Yoga for Paddling: Poses for Untweaking Mid-Season

ArticleMarch 09, 2022

So you’ve been livin’ the dream and paddling every chance you get this summer. But your low back is starting to hurt, your hips feel super tight and your shoulder is tweaked.

If you’re experiencing one or more of these common paddler aches and pains, it could mean that the repetitive motions and body positions of paddling are starting to wear down your body. It’s time to introduce opposite actions and positions to help reduce the risk of injury and keep you paddling until the end of the season. Here are my seven favorite poses to keep you going when the paddling is good.

Flexion/Extension of the Spine

Your spine acts as a shock absorber, like a spring. That’s why your spine has three curves to it. For optimal health and paddling performance, it’s really important that your natural curves maintain their shape. Once the curves start to lose their curvature, or exacerbate their curvature, the risk of herniated and bulging discs increases.

Moving your spine through both flexion and extension helps it to return toward optimal alignment. Sitting is the biggest culprit for low back pain and problems so listen up kayakers!

This exercise is super simple and has big payoff for your spine if you practice it consistently.

  • Start on all fours with your hands and knees equally aligned.
  • If your knees are sensitive then place a folded blanket or pillow underneath them for comfort.
  • Inhale, soften between the shoulder blades, lift the hips and look up.
  • Exhale, press the floor away with your hands and knees, round the spine like a Halloween cat and tuck the chin.
  • Repeat this movement in rhythm with your breath for at least five rounds. More if your body tells you it needs more.

Shoulder Blade Push Ups

This is one of the most beneficial exercises that paddlers can do for their shoulders. PT recommended and approved too!

Shoulder blade push-ups isolate the shoulder blades to help strengthen the upper part of the back, which is weakest in paddlers, while helping to bring the shoulders back toward optimal alignment and counteracting the repetitive motion of paddling forward. This is a must-practice pose for shoulder health over the long run.

  • Start on all fours with your hands and knees equally aligned.
  • Come down to your forearms and walk your knees back a few inches.
    Shoulder Blade Push Ups
  • Maintain a strong core so that your upper body moves as one unit, for this exercise there should be no flexion and extension movement in the spine.
  • Exhale and squeeze your shoulder blades together on your back.
    Shoulder Blade Push Ups
  • Next, press into the floor with your hands to also press your shoulder blades apart as you inhale.
    Shoulder Blade Push Ups
  • Repeat this movement in rhythm with your breath at least ten times.
  • Once you get the hang of this exercise you can perform the squeezing and releasing of the shoulder blades while sitting, driving and standing.

Side Plank Side Stretch Variation

This is one of my favorite stretches because the positioning of this pose offers a deeper side stretch than other variations. It strengthens the underside of the body while opening the top side. It also targets the quadratus lumborum which hikes the hip, a muscle often strained from balancing on a SUP and/or hip snapping and edge control in a kayak.

  • Start on all fours with your hands and knees equally aligned.
    Side Plank Side Stretch Variation
  • Keep your left knee where it is on the mat, and angle your left foot out to the left as if it were a kick-stand on a bike.
    Side Plank Side Stretch Variation
  • Extend the right foot back and place the right heel down so that the entire right foot is on the mat. Keep your right knee slightly bent and press the outer edge of the right foot strongly into the ground.
  • Take your left shoulder back on your back and extend your right arm up to the sky.
    Side Plank Side Stretch Variation
  • Stick your butt out slightly like you’re booty dancing.
  • Extend your right arm by your right ear, palm facing down.
    Side Plank Side Stretch Variation
  • Inhale as you press your back foot into the mat strongly and at the same time, extend through your fingertips.
  • Exhale here.
  • Hold for 5 breaths—deep and easy—in through the nose and out through the nose.
  • Repeat on the other side.

Down Dog

Down dog is a staple yoga pose. It’s actually considered a resting pose, and the more you practice it, the more lovely it feels. The pose stretches the hamstring, strengthens the shoulders and, offers a gentle inversion. When you move and groove in the pose you can also get into your hips.

  • Start on all fours with your hands and knees equally aligned.
  • Curl your toes under.
  • Press the floor away with your hands to lift your hips toward the sky.
  • Your body will form the top two lines of a triangle, with your hips being the top of the triangle.
  • Continue to press the floor away with your hands as you broaden your upper back and press your chest toward your legs.
  • Soften your knees and stick your butt out like your booty dancing (yes, I say this for every pose!)
  • Move and groove here, alternate bending one knee and then the other, lifting one hip and then the other. Pause where you sense your body needs more time.
  • Settle into your down dog and hold for 5 breaths—deep and easy—in through the nose and out through the nose.
  • To release the pose, slowly come back to all fours.

Low Lunge

The deal with low back pain and discomfort is that it almost never has anything to do with your back. Most discomfort in the low back is a result of tight hip flexors and quads that pull the pelvis out of alignment.

When the pelvis is out of alignment, the muscles in the low back attempt to hold their own and correct the situation, but they’re not strong enough compared to the strength of the hip flexors. When the hip flexors lengthen, low back discomfort lessens and can even go away. The low lunge is an easy and effective stretch for the hip flexors.

  • Start standing, step your left foot back and lower your left knee to the ground.
  • Your right foot is forward with the knee bent over the ankle.
    Low Lunge
  • If your front foot isn’t far enough forward for your heel to be on the ground and your knee bent at a 90 degree angle over the ankle, you won’t feel a stretch in your left hip flexor and you risk tweaking your knee.
  • Place your hands on your front thigh or hips and gently squeeze your shoulders back.
    Low Lunge
  • Stick your butt out slightly like a booty dancer and press your front heel and back knee strongly into the mat.
  • Hold for 5 breaths—deep and easy—in through the nose and out through the nose.
  • Switch sides and repeat.

Runner’s Stretch

This pose has your body in a better position to do a hamstring stretch than a full forward fold, which can be hard on your back, especially in the middle of the season. I add some very subtle alignment cues to make the pose more effective without having to fold over the front leg, which as paddlers with tight hips and backs at this point in the season, we don’t want to do.

  • Start in low lunge position with your hands on either side of your front foot.
  • Shift the hips back to lengthen through the front leg as you lift your front toes off the floor, but keep your heel down.
    Runner’s Stretch
  • Press strongly in your front heel and stick your butt out. Doing these two actions at the same time will deepen the stretch and get farther more into the ‘belly’ of the hamstring.
  • Be sure to keep your front knee soft.
  • Keep your chest lifted and as you continue to take your sitz bones back and apart. The goal is not to fold over your front leg, but to keep your chest lifted
  • Hold for 5 breaths—deep and easy—in through the nose and out through the nose.
  • Switch sides and repeat.

Spider Cobra

This is a therapeutic version of cobra pose that’s especially beneficial for paddlers. The positioning of the arms allows for strengthening of the weakest part of the back for paddlers (the area between the shoulder blades).

The knots that paddlers tend to feel in and around their shoulder blades don’t happen because we’re so strong. They happen because that area of the back is weak compared to our pecs. As our strong pecs pull our shoulders forward, the weakened upper back muscles get overstretched, stressed and tight.

Imagine a rubber band. As you pull on the rubber band to stretch it, it gets tighter, not looser. This is the misconception about stretching.

Spider cobra is an effective stretch that can help strengthen the upper back and bring the shoulders back toward optimal alignment. It also allows for a lengthening of the neck and tops of the shoulders.

The positioning of the arms and hands in this pose make it easy to draw the shoulders back, an important aspect of reducing the risk of strain and injury to the shoulder joint and rotator cuff.

  • Lie on your belly with your forehead on the floor.
  • Extend your arms out from your shoulders with your elbows bent at 90 degrees and pointed toward the sky.
  • Bring your hands up on your fingertips so your hands look like little ‘tents’.
    Spider Cobra
  • Bend your knees slightly and gently press them into the floor.
  • Press your fingers into the floor, especially your thumbs, to squeeze your shoulder blades towards one another on your back.
  • Press your forehead gently into the floor.
  • You’ll feel a nice stretch across the chest, in the fronts of the shoulders and in the neck.
  • Hold for 5 deep and easy breaths in and out through the nose.

You can put these poses into a nice flow that would look like this:

  • Flexions/extensions of the spine
  • Shoulder blade push-ups
  • Side plank side stretch variation each side
  • Down dog
  • Low lunge
  • Runner’s stretch
  • Spider Cobra
  • Low lunge other side
  • Runner’s stretch other side
  • Down dog
  • Back to hands and knees

Remember, consistency is key! If you simply ignore the pain, it won’t go away, it’ll only worsen. So practice these poses three-four times a week during peak paddling season. And don’t forget to take some rest days, too!

If you’d like to dive deeper into yoga for paddling you can pick up a copy of her book Yoga for Paddling or check out her downloadable yoga classes. Anna will work with you to design a custom yoga sequence at:

With 20+ years of experience as an accomplished whitewater paddler and instructor, NRS Ambassador Anna Levesque is the leading expert on kayak instruction for women and yoga and wellness for paddling, including SUP Yoga.