Soul People. We talk to Tammy Mittell about the relationship between yoga and surfing.
Words by Tammy Mittell of @Realflowyoga | Photography by Katie Rae | 8th February ‘19
The link between yoga and surfing is incredibly well-established. The cultural and spiritual bonds between them have been forged for over a century and continue to flourish to this day.
Different origins; same ethos
With its origins within the South Pacific, surfing has played a central role in societal and spiritual life for the Hawaiians.
By the 1940’s World War 2 brought an influx of American soldiers into Hawaii who would eventually return to the USA and consequently spreading surfing to Mexico, Australia and Europe. Surfing brought with it a laid-back, carefree individualistic lifestyle.
Interestingly, as surfing grew in prominence in the West during the 1960s, yoga, simultaneously yet independently, became more mainstream. The two practices seemed to capture the zeitgeist of the time, as a new generation of young, non-conformists were shifting the paradigm and creating a new set of cultural values for themselves. It was then that the term ‘Soul Surfer’ was coined to describe this sub-culture of the spiritualism within surfing.
The Soul Surfing culture encompassed a whole lifestyle and outlook in life. Soul Surfers approached their surfing as a sacred art-form, a spiritual discipline and a form of moving meditation.
Benefits of Yoga for Surfers
There are no shortage of webpages that repeat the list of benefits of yoga practice for a surfer's physical performance. Indeed the top surfers like Kelly Slater highlight their yoga practice as integral to their surfing.
There is no denying that yoga postures build strength, stamina, flexibility, balance and agility that all help with surfing. Furthermore the traditional yoga sun salutations seem to roughly mirror the steps needed to standing up on the surfboard.
However, I would like to explore further because there is so much more to the compatibility between yoga and surfing on a deeper level and that is what keeps these two cultures inter-twined and evolving harmoniously together. Being a long-time yoga practitioner myself but a beginner surfer, I would definitely advocate that all yogis should try surfing to benefit their yoga practice!
Benefits of surfing for Yoga practitioners
Physically - Surfing provides a wonderful chance to challenge less-oft used muscle groups. It can be so easy to get stuck within the same grooves of your movement repertoire if you stick to the confines of just your yoga practice for your fitness. In her book Move your DNA, Katy Bowman, an expert in biomechanics, states that it is vitally important for physical wellbeing and adaptability to challenge yourself physically by putting your body through a diverse range of movement patterns.
Mental - Whether you are brand new at surfing or very experienced, due to the conditions of the ocean being so different every time, you will always have to adopt 'the beginner's mind-set' whereby you enter the learning state of mind, being fully present and focused on what you are doing. With the risks involved with surfing you have no choice but to remain alert and responsive to the present moment which builds your mental concentration and discipline, aligning with the goals of yoga.
In an interview with Men’s Health Magazine: Kelly Slater is quoted as saying, “My best performances happened because my mind was in the right place. The mind is definitely stronger than the body.”
Being in Nature - the practice of yoga is derived from the appreciation of nature. Yoga is a means of attuning oneself with the forces of nature in order to bring balance and wellbeing.
Surfing allows this opportunity to fully immerse oneself within nature; and becoming at one with the elements has an undeniable impact on wellbeing. Marine Biologist, Nichols' book ‘Blue Mind’, describes the strong links between increased calmness and performance and decreased anxiety with being in or near water. So to then combine the benefits of being in water with the benefits of exercising in nature, this really has a profound effect on mental wellbeing. This 2015 study found that 90 minutes of walking in nature helped reduce mental health issues, whereby results where not replicated for an urban environment.
Cultural - on a cultural level surfing shares similar values to the yoga culture. Within both there is a strong emphasis on building sustainable community and broadening one's circle of compassion and kindness to extend to the environment. Surfing culture tends to value ecological and environmental wellbeing which fits with the unity and connection ethos of yoga.
Spiritual -There are parallels in the ideology of the being present, mindful and living for the moment and being in a flow the state. In an interview with Yoga Journal, my yoga teacher Shiva Rae states:
“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 ever have.”
Being in flow is more than just a state of mind, it is a heightened place of focus and absorption to the point where self-identity is merged with the activity. The surfer, the Wave and the act of surfing all become one. Surfer's call it being 'in the zone'. This experience is referred to by renowned psychologist Csikszentmihalyi as being in ‘flow’. Yogis refer to this as the ultimate state of 'Samadhi'.
There is nothing more humbling to feel the power and great vastness of the ocean knowing that you cannot control it and must respect and adapt with it. Yet there is nothing more awe-inspiring and life-affirming than to feel yourself as part of the great body of water, knowing that every cell of yours is also made from the same Source.