Chapel Hill: Sports

Board with plain yoga? It goes well with water

Fitness SUP Yoga’s Jen Cox demonstrates a ‘three-legged dog’ pose aboard a stand-up paddleboard on Sunday morning at Jordan Lake.
Fitness SUP Yoga’s Jen Cox demonstrates a ‘three-legged dog’ pose aboard a stand-up paddleboard on Sunday morning at Jordan Lake.

In their quest for bliss and serenity, yoga enthusiasts are ever-adventurous, always seeking bigger and better paths to health, wellness, and balance.

In fact, practitioners who have dabbled in Bikram yoga, hot yoga, acro-yoga, anti-gravity yoga and restorative yoga, are now more and more “getting board.”

Taking to the slow-moving streams, lakes, bays and seas, more and more yoga enthusiasts are coming to believe that yoga practice on a stand-up paddleboard (SUP) provides a better core workout due to the need for balance while performing poses.

Riding this wave in popularity are local instructors Maria Finnegan and her yoga instruction partner Jen Cox, who were offering three classes Sunday at Jordan Lake’s Vista Point, including a private early-morning class to a group from a local Research Park corporation.

“I usually ask people after an indoor class if they liked it,” Finnegan said. “When they say, ‘Yeah,’ I tell them that if they liked it indoors, just wait until they get onto a lake. ‘You’re going to love it.’”

Paddleboarding has been seen a steady rise for almost a decade, now reflecting the fastest-growing segment of the surf business in an industry valued in the tens of billions of dollars.

Stand-up paddleboarding, which first grew popular on the beaches of Hawaii in the 1960s, has spread to mainland waterways, even in urban settings,’s Ann Pizer wrote.

“It’s also a great way to get fit, as you work the legs and core to stay up on the board, and the arms and back to propel yourself,” she added. “The board is broad and stable enough that someone got the bright idea of treating it like a floating yoga mat, and SUP yoga was born.”

“I actually told Maria about SUP,” Cox said. “Then Maria got hooked just like I did, and she decided to take it to the next level.”

“We both went together and did our Fitness Onboard training in Austin (Texas) two summers ago together,” Finnegan said of her and Cox. “I’d had my 200 hours of yoga training, and Jen is now training as a yoga instructor. When I take larger groups, I always take Jen, because you really need two people.”

Finnegan, a wife and mother of three children, runs Maria Finnegan Fitness. She is a course instructor at Duke University and a fitness manager at Snap Fitness in Hillsborough. Athleta Clothing’s local sponsored athlete in Durham, her Fitness SUP Yoga has been voted the Triangle’s “Best Yoga Studio” by Endurance Magazine.

Speaking at a beginners’ class held at the Orange County SportsPlex pool last year, Finnegan said SUP yoga could work more core elements than traditional yoga.

“You’re getting the core work like you would with any other unstable surface,” she said. “All the muscles are being recruited in areas like your core, back, legs, all just to steady you so you won’t fall over.”

“Poses that are very familiar – downward-facing dog, lunge, or tree — suddenly become unfamiliar,” Finnegan added Sunday morning. “On the board, it makes people who have had experience more aware of ... imbalances. They have to, or else they’ll feel their board tipping.”

While a stand-up paddleboard in a pool can provide many advantages over traditional studio yoga, Finnegan raves about taking the practice to the great outdoors.

“On a lake, you get paddling time which you don’t get in a pool,” she said, “And on Jordan Lake, we’ve seen eagles, heron, and I’ve had a fish jump up on my board and then jump back into the water.”

“Yoga is relaxing, energizing and regenerative, but this takes it to an entirely new level,” she added. “You have Mother Nature for surroundings. You don’t need music – you have birds, crickets and frogs. You have a breeze, and you have sunshine on your face.”

Rebecca E. Allen recently asked Finnegan to teach a private class for a handful of participants from her company, where her role is to create opportunities for people, primarily in dance and fitness.

“This fit into both our yoga and our outdoor scene,” Allen said. “I just checked websites, and Maria’s was by far the best-organized. ... And she also had great testimonials.”

Class participant Chip Davis said he had some SUP experience.

“I love it,” he said, “so I’m definitely looking forward to it today. I’ve done wakeboarding, but this is more calm and relaxing. It works balance, which is interesting.”

First and foremost, Finnegan and Cox make sure their class participants overcome any fear of falling into the water.

“I try to coach people how to get back on a board while they’re still on land,” Finnegan said. “If somebody does fall, I usually tell them to take a breath and take a moment. The gut reaction is, ‘I need to get back up and get back into that pose.’ Usually, after someone falls, others realize that it’s not that scary, and then they relax and just go for it.

“What’s the worst case scenario?” Finnegan asked. “What if I do fall in a lake? It’ll catch me.”

“We also tell people to go ahead and try poses,” Cox said. “We cheer for people who fall; we whoop and holler, because it’s better to fall trying a pose than not really try at all. ”

There lies the allegory for living life that Finnegan says is her mantra. “I tell clients to take these principles and apply them to their day, family life and relationships,” she said. “Just like land yoga, SUP yoga teaches the tools of balance, trust and vulnerability on the board. Then I say, ‘How can we use this in life?’ I try to tell people not to beat themselves up if they fall; you just get back up again.”

Finnegan said, ultimately, those who try open-water SUP yoga gain confidence and are empowered.

“They really understand what it’s like to be grounded through both feet or grounded through hands and legs,” she said.

“I love seeing people who are shaky on the boards heading out onto the lake and then (so steady) coming back in,” Cox added.

“You watch their whole demeanor change: ‘I can do this; I’ve got this,’” Finnegan said.

Still on the rise thanks to the effervescence of advocates like Finnegan and Cox, it seems a couple hours walking on water can now leave yoga enthusiasts walking on air.

Information and updates on classes are available through or by emailing