Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Yoga of Surfing: 9 Essential Mental Habits For Beginner Surfers

The Yoga of Surfing

Learning to surf can be a fun and beautiful experience. Imagine being out there in the sea, fully present and flowing with ease, becoming one with nature, one with the waves, enjoying the sunrise, the sunset, or perhaps the beautiful rain. But the reality can be quite different, especially if you are a beginner surfer.

While learning to surf we need to deal with the people around us, with the intimidating waves and with the threatening reefs or rocks. But the most difficult of all... we need to deal with ourselves.

Even if we are alone in the water we still need to deal with ourselves.

Believe it or not, the mind, with its unconscious fears and beliefs, is playing tricks with us, all the time. Especially when we feel challenged when trying to learn something new.

On top of that, when the surf spots get crowded with people from different nationalities and backgrounds, shanti, shanti, shanti (peace, peace, peace) becomes a remote experience. Surfing in this situation can sometimes bring out the worst in us.

I learned to surf quite recently, last May, in Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka.

I had the greatest time ever but I also learned a lot about myself. I learned by observing the surfers around me and I learned by observing my own thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

Yoga and Surfing in Arugam Bay Main Point

In "8 Ways Yoga Helped Me Learn to Surf," I shared how a physical yoga practice can be helpful for surfers, but in this post "The Yoga of Surfing: 9 Essential Mental Habits For Beginner Surfers" I'm focusing more on the mental aspects of yoga.

These are the mental habits that I found most useful to learn surfing, but they can also be applied to any situation. I hope you'll find them beneficial to you as well.

The Yoga of Surfing: 9 Essential Mental Habits For Beginner Surfers

1. Be Humble - Find a Surf teacher

As a student of yoga I have learned to appreciate the value of a good teacher so without hesitation one of the first things that I did after arriving in Arugam Bay was to look for a surf teacher.

I stopped by Dizzy's Surf Shop and arranged a one hour class with him for the next day. It was about 3,000 Sri Lankan Rupees. A lot, but it was worth it.

We took one of those big soft surfboards that some people like to call Lilos. I was like "When can I go for the real one, the small one?" he just laughed. I made tons of questions and he was like, "Relax, I tell you on the water."

After the class, he said that I did quite well so I could try the hardboard the next day, and so we did. I didn't get much further advice on my second class and although I found it a lot more difficult with the hardboard I decided that it was enough, it was time to try it on my own.

So, I didn't spend much time with my surf teacher but the little advice that he gave me was priceless and it did make a difference in the days to come.

I know, many people learn to surf on their own but probably most of them got some sort of advice from a friend or a relative. My suggestion is to not let the ego get on the way of your surfing experience.

I've seen people going to Arugam Bay and try to learn to surf by themselves. After a few days of frustration, some of them would finally look for a teacher. Looking for a teacher right from the beginning can help you save some precious time.

If you are a complete beginner at surfing (or anything else you'd like to learn), how do you feel about looking for a teacher? Do you feel any resistance to that idea? Read Why You Need to Find a Teacher Today

2. Be Present - Focus on The Process Rather Than on the Outcome

One of the things that I love the most about surfing is that it is a very mental sport, at least for me. Every day in one way or another I had to deal with myself, with my own thoughts and unconscious believes.

By learning to surf I've learned a lot about myself.

My moods were constantly affected by the quality of my surf. If I had a good surf session I would feel great but if it wasn't that good I would get frustrated and upset which just made things worst.

The more disturbed I would feel after missing a wave the harder it would be to catch the next wave. In other words, every surf session would affect my mental state and my mental state would affect the quality of my surf session.

To enjoy the surf I had to work hard at remaining equanimous regardless of how my surf session was. I didn't want to get cocky or arrogant when I had a good surf day and I didn't want to be mentally affected when I had a bad surf day.

So I tried to focus on the moment rather than on the outcome, and I tried to see each wave as if it was the very first wave that I was going to take. Previous mistakes didn't matter.

It was not easy at all but I tried every single day.

How do you feel when you have a bad surf day? Have you taken some time to think about why would you feel in this way? Are you focusing your attention on the end result or on the moment?

3. Be Honest - Know Yourself, Know Your Fears

I also realized that my biggest fear was not the big waves, getting hit by another surfboard or the reef at the Main Point (I was afraid of it for sure but it was not my biggest fear). My biggest fear was what others would think of me if I would fail.

Yeah I know, I would love to say that I don't care about what others think of me but I have to be honest with myself, I do and while surfing it became very clear. I was afraid to fail because I was afraid of what others might think if I didn't catch a wave, you know, I just didn't want to look like a looser.

This was not such a big deal on the easy point breaks around Arugam Bay where there were plenty of other beginners and where the waves start at the same spot. But it was a real challenge at the Main Point, which is a reef break.

The Main Point is where the most advanced surfers go to, and when it gets crowded it can be a pretty tough and competitive environment. It was at the Main Point where my fears would sometimes take over me.

How well do you know yourself? What do you fear the most?

4. Be Calm - Focus on Deep, Long, and Relaxed Breaths

Many times I saw less experienced surfers catching a wave on the right spot at the Main Point. I knew I could surf better but whenever I would paddle to the right spot between all the other surfers I would feel my heart rate increase, my body trembling and my breath get agitated.

Imagine that, I would get anxious not because of the waves, or the reef, but because of that self-created-imaginary-fear that I felt to be among all the other good surfers.

Knowing that I would have to fight for the next wave, and at the same time making sure that I would not drop-in somebody else's wave (dropping-in is considered the surfing's ultimate cardinal sin), would make me so anxious.

Of course, the stress would take it's toll whenever I managed to get myself on the right spot, at the right time for the perfect wave. My fears would manifest and I would inevitably miss the wave or be wiped out.

It was only when the section would get less crowded because of a big group of people taking a break that I would be able take a good wave effortlessly.

The only weapon that I had at this moment was my breath. I had to sit for a while on my surfboard to allow my breath to become deep, smooth and continuous.

It was not easy at all but sometimes by focusing on deep, relaxed breaths I did manage to overcome that anxiety and it would be possible for me to catch the next wave.

Have you pay attention to the changes in the rhythm of your breath under stressful situations? Have you notice any changes in your heart rate or even in your mental clarity and focus? Next time perhaps you could try to focus on deep relaxed breaths for a few minutes and then observe if there are any changes on the way that you feel.

5. Be Prepared - Visualize Your Surf Session

The second weapon that I had to deal with my fears and my mental or emotional fluctuations was the power of visualization.

During my first month, I used to visualize myself catching lots of nice good waves, standing in the board effortlessly.

But when I started surfing at the Main Point and realized how strong my fears were, I had to focus my visualizations on feeling comfortable and confident among all the other good surfers. I picture myself paddling without hesitation towards the right spot to catch the next wave.

It's so interesting to see the power of the mind. Even when I would visualize myself in that situation I would feel that same anxiety as if I was in the water, right in the middle of that battlefield. I could feel my heart rate increase, my hands tremble and my breath becoming agitated.

But in the same way, by visualizing myself remaining calm and relaxed I would improve my performance the next day. It wasn't a radical improvement, but enough for me to notice it.

Do you remember in your childhood when you use to picture yourself playing guitar in a rock band? or perhaps as a ballerina performing in a big theater? What about playing today with your mind, in the same way that you did as a kid, but consciously to help you develop whatever skills you want to develop? Read the last point in "8 Ways Yoga Helped Me Learn To Surf"

6. Be Gentle - Know When to Stop

I always like to do things with intensity and to push myself to the limit. The first two weeks I went surfing every day, doing sessions of between three and four hours, almost none stop.

I was enjoying surfing so much that it was really hard to take a break just to rehydrate myself.

Big mistake.

The first few days I was feeling really strong but after a little while I started to feel weaker and weaker and my body felt completely stiff and sore.

I knew I had to stop and take at least a couple of days off but my surf buddy David, a really nice dude from France with whom I was sharing a tuk-tuk every day, was going to stay only for two weeks. I decided to wait until the time that he would leave to take a break.

On top of that, I had heard that in June and July Arugam Bay would get really crowded and every surf point would be packed with people.

So I figured that if I wanted to be able to catch some waves then I'd better get good enough at it soon, otherwise I'll be just sitting in the line up looking at everybody else catching all the waves.

So I did what every sane person would have done. I took some anti-inflammatories to hide the pain and kept surfing with the same intensity.

Two days before David had to leave my, body said, "Sorry dude, no more!"

I injured my ribs and experienced the most intense pain that I had ever experienced. I couldn't cough, sneeze or even laugh. I couldn't breathe deeply and even laying down in bed was one of the most difficult things to do.

I had to stop surfing and even practicing yoga for ten long days, but it took several months to completely heal.

Do you feel completely sore after surfing? Are you taking breaks between sessions to rehydrate your body? Are you pushing yourself way beyond your capacity? Remember, there is always time.

7. Be Cheerful - What Are You So Serious About? Smile!

I was very lucky, during my time in Arugam Bay I met so many wonderful people.

I have beautiful memories of my friends paddling to catch a wave with a big smile on their faces, but one day my friend Steffi, a lovely happy girl that I met during my last week in A-Bay, told me that I was the only guy that smile back at her while surfing.

I was surprised. How could I be the only guy that smile back at her?

But it was true. I also met people that as soon as they would get in the water their facial expressions would transform into their most evil and aggressive expressions, like if everybody else were their enemy.

Sometimes it was hard for me to believe that he/she was the same person that I've met outside of the water. I wondered why they would have to take it so seriously.

Everybody who is into surfing has heard the expression, "The best surfer out in the water is the one having the most fun." I guess not everybody really lives it.

Do you ever become aware of your facial expression? Does your face reflects that you are happy, peaceful or having fun? Or does it reflect that you are in combat mode, stressed or worried? You don't need to look at a mirror, just become aware of your facial muscles and you'll be able to tell.

8. Be Generous - Focus on Abundance, There is Always More Than Enough for All

I also saw some people that would paddle for every single wave without respecting the lineup, and they would paddle as if that was the last wave that they were ever gonna take in their lives.

I didn't like that attitude at all. Now imagine this attitude combined with the angry surfer with no friends that I mentioned before. Worst combination ever!

I think the coolest surfer is not the one that can ride all the waves but the one that, knowing that he/she can ride the next wave, even if it is a good wave, is able to let others enjoy the surf and even give some advice and encouragement to other surfers with less experience.

That's the nice cool guy/girl that everybody talks about in the evening.

I remember this nice dude from Brazil; he was just like that and everybody loved him. One of the best surfers that I met in Arugam Bay.

My best surf sessions actually happened during my last two weeks in Arugam Bay. My surf skills had improved quite a bit but I was not surfing every day anymore. I was taking it easy and when surfing I tried to focus on abundance.

I tried to pay more attention to make sure that I would respect the lineup, even if it was not very visible, instead of becoming greedy which is very easy when you can take more waves than the guys around you.

I tried to be patient to let others surf as well, yet I think I surf many more waves than I did before, and even more gratifying was to notice that some people really appreciated when I would patiently wait for the next wave.

That's a far better feeling than just taking the wave thinking only about me.

Do you ever have this feeling as if there is never enough waves, time, money and so on? Do you believe in abundance or in scarcity? Are you generous or greedy? Do you think about others first?

9. Be Confident - Don't Let Others Disrespect You

Of course, being cheerful and generous doesn't mean to let others walk over you. If you are "generous" all the time nobody will respect you and you'll be sitting there in the lineup with a fake smile on your face, watching everybody else catching all the waves.

You'll have to stick to your ground and paddle with confidence when you know that the next wave is your wave. That means that sometimes you'll have to fight for a wave cause there are still many other surfers out there that think that this is the last wave that they are ever gonna surf in their life.

Easier said than done, especially when you are a beginner, it takes lots of practice.

I remember one day at Whiskey Point I was all of a sudden the only one in the lineup. Then the best set that I ever saw at Whiskey Point came, but at the same time, eight locals arrived from nowhere, as they usually did. These guys have some special sense for the good waves.

I couldn't do a thing. I was sitting like in the middle of a carrousel, watching the locals paddle around me and take wave after wave. I tried, believe me, but I guess I wasn't ready for that at all.

Do you often get this feeling that people abuse your generosity? Do you often feel disrespected or abused? Ask yourself why do you feel like this or what is creating this kind of situations in your life. Remember, you can always use the power of visualization to help you develop some confidence.

Putting it into practice

If you would like to discover by yourself how yoga and surfing complement each other, then I think a good way to do that is by booking a surf and yoga retreat.

In a retreat like this, you'll get to practice yoga once or sometimes twice a day, besides of course going surfing during the day. 

Sri Lanka is a wonderful country to do just that.  It has perfect sunny weather, paradise beaches, and waves for all levels.

So you can visit my article 7 Unique Yoga Retreats in Sri Lanka to find some really awesome options.

The first four retreats are by the beach, on the south coast of Sri Lanka, where you can easily find surf schools and many surfing spots for all levels.

Related posts:

Our minds can be our greatest friend or our greatest enemy. It can make us feel happy or it can make us feel miserable, and even worst, it can affect others with its negativity and self-centeredness.

It's only up to us to train our minds so that it doesn't become an obstacle but rather a tool to accomplish anything, like learning a new skill as surfing.

I hope you'll find this "The Yoga of Surfing: 9 Essential Mental Habits For Beginner Surfers" useful to help you train your mind so that not only you but also the people around you can have fun while surfing. Oh, and btw, don't forget to smile. Thanks for sharing!


  1. The more one with the ocean and waves you can become will be the biggest advancement in not only surfing and yoga but your entire life. The ocean knows when your mind is lost in paralyzing thought and the waves avoid you. When you can become in tune with the rhythms of the waves then you will advance in your surfing dramatically

    1. Beautiful advice Eirk, thanks a lot, you have really made me stop for a moment and contemplate on this. I'll remember your words next time I go surfing. I guess you've been surfing for quite a while.