The Inland Paddler: Learning a New Way to Slow Down to Go Fast

I have recently been learning about the Japanese art of “Forest Bathing” or shinrin-yoku. No, this is not some sort of version of “Naked and Afraid” and it doesn’t involve undressing. Forest bathing might best be described as an ”active” form of meditation or observation, if you like. Or simply “nature therapy.”   The idea is that you walk into the woods, smart devices off, and you simply notice everything around you. The way the leaves shimmer in the wind, the way the duff beneath your feet feels as you walk along the trail, all the sounds around you. The smells. You get the idea. You can sit and observe, or just meander.

Shinrin-yoku’s premise is that by being present this way in the woods, we tap into the healing properties of the forest. Whether it is the increase of oxygen created under the canopy of the trees or simply the overall beauty and power of nature or whether it is simply being present in the moment, there are multiple studies that show there are tremendous benefits to connecting with nature in this way.

But it does not have to be a forest. All of us who feel the deep connection with water know that we can get these same benefits from a paddle or a surf.

I have found that consciously practicing shinrin-yoku during these pandemic times has been extremely comforting and soothing, not to mention grounding. When everything around us seems crazy, tipsy-turvy and uncertain (no matter where you are on the political spectrum) stopping to notice how a great heron glides across the water, or how a pod of dolphins creates bubble nets to hunt, or even watching the sun rise or set over a local lake from the cockpit of the canoe – well, knowing that nature continues to go on, doing what it does, it gives me hope.

It does require slowing down, though.

Coach Cain has talked about the benefits of introducing a bit of play into our workout schedules. Let’s take it a step further. Maybe one day a week, take a shinrin-yoku paddle. Leave the heart rate monitors, the Garmins and the Speedcoaches behind and just paddle. Reconnect with the water environ around you. Notice things that you might not when you are pushing hard during an interval workout, or are trying to get those miles in.

Take in the air. Notice how your board or boat moves through the water, how your paddle feels dipping into it. What do you notice that you never have before? What do you see what you wouldn’t otherwise?

Give yourself permission to explore paddling in this way.

One of the best lessons any paddle instructor or coach ever gave to me was Dave Kalama’s admonishment to “go slow to go fast”. He was specifically talking about efficiency with my paddle strokes. However, taken a step further, slowing down every once in a while to just paddle and notice and just be on the water is restorative and is recovery. It will benefit our competitive paddling. It will help us improve.

This can be an especially useful technique if you feel you are approaching overtraining or general training burnout, too. This passage from Ryan Holiday’s new book “Stillness is the Key” speaks to the dangers of burnout when it comes to an activity we love:

“When we take something relaxing and turn it into a compulsion, it’s not leisure because we are no longer *choosing* it. There is no stillness in that.”

(It is important to understand the concept of the word leisure here – according to Holiday   “When most of us hear the word leisure we think of lounging around and doing nothing. In fact, this is a perversion of a sacred notion. In Greek, “leisure” is rendered as “Schole” – that is school. Leisure historically meant..freedom for intellectual or creative pursuits.”)

Anyone who has ever overtrained has surely experienced what Holiday is talking about – when we lose sight of the fun of our favorite activity and become a slave to the spreadsheet and the compulsion to work out. That’s one of the reasons why we have rest days and recovery weeks. But even still, if you are an overtrainer like me, sometimes using those recovery times feels like slacking off. The temptation not to do it is strong.

Or maybe the compulsion to get away and paddle ourselves into a Level Four escape from the news, or the job or virtual school or any of the other new challenges we face now is driving us away from the reason why most of us started paddling in the first place.

That’s the perfect time to take a shinrin-yoku paddle.

Or bike ride, or hike. Or walk.

It is a concept that can be applied to any outdoor activity, as explained in Dr. Susan Bartlett Hackenmiller’s book “The Outdoor Adventurer’s Guide to Forest Bathing.”

Surfers, in their own way, do this sort of practice when they take a “soul surf” – when they paddle out for the shear enjoyment of being on the water, and being one with the wave and the forces of nature that power it. When it doesn’t matter how big the wave is, or how many waves they get or how many cutbacks they do. They just surf. Being present on the wave.

When you think of it, it is another way to not only love the conditions, but be mindful for them and present in them.