It’s 11am on a Tuesday and I am supine, sun-kissed and smiling. With the exception of my fingertips lightly tapping the surface of the water, I lay motionless, focused only on the sound of the waves breaking outside the reef. The gentle current from the incoming tide is a quiet reminder that the lagoon and big ocean are connected—even though from my floating, balanced position on that lagoon right now, it is difficult to imagine.
When my eyes open, there isn’t a ripple on the turquoise water. With a clearer mind, I rise slowly, again, to my feet. I grab my paddle and take a few hard strokes toward the little island, or motu, in the distance. I ponder for a moment, the expanding possibilities for both relaxation and exercise now available on Rarotonga. On this day, I will choose more than one—beginning with this stand-up paddleboard.
Stand-up paddleboards, or SUPs, are still a fairly new sight on Raro. Although for centuries various cultures have used oars, poles, boards and boats to propel themselves through water while standing, it seems our modern form of stand-up paddleboarding—SUPing—came from Hawaii. Inspired by an iconic video of Hawaiian surfing legend Duke Kahanamoku riding an Australian surf ski, Hawaiian surfers Laird Hamilton and Dave Kalama took it to new levels by riding big waves on SUPs, which gained a ton of media attention. They revolutionized the design and versatility of the SUP and right around the year 2005, the sport’s popularity exploded.
It was also in Hawaii that SUPing in Rarotonga would get a boost. Charlotte Piho, the Cook Islands’ first certified SUP-Yoga instructor, was on holiday in Hawaii when she first saw people paddling and riding waves on SUPs. She was enamored. “I thought it was such a beautiful sport, such an island sport,” said Charlotte, who was living in Australia at the time. She was determined to combine her love for the water with her passion to show people where she came from, the Cook Islands. Paddleboarding seemed the perfect fit. “It was my destiny,” she exclaimed.
Since then, she racked up the necessary credentials and developed a series of retreats she has termed “Workout on Water.” During the retreats on Rarotonga and Aitutaki, she teaches yoga on stand-up paddleboards and mixes in the culture of the islands she calls home. “I can’t wait to try it,” I thought. Now a certified master SUP-Yoga trainer, she has built a local and international following for her unique retreats in paradise. “SUP-Yoga maximizes your core workout,” she said. “It’s a bit more like Pilates because you have to use your core to stay on the board.”
Charlotte is quick to discern, however, that SUP-Yoga isn’t all about strength and balance of your body. “Yoga is really about trying to build a strong mind.” She admits that she can only meditate properly on a paddleboard and that while some folks feel more comfortable practicing yoga on land, the Cooks are the perfect place to give yoga on water a go. “I’ve paddled all over the world and still, the Cook Islands are the best place. It’s clean, it’s calm and it’s beautiful.” She continued, “Being on the board is quite a spiritual experience. You look up and see all the mountains, you are on the ocean and the whole thing just makes you really happy.” With my view of the island right now, I’d have to agree.
As I paddle through the lagoon in Titikaveka, I see a small family laughing while testing their paddleboard balance in the shallows. It appears that SUPing makes them happy too. Not part of a class, this family rented their boards from Charlie’s Café and Beach Rentals nearby, one of the newer establishments capitalizing on the growing demand for SUPs on the island.
Three years ago, stand-up paddleboarding was the fastest growing sport on the planet. Last year, it remained at the top of the charts and for good reason, just about anyone can do it. SUPs are extremely versatile. You can paddle past the outer reef with a mask and snorkel. You can ride waves. You can workout or leisurely paddle on the lagoon with friends. Here on Rarotonga, you can practice yoga on the boards and even take dogs for a ride. SUPing, like paddling in a canoe, allows for a different perspective on the beauty of these islands.
Further south near Muri, a few kite surfers come into view. “I’m going to catch you,” I mumble to myself, determined to sprint the final 500 meters to the motu, signaling the end of my workout. I bend my knees a bit more, spread my toes and grip the board hard. With each stroke, the board planes better than the last. As I pick up speed, a few strokes feel great, a few not quite right at this pace. I wonder why it seems difficult to stay in a straight line. “Is there a current? Am I leaning to one side?” My confidence drops a smidge and I decide that after this paddle, it’s time to go see Brynn.
Brynn Acheson is a SUP instructor, a Pilates instructor, a kitesurfing instructor, and fitness coach extraordinaire. She is the co-owner of KiteSUP Cook Islands and she is going to fix my technique, of this I am certain. I end my paddle just in front of Koka Lagoon Cruises where KiteSUP hires boards and windsurfers. She could be teaching a lesson or guiding a tour on boards around the Muri lagoon. Brynn and her partner Ina are always working so I am surprised when I don’t find them. I waddle up to their shop on the main road in Muri, my board in tow. “Doh!” It dawns on me that it’s late in the day and most shops are closed. Realizing I’ve still got a solid paddle back to my house in Vaimaanga, I stop on the beach for a quick stretch. If I was really tough, I might continue my paddling tour by jumping onto one of Ariki Holidays’ new night SUP excursions down in Avana. Jules & KT’s new venture includes an LED lighting system on the bottom of the paddleboards, revealing the wonders of the lagoon’s nightlife. Said to be a relaxing night on the lagoon easy enough for kids, my tired body begs me to get home.
On the beach, I muster a few sun salutations—the motions lengthening tight muscles on my back, legs and neck. My body is begging for a session on the yoga mat after this colossal paddle. Luckily, there are now a number of different yoga styles taught on Raro. Depending on how I feel in the morning, I have the option of a gentle or more rigorous practice.
Before I knew much about yoga, I envisioned it as something a group of folks unlike me would do in a meadow or on a mountaintop, chanting and breathing heavily. It was certainly not for me or anyone who didn’t fit the stereotype I had built in my mind. I was, of course, so wrong.
Yoga practice was brought to the Western world by Indian gurus, but its origin predates written history in Hindu and Buddhist cultures. Since the 1980s, its popularity as a universal form of physical, mental and spiritual exercise has continued to grow. A style and level of yoga exists for nearly everyone and like most brilliant discoveries, its emergence on Rarotonga came from an unexpected place—a Catholic church.
Father Tony from St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Arorangi practiced yoga—religiously. Members of the church, curious about what he was doing, asked Father Tony to teach them. Stating that he was not a yoga instructor, he instead invited the inquisitive few to practice Ashtanga yoga with him at the church.
In 2003, Victoria Dearlove attended one of his ‘classes’. She was a city girl from New Zealand who had never done yoga and, she hated it. “I couldn’t move!” she said, remembering that first class. But something in her wanted to stick with it. Ashtanga yoga is described as quite dynamic, requiring a focus on the same series of poses, which at glance, seems to focus only on the strength and flexibility aspects of yoga.
Intent on improving her practice, Victoria and a few others got together more frequently in the basement of the church. In time, Victoria became quite attached to her practice.
She became the first certified yoga instructor on Rarotonga. She invites international guest teachers to host yoga workshops here and even spent time in India last year to further her studies.
Victoria jokes that due to the physicality of Ashtanga, it seems to appeal to “type A” personalities. “People go into it for physical aspects, but then they appreciate the other benefits.” But what is made clear in her description is that anyone can have a go. She most certainly did not have the background she thought was necessary to practice, let alone teach yoga.
Something I find a refreshingly common theme amongst yoga teachers on Raro is that there is no “better” style of yoga. Each encourages newcomers of every shape and size. And each instructor brings their unique personality and history to their teaching style, an example of which I learned through my first class with another of Rarotonga’s yoga instructors—Maya Carroll (Yogi Maya, as she is known on the island).
Like Victoria, Maya was a city girl who came to yoga as a bit of an accident. Her first class was in high school and when it finished she thought “Where has this been all my life!?” But it wasn’t until she was a full time marketing professional in Chicago that she realized her stress levels were getting the better of her. “Something had to change” she said.
Maya began practicing yoga more often as a way to let go of stress and eventually, that meant letting go of her full time job and life in the States as well. While she teaches private, therapeutic lessons as well as Power Vinyasa to the sounds of sweat inducing beats, the majority of Maya’s classes focus on a slower, gentler yoga she calls “Mindful Vinyasa.” She grounds her students in the fundamentals of the poses and weaves in philosophy to help them let go of stress and to relax, something I’ll desperately need after this workout.
Excited by the options available to improve my mind and body in this environment, I turn the board sharply toward the setting sun, take a few slow, deep breaths and begin the long paddle home.
Our grateful thanks to Justin Bastien, Charlotte Piho, Maya Carroll and Julian Zeman for the photos.