THE POWER OF NATURE: OCEAN THERAPY

YAM takes a body-mind-spirit tour of our Island ocean paradise, with surfing in Tofino, seaweed sampling in Sooke, and yoga on a paddle board in Brentwood Bay.

By Athena McKenzie

Taylor Hackett demonstrates the King Pigeon pose during a yoga paddle board class at Pacifica Paddle Sports in Brentwood Bay. Photo by Cathie Ferguson



“Bring your mind back to where you are.”

Suze Willgren’s voice is soothing as she leads our yoga class out of shavasana. Given that I’m lying on a paddle board, floating in Brentwood Bay, it might seem strange that I’ve forgotten where I am. But between the lull of the gentle waves and the fresh air, my thoughts have quieted and wandered, allowing me to experience a truly relaxing shavasana for the first time in my life.

I feel like I’m one step closer to meeting my personal challenge to reconnect with the ocean. When I moved here from Toronto, the number of locals who said to me, “Sometimes I forget Victoria is on the water” surprised me. However, it wasn’t long before I slipped into my old routines. Life on the ocean was reduced to random glimpses of the harbour on my way to the office, and short walks along Dallas Road on the weekends. 

Having grown up on the East Coast in Newfoundland and New Brunswick, I know how wonderful it feels to spend the day on, or near, the water. A recent study published in the scientific journal Health & Place says people living within one kilometre of the coast enjoy better health and mental well-being. One theory is that, along with the relaxing environment, there is more opportunity and motivation for physical activity. Thus, my challenge was born: embrace my natural surroundings and try to capture that “connected to the ocean” feeling through mind, body and spirit.

Photo by Cathie Ferguson

Photo by Cathie Ferguson



Saltwater Yoga
The first stage of my quest leads me to Pacifica Paddle Sports and their paddle board yoga sessions, which owners Sandra Baron and Peter Harris have developed using their “health through nature” approach. The required stability adds to the core workout, while the ocean provides the perfect location for peace and tranquility.

That’s how I find myself floating in Brentwood Bay on a paddle board, zenning out in corpse pose. But don’t let me get ahead of myself, lest you think it was all relaxation and mindfulness. My short trip on the paddle board from the dock to the tethers where the classes are held was an exercise in humility — and an intense workout for my body.

Being completely new to the paddle board, I’m given a primer on the launching dock to learn the basics. Voicing my concern about ending up in the drink, I’m reassured there is no way I can fall in. It’s only around 15 metres to the tether and Harris advises me to stay down on my knees for the short trip. To finish, he gives the warning to stay away from the shore, as “that’s where you can get in trouble with the rocks.”

The first couple of strokes aren’t pretty, but they bring me close to my goal — a small black buoy with a tether. Of course, being that it’s early spring, the winds are quite high, and when I stop paddling to anchor myself, the board starts to blow away from the buoy. Slightly panicked (and thinking less than serene thoughts) I take an awkward lunging stroke and manage to ram into another boarder. Now I’m completely flustered, and in an attempt to bring the board around for another attempt at anchoring, find myself heading straight for the forbidden rocky shore. Suddenly, Harris is next to me,
and calmly leads me back to the group.

Any lingering worry evaporates as Willgren guides us through the yoga session. Sunlight sparkles off the ripples in the water, and as we flow from plank position, down to cobra, then up to downward dog, I feel a rush of euphoria. I am on the ocean. Doing yoga.

It isn’t long before I’m attuned to the slight motions of my floating yoga mat. At the end of the session, when it comes time for the customary shavasana, I stretch out on my back, taking deep breaths of the ocean air. While shavasana is the easiest position to get into, it can be the hardest to achieve on a mental level, as it requires relaxation of the entire body and mind. During traditional yoga classes, I often find myself fidgeting, anxious to be done. Today I’m tranquil, floating on my own little island, able to let the lap of the waves carry my thoughts away. Namaste.

Nutrients of the Sea

iStock_000002252429MediumNext, I decide to experience how the ocean can nourish the body. This leads me to the “Seaweed Lady,” Diane Bernard, who has spent the past 16 years hand-harvesting wild seaweed off Whiffen Spit in Sooke. While she started by supplying local chefs and restaurants like Sooke Harbour House, Bernard has developed a line of certified organic seaweed skincare products, which are used in spas on the Island and across the country. During low tide in the spring and the summer, she also leads tours of the Whiffen Spit area, where you can learn about the diverse varieties of seaweed and tips on hand-harvesting these nutritional super stars. “Seaweeds,” she says, “have no fat, no cholesterol, and no calories, and they’re high in fiber. And they’re chock-full of vitamins like A, C, E, and K, and are one of the only plant sources of the B complex vitamins.” 

As we pick our way along the rocks, past her “compost,” the smellier piles of seaweed closer to the shore, Bernard sweeps her arm to take in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, whose cold, clean, fast-moving waters help produce some of the world’s finest seaweed, of which there are “700 plus” species in the area.

She points out the beautiful rainbow colouring of Iridea, the neon green of Ulva Lactuca (also known as sea lettuce), and the olivey tones of Alaria. Every so often, she clips off a piece and thoughtfully munches on it before sharing another gem of information, like the extensive research being done around the world on pharmaceutical applications for seaweed.

When she offers me a chuck of Egregia, which resembles a feather boa, I hesitantly pop it in my mouth, but am pleasantly surprised by its crisp, nutty flavour. She also gives me a frond of Alaria to put in my bath for the proven beneficial effects on the skin.

Intrigued by her line of Seaflora skincare products, I arrange to experience a treatment at Victoria’s Sapphire Day Spa.   

Sapphire’s owner, Heidi Sherwood, says our skin cells use a similar cellular transport system to seaweed. That’s why the essential nutrients needed by our skin are so easily absorbed from the lotions and potions made with this plant. As I relax in the soothing ambiance of the treatment room, aesthetician Blair Chesal gives me a hot stone seaweed facial to detoxify my skin and infuse it with minerals and antioxidants (even the stones are from Sooke). I feel the day’s tensions drain away.

Afterwards, my skin is glowing and plump, and I feel grounded and calm — a sensation Chesal says is common after using these natural products from the ocean.

5307954654_cc7e0cd48c_o

Photo: Surf Sister



Wild Wave Therapy
The yoga, seaweed tour, and spa treatment all leave me feeling serene. But thinking back to childhood vacations on the ocean, I’m also hoping to recapture the thrill of playing on the waves. My partner joins me for a lesson on the beach at Tofino’s Cox Bay with Surf Sister. While they promote women in surfing, Surf Sister offers co-ed classes, and there are five women and three men in today’s “Day One” session, which teaches basics.

We begin by struggling into our wetsuits in the parking lot. Luckily there are no cameras to capture this undignified event. As we are using heavy foam-topped long-boards suited to beginners, we pair off to carry them down to the beach — one person at the front and one person at the back, with a board under each arm. Once our conga line reaches the beach, we sit down on the sand to learn about waves, riptides, and the three Ps of surfing: position, paddling, and pop-ups.   

After we practice popping up on surfboards we’ve drawn in the sand, we head into the water with the real thing. I get about knee-deep, and seeing the swells coming towards me, make eye contact with my partner. Both of us crack up, and I can only wonder what I’ve got us into. In waist-deep water, I watch for the perfect wave. Today’s goal is to ride the whitewater waves, though we’ve all been reassured there is no pressure.

I pull myself onto my board, which an instructor, Karley, holds onto to count me down as the swell comes up behind me. When she lets go, I start paddling and feel the water lift the board. As instructed, I take three stokes and then push myself up and try to shoot my feet under me. I ride the rest of the wave crouched down in a squat, but it’s still thrilling.

I let myself feel the waves and give myself time to find the ideal position on the board. When I actually manage to stand and ride a wave all the way in, I give an involuntary celebratory shout, and return Karley’s fist pump in the air. The next hour and a half pass in a blur of adrenalin and joy. I’m exhausted and dragging when the lesson ends, but am reluctant to leave the water.

Later than evening, watching the sunset from our little studio at Ocean Village on MacKenzie Beach, I comment on the pleasant ache of my muscles. It reminds me of how languid I would feel after a long day playing outside during summer vacation as a child.

My partner agrees and wonders how we can bottle the feeling.

I think I know the answer. We should never forget how close we are to the water. And connect with it every chance we get.