Words by: Donna Russo
Imagine mercilessly tearing up the face of a wave with the force of Taylor Knox’s snaps and off-the-lips or being able to gracefully glide through a colossal hollow tube with the precision and style of Gerry Lopez. Power surfer, Taylor Knox and Mr. Pipeline have very different surfing styles but one outweighing similarity is that they both accredit much of their success in professional surfing careers to yoga and meditation. From improving surf skill with a regular yoga and meditation practice to sharing similar spiritual experiences; yoga and surfing have been eternally intertwined.
Since the origin of yoga and surfing, both have been practiced to enhance one’s quality of strength and liveliness and to open an understanding of the human spirit. Although they have been linked together for millennia, recognition of the connected benefits has only begun to increase in recent years.
This blog will bring you through how yoga and meditation can improve surfing and how surfing itself acts as a mindfulness practice.
Big-wave surf icon, Gerry Lopez is known for his zen ways. He has given countless interviews, videos, writings, and physical attestations on how yoga has helped his surfing and how both have helped shape his life. In a video for Wanderlust, one of Lopez’s surf and yoga retreats, he says
"Yoga is a wonderful blend of not only building strength but increasing flexibility. As we got more into yoga, we started to understand that the pranayama and breathing practices really had a great deal to do with holding your breath when you got into a bad wipeout in big surf."
The theme of flexibility and focus on breath are mirrored in statements from another professional surfer, Taylor Knox. Knox has a special connection to yoga as it helped him recover from a severe back injury and be able to maintain his power-surf style into his forties. Knox keeps such strength and longevity in his surfing career with a regular bikram yoga practice and other healthy habits. When asked how yoga has improved his surfing in an interview with Yoga Journal, Knox says:
"It's increased my flexibility and improved my breathing. My breathing is more relaxed, but I also feel like I have better lung capacity."
Vinyasa and Yin Yoga
The increase in strength and flexibility that Lopez and Knox mention are from the style of yoga and the poses themselves. One of the most popular styles of yoga today, Vinyasa, is a series of poses linked together with breath and done at a quick pace. This type of exercise calls for quick muscular contractions which builds muscular strength.
Requiring an output of energy and vigor from your body for a longer length of time will also improve muscular endurance. So think of an all-day surf session or hurricane swell, you’ll need to exert intense muscular strength continuously.
Another style of yoga, Yin, can help surfers gain more range of motion and increase their flexibility. In Yin yoga, all poses are held for several minutes at a time and are done on the mat. The deep stretch of the poses surpass muscular activity and targets the Fascia- the connective tissue of the body. This kind of stretch encourages releases in the fascia which overtime results in more flexibility and expanded range of motion in the joints. These improvements are important for a surfer to execute bigger, more fluid movements and to avoid injury. Think about paddling, getting up, and nailing maneuvers on the wave.
Another parallel in the statements from Lopez and Knox is regarding yoga’s focus on breath. Although we spend all day breathing to stay alive - we hardly pay attention to it. We can train our lungs just like we train muscle.
One of the eight practices, or ‘limbs’, of yoga is Pranayama - the practice of controlling your breath.
In types of yoga like Vinyasa and Bikram, the practitioner has to train the timing of their inhales and exhales to specific movements done at a fast pace. Challenging your lungs in this way will increase lung capacity (the volume of air you can inhale); in turn this affects how long the breath can be held and how hard the lungs can be pushed.
A great breathing exercise that can be done in all types of yoga and meditations is Alternate Nostril Breath.
For this exercise the practitioner breathes through only one nostril at a time, which challenges the rate and volume of respiration. Overall, Alternate Nostril Breath is known to improve lung function and endurance, improve cardiovascular function and lower heart rate.
Pranayama conditions surfers; especially for when they have to hold their breath for longer bouts of time, are held down by multiple waves, and go under water right after physical exhaustion.
Whether it’s through increasing flexibility, improving lung and cardiovascular function, or increasing muscular strength and endurance- yoga helps surfers maintain and grow their skill. To make a class extra effective for a surfer, pair the style of yoga with specific poses that target the muscle groups surfers rely on most. Like most other sports, surfing is a total body physical activity; however what’s relied on most are the shoulder girdle, pelvic girdle, quadriceps, and the abdomen.
Let’s look at some specific poses and why they would be effective postures for a surfer.
Pose 1 - The Eagle Pose
First up is Eagle pose; the rhomboids and trapezius muscles (back of the shoulders) are stretched by the adduction, which is caused by raising the arms to shoulder height and crossing at the elbows.
The supraspinatus, infraspinatus, teres minor, and teres major muscles are also stretched in this pose through the adduction caused by moving the arms up and towards the opposite side of the body. The deep 6 lateral rotators of the hips (piriformis, obturator internus, obturator externus, gemellus inferior, gemellus superior, and quadratus femoris) are lengthened through the internal rotation caused by crossing the legs and bringing one knee towards the opposite side of the body. The gluteus maximus and medius are also stretched by crossing the legs and lowering the hips down and back. The core (rectus abdominis), the quadriceps, and gluteus maximus are activated with isometric contractions as they stabilize the body in this popular balancing pose.
Through these actions, Eagle pose is great for a surfer as it helps open the shoulders and hips and strengthen the legs and core.
Pose 2 - The Crescent Lunge
Next, we’ll look at Crescent Lunge. This is another pose that’s specifically beneficial for surfers as it simultaneously stretches and strengthens muscles in the quadriceps, the shoulder girdle, and core.
The first step is to come into a lunge by bringing one leg forward, aligning the knee with the ankle, and extending the back leg. From the anteversion of the pelvis, the iliopsoas, tensor fascia lata, sartorius, and pectineus are lengthened. The extension of the back hip stretches the quadriceps (rectus femoris, vastus medialis, vastus lateralis, and vastus intermedius) while the gluteus maximus, gluteus medius, and hamstrings (biceps femoris, semitendinosus, and semimembranosus) contract.
Once the practitioner is in the lunge, the next step would be to lift the arms overhead; this flexion of the shoulder girdle contracts the deltoids while stretching the rotator cuff muscles.
The muscles of the core are strengthened by the contraction of stabilizing the body. Depending if the practitioner decides to take a backbend by reaching the arms back, the rhomboids contract and muscles of the core lengthen.
Pose 3 - Thread the Needle
Unlike the previous two poses which are often done in Vinyasa or Hatha yoga classes, the last pose we’ll review is commonly done in Yin yoga; this is Thread the Needle.
The first step to get into this pose is to assume a table top position; then slide one arm forward so the other arm can reach underneath across the body. Next, the shoulder and ear of that arm lower to the mat while keeping the hips in line with the knees. Once the body is settled into the pose, stay in it for about three to five minutes.
As I mentioned above, this type of deep stretch leads to increased range of motion and flexibility. Since Thread the Needle focuses on the shoulders and hips, over time there will be improvements in the degree of motion associated with these two joints. This is valuable to a surfer as increased range of motion and flexibility with the shoulders leads to more effective paddling and exertion of strength.
The improvements associated with the hips would help a surfer with any movements that involve the legs or trunk rotations. On a wave this would translate to more effective maneuvers and exertion of strength, a stronger stance, and more ease in getting up to your feet.
Yin yoga poses also affects the fascia of the body, which is a complex web of connective tissue that runs through all the bones, ligaments, muscles, organs, vessels, and fibers in the body. By stretching, compressing, twisting, and otherwise manipulating the body in yoga poses, the connective tissue is being ‘worked out’. Focusing on the fascia in this way can lead to releases in ‘knot’-like sensations, muscle pain and stiffness, improvements in the function of surrounding organs, and it is how increased range of motion is obtained.
To top it all off, Thread the Needle also improves the function of the lungs as the chest is compressed and the ribs are expanded in the pose.
A Mindful State of Living
Deeper than yoga and surfing’s physical connections are the spiritual similarities embedded in each practice.
Yoga and surfing guide us to a state of mindfulness- having your awareness completely focused on the present moment. Every yoga class starts by bringing the awareness solely on the breath, which directly transports you to the present moment. The practitioner has to focus on the breath to be able to fluidly move through the poses and stay present through uncomfortable sensations or thoughts.
When a surfer begins to paddle out, they’re intense focus on the waves is the conduit to the present moment. Their awareness has to be entirely on the swell to catch waves and simply keep themselves safe in the ocean. They have to keep this focus through strong currents, exhaustion, and sometimes feelings of fear or frustration.
Mindfulness may not seem special, let alone a spiritual experience, but there is a shift that happens when we access the present in this way. When we intentionally come to the state of mindfulness during yoga and meditation, we begin to recognize that it’s always accessible in all we do. When we allow ourselves to simply exist even through moments or sensations that are not ideal or unpleasant, we learn to let go of our suffering; living in harmony with what is.
This directly translates to being in the water as the energy of the ocean mirrors what we experience in daily life. A surfer can be facing a lot of elements in the ocean but they have to remain calm and focused; if they attach to a feeling of panic being held under or have an aversion to the conditions or their performance, they can risk injury or just a bad session. When we learn to be with ourselves or reality without attachment or aversion, we create room for compassion, our own understanding, and to be able to live in our individual power.
A regular yoga practice will help bring you to your best surfing, even if you’re don't get the chance to surf everyday. On the other hand, if you don’t have a regular yoga or meditation practice, surfing itself can help bring you to a mindful state of living.
We hope this post inspires and encourages you to make yoga and mediation part of your daily practice. We guarantee that if you perfect everything outline above your will improve!
Want to go deeper, or have a 1-on-1 session with the author, Donna? Get in touch!