The Way of the River: A Q&A with Johnny Snyder

He looks and talks like the quintessential California surfer dude, but world-class kayaker and Kripalu presenter Johnny Snyder actually grew up a stone’s throw from Kripalu and did his first paddling in the Berkshires, on the Stockbridge Bowl and the Housatonic River. Since then, he’s ridden rivers through at least five continents, paddled competitively in international races, and owned and operated a kayaking school on Africa’s Zambezi River. Johnny spoke with us about channeling the power and serenity of the river both on the water and in daily life.

What first drew you to the water and to kayaking?

I always loved the water growing up, and I really wanted to see the earth. Once you learn the river language and how to ride different flows and gradients, you can cross any border. You may not know the language of the culture, but you know the language of the river. I’ve been on expeditions in the Himalayas and the Andes, all over the United States, in Canada and Central America, in New Guinea and Australia, and throughout Africa—once you have that knowledge, you can go there and see these beautiful and remote places.

What does it feel like to be in the zone on a really intense river?

When you journey on this moving force of life, you learn how to coexist with it and use its power. When you connect with the river, you’re connecting with the blood of the earth, the essence of life itself: water. I dance on the rivers—it’s my meditation. I call it floating meditation, even when I’m paddling Class 5 whitewater. I’m best when I’m relaxed and I’m allowing my body, the vehicle, and my spirit to guide me on the powerful, moving water. I love big, flooded rivers—when a river gets flooded and no one wants to go out on it, that’s when it pulls me even more.

Especially with kayaking, there’s a lot of attention to fear and if you can use that energy in a positive way, then you don’t take away from your strength. It’s about slowing down and relaxing, right when you’re supposed to be supercharged. When you’re running super-hot whitewater, it’s almost like you’re in slow motion. It’s a lot like qigong. When I’m in a really good meditation, I’ll get out of my kayak at the end of a run and wonder what I’ve just done. What happens on the river is you always move with the flow. You never fight the river. You add your power to the river’s power and that makes a superhuman power. When you connect with the turbocharger of the river, it’s like a jet taking off. It’s addictive. You wonder why you’re not out on it all the time.

You have two children. How do your experiences out on the river get integrated into your daily life with your family?

I certainly bring a lot of calm to my family life and my day-to-day life, because I know that if my life isn’t being threatened and my family isn’t being threatened, how important is the little stuff? I try to bring a consciousness to family life that I’ve learned through the discipline of the river, the discipline of yoga, and also through my practice of qigong.

How did you discover yoga?

It wasn’t until I came back to the Berkshires in about 2000, and my wife joined the BKC [Berkshire Kripalu Community] that I tried yoga. I found the right teacher, and it was the balance that I needed to be in better shape now, in my forties, than I was in my twenties. At 23, for example, I was certainly risking my life more on a day-to-day basis, and maybe not having to stretch as much or not realizing that would help. Then I started wondering, what would five, 10 percent more flexibility do for my athleticism? I’m always stepping back and reflecting on how I can improve. I’m still very involved with Class 5 whitewater, and you don’t go out and make those decisions unless you know your body can give a thousand percent.

Have you had some life-transforming moments on the river, watershed moments, so to speak?

I think some of the most powerful moments for me have come out of education, helping people go further. I started a school in Africa because I saw there were a lot of people trying to learn [to kayak], but they weren’t getting the right information, taught in a compassionate way. There’s a lot of testosterone in the river industry, especially in whitewater. It’s such a great thing to take someone with no knowledge and see how high you can throw them and how far they can get. We get all levels in our program at Kripalu, and we can adjust to all of them. The same techniques that I teach on flat water are what I use in the most dangerous parts of the earth. It comes down to the breath, seeing with new eyes, and allowing yourself to change your view from time to time. It’s about connecting, using your whole body, and being relaxed, which is a natural fit with yoga. If the guests could take away just one thing, I’d want them to take away the idea that when you connect with the water, you’re connecting with life.

Do you see riding the river as a metaphor for life?

To quote one of my African friends, life is like the River Zambezi—it’s always best to go with the flow. There are always rapids in life, and calms, and pools, times when you need to be a little more physical and times when you can relax and take it in. I will say this: I have definitely lucked out in life by taking this journey. This little plastic kayak has allowed me a life full of adventure and travel and great people and very, very interesting cultures. I’ve paddled through places that other people just can’t go because the whitewater has been guarding these chasms. Once the plastic kayaks came out, along with techniques for running steeper and more dangerous rapids, it opened up whole lands and whole new opportunities for someone with my skills. I was in Nepal once doing video documentary work on the river and I heard this music. I came upon this little village and they were dancing on the beaches. It was a wedding, and I pulled up and got out and danced with these people. They thought it was such a good sign that this guy came out of nowhere, like a space traveler.

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Johnny Snyder is a world-class kayaker who owned and operated a river kayaking school on Africa’s Zambezi River. Featured in the extreme whitewater DVD The...

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