Today's Daily Tip
Riding the Waves
As I walk back to my Balinese cottage after surfing through the waning hours of light—neon green seaweed squishing between my toes under a dark pink sky—no other words seem capable of entering my wave-rinsed mind but "thank you."
It's a thought that I've had many times on my yoga mat as well. And on my way back, I happen past a surfer friend of mine, up on a flat rock above the surf, striking an awesome Cobra Pose.
"No sunset session?" I ask, surprised. The waves are still perfect, and Glen rarely misses an opportunity to surf.
"Ah, I'm out there right now, mate," he smiles, "I'm surfing." I laugh and walk on, not wanting to disturb his practice. But looking back I see that Glen adds a surf stance to his vinyasa flow—the sort of feline crouch of a surfer getting "tubed," or consumed completely by the gaping mouth of the wave. I just had my own personal experience of yoga out there on the waves, and Glen's bringing his surfing experience to his mat.
Watching Glen, I feel as though surfing and yoga have been connected since the first Polynesians channeled the ocean on their huge wooden boards and the first wandering yogis in India started bathing daily in the Ganges. Both began more than two millennia ago, and both were practiced for spirituality and vitality.
But popular as they are (there are an estimated 20 million surfers around the globe and 16 million yogis in the U.S. alone), surfing and yoga are only just now finding their groove together. Nine-times world champion surfer Kelly Slater practices yoga regularly as cross-training and can touch the top of his head to his heels in a glorious Rajakapotasana (King Pigeon Pose).
Well-known yoga teachers like Shiva Rea host yoga-surfing retreats around the globe. Brazilian big-wave surfer Alex Martins credits his daily Ashtanga practice with enabling him to ride waves as tall as a six-story building. And these days, you can find surf shops like Mollusk in San Francisco offering yoga classes amidst the racks of wetsuits.
It's obvious that the two disciplines complement each other physically. For example, both yoga and surfing can be done in a group but are equally enjoyable when done in solitude and silence. Both require strength, flexibility, and a lot of balance; attract lovers of nature; and keep their devotees looking and feeling unusually young, strong, and vibrant.
But yoga and surfing intersect on the mental and spiritual planes, too. "They both keep you so present," says Taylor Knox, who, at 38, credits a regular regimen of Bikram Yoga and meditation with helping him to continue competing on surfing's demanding professional world tour after 16 years—and that's after serious back surgery at age 15. This heightened focus and presence that's needed to ride a wave—a constantly spontaneous movement—is often described by surfers as just the sort of mystical experience yogis have talked about for thousands of years: a merging of the fixed sense of self, or ego, with its surroundings. "I didn't know where I ended and the wave began," writes Steven Kotler in his popular surfing memoir, West of Jesus, as he is propelled effortlessly on a spiraling vortex of water.
Or, as yoga teacher and passionate surfer Peggy Hall puts it, "We are united with the energy of the ocean. I don't think there's a real surfer alive who doesn't have some sort of spiritual experience every time they paddle out."
The presence you develop in a yoga practice serves surfers well during the tedious moments, too, since more time is usually spent waiting and paddling than actually riding a wave. The yogic technique of observing the breath can transform the long lulls between sets of waves into a focused meditation. And the simple act of staying with mentally or physically challenging sensations during poses can train you to stave off frustration when surfing overcrowded waves.
Yogi-surfers understand that the two experiences inform each other. "I started bodysurfing many years before I began to practice yoga," says Ashtanga Yoga teacher and longtime wave rider Tim Miller, "but surfing provided me with an experience of 'yoga.' Once I began to practice yoga, I recognized that same kind of 'in the moment' flow of awareness."
In yoga, we observe and even move the unseen waves of energy within us, known as prana, or "life force." In surfing, we feel the external wave energy that we're tapping in to during yoga practice. Whether or not you learn to surf, the metaphor is an apt one for leading a yogic life. Back in the 1960s, there was a poster of Swami Satchidananda, founder of Integral Yoga, in a full, flowing white robe and white beard surfing a Hawaiian wave. It read: "You can't stop the waves, but you can learn how to surf." The saying speaks to a key yogic teaching about the mind: While you may not be able to calm your mind into permanent and utter stillness, you can learn to relate to the endless waves of thought in a more free and skillful way in order to surf them with grace.
Surfing can teach yogis to accept both the good and the bad waves by seeing them as impermanent. We all have ongoing waves of thought, experience, and emotion—waves of joy and sorrow, fear and love. They're constant. Yet there is an ingrained tendency to think that the "deep" part of ourselves, the part we feel after, say, a great yoga class or a sunset surf in Bali, is accessible only during the good waves; and we hold such a strong bias for having these experiences that the rest of life—the less beautiful waves—can become drudgery.
In surfing, you learn that even the less-than-perfect waves are composed of the same substance, the same beautiful saltwater, as the perfect ones, and they can be experienced just as fully. After years of practice and learning how waves form, the skilled surfer knows that even the wild, stormy, or mundane one can be enjoyed. Surfing, like yoga, is a challenge worth meeting day after day after day, no matter the conditions.
Shiva Rea: Wave Dancer
No one seems more destined to bring yoga and surfing together than Shiva Rea. Named after a powerful Hindu deity by her surf-obsessed father, Rea spent much of her first four years playing at the beach close to their Southern California home. A move to Berkeley made daily surfing impossible while growing up, but once the Pacific Ocean was again in her front yard (she lives in Malibu), Rea started surfing year-round, even in chilly January when, she says, the "surf stoke" keeps her warm. She leads yoga-surfing retreats in Costa Rica and Hawaii, and has created a popular yoga and surfing DVD called Surf Yoga Soul.
Do you consider surfing a part of your spiritual practice?
Has surfing affected your yoga practice and your teaching?
Have you had any transformative experiences in the water?
Taylor Knox: Pro Breather
As a boy in surf-saturated California, Taylor Knox wanted to be a pro surfer from the time he was eight years old. By the 1990s, he was known worldwide as one of the best, consistently placing in the top 10 on the world tour, and taking first prize in the K2 Big Wave Challenge after successfully dropping into a terrifying 52-foot behemoth in Todos Santos, Mexico. At 38, Knox is now the oldest surfer on the professional world tour and is still ranked in the top 10, a feat he attributes largely to his daily yoga practice and meditation.
How did you get into yoga?
How does yoga help your surfing?
What's your yoga practice like?
How has your meditation practice played a role in your surfing career?
Why is that?
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