer finish which is discussed below, no additional layers of protection need to be added to the board.
Board center carry handles
Most people will transport their yoga board to the water using a center carry handle. The alternatives are to use a SUP sling which would go over one shoulder and around the board or using your hands to balance it on the head.
Some serious yogi's worry that the center handle being in the middle of the board will impede their yoga routine. This concern has been overblown as the center handle on hard SUP boards is recessed into the board. On inflatable boards the carry handles are a small strap that are attached to the boards but flatten down when you are performing the most yoga challenging poses on the boards.
Having the handle in the center of the board actually gives the yogi a nice frame of reference as to where to position their body on the board. You don't need to worry about centering yourself on a yoga mat in a studio because there is virtually zero chance of you tipping your mat over and falling in the water!
Carbon fiber vs fiberglass paddle
What kind of paddle should you buy for SUP yoga? A carbon fiber paddle weighs less than a fiberglass paddle which is nice but most people aren't paddling long distances to get to their SUP yoga class.
Of all the premium accessories you can purchase with your hard or inflatable paddleboard, the paddle is the least important. If anything, make sure the board has a robust bungee system that you can use as a paddle holder.
Ideally, you will want to make sure that your paddle floats in case you accidentally drop it or it falls out of the paddle holder. Diving to find a sunken paddle can really ruin the Zen state that you are trying to achieve in SUP yoga!
Hard board vs inflatable SUP
When it comes to picking a paddle board, one of your main choices is whether to go with an inflatable SUP or a rigid paddle board. The best yoga SUP brands offer the same yoga shape in both a hard and inflatable SUP.
For SUP yoga, both hard and inflatable paddle boards work quite well. The main reasons to choose one over the other comes down to storage and transport constraints.
Inflatable SUP technology has improved greatly
When inflatable SUPs first came out, they were constructed with a single layer of PVC and used knitted drop stitch to make up the core of the board. Those boards tended to "taco" which paints a pretty specific vision of the nose and tail on the SUP boards lifting up.
With the advent of fusion technology, SUP brands have been able to fuse up to 4 layers of military grade PVC together. Not only does this make the inflatable SUP more stable, it also means you are less likely to need to break into your repair kit because your board has been punctured.
Because the layers are fused rather than glued, you get a light weight, cleaner board that will last longer. Glued layers tend to produce bubbles and the glue eventually fails which will cause layers to separate.
A truly great board will also use woven drop stitch technology which increases the weight capacity that the yoga board will hold. If a SUP manufacturer uses woven drop stitch then you know that you are looking at a premium quality board that is going to be quite rigid for your warrior poses and we'll hold up for many years.
The case for an inflatable paddle board
As inflatable paddle board technology has evolved along with SUP yoga, we've seen a lot of yogis switching to premium quality inflatable SUP boards from hard boards. Because the boards are light weight when rolled up in their backpack, yogis that engage in SUP yoga as well as other sup activities, will hike into mountain lakes and inflate their boards once their for the ultimate Zen experience.
Inflatable yoga SUP board features and accessories
An inflatable yoga paddleboard should have the same full length deck pad that the hard yoga boards have. Make sure that the deck pad is at least as large as your yoga mat.
Make sure that the yoga board as plenty of D-rings for strapping down your gear and paddle via the bungee system. You will also want to be able to attach an anchor to one of the D-rings so that your yoga board doesn't drift while doing your yoga poses.
There are a lot of fantastic accessories that are included with inflatable paddle boards. Premium quality brands will include: the pump, repair kit, backpack with roller wheels, three piece paddle, carry strap, and kayak seat.
All the accessories are nice to have but most inflatable SUP owners will rarely need the repair kit because the boards are so well made these days. Just make sure that you have a full length deck pad when your SUP activities include bringing your dog on your SUP because the deck pad will protect the board from Fido's claws.
Just make sure that the weight capacity of your board can support both you and your dog. When looking at the volume of a SUP board which determines the weight capacity, make sure to include the combined weight of you, any passengers that you might bring along, as well as any gear that you expect to carry.
Hard yoga board benefits
There are some good reasons that yoga paddle boards are also available in rigid form. You will need to make certain that you have room in your home for a 10 foot board and the ability to transport it on the roof of your vehicle or in the bed of your truck.
A dedicated yoga board that is made of EPS foam and covered with epoxy will always be a bit more rigid than an inflatable SUP. With the newer technology mentioned above, the best inflatable paddle boards will be roughly 90% as stiff as an inflatable board. This means that your poses will be slightly more challenging on an inflatable SUP.
An epoxy SUP board won't be as durable as an inflatable SUP as they can be prone to dings if you drop them or hit a rock. If you do buy a hard board, you will want a board that has been finished with a polymer for protection.
Glide Surface Shield (GSS) is a polymer that gives the board a whopping 600 times the protection that a standard epoxy board would have and it adds very little weight to the SUP board. The U.S. Department of Defense uses GSS on their submarines because it's texture helps break the water tension and allows our subs to glide through the water 10% more efficiently which is huge when you consider the miles that they cover.
Because SUP manufacturers are able to shape the bottom of a hard board more than they can on an inflatable SUP, you will find that some hard yoga SUPs have a modified nose and prow that makes it possible for them to cut through water chop more efficiently on the way to the yoga spot. This feature also gives the hard board slightly better tracking than an inflatable SUP.
Getting started with SUP yoga
The easiest way to get started with a SUP yoga program would be to join a class at your local lake and get comfortable with the various poses on their yoga boards. For those that don't have any classes local to them or just prefer to practice yoga on their own, we've come up with some poses that will ease you into yoga SUP on your own board.
Make sure that you are comfortable with these poses on land before you try them on the water. You can always substitute "Child's Pose" or "Tabletop Pose" for the more challenging poses.
Down dog pose
Down Dog or Downward Facing Dog is the base pose that many of the other yoga poses transition from. It stretches out the back of the legs and the lower back while creating space between your vertebrae and between the shoulders. It can be a very calming yet energizing movement.
Start off on all fours on the board and make sure your knees are slightly behind your hips with your hands shoulder-width apart and your fingers spread out wide. Press your hands into the deck pad and tuck your toes under.
Keep your hands pressed into the deck pad and exhale deeply while lifting your knees off the board and straightening your legs as much as you can. Hold the pose for 30 seconds or so.
Warrior 1 Pose is a foundational pose that helps build focus, power and stability. This pose stretches the front side of the body and is excellent for building strength in the legs, core and back. Raising your arms above your head will really test your balance on the board.
From Down Dog, step your right foot forward so your toes are in line with your fingertips, while shifting your foot slightly to the right. Then bend your front knee ninety degrees and keep your thigh roughly parallel to the board and keep your knee stacked over your ankle.
Now pivot your left heel to the deck pad so the foot forms a forty five degree angle to the side of the deck pad. At this point, raise your arms over your head and hold the pose for 30 seconds and then switch sides.
Low lunge variations
The low lunge releases tension in the hips while also stretching the quads and hamstrings. This energizing movement improves the strength and flexibility of the hips, legs, shoulders, arms, abdomen, back, and knees.
From Down Dog keep your hips over the center handle and bring your right foot forward so your hands frame your foot. Looking to the horizon will assist with your balance. Then walk your hands onto the thigh or knee.
Make sure that you feel stable, then explore arm variations like reaching both arms to the sky or adding a twist by planting your left palm on the board and lifting your right arm toward the sky. After holding the pose for 30 seconds or so, switch sides. This one will take your balance to the next level!
Wide Leg Standing Forward Fold
This is a calming pose which both strengthens and stretches your legs and spine. You will also find that it tones the abdominal organs and can help relieve mild backaches.
From Low Lunge, transition both hands inside the front knee and then walk to the rail of the board. With your hands, apply even pressure as your rotate onto the balls of both feet and then lower your heels toward the opposite rail. Both your hands and feet should be about the same distance apart.
Keep your hands beneath shoulders with your legs wider than hip distance and your toes slightly turned in.
Upward Facing Dog pose
Upward Facing Dog opens your heart while lifting your head and improves your posture at the same time. It's a very energizing move that is good for the lower back.
Lie on your stomach with your toes pointed straight back, hands underneath the shoulders, elbows close to the body. As you inhale, lift your chest and roll your collarbones up from the board and firm the shoulder blades into the upper back.
Lastly, lift your head and open your heart, inhale and press your palms into the floor as you lift your chest off the ground. Keep your neck in a neutral position and gaze upward. Exhale and return to start.
Camel Pose is an energizing and helpful backbend. It's a nice, heart-opening addition to your sequence that counteracts slouching and helps relieve lower back pain.
Lower yourself onto your knees in the middle of the board and place them hip-width apart. Then tuck your toes and engage your inner thighs while drawing your lower belly in and up.
Now, roll your shoulders back. As you lean back, heels with your hands and hold the stretch for 30 seconds or so.
Side plank with stretch
The Side Plank Pose is a powerful arm balance that challenges your ability to stay calm and focused. The pose strengthens your wrists, forearms, shoulders, and spine while increasing flexibility in the wrists.
From Down Dog shift forward into Plank Pose. Make sure that you are centered in the middle of the board. Then roll onto the outside edge of your right foot, and stack your left foot on top of your right and swing your left hand onto your left hip while turning your torso to the left.
Support the weight of your body on the outer right foot and right hand. Now, align your body into one long diagonal line from your heels to the crown of your head and stretch your left arm toward the ceiling. From there, reach your arm forward so that you feel the stretch in your lats. Hold the stretch for 20 to 30 seconds.
Chair Pose strengthens the thighs and ankles and tones the shoulders, butt, hips, and back. The pose also stretches the Achilles tendons and shins. Chair pose also stretches the shoulders, opens the chest and purportedly tones the digestive organs and heart.
Exhale as you bend your knees and move your hips back as if you were sitting down on a chair. Make sure that the center carry handle of the board is directly below you.
Now, draw your lower abdomen in and up to support your lower back. Next, send your hips back rather than your knees forward, so that you can still see your toes and inhale as you raise your arms up around your ears and soften your shoulders.
Keep trying to reach higher and hold the pose for 20 seconds or so. Make sure that you have a stable board for this one!
Pigeon pose is considered the "king of hip openers" but it also stretches the thighs, groin, back, piriformis, and psoas.
Starting on your hands and knees in the center of the deck pad on your paddle board, slide your left knee forward while angling your left shin under your torso. Your left foot should be in front of your right knee and the outside of your left shin should rest on the board.
Slowly slide your right leg back, while straightening your knee and resting the top of your thigh on the deck pad. Lower your outer left backside to the board. Now position your left heel just in front of your right hip. Hold the pose for as long as you can and then switch sides.
Triangle pose stretches and lengthens the spine and opens the hips and shoulders. It also is said to stimulate the digestive organs, thus improving metabolism and reduces stress.
From the center of the board, step your feet about 4 to 5 feet apart and make sure that your heels are aligned with each other, then turn your right foot out 90 degrees so your toes are pointing to the top of the board.
Next, pivot your left foot a bit inwards. With your palms facing down, raise your arms to shoulder height then reach your right hand out in the direction of the right foot while shifting your left hip back. Now lift your left hand upwards and hold the pose for 30 seconds and then switch sides.
SUP yoga offshoots
As SUP yoga exploded in popularity, many gyms and aquatic centers wanted to be able to offer SUP yoga classes but the boards were to long for each lane line. Thus the floating fitness mat craze was born.
These Fit boards are built with the same technology as an inflatable paddle board but they are shorter and have a rectangular shape so that you are able to have five tied in each lane line. Clubs are able to offer SUP yoga classes of 5 or 10 while swimmers are still able to use lanes nearby.
It's a testament to the popularity of SUP yoga that these classes are typically touted as the most popular in the facility. No paddle, fin or PFD is necessary to participate.
SUP yoga has become incredibly popular in recent years. Part of the is due to due to the popularity of yoga and part is due to the universal following that stand up paddle boarding has developed over the years.
With the proper board and a bit of training, you can turbocharge your yoga sessions as well. The change of scenery and the new challenge will do wonders for your soul.