I tried, and enjoyed, Philly paddleboard yoga over the dirty Delaware River

Participants take part in a paddleboard yoga class on the Delaware River near Spruce Street Harbor Park on Monday, June 18.

Nine times out of 10 in an evening yoga session, my mind is battling it out with my stomach. Am I focused on my intended deep inhalations and exhalations? No. Am I full-force daydreaming of what will later end up on my dinner plate? More often than not. The struggle to remain present is real.

Yet, on a recent Monday, as I grounded myself in a simple Tadasana (a.k.a. Mountain Pose, a position of standing straight up and down) during a class by Aqua Vida, only one single thought took my attention: Remain steady or risk falling into the dirty Delaware River.

Aqua Vida leads paddleboard yoga, an activity I discovered that forces you to stay 100 percent centered on the task at hand. Some might call it a true meditation. It’s certainly a liberator for those with minds that can’t stop racing, and a balance challenge that will test all muscles of the body.

“It’s better to just fall in at the start,” said fellow classmate Bridget Clawson, who became hooked on the sessions last year. “If you get wet right away, you’ll be less afraid of challenging yourself throughout the class.”

After moving my way through 75 minutes of downward dogs, extended side angles, chair poses, and other classic yoga positions, all of which felt like advanced-yogi, level-three poses when carried out on a wobbly board, I’ve come to fullheartedly agree with Clawson.

Camera icon JOSE MORENO / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Paddleboard yoga classes turn easy poses into brand-new challenges, inviting you to test your balance on the water.

Still, no part of me ever wants to go swimming in Philly river water, nor do you need to in order to reap a positive class experience. (The Delaware River once ranked fifth in the nation among waterways with the highest amount of total toxic discharges, as reported in a 2012 release by the Environment America Research and Policy Center. Props to you if you want to take the plunge, but for me it’s a no thank-you.)

You do, however, need to commit to the fact that the scenario could happen, and it’s not one worth getting anxious over. If you fall into the water, it won’t be the end of the world. On the other hand, if you remain in fear of falling into the water for the entire class, it will ruin all chances of enjoyment.

Whether pristine or not, water adds a majestic element to the already calming practice of yoga. Amid the massive ships docked at the Penn’s Landing Marina, the classes make you feel as if you’re in your own world, away from the hustle and bustle of a city, and rather in some natural refuge.

Transitioning into Warrior II, my favorite pose of the day, I felt as if I were surfing, wind breezing through my hair and arms hovering in a steady balance. I also felt rather proud of myself, as if I had actually stood up on a wave, for accomplishing what’s typically a level-one posture.

On a board, some of the easiest yoga poses become the most challenging. For me, the tree pose was virtually impossible. And downward dog was certainly not the restorative hangout space that I seek out during an on-land class.

Camera icon JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Alexandra Mars moves into a revolved side angle pose during a paddleboard yoga class with Aqua Vida on Monday, June 18.

This is all part of the fun of paddleboard yoga. It’s playful, and evolves the practice in new and surprising ways. It also prevents you from being lazy — powering up your muscles is how you’ll keep your balance. You can expect at times for your abs, butt, and quads to all scream in unison as if you’re in one of those boot camp workouts. Yet, it’s doubtful you’ll walk away feeling out of breath or depleted. After all, it’s still a yoga class, designed to de-stress and reenergize you for the hours that follow.

In season, Aqua Vida paddleboard yoga sessions unfold almost daily on the Delaware River, conveniently located adjacent to Spruce Street Harbor Park where you can continue to unwind after class. Rates start at $34 for first-timers, a hefty but not surprising price given the average cost of an on-land class ($20 and up) and the price to purchase a paddleboard (Aqua Vida’s boards each cost around $1,000).

Instructors vary, as do classes, with full moon, music-oriented, Yin-style, and acro-yoga options. Aqua Vida also hosts stand-up paddleboard classes (sans yoga) and paddle river-cleanup collaborations with Spruce Street Harbor Park and United By Blue. If you’re ready to get out and float, a full schedule can be found online at aquavida.com.