Finding Balance

Finding balance on a paddleboard, as well as in life, can be difficult.  When we talk about balance, we often think of a static balance. Picture a tower of rocks stacked on the beach. The artist works diligently to stack the rocks precisely so that the center of mass of one is balanced perfectly with that of another.  Upon completion, the tower will stand motionless, save for the slight push of wind, vibrations through the ground, and random quantum jiggling. It is an effortless balance once set. It’s a balance we often seek in life, hoping that, if we could just get one last metaphorical stone in place, we’ll have a balance that will last as long as we live.

But there is another type of balance. It’s a dynamic balance, wavering back and forth, approaching, but never reaching, an idealized static balance.  A yogi may hold a seemingly motionless pose, but closer inspection reveals subtle movements, muscles flexing and releasing, adapting as needed to uphold the illusion of a quiet stillness. Though she may make it look effortless, she is in a constant flux between opposing forces.

One of the questions we get most often when talking about paddleboarding is whether good balance is needed. The answer is, of course, yes, there is a sense of balance that is needed to stay on the board. But it is not as simple as that. When the question is asked, people often think of a static balance. They believe they either have it, and can paddleboard, or they don’t, and cannot. What’s important to realize is that the type of balance needed on a paddleboard is a dynamic balance. It is a continual process, which is not found once and made to stay, but must be found over and over again as movements and conditions affect the stability of the board.

We are fortunate to live on a large, solid globe, that is relatively unchanged by our movements. (Though, our collective actions may certainly change it, as we are seeing with climate change. This is a disruption to the global climatic balance, which is also a dynamic balance. The farther it is pushed out of balance, the more forcefully it will have to swing back as it strives toward equilibrium. It is an important issue, but perhaps one better saved for a different post.) When we move about on the Earth, it’s position and orientation in space is practically unchanged.

Step onto a paddleboard, which floats on a fluid surface and is much closer to the size of the paddler than is the Earth, and everything changes. The effect of even the smallest movements is immediately visible. Pushing weight down on your paddling side leg causes that rail to dip into the water. Push too hard, and the board’s center of buoyancy moves so far from beneath the paddler that they fall into the water. To prevent this, the paddler must adjust and put more weight on their opposite foot. When first learning, the tendency is to over correct, often transferring weight so quickly as to cause the other side of the board to dip, and the paddler falls off the other side. After some time on the board, the paddler learns to become more subtle, so that their movements have less of an effect on the board. Like someone learning to drive, they learn to anticipate changes in advance, and adjust early and often to make their paddling smoother. An experienced paddler will appear effortless in maintaining their balance, but, like the yogi, closer inspection will reveal constant movements to keep close to, but never at, an idealized state.

If this subtle, dynamic balance delivers a quieter, smoother paddle on the water, we can expect that it can help us live a quieter, smoother life as well. On a board, there are constantly forces at work that try to disrupt an achieved balance. Waves lift and lower the board, causing the center of buoyancy to slosh from side to side.  The wind pushes the nose of the board away from it, while the tide drags the board along its gravity slide. The ocean is in a constant state of change, and in order to stay balanced on the board, we must learn to anticipate and adapt to these changes. In honing our dynamic balance, we learn to navigate these changes with subtle movements, so that the balance becomes part of our paddling, and is minimally disruptive to our experience.

Like the ocean, our lives are also in a constant state of change.  We strive to live a balanced life of good health, stable finances, and lasting friendships, but this is often thrown out of balance by illness, unexpected job loss or expenses, or friends or loved ones moving away or passing. We are often powerless to stop these changes, and usually cannot even predict them specifically. But if we accept the fact that we live in an ever changing world, we can learn, just like when paddleboarding, to anticipate and adapt to these changes.

Aaron Mearns