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Surfing gives yogis an external experience of yoga. And yoga gives surfers a leg up when they’re on the board.
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?
One thousand and eight percent. Wave riding is a deep spiritual transmission of the pulsation and wave energy that is the essence of life.
Has surfing affected your yoga practice and your teaching?
My entire orientation to living yoga is about realizing waves of consciousness as the underlying flow of all manifest reality. This translates physically as being able to feel pulsation and the flow of the fluid body, almost how people who have been out at sea feel that they have sea legs. Surfing and yoga complement each other, because they both hone and tone the fluid body.
Have you had any transformative experiences in the water?
Meditating for epic sunrises and chanting the Gayatri between waves. Surfing with dolphins right here in Malibu. Rainbows and sunsets while full moons are rising…there are so many experiences that they have all merged. The No. 1 reason to surf is to experience some of the most beautiful moments in nature you will ever have.
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?
My best friend had been trying to get me to go for a year, and I kept saying no. I thought it was weird. He finally bought me a gift certificate to a Bikram class for my 24th birthday. I had to go. I was so bad at it that I kept going just to show myself I could do it. I ended up enjoying it and realized it was a lot better than my stretching routine.
How does yoga help your surfing?
It’s increased my flexibility and improved my breathing. My breathing is more relaxed, but I also feel like I have better lung capacity.
What’s your yoga practice like?
I’ve been doing Bikram for the past 15 years, so I know the routine like the back of my hand. I’ll still go to a class a few times per month, but mostly I do my own combination of core strength and balance exercises and finish with some Bikram postures. Yoga has helped me know my body so that I can adjust my routine to how I’m feeling.
How has your meditation practice played a role in your surfing career?
It has been the main thing that has taken me to the next level. I thought meditation was for vegan bald guys in red robes. But I tried it 10 years ago with a teacher named Ron W. Rathbun. I’m a very practical person, and I won’t do something if it doesn’t work. I don’t have time. But it made sense to me. It was very simple and practical. Now, meditating 20 minutes a day is my routine. I wouldn’t still be competing today if it weren’t for going to that class.
Why is that?
I was going through some hardships a decade ago. I was fit and doing physical yoga five times per week, but I wasn’t very calm and I didn’t have much space in my life because I didn’t have space in my mind. I felt like my career was stagnating, I was not in good relationships, I was stressed, and I wasn’t inspired. Inspiration comes from your heart, not your brain, and meditation helped me find that inspiration again. My ranking on the tour improved, but it wasn’t just that. I just started living better.
Alika Medeiros: Present Finder
At 17, Hawaiian-born Alika Medeiros shattered his ankle in a surfing accident and was told he’d never walk again. Medeiros became depressed and began abusing alcohol and drugs, but says that his grandmother’s traditional Hawaiian lomilomi massage brought him back to health. These days, Medeiros not only walks, but he also surfs and teaches his own style of yoga—a blend of hula and yoga that he calls Kilo Lani, meaning to look or reach toward heaven. A man with a mission, Medeiros teaches yoga and leads seminars on how to create an “aloha life”—that is, a life devoted to peace and harmony for the benefit of all beings.
How has yoga improved your surfing?
It has helped me become more flexible, so I can reach places on waves I never thought possible. It’s helped me to control my breath, which helps me to gain control over my mind and get into the zone I need to be in for surfing. By having a positive outlook and being totally present, it has helped me deal with crazy situations out in the surf, which could have been fatal otherwise.
Can you talk about a spiritual or transformational experience you’ve had in the water?
Most recently, I had my focus tested on the waves in Bali. I made it out, no problem. I picked off a few medium-size waves and let my confidence build. Suddenly, a huge set came in that just exploded in front of everyone. I finally came up after taking about four huge waves on the head. In front of me there was a ton of broken boards getting washed in. I took a deep breath and started to paddle back out. Once I finally got out there, I realized I was by myself. I was suddenly gripped with fear and I started losing my focus. I started to panic more, and my mind was scattered as I started thinking about sharks biting me.
I sat there for a moment and slowed down my breathing. As I became present, time seemed to slow down. Everything around me became vivid and colorful. The fear melted, and suddenly I had a focused attention to make the next big wave. As the next set came through, I used my intuition to put myself in the right place to take off. I started to paddle, which seemed effortless. Suddenly I was sliding down one of the most beautiful mountains I have ever caught on such a small board. I rode that wave all the way to the beach from what seemed like a mile out. It was an amazing experience, but it also reminded me that our minds love to live in the past and the future, and when I focus on my breath, I can become fully present. In that place, all fear subsides.
Best Five Before You Ride
Yogi-surfer Peggy Hall developed the Best Five Before You Ride sequence for surfers to do right on the beach. The practice she designed builds heat in the body and warms the muscles and joints used in surfing. To reduce the likelihood of tiring, Hall emphasizes moving with the breath and not holding poses too long. “Before paddling out, you want to mentally prepare yourself and warm up your body,” she says. “You don’t want to exhaust yourself.”
Tai Chi Circles
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your toes pointing straight ahead. Interlace your fingers and reach your arms overhead. Exhale and stretch over to your right, then bend your knees and sweep your torso in front of you, keeping it parallel to the ground. Keep circling around until you stretch out to the left, then come back up to center as you inhale. Circle 4 to 5 times in one direction. Then interlace your fingers the non-dominant way and repeat on the other side.
Horse Stance Back Stretch
Take your feet wide apart and turn them out. Notice how this stretches your inner thighs. Place your hands on your thighs and dip your right shoulder down between your legs. Look to your left elbow. This will stretch your back, which can get fatigued from sitting on the board. Hold for a breath or 2, inhale, come up to center, and do the other side. Go back and forth like this 3 to 4 times.
Parivrtta Utkatasana (Chair Twist), variation
Stand with your feet hip-width apart and your toes pointing straight ahead. Take your right arm across your shins and extend your left arm up toward the sky. Lengthen your spine and wist your chest and shoulder open. Look down at your feet. Stay for a few breaths, then switch sides.
High Lunge, modified
Interlace your fingers behind you and draw your shoulder blades together. Step your left foot back and, staying on the toes of your left foot, bend both knees. Bring your hands away from your back and down toward the ground. Keep your back thigh perpendicular to the ground and move your tailbone down until you feel a stretch along your left thigh.
Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose) with arm circles
Come into Side Angle Pose on your right side, with your right forearm resting on your right thigh. Circle your left arm around you counterclockwise, as though you’re doing the backstroke. This counteracts the forward reaching you do while paddling. It stretches the inter-costal muscles between each rib, which can eventually increase your lung capacity.
Jaimal Yogis is the author of Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea.