In the depths of the winter, after a kundalini class, a friendly fellow yogini named Francie asked me if I’d be interested in trying out dragonboating. Keep in mind I was riding the high that you can only get when your dormant kundalini serpent has been awakened from its lethargy by a series of repeated squats, twists, full-body dancing and gut-wrenching planks. I was feeling pretty damn invincible. And keep in mind that Francie is very cheerful and bubbly and convincing. “The name of the team is the Saggin’ Dragons! We have so much fun!”
In retrospect, I should have noted the fact that, unlike me, Francie does the three-legged planks without collapsing in the middle of the set.
Dragonboating! I thought. What a great idea! We’re living right next to the ocean, I should do something on the water! I know how to kayak. How hard can it be?
“Sure,” I said. “Why not?”
Winter turned into spring. Francie told me that other people had invited potential dragonboaters, too, so for the moment there wasn’t an opening on the team. Spring turned into summer. We went on a lovely four-day kayak trip, drove around the Canadian rockies, reveled in a Vancouver summer. You may have noticed I didn’t write a whole lot.
One day in August, I had a message on my phone. It was Francie! I hadn’t seen her in ages. Was I still interested? Sure, why not?
I still cannot understand why I didn’t do the most obvious thing anyone would do when contemplating taking up a new activity in 2014: I didn’t go onto Youtube and watch a video of people actually doing dragonboating. All I can think was that I must have been feeling very smug after our kayaking trip, which involved a couple of harrowing open-water crossings in high winds.
In the car on the way to that first practice, Francie tells me she’s over 60. “NO WAY!” I exclaim. She looks like she’s about 35. She gets up every morning before dawn to drive to her job. She also tells me the team is in the final throes of preparing for a big regatta coming up. Then, and only then, I remember how good she is at doing planks. I feel the first twinge of doubt.
After some warm-up exercises, 19 ordinary-looking women get into the boat. I’m placed next to Francie near the back. She has lent me her back-up paddle and life vest, which I have to let out generously before it will encircle my somewhat larger middle. Ahem.
“Paddles up!” yells someone behind me, in an Australian accent. Everyone raises their paddles. “Take it away!”
I very quickly realize that the margin for error on a dragonboat is roughly zero. Unless I exactly match the stroke of the saggin’ dragon in front of me, my paddle is going to get bashed by her or by the dragon behind me.
In desperation I plow the paddle in and drag it back, trying to keep up. Water splashes all over the place. We go on like this for a while.
“Let her run!” barks the Aussie. Everyone stops and rests their paddles on their knees.
Francie looks concerned. “You have to use your core, twist, like this” – and she demonstrates. “You lean forward …” Oh. I dip my paddle in imitation. “Um. Not really, more like this..”
“Paddles up!” I try to quell a rising sense of panic.
But panic is a luxury I don’t have on this boat. There’s no time. There’s just the plowing of paddles and the barking of the Aussie. “UP! UP! UP!” Unbeliveably, the rhythm jacks up. I’m bobbing back and forth like a crazy bobbleheaded thing on a washboardy road. My arms are killing me. Water is splashing every time my paddle goes in, every time it comes out.
The next time we lift our paddles out, the saggin’ dragon in front of me – a solid fireplug of a woman wearing a t-shirt that reads CREW – mutters something about the dirty water in False Creek. I apologize profusely. Francie diffuses the moment, laughing that they’ve all had their turn splashing each other. I seriously doubt it. (Later I read in the paper that the E. coli counts in False Creek are some thirty times higher than the safe limits.)
The coach, whose name is “Coach”, a lean, laconic, white-haired guy who Francie tells me is an amazing dragonboat pro, moves to the back of the boat. Francie is shuffled up. Another newbie, not as clueless as me, moves next to me. After every sprint, the two of us are completely winded, gasping for air, just happy to be alive and with unbroken paddles.
Coach gives me a tip. “The most important thing is to stay in rhythm.” No kidding!
What was I thinking? “It’ll be fun to be out on the water!” I can’t even see the water! I could be in a tunnel! All I can see is the paddle in front of me!
After about an hour we head back to the dock. All the women clamber out. They are anything but ordinary. I am awed by their strength, their ability. I apologize again to the dragon in front of me. She doesn’t smile. Francie, however, is beaming. “How’d you like it?”
“It was great!” I say. “I think I’m getting the hang of it!”
All that leaning back and forth must have released my kundalini spirit again.
The second practice was a little better than the first. Watching a few youtube videos helped. Coach clarified a few technique points, like how to put the paddle in without splashing. There was a newer newbie than me who accidentally bashed me a couple of times, apologizing profusely. Something shifted then. I can do this! I’m not the newbie any more!
The third time, the new newbie and I shared a few high fives.
If I hadn’t gone back to that kundalini class after the first time, I wouldn’t have met Francie and none of this would have happened. She said I was courageous – and I suppose in a way, she’s right. Not for surviving that first dragonboating practice – for that, I didn’t really have a choice. It was paddle or die. But it does take a certain something – Courage? Stubborness? Stupidity? — to try a new, unknown thing – kundalini, dragonboating, whatever — and then to hang in when it’s not easy or comfortable or even remotely fun, believing that the moment will eventually come when all is made clear and you understand what everybody’s so excited about.
In the meantime, my butt sure is sore.