When I recently informed a friend that I was learning to surf at the age of 33, he asked if I was suffering a premature mid-life crisis. As a woman slightly beyond youthful prime and more in-tune with Sanskrit than surf lingo, I may not seem an obvious candidate; but an empowering surfing-yoga synergy exists that I felt compelled to explore. Whilst surfing was once considered male-dominated, yoginis of all ages are now hitting the surf; and loads of surfie blokes have been bitten by the yoga bug. After a handful of lessons of thrills and spills at Illawarra Surf Academy (ISA), I understood how purely being out in the ocean is a spiritual practice for many surfers: creating calm, clarity and connection (… and occasional cleansing chaos!).
Having skimmed the surface of this profound union, I ventured south to delve deeper at a three-day women’s surf and yoga retreat in Broulee with global-roaming founder of Tidal Dreamings, Belinda Wehner. Retreats are often enlightening, particularly when involving two practices which, as Belinda says, ask you to fully show up to whatever is presenting in the now. Underestimating how much unnecessary baggage I checked in, this life-altering experience tested my strength and flexibility on many levels; whilst yoga provided the healing cycle of prepare and repair.
We gathered in a circle for our first surf; connecting with our breath and energy of the ocean before sharing intentions. My comparatively experienced surf-sisters listened respectfully to mine: to stand or “pop-up” well-balanced – without attachment to the outcome. Easily said upon stability of sand … once amid the unpredictable ocean with others whizzing about confidently, my ego’s perfectionism threw me over the edge. Drowning in a swirl-pool of self-doubt, my internal battle flitted between giving up and pushing beyond exhaustion.
Belinda watched my frustrations unfold, declaring intuitively, “I know what’s happening – trust. You don’t trust your ability to control the board. You’ve got to balance masculine and feminine energies, Shiva and Shakti, yin and yang. Know when to channel strength to push through waves, and soften and surrender into them so you feel when they’ve got you.” Spinning my board around to catch a wave, she urged, “Now, jump on! This next one’s yours. Paddle! Paddle! Paddle!”
Accompanying Belinda’s wise words, I contemplated those from musicians, Edo and Jo, which say, “When you smile, the end of battle comes.” I drew a conscious breath and smiled. The tide began turning. Paddling with determination before letting go and welcoming the broken wave’s embrace, I flung out my arms and breezed to shore gleefully like a child on a slip’n slide. With humble baby steps, I eventually found my feet and euphorically rode to shore like a warrior; my women wave-riders cheering for me with non-competitive camaraderie.
A grounding yoga practice with Radiant Sun’s Catherine Potter provided stillness to reflect on these divine lessons. I realised steady surfing requires far more than a strong core, positioning down the centre line or favouring the tail-end to avoid nosediving. Balancing physically requires energetic and emotional stability – and beginner’s humility! Our heart and headspace can play out on the board and mat (ever noticed Tree Pose sway when conditions are a little blowy?); and how we approach practices can reflect our approach to life.
Nestled in the soothing sway of a hammock, I continued reflecting throughout the evening, recalling words American pro-surfer and founder of Surf into Yoga, Rochelle Ballard, had shared with me, “Sometimes things flow and sometimes it feels like you are fighting currents and are stuck in whitewash. Like yoga, surfing teaches patience, perseverance, and learning to be grateful and aware in all situations that life presents. It teaches us that life is perfectly imperfect.”
Flexibility and fluidity
Surfing is physically demanding and requires significant flexibility. Rochelle particularly recommends postures (asanas) that strengthen legs and back, and open hips and chest, emphasising soft knees (as on the board), and flowing with contraction and release to maintain quick muscle twitch memory. Catherine presented a similar stance, dancing us through wave-like motions and revealing limiting factors of rigidity. Through this, we appreciated the united flexibility and fluidity of body, breath, mind and energy.
Surfing and yoga also shed loving light on psychological inflexibilities, and for me it was resistance to differing techniques. As an overwhelmed beginner, I procrastinated and over-analysed every pop-up, with most waves moving on without me. One fluid sentence from Belinda became my mantra, “It’s like a vinyasa flow: one, two.” Expanding on this, I took a page from a beautiful book Catherine lent me by Sally Mackinnon, The Dharma of Surfing (self-published, 2016), “It’s best not to fight resistance, but to work with it as a friend or guide into your emotions. Don’t be afraid. Breathe into it, lean into it and let it show you new ways. Let it reveal insights you’ve avoided up until now.”
Breathing and leaning into apprehension require conscious effort, and this was one aspect many of us noticed had been lacking whilst surfing. I glossed over more wisdom Rochelle generously imparted about yogic breathing (pranayama), “Breathe deep from the pelvic floor, up the spine, focussing on expanding the diaphragm and the back of the rib cage to open up mid-back muscles that are tense from paddling. Exhale slowly to release tension and stabilise awareness into the navel for balancing and centring. Completely releasing without rushing to inhale or exhale helps lung capacity and fight-or-flight in the breath pattern.”
I experienced first-hand how developing breath retention builds comfort and confidence when held beneath a wave, particularly playing with the upside-down turtle roll! Additionally, Catherine explained how pranayama can be a vital tool for surfers on subtle levels, working to circulate vital life force (prana) throughout the body, which continually recharged the wind in my sails. Energy blocks or depletion are detrimental to our physical body and, trust me, fluidity and physical fitness are essential for surfing (especially four sessions in 48 hours!).
Playing around the edges
Over the weekend, I contemplated, what is it to truly flow? On our final morning, I aptly selected another of Sally’s quotes that connected the elements, “When you paddle into a wave for take-off or prepare for a yoga inversion like handstand, commit yourself 100 per cent. Base yourself entirely in your body and lose the mind chatter. Focus on breathing into the wave or into your body, look along the line of the wave or at your drishti (gaze point). Then your commitment becomes effortless and your actions will flow.”
When surfing, it is ideal to gaze ahead toward the desired direction for momentum. As Belinda explained, a drishti may also diminish the power of fear. She recalled how a previous participant had been terrified of surfing out the back until she spotted a pod of dolphins which lured her out with confidence and capability. I would have warmly welcomed those dolphins that day, as upping the ante attempting unbroken waves in rougher conditions propelled me into panic.
I was overcome with fear, weighing up whether to protect or persevere. Recalling advice from an ISA instructor threw me a lifeline, “Don’t be fearful, be cautious.” Fear can be irrational, all-consuming, leaving missed opportunities in their wake. Caution involves proceeding with awareness … as yin yoga teaches us to “play around the edges” of postures to establish tolerable depth. My intuition discerned I was in too deep. Challenging boundaries is empowering; honouring current limits and caution over competitiveness perhaps more so.
Disengaging from my ego’s Taurean tantrums, I calmly stood upon the sand in Mountain Pose (Tadasana). Facing the horizon, I visualised breathing into my palms the energy from the sand, sea and sun to move fluidly as one. Relaxing into rhythm, it was time to play within appropriate parameters and feel – not force –flow. Completely immersed, all sense of separation, time and expectation dissipated. Being at one not war with the sea, I was liberatingly connected to the truth and beauty of me.
“That last wave was the best!” Belinda piped up, noting my surprise. “You rode it to shore – don’t you remember?” I didn’t recall, as my intention had shifted. I also hadn’t realised two hours had passed and, ironically, I was the last woman standing.
Transforming more in three days than three decades (checking out less baggage, saving space for a board!), Belinda identified this was no crisis, but a recreation empowering me to accept and move with life’s ebbs and flows more consciously and less chaotically. In the words of mindfulness guru, Jon Kabat-Zinn, “We can’t stop the waves, but we can learn to surf.” Alongside that I say, a heartfelt aloha and namaste!
Check out www.tidaldreamings.com.au for details on upcoming transformational retreats.