We have talked about the forward stroke a couple of times already. We have put together a handful of pieces, and are starting to get somewhere. We know we are locked into our cockpit with five points of contact. We rotate with our belly button moving from 10 o'clock to 2 o'clock on every stroke. We are pushing with our feet to help generate maximum power from our torso. Now it is time to add the most important factor.
Relaxation. Starting with our hands, we must be relaxed. On each PUSH with our hands it is a good idea to open your fingers. cradling the paddle shaft in the crook of our thumbs. If we open our hands like this it will actually force us to push. Early on I mentioned how counterintuitive the forward stroke is, the biggest reason is that people instinctively want to pull the paddle back through the water. Some instructors teach that it is a push-pull. I strongly disagree with this. While there is a little pull on the bottom hand, I think to say that it should be there is to emphasize it too much. We must focus on just the push, merely guiding with our lower hand.
Frequently I talk to people who tell me that they need gloves when they paddle because they are getting blisters. If you are getting blisters while paddling it is for one simple reason, you are gripping the paddle too tightly.
We want to be relaxed in our hands and our neck and our shoulders. Power will come from freedom of movement. Relaxation is difficult because there are so many things going on all at once. Is my posture right? are my hands right? Am I pushing not pulling? All of these things make us tense which is then visible in our paddling. We must be relaxed.
Once while teaching I saw the muscles in a students forearms tensing with each stroke. We were moving at the same speed, on calm water. Just working on forward strokes. I told her she was working too hard, and that I was using no more effort on my paddle than that of lifting a glass of tea.
Power does not mean speed. If you paddle correctly it takes less effort to go faster. The zen archer knows that the arrow will just fly when the time is right. That is how your stroke must be. It has to happen automatically. It must become as relaxed and without thought as walking. Do you think about the process for walking? Of course you don't, you are thinking of everything but the process to move form one point to another. This is where our stroke must be, and there is really only one way to get there. practice.
I am going to quote Bruce Lee, and before you laugh that I am quoting a martial arts movie star, know that he was first and foremost a teacher, and not just of martial arts. In one of the opening scenes of Enter the Dragon he is teaching a young pupil a lesson in Buddhism - hidden in a lesson about concentration and focus.
Mr. Lee was famous for a quote about water:
Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow or it can crash. Be water my friend.
And this is how you must be in your kayak. You must be relaxed enough to adjust to the movements of your boat, but at the same time focused enough to control your boat. Water can flow or it can crash, we must be prepared to do both. Movements will become fluid over time, with practice, and with relaxed focus. Be water.
And because I generally give you a video, here is that Bruce Lee Buddhism clip. There is one particular line that is 'very Buddhist'. Let me know if you know which one.