Surfing to Nirvana at a Yoga Retreat


By Jennie Lay  |  

Beyond the breaking waves, I sit balanced atop a surfboard as my feet slowly churn the warm Pacific waters. Ocean swells rise, then gently lift my body as they roll toward shore. It’s early, not long after sunrise, and I am lured to this perch thanks to Jessica, my surf coach and yoga teacher for the week. Last night, over dinner, she spoke reverently of this “special, magical time of day for surfers” and the cathartic joy of floating in the morning sea. And just as deftly as she had guided me into Savasana during morning yoga, I became transfixed, intent upon exploring the mystical morning surf.

So here I am, a novice surfer looming near the reef break on a stunning half-moon bay in Mexico. I breathe deeply, then grin at the smattering of surfers and the rhythm of the swells. Leaning over to lie on my belly, a position vaguely reminiscent of Upward Dog, I nod to the mermaid emblazoned across my surfboard, glance back at an oncoming wave, and start paddling.

Sometimes I catch it. Many times I don’t. Either way, it’s exhilarating, and I’m increasingly mindful of the wave. If I time it just right, an incredible energy carries me forward to pop up for a spine-tingling ride. Just as likely, I’ll topple over and grapple in the bubbling water for my board and bikini bottoms that might have plummeted to my ankles. Tomorrow morning, after countless rides like this today, I’ll be immensely grateful for the recuperative powers of yoga.

This is Las Olas, a surf-sister nirvana nestled in a small fishing village north of Puerto Vallarta. A single week here is better than any summer camp you remember. Here I practice yoga high on a jungle hill and spend my days learning to surf, all while bonding with my fellow surfistas. We share long-tabled breakfasts in the morning, afternoon shade in the rustic and endearing clubhouse casita and evening samplings of local favorites like grilled fish and shrimp diablo. At night, the crashing surf lulls us to sleep in our glorious seaside accommodations.

Surf days at Las Olas are grounded in yoga—a gentle and rewarding morning practice that stretches, soothes, and centers paddle-weary bodies and minds. It doesn’t take long to realize that yoga and surfing share common threads, both spiritually and physically. While it might take a long time to catch a wave or learn a new pose, both practices allow ample space for contemplation, focus, and conscious balance. Both command complete physical and spiritual presence. Both can be transformational and sublime. And they share an appreciable simplicity of gear.

Of course, guidance from a guru is essential whether you’re riding waves or striking asanas. Las Olas surf coaches are remarkable. Their gentle voices, nurturing ways, and micro-adjustments turn many a hard-fought wave into a smooth, silky ride. And their insight nurtures body awareness and consciousness of the changing shapes of waves and the water’s energy around us.

As women who make yoga an intrinsic part of their lives, these gutsy surf coaches are honest-to-goodness surfer “chicks” (because “chick” is how they proudly say it)—like Lizzie, the uproariously funny Australian who keeps us in giggle fits and good form by reminding us, “It’s all about being cool, isn’t it ladies?”


Private surf lessons give us bonus pushes (like training wheels for paddling into a wave) and a confidence boost. Paddle, paddle, paddle, push…it’s the same glorious feeling as when your yoga instructor assists you with an extra twist in Triangle or a pull-up in Downward Dog. With a gentle shove from a coach, I learn how catching a wave is supposed to feel—then settle in for the ride. Out of the water, surfboard clinics teach us about waxing our boards, the physics of fins, and how not to commit the cardinal un-cool sin of strapping your surfboard to the car’s roof with the fins facing backward.

At surf camp, where women of all ages, shapes, and sizes gain the skills, passion, and confidence to persevere in real-life surfing, yoga is an added blessing. We are sore almost everywhere, but yoga keeps us focused, strong, and nimble. Jessica leads yoga practices that twist, stretch, and lengthen our bodies. These are restorative, healing sessions, with Sun Salutations to warm us up and ease us into the sweeping force of the waves we encounter each day. Her simple empowering advice reminds us to approach life with a sense of humor and conviction—to be happy.

Waves are a simple, beautiful gift of nature. Catching them requires a single-minded focus and a heightened connection to the surroundings. Balancing on a surfboard is as tricky as finding your center in a standing pose. At first, it’s tough to find; but eventually, you know just where it is. Surfing also makes you acutely conscious of the water’s energy and flow. Much like a yogic breath, that energy and flow should be used to their full potential.

In the hiss of the waves, I tune in to the energy around me. Instead of paddling hard against it, I slowly learn to integrate my own physical power into the water’s flow. When I stand up on the surfboard, blissfully riding even the smallest of waves for a brief moment, it’s pure joy—and a taste of enlightenment.

Jennie Lay is a freelance journalist who lives and writes from her off-the-grid cabin near Steamboat Springs, Colorado. She writes about the environment, land conservation, and travel adventure. Her stories have appeared in High Country News, Ski Magazine, and Paddler.