As we rounded the bend into the Intracoastal Waterway, fitness expert and yoga instructor Kim Hess stood on one foot with her back against the mast of Short Story, the Columbia 28 I used to own. The choppy wakes from the North Miami weekend warriors cut across Short Story’s bow; Kim adjusted her balance and grinned. We hadn’t known each other long, but we’d already connected over the two activities we loved the most: sailing and yoga.
“You can use the mast to keep your back straight,” Kim said as we bounced over another wake. We were bound for Dania Beach, a couple of hours north on the ICW. With my boyfriend, Dan, at the tiller, Kim and I had no navigational responsibilities and unlimited use of Short Story’s tiny deck space. Kim was at the beginning stages of writing a book on how to practice yoga on board, and the deck of a 28-foot sailboat on a busy weekend in South Florida was our studio.
While we practiced sun salutations on the bow, I thought about all the things my family had done to stay in shape while I was growing up on Chez Nous, our Gulfstar 47. We spent countless afternoons snorkeling and spearfishing, back when spearfishing was still legal in the Bahamas. We hiked and explored new towns and islands. But when it came to being stuck on the boat during passages or periods of bad weather, our options were limited. My dad did pull-ups on the ratlines we’d strung between the shrouds. I ran in place for an hour every morning in the forward cabin, surely annoying the rest of my family to no end.
But nothing felt as natural or as good as standing in tree pose with my back against the mast or flowing into upward-facing dog with my face pointed out toward the water. Kim, who’d been teaching yoga classes in Miami Beach for three years, showed me how I could adapt everything I’d learned in my regular yoga classes to the deck of my sailboat. Using the lifelines for support, I could stretch into a warrior pose and lean dangerously over the side, becoming more conscious of what it means to really know the deck of your boat and to know your own limits within that space.
Kim, who’s originally from McCall, Idaho, started teaching yoga classes on the beach in Sayulita, Mexico, where she stayed for several months in 1999. She’d been a fitness and aerobics instructor in Idaho and was also involved in the field of transformational growth, so she was no stranger to the ideas and concepts of yoga. When she returned to Mexico in 2004, she began participating in some of the local regattas with the cruising community in the area and continued teaching her yoga classes on the beach.
The idea to combine yoga and sailing started developing for Kim in Mexico, but she took it a step further when she moved to Miami and completed her yoga-teacher training with Synergy Center. She lived aboard a friend’s Tayana for a short while afterward, and once she’d moved back ashore, she found herself jumping at any opportunity to get back aboard a boat. She started volunteering at Shake-A-Leg Miami, a nonprofit organization that teaches people with disabilities how to sail. “Shake-A-Leg is how I practice my karma yoga,” she says.
Kim’s book, Yoga On Board: A Guide for Cruisers and Liveaboards, grew from her experiences sailing with friends and practicing and teaching yoga in many different situations. “You can take your practice with you wherever you go,” she says. “A lot of people feel limited to only practicing in a yoga class or in the privacy of their own homes. But why not take your mat or a towel to the beach, or practice on the dock next to your boat? Practicing in a place you love only enhances the experience.”
Kim has studied Iyengar, Ashtanga, Bikram, and Sivananda yoga, and in her classes she stresses that everyone should practice according to their own levels of strength and flexibility. When teaching private classes aboard people’s boats, she has a keen sense of how to use different parts of the boat as props and supports to suit the crew’s needs. For example, the book discusses ways to use sail ties as yoga straps and how to incorporate the shape of your cockpit into your seated forward bends.
In the year that followed our sail that day on Short Story, Kim and I spent many evenings practicing yoga on the beach in Dania, figuring out new variations of old poses that could be adapted to the deck of Short Story and working on her book together. Chapters, sections, ideas, and photos flew back and forth via e-mail, and late-night phone calls about finding the perfect way to say something filled my world like they’d been happening forever. One night in January, while I was driving through central Florida on my way home from a writers conference, Kim called to tell me that the book was ready to go to the printer. The project was done.
Yoga On Board (Blue Duck Enterprises, $23), released just before the 2007 Miami International Boat Show, is an 80-page spiral-bound book with laminated, water-resistant pages; it’s designed so you can lay it down in the cockpit or on deck and glance at the pages while you’re practicing. It includes sections on the history of yoga; yoga principles; definitions of the chakras, the system of energy “wheels” located along the spine; step-by-step instructions for each pose (including the health benefits of that particular pose); a section in which the poses are combined to create a full practice; gorgeous photos; and much more. It’s available online at Kim’s website (www.yogaonboard.com) and at such marine retailers as Sailorman (www.sailorman.com) and Bluewater Books & Charts and Armchair Sailor, which share a website (www.bluewaterweb.com). Kim is also a regular at the Strictly Sail boat shows, selling her book at the authors booth and teaching yoga classes and seminars. Her website includes updates on where to find the book and where she’ll be presenting.
“You have to change the way you think in order to practice on board,” Kim says. “You’re dealing with a whole new set of issues, like trying to balance on a surface that’s always moving and trying to practice on a surface that’s not flat.” In her seminars, she teaches participants to do a full practice while sitting in their chairs-practicing in the confined space of a chair is similar to practicing on board-including back bends, twists, stretches, and even a seated, concluding relaxation pose.
A yoga practice can also be moved from the deck to inside the cabin. Kim’s book shows how settees and berths make great places on which to do the same poses that one would practice in the cockpit and points out how most cabin soles are big enough to stretch down lengthwise.
Kim’s 45 years old now, and she’s ready to move on to her next adventure; she hopes to be cruising aboard her own boat before too long. “One thing I’ve realized over the past year is that I shouldn’t be afraid of doing it on my own. When I started sailing, it was always with a man at the helm, but being single isn’t going to keep me from doing the things I love. It’s all about balance.”
Melanie Neale, a freelance writer living in Florida, is the daughter of Tom and Mel Neale. She and her sister, Carolyn, grew up aboard the family’s cruising boat, Chez Nous, a Gulfstar 47.