I mention the connection of religion in this essay, and I would like to clarify that this is mentioned academically and do not intend to say surfing or yoga are inherently religious.
EXPLORING THE YOGA-SURF CONNECTION
BY SARA CORY
There has been a strengthening connection in modern culture between surfing and yoga for almost a century now. Surf shops sell cross training videos with asana sequences in them, and pro surfers now practice yoga as part of their routine. Renowned California yoga teacher and surfer Peggy Hall holds Yoga for Surfers teacher trainings and has done a huge amount to publicize the surf-yoga connection. Shiva Rae has produced a “Surf Yoga Soul” DVD and is an avid surfer in Malibu. The connection in modern culture, especially in places with a rugged coastline and alternative culture is firmly established. So how did this happen, and how do these two art forms affect each other? This essay shall seek to explore the connection yoga has recently played in the culture of surfing, and likewise the influence of surfing on yoga.
I will start with a brief history of surfing, because I think its traditional role in society is important. Although there exists some small debate as to whether the Polynesians were the first ever to surf (there are traditions of tribes surfing reed canoes in South America), it is well understood that the modern sport we all know as surfing came from the South Pacific, and the many tribes known as Polynesian. Among these the Hawaiians, being so close to the western culture powerhouse of America, had the most influence on modern surfing. The first western sighting of surfing was recorded by Captain Cook in 1778 in the Hawaiian Islands. At this time surfing held a central role in the social and spiritual life of Hawaiian culture. Everybody surfed; women, children and men deepened their bond spending exhilarating hours in the waves. Chiefs and rulers helped secure their status by displaying their prowess on their boards (and they had special boards carved for them). The kahuna (experts) would bless a new surfboard in rituals and pray to the Hawaiian gods for good conditions in the water. The art of surfing in this context was a microcosm of Hawaiian society and spiritual life.
Sadly, less than 50 years later the influence of western culture corrupted the traditional Hawaiian life, and Calvinist missionaries suppressed and discouraged the art of surfing, along with the traditional culture that thrived beside it. Surfing was on the fringe of society for nearly 150 years. As time passed, and these social conditions changed, surfing started to breathe new life as a sport but lost much of it’s traditional context. None the less, the endeavor of surfing carries with it a certain outlook on life, drawing your attention to the here and now, and historically surfers are identified with a culture of living the moment to the fullest and exploring how far your body will take you.
Surfing appeared in our mainstream culture in the 1940’s, when World War II brought a tremendous number of young American men to Hawaii, and new fiberglass technology made our modern surfboards possible. When these men returned, surfing, and the carefree, individualistic lifestyle that often accompanies it, started to thrive in California, then Mexico, Florida, Australia and Europe.
At nearly the same time Yoga started to become more popular in the west. Though first studied and recognized as early as 1893, yoga didn’t receive widespread attention beyond philosophy scholars until the huge cultural shifts in the 1960’s. A vibrant, new generation was questioning the foundations of the culture they had been given, and an unprecedented flowering of philosophical exploration ensued.
Here we find the perfect conditions for a new sub-culture to sprout; the Soul-Surfer. Soul Surfing, so titled after a 1963 instrumental, embodied a whole lifestyle, a whole way of being. These surfers develop their skills on the board as a moving meditation, using it to better know their reality.
Excerpt from the Daytona Beach Morning Journal, 1970 article titled “Is Surfing a Spiritual Experience?”:
“Yoga, which combines physical conditioning with mental and spiritual discipline, is popular among many surfers. In virtually all instances, surfers articulate the religious dimensions of their activity in terms of eastern rather than western religion.”
Alika Madieros is an interesting Hawaiian yoga teacher and surfer; he has developed his own yoga style he calls Kilo Lani, Hawaiin language meaning to look or reach toward heaven. Indeed the endeavor of surfing in its foundation had a spiritual aspect, and that connection still exists. As one is floating in the boundless ocean, entirely in the presence of a force greater than yourself, it is easy to see how every philosophical tradition touched by surfing, from the Hawaiians, to modern yogis, to born again Christians (there is a large movement of Christian Surfers), can all feel their deeper connection in “The Water”. Here you are most certainly not in the driver’s seat, you must simply put any attempt aside. But if you connect and listen, align yourself and cooperate with the larger rhythm at hand, you become part of it, communicate with it, dance with it, and surf…..
I would like to suggest that the state of mind induced could be described as samadhi. The mind becomes totally focused and absorbed, and the self is no longer experienced as separate to the events taking place. Rather you are totally in cooperation and united in a heightened state of being, and the resulting experience is that of pure joy and exhilaration. These peaks of experience can leave the surfer in a state of bliss for days on end. What the yoga tradition refers to as samadhi, soul surfing culture refers to as “being in the zone”.
Shiva Rae says in interview with Yoga Journal:
“Wave riding is a deep spiritual transmission of the pulsation and wave energy that is the essence of life…… The No.1 reason to surf is to experience some of the most beautiful moments in nature you will every have.”
My own most recent memory of this connection was in Lahinch, Co. Clare. I was alone, it was just after sunrise, and the only whitnesses to my activity were the sheep on the cliff above and few birds in the water and flying overhead. There were small clean waves that day, and there was a good bit of time waiting for them to come. Sometimes in conditions like these I can become restless with impatience, but that day I was overwhelmed by the sunrise and the ocean. My mind was calm and I felt entirely at home on my board. As time went on my mind became more focused on what I was experiencing in the present moment. I can’t say it was the light, or the animals, or the action of the water, but everything in my vision was perfectly aligned and I was integrated within this alignment. I looked behind me, already knowing a perfect wave was there and I simply followed through; turned, paddled, caught the wave, stood up and surfed without thought. Beyond thought. I had no sense of seperate self for those few moments, moving in union with the ocean. What was remarkable about this session was quality of experience, the hyper clarity and loss of self I felt. The same thing that brings me to the surfboard brings me to the yoga mat.
Kelly Slater is one of the most prominent surfers today if not in history. His power, dexterity and creativity are matched by a very few that together have advanced the art of surfing and raised the bar for up and coming competitors. He has won the ASP World Surfing Championship 9 times, including 5 consecutive years. He has writen a widely popular autobiography and probably has some of the highest name recognition, and highly paid endorsement agreements, in the sport. He would not be described as a reclusive soul surfer! Nonetheless, he finds tremendous benefit, from a physical and mental standpoint, in the practice of yoga, citing the heightened mind-body connection developed with regular practice.
As he recently said in an interview with Men’s Health Magazine:
“My best performances happened because my mind was in the right place. The mind is definitely stronger than the body.”
A brief description of surfing biomechanics: The act of surfing puts the body in a gentle but constant back bend for most of the time, as you lay on the board and paddle. You then spring to your feet (“The Pop Up”, requiring strong arms and core) and remain in a wide bent-knee stance to lower your center of gravity and allow for greater control of the board. Good turns require fluid twisting movements and a powerful core. Surfing is an asymmetrical sport for 95 percent of the surfers out there; a surfer is either “regular foot”, standing with the left foot forward, or “goofy foot”, with the right foot forward. Obviously this can create habitual tightness in the hips.
Hips and Core: Typically surfers have an anterior tilt in the pelvis due to the prolonged time spent contracting the lumbar when paddling. Some surfers overly engage the glutes while paddling and arching the upper body off the board, creating tight external rotators and hamstrings. If we look at the core as being on the front and back body, surfers tend to have an over developed back line and under developed front line. This can exaggerate the anterior tilt in the pelvis as the front body is not as continuously worked as the back of the spine.
Rib Cage and Shoulders: Upper body is usually very strong and more developed than lower body. Posture is typically open chested and chin lifted. Again the front body is strong because it is necessary sporadically, but not developed in a balanced way. The muscles on the back line that pull the surfer through the water (triceps, latisimus, etc.) are much stronger that those that push the surfer up when standing (pectorals, biceps, etc).
Yoga to balance the surfer’s body: The picture I have drawn is a surfer with an arched spine, tight hips, and an open yet underdeveloped chest as compared with the very developed back line. To me this calls out for releasing forward bends and strengthening the front line. Being a Vinyasa teacher myself I would take our surfer through a strong sequence involving lots of arm balances, plank, side plank, and front body strengthening. Hello Bhakasana and Navasana! There is a need here as well for releasing and opening. Long held, supported forward bends would be a lovely finish. Hello Sukhasana and Kapotasana….
It’s an exciting time to be a surfer, and a yogi. We have so much ancient wisdom and so much modern knowledge, technology and cultural fusion. Yoga and surfing are both such a gift and cultivate each other in a most beautiful way. Come, lets see where it takes us. Namaste.