If you've discovered and deepened your practice in the confines of a studio space, you've probably been tempted to take those asanas off the mat and out into the world. You've dreamt of, and maybe even tried freestyle yoga: standing tall with in trees in thick of the forest; lunging deep into a strong warrior on the beach, toes buried in the sand; or flowing through sun salutations in mismatched pyjamas in your kitchen. I, myself am a big fan of freestyle yoga, in fact I may have taken the former examples from my own experiences.
I had seen yoga practiced on stand up paddleboards (SUP) by my friends in the Caribbean, and I had yearned to bring my yoga off the mat and onto the water. This past spring, I set the intention to do so, despite being landlocked in the prairies.
In a serendipitous moment in July, on a friend of a friend's stoop in Winnipeg's Osborne Village, I met Corey-Jill Lakusiak. Our connection was instant; women woven of the same cloth. When I told her about the Prairie Yogi community, this radiating yogini extended to us an invitation to join her and her family at their cabin on Lake of the Woods for a weekend of yoga and paddle boarding bliss.
The power of intention, what an incredible thing.
Just a few days later, Monique & I were greeted with hugs from Corey-Jill and her brother Scott on a dock in Sioux Narrows, Ontario. Meeting the inspiring group of women we would be spending the weekend , we realized that this experience was a rare gift. The women, who all varied in age, experience and background, each shared a friendship through yoga with the Lakusiaks for many years, some even decades. A ticket to Freestyle Island was not something that could be bought. Scott, owner of Abandon Shore Paddle Boarding, joked that they would have to blindfold us for the 25 minute boat ride to the island to ensure the location of their sanctuary be kept secret.
With no idea of what the weekend had in store for us, I left all expectation there on the dock behind us - a skill I have only recently learned in my years of practicing.
Upon our arrival on the figure-8 shaped island, appropriately named Freestyle Island, we discover that this slice of prairie paradise has just about everything a yogi could ever need to find bliss. A screened in yoga studio built off the main cabin sits perched over Lake of the Woods: a breeze blowing in off the water tickles chimes that echo in the background. The meditation bench - happily removed from the cabin, is nestled under a shady tree and is the perfect place to discover calm and serenity, or to reconnect with their dusty copy of the Tao te Ching. And a sandcastle-worthy beach welcomes soft waves from Lake of the Woods, where some of the freshest water in the world tempts you to take a dip.
Behind the beach, a path leads you through an enchanted forest to a magical back bay that is home to otters, blue herons, bald eagles, moose, deer, bear and plenty of fish. "This place is practically Narnia!" Said Monique Pantel, Prairie Yogi Online's Creative Director, who found her happy place paddle-boarding on the back bay with the wild life early in the mornings.
Freestyle Island operates off the grid using solar panels and biodegradable/eco friendly waste treatments and has been in the Lakusiak family for over 20 years. Gene & Lynn, Corey-Jill and Scotts parents, are the heart and soul of Freestyle Island. What an incredible family that totally embodies the prairie yogi spirit! Lynn, owner of Yoga at St-Marks in Winnipeg is one of the matrons of Anusara yoga in Canada, radiating inspiration and grace. And Gene is an ex- Defensive Back for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers whose football career took its toll on his body, he was once hardly able to lift his arms above his head. Yoga helped him regain mobility and flexibility and now has full range of motion in his shoulders.
Scott's passion for SUP is a perfect complement to the yogis in his family, and Abandon Shore Paddle Boarding & Yoga at St Mark's teamed up to run the weekend activities together. Lynn lead us through a challenging morning practice, with a focus on proper alignment, core strength, and grounding into the feet - elements that would help us being our asanas onto the SUP. After a scrumptious vegan breakfast, it came time to bring it together, and I couldn't wait to go freestyle on the board. Scott got us set up with one quick SUP lesson, and we were off! He couldn't help but notice the ease with which yogis were able to balance on the SUP their very first attempt, "must be the core strength and innate balance," he said.
We paddled to the calmer waters of the back bay where we tossed our paddles aside, and Lynn lead us through the asanas as we all experimented with yoga on the SUP for the first time. "It's like a floating yoga mat!" Corey-Jill exclaimed while testing out bridge pose on her SUP.
It was interesting to discover which postures were more and less challenging on the board. Balancing postures, my usual go-to freestyle move, proved to be much more difficult on the SUP, and my first attempt at crow pose, I fell face-first into the drink. A refreshing lesson that falling out of your pose isn't a bad thing. From the water, Lynn coached us, with cues to help with alignment, and we all started to get it, finding the postures that worked best on the SUP: plank; extended side angle; downward facing dog; wide legged forward folds (some of the yogi, including 70 year old Gene Lakusiak, popped up into headstand); and king pigeon. Essentially, the more points of contact you had on the board, the better.
The highlight of the weekend for me was our photo shoot at sunset. Mother Nature co-operated and delivered a fantastic sunset full of passionate pinks and fiery oranges for our backdrop, and Corey-Jill and Lori-Joe Lindroos (from Kenora, Ontario) made SUP-yoga poetry happen out on the water for all of us to see. They even hopped onto one board together and did some partner work. I thought my heart was going to burst with happiness.
At the end of the day, I felt nourished. The challenging morning yoga practice nourished our bodies with beautiful energy, the scrumptious vegan meals nourished our bellys, SUP in the sun into the wetlands full of wildlife nourished our spirits and the kula- the community- of incredible women and men on this retreat nourished the soul.
And the best part - we got to do it all over again the next day! :)
For Manitoba yogis looking to get their hands on SUP and create their own freestyle retreat, contact Scott Lakusiak at Abandon Shore Paddle Boarding, for rental and purchase information and for inspirational workshops over the winter, check out Yoga at St-Mark's calendar.
A big thank you to the Lakusiak family, Yoga at St Mark's, and Abandon Shore Paddle Boarding for such an incredible experience! Freestylers for life! <3
Rachelle Taylor is a writer, yogi, photographer, and the founder of Prairie Yogi Magazine. Taylor forged a deep connection to her practice while living in the Cayman Islands on a working holiday. The return to her hometown, in the heart of Canada, inspired her to create PYM with the intention to inspire, educate, and bring together the strong yoga community of the prairies. She currently lives in Winnipeg, Canada.