Bay Area fitness community moves from yoga studios to paddleboards in the pandemic

It’s 6 a.m. on a recent Saturday. The Sausalito waterfront sky is dim. Steve Hayward, Seatrek’s Fitness Program Manager, is here early to check the air quality monitor on the porch outside his office. If the Air Quality Index (AQI) is 140 and rising toward the red zone, he starts sending texts and emails, cancelling upcoming paddleboarding and kayaking reservations.

Leigh Claxton, who shares the dock and teaches classes for Seatrek, is one of the folks waiting to hear from Hayward. Poor air quality is the latest significant issue Claxton has navigated this year. Her unusual-sounding business, however, is managing just fine.

That business, under the Seatrek umbrella, is called OnBoardSUP, which brings yoga out of the studio and onto paddleboards. (SUP stands for stand-up paddleboarding.) It’s an idyllic-sounding combination — if you’re coordinated, anyway — and was among the first fitness classes in the area to re-open after the COVID-19 shutdown. Working with the Marin County Health Department, Seatrek implemented localized safety protocols including sanitizing equipment and extended business hours to limit groups to no more than 15. Instead of walk-ins, reservations are now required.

An OnBoardSUP class in session.

An OnBoardSUP class in session.

Courtesy of OnBoardSUP: SF Bay

While gyms are shuttered and team sports are on hold, many people have hit the water and opted to attempt a relatively safe, socially distant outdoor exercise. “All over the world, kayaking, paddleboarding and bicycling is up,” Hayward says. “What else are you going to do for exercise?” Sure enough, according to the market research group NPD, paddle sports saw a 56% increase in sales in June 2020 compared with June 2019. Claxton, who’s been teaching for 11 years, says her Saturday and Sunday classes are usually sold out early in the week.

Without gym access, Jody Baron, an infectious disease doctor at UCSF, has doubled her paddleboard yoga time. “It’s the only thing you can do in-person as a group right now,” she says.

Baron found a listing for paddleboard yoga while searching online for a less involved yoga on the beach. After months of feeling hesitant, she decided to give it a try. “It’s intimidating,” she says. “I didn’t know anyone who was doing it. But I thought, if I don’t do it now, I never will. So I just showed up.”

Cathy Stauffer initially felt the same way: “I’d always been intrigued by paddleboarding, but it seemed out of my reach,” she says. She thought she wouldn’t be able to stand up on the board, let alone do yoga on the board, but signed up for a class and has been hooked ever since. “For me, nothing beats exercising outdoors,” she says. “Add to that the seals, the sea lions, the feel of the wind, and the unbelievably beautiful views you get of the city from Sausalito. I grew up here but I never really had a connection to the water before.”

An OnBoardSUP participant.

An OnBoardSUP participant.

Courtesy of OnBoardSUP: SF Bay

A “connection to the water” isn’t immediate — almost everybody’s afraid they’ll fall in at first. “People are super wobbly on the board at the beginning,” Claxton says, “but within about 30 minutes that stops. It’s easier to find balance on the board than on a floor, because the board gives you feedback when you’re off-center and you naturally correct.” She’s even had non-swimmers take her classes.

Most yoga paddleboarders are studio practitioners, but not always, and Claxton does offer beginner classes. Jordan Hymowitz, an investment manager, tried it for the first time to help recover from surgery. “I’ve been an athlete over the years and I like being outdoors on the water. It’s difficult to fall off, unless you’re a klutz like me,” he jokes. He did fall. But it was no big deal and easy enough to get back on the board. “It’s relaxing for my back,” he says, “which is the main reason I do it.”

While paddleboard yoga is available at other locations, Claxton says some people drive from the South Bay because “it’s special here. There’s always something happening on the waterfront.”

Baron agrees: “It’s a respite from everything that’s going on in the world for a short period of time,” she says. “Being outside on the water doing yoga poses is an amazing experience. Everything feels so natural.”

Christina Leimer is an independent journalist, author and researcher living in Marin. She enjoys living close to the natural world and can be reached at her website:

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