Surf & Yoga – The body

I have talked enough about me in my previous two posts, I will now address a much more important subject, an essential subject, I should say. Certainly the only occupation that deserves dedicating one’s entire life: Surfing.

“Hello, my name is Alexandre and I’m a surfer.”
“Hello Alexandre!”

Rest assured, I will not give you my definition of Surfing or what it means to a surfer… Firstly because everyone sees what Surfing is: a bloke (a girl) on a board that moves on a wave, but mostly because everything has been said again and again on the subject.
For Surfing, thanks to the fascination it provokes to its practitioner, prompted the creation of a multitude of works, some of them brilliant: novels and essays, paintings, sculptures, documentaries and fiction, music, … Surfing is a metaphor of life, an endless source of inspiration, as well as yoga, for example.
Duh, you see me coming!

Thus, and in the same way, much has already been written about the close relationship between Surfing and Yoga. However, I still want to give you my point of view, if only for the pleasure to bust with my own shoulders some already open doors.

Before starting this article I googled “Surfing Yoga” and I was left flabbergasted by the result: first entry  “4000+ yoga and surf retreats around the world” … Well yes, Surfing and Yoga are doing very well together, it is obvious since the 60s when the counterculture movements started in California and Australia, where they probably met for the first time. Flower power, body cult, return to nature and consumer society rejection, psychedelic experiences: that was a great fertile ground for personal development combined with two of the best world Surf areas.

The surfer is in essence a traveler, a seeker in permanent search for waves, and he naturally found yoga on his way. It started with the hippie beach bums, Surfing Swami, Hawaiians like Gerry Lopez, and then many bridges got created between the two activities. Since the 90s, Surfing population has been experiencing a sharp and continuous increase, and it is the same for Yoga, maybe even more, especially in the US. This now leads to their massive commercial exploitation, against their own good, according to some people (which in my opinion is totally wrong because the common interest in practicing Yoga and Surfing relates to an unalterable diamond-like type of quality, but I will come back later on that).

Summary: Surfing is hype, Yoga is hype too, and the combination of both, even more!

There are many reasons why they go so well together, some obvious, others more subtle. I’ll start in this first article by talking about the aspects concerning the body, a second article will follow and deal with the mind matter.




NEWSFLASH: The surfer, like the human being (and like the Yogi), has a body, that he uses for the only activity of interest to him: Surfing. For the surfer has really only one goal: to surf, again and again. Logically this implies that he should be sparing with his body, so he can surf more intensely, multiply and link the sessions, or surf till the latest possible moment in his life. The surfer hates injuries, witnessing perfect waves without being able to surf them is akin to extreme torture.

What distinguishes a good surfer from the crowd? The style.
Beyond the technical ability, power or maneuvers, there is unanimity among his peers on a stylish surfer: the one with the perfect line, that blends movement economy, ease and grace under pressure.

Gerry Lopez, iconic example of a stylish surfer, said the first time he saw a guy doing yoga he immediately said he wanted to move like him, but on his board. Gerry Lopez is a dedicated Yogi, practicing for the last fifty years, and is known at 68 years old for handling several hours sessions in waves “of consequence” like in Indonesia and Hawaii. Dave Rastovich is another illustration of what a regular practice of Yoga can bring to the life and style of a surfer: an exceptional fluidity and harmony with the waves. Of course putting yourself in Yoga will not make you becoming Lopez or Rastovich overnight, they are both accomplished Yogis totaling decades of practice and amazing surfers. Nevertheless it is possible to consider them as inspirations, although other surfers with amazing styles like Tom Curren or JJ Florence probably never set foot on a yoga mat.

Early 70s Lopez at Pipeline

Rastovich in India in Taylor Steele “Castle in the Sky”

With Yoga regular practice one can develop his flexibility – or rather balance it – to gradually begin to move like a cat that would enjoy water.

With a good paddling position, a proper breathing pattern can be carried out during the effort, causing relaxation of the muscles that do not need to be active, bringing the body to work more efficiently, like a well adjusted and greased mechanics. Less effort where there are not needed, less tension, less fatigue, more dynamism at the desired time => more control when riding the waves and more waves. BINGO.

Sthira Sukham Asanam: it is the concept of the right posture in Yoga, a combination of steadiness and ease that allows the posture to be held in time. Paddling becomes a posture.

[Note: for non-surfers who came to read me this far, and who may not know it: a surfer spends very little time standing on his board compared to an awful lot of time paddling]

Beyond that, as the practice brings flexibility and core strength, taking off gets more fluid and controlled, and then once standing on the wave one can experience being more relaxed and body aware, both key aspects for maneuvers progression.

Today many professional surfers practice Yoga, it is a reality of their physical training, like strength workouts or nutrition plans. There are many examples, but Kelly Slater is certainly the best one, as he is known for ever optimizing every aspect regarding his Surfing. We can also mention Taylor Knox as he is one of the first pros to have promoted Yoga in Peggy Hall “Yoga for Surfers” videos. Similarly, professional big waves surfers like Mark Healey and Greg Long are also Yoga practitioners, with an approach that goes beyond the body as they look for calming the mind to prepare for life threatening surfing conditions. In that kind of waves, keeping calm is key, and breath control, essential.

Surfing regularly develops the body in an unbalanced way, and imbalances must be corrected before they can set in and create problems that we all experienced one time or another: pain in lower back, hips, shoulders, neck, …  

Paddling position promotes a marked lumbar curve, open ribs, hyperextended neck, and paddling motion causes internal rotation of the shoulders, with an heavy load on the lats and anterior deltoids … In short, paddling promotes an exaggeration of the natural curves of the spine.

When the surfer takes off on a wave and stands up, the asymmetric foot position induces additional imbalances in the hips and back, on a different plane. These imbalances are usually less strong than the paddling ones, except perhaps in the case of good surfers, who spend much time standing 🙂 and transmit a lot of power in rotation between their upper body and the board during maneuvers.

Yoga is in essence about bringing balance, so any sound regular practice will improve the surfer posture and contribute to injuries prevention.

Typically for a surfer it may be interesting to focus on certain poses

– Stretching the posterior chain: forward folds, triangles, lunges,..
– Strengthening the anterior chain : planks, boat pose, crane pose, …
– Opening the hips: triangles, lunges, twists, seated poses,…
– Opening the shoulders: downwards & upwards dog, eagle, cow face,…
– Working on anchoring with the lower limbs: standing poses, balancing poses,..

In those poses, or in any pose for that matter, it is really important to focus on always lengthening the spine, from the tailbone to the neck, in order to promote and optimize diaphragmatic breathing and bring in the relaxation factor.

When Surfing, pelvic stability is key during paddling, take off and maneuvers. Learning how to activate the perineum, transverse and obliques abdominal muscles brings this awareness to gradually be etched in the body over the practice. Similarly, in many poses, attention to the arms external rotation and rhomboid activation to lower the shoulder blades will reduce the impact of paddling on the posture and increase shoulders longevity.

Different yoga practices are to be preferred depending on the timing : away from a surf session, as a warm up or as a recovery. For instance, I learned at my expense that a two hours Ashtanga practice was not so beneficial after a big session 🙂 and I now set aside dynamic Yoga practices for my “no surf” days. But it’s very personal, and only you will gradually be able to adapt your practice according to your day activities and energy level. As for surfing, you have to practice and practice again, and it is through practice that you will integrate the postural schemas and breathing patterns that allow you to surf better and longer.

A word about my experience: I am a poor surfer, and I usually use two excuses
1- Having started Surfing at 33 years old, as I was into bodyboarding before that (Yoga is also great for balancing bodyboarding, which is even more traumatic than Surfing for the lower back)
2-Surfing relatively infrequently, about a hundred times a year on the good years

However, as I am about to turn 46, my Surfing is still (very slowly) improving, I am riding the same board sizes, greatly limiting physical problems (excluding bad wipe outs consequences) and it would simply not be possible without Yoga. I like practicing Vinyasa and Ashtanga because the transition movements between each poses are very close to taking off, paddling and duck diving. Practicing them again and again on the mat, mindfully, in rhythm with my breath, allows me to engrave them with the right alignment and relaxed state in my body memory.

Then, after practicing Yoga for a few months, you will notice other effects that also have a direct transfer to your Surfing. For instance the improvement of your attention capacity that will help you operate better in the moment, welcoming what the ocean throws at you… But we are now touching on themes that I will address in the next post!

See you in the tube!


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