In the surfing world, there has been a real surge of interest in yoga, as professional surfers and enthusiasts realise the benefits that stretching and strengthening, breathing exercises and self-awareness can have when they paddle out into the water. I've tailored classes for surfers in the west coast of France, and they've told me they really enjoy the benefits of the yoga practice. Now I'd like to reverse the roles a little, and share some pointers that I think surfing can teach us yogis.
When I set off for France last year, I headed to the Atlantic coast with the idea that I would learn to surf. I took lessons whenever possible and made the commitment by getting my own board. I continued that commitment by choosing to live right by the beach outside of Bilbao, and whenever time and conditions permit it, I get in the water. I'm very much a beginner surfer, but you don't need to be a pro to enjoy the sensation of paddling out and hopefully catching a few waves. The buzz from finally catching a wave, the butterflies as a big one rolls in, or the calm between sets as you wait patiently, the thrill of seeing some fish swim by, when it's time to get out of the water you always feel like it was really worthwhile. Much like getting on your mat or going to a class.
Being a beginner at something has been a really refreshing opportunity. As adults, we tend to stick to what we're good at, and avoid potential failures (and therefore embarrassments) with great skill. We don't like looking stupid! In fact we often tell ourselves and others, even just subconsciously, that trying anything new now would be a waste of time, as we'll never really have the time to get good at it. We begin to develop really rigid ideas about what we can and can't do, and even cling to them, so as not to risk failure trying anything new. But there's something great about looking stupid! We stop taking ourselves so seriously, let go of the ego and expectations of our own performance. It doesn't have to be surfing, being a beginner at anything can provide these opportunities. However, as my own experience has been with surfing, I've seen a few points in particular that are really relevant to anyone who has an interest in yoga.
Look where you're going. I'm still struggling with this one on the board, but it's one of the first things that instructors correct beginners on once they've learned to stand up. To keep your balance and begin to have more control of the board, you've got to look where you're going. There's an idea of commitment in there too, like pick your direction and stick to it. In a typical yoga class you will be instructed where to focus your gaze, or drishti. As a student sometimes you can be focusing so hard on so much that occasionally you forget to give this component the attention it deserves. See if you can incorporate a more steady gaze into your practice, and remember it's not only where you're looking, but how you're looking (soft, relaxed focus, as opposed to eyebrows furrowed in concentration) is an important, if discreet part of your practice.
Stay with the Breath & Resist Reacting to Fear. For some students, breathwork & pranayama can be the part they like to skip. Just like the story of the monk who complained of boredom at his breathing meditation, suddenly breath becomes a lot more interesting when we're under the water, waiting for a chance to reach the surface. I'm not suggesting that you paddle out there in conditions beyond your abilities, but even in ideal beginner conditions, there is a part of our brain and body, that when untrained, will still have a instinctive fear reaction when we our below the surface, waiting to reach the air. This reaction provides an opportunity to observe our fear response, and learn to relax, developing our "witness", or the ability to self-observe.
I recently met some free-divers who were explaining to me all about holding your breath underwater, and the importance of total relaxation, as any tension will use up your energy forcing you to surface sooner. An interesting insight that is worth applying to our day-to-day living!
We often talk about confronting fear on our yoga mat, especially in arm balancing or back bending poses. Thankfully, after practice, we learn to let go of this fear. However, have we really learned to apply this lesson universally? Getting a reminder about of our instinctive reactions to fear help us to continue to work on this process on the mat. Being in the water allows us to test out if we can put this into practice off the mat.
Patience & Commitment. We need to have patience for the waves, and patience with our own bodies. Especially as beginners, a kind of surrendering is needed, allowing yourself to make mistakes, accepting that you're not going to do it right the first time around (or second or third!), and knowing that a certain amount of time is necessary. Still knowing that you have a long wait ahead, you've got to commit. If you start to go for that wave, commit fully, and similarly on your mat, commit to your practice, commit to that moment to really give it all of your effort.
Connecting to something bigger. When surfing, we're in an environment that's shared with many other people, not only that but teeming with life in many shapes and forms. The ocean is controlled by forces that are not subject to our desires, and conditions will always be beyond our control. This teaches us acceptance, and awareness of the forces bigger than ourselves. That paradoxically realising how small and insignificant we are in the grand scheme of things can leave us with a great sense of relief or contentment, like the same kind of feeling that you can get from looking up at a starry night's sky, or being in the mountains.
I know that I'm only just scratching the surface, but even just that has been enough to keep me coming back for more, just as has been with practicing yoga. I hope it's been enough to tempt you out of your comfort zone, whether that's into the sea or on your mat!
I'll leave you with a video of surfing legend Gerry Lopez, who is also a dedicated yogi.