The yoga of surfing and the Pipeline Masters

Over on Oahu the past week, what I’ll always think of as simply the Pipeline Masters — but this year officially is called the Billabong Pipe Masters in Memory of Andy Irons — has been running. The final heats are running on Friday.

This event is in the mix as the most important competition in surfing. (Whether surfing ought to be a competitive sport is a subject for a different blog.) It has been a mainstay of pro surfing as long as I can remember (which takes us back to the late 1970s). It is long the culmination of the Triple Crown of Surfing, three contests all in Hawaii. And, of course, it happens at what’s among the most famous surf spots in the world, if the Banzai Pipeline isn’t the most famous. (To our readers who aren’t surfers: Can you name another surf spot?)

Gerry Lopez, the real Pipeline master, via

I watched a few of the opening heats, when the surf was an uber-solid eight to 10 feet — meaning the faces of the waves, where the surfers are, is nearing 20 feet. Pumping Pipeline. Pretty much unfathomable stuff unless you’re either a Hawaiian local or among the 1% of surfing’s elite (not to be confused with that other 1% or even Ashtanga’s 1%).

Talk about having to be in the moment, which was on my mind last time I tried to bring surfing and yoga together:

When surfing, being in the moment is about bringing you, your surfboard and the wave together — a union of form, function and flow. All become one; there is balance and equilibrium.

In yoga, it’s … well, yoga, right? Bringing mind, body (gross and subtle), pose, breath all together. Focusing enough on that moment so it opens up, widens, lengths, expands — lasts longer. But also, so it is more intense, so that you take more in, experience more. See, feel, taste, hear, smell more.

In the water lately, the waves have held that same sense of “more.” I’ve felt the turns and drops more, recognized the wave better, lived it up and enjoyed the moment. I just hadn’t put together why.

As I watched these early round heats — by the way, the final or a semi-final could be the most-watched bit of surfing ever as a very close “world title” race remained up in the air until the final day of the contest — and saw surfer after surfer drop in and position himself in the tube, I thought about what makes this wave so alluring and why tube riding remains the ultimate act of surfing.

It’s yoga, in the sense of union. To survive (literally in some cases) these waves, the surfers have to be one with the wave. They’re inside it, at its mercy. It is a step beyond being in the moment, to being one in the moment.

In contrast, a lot of surfing now is full of slashes and gouges and hard, sharp turns — moves that don’t necessarily reflect or embody the wave. Aerials, in fact, are the next realm of surfing. (Aerials have been happening for almost 30 years, but never so dramatic and in such a consistent way to the rest of the ride.) There’s almost a willful disregard of the wave; it’s more about imposing moves on the wave than finding where the wave and the surfer are most in unison, which might be one way to describe a more classic style of surfing.

But that’s not the case at a wave like Pipeline. When a surfer does impose a move there, it becomes historic.

There’s something about seeing a wave wall up before you — and it really does feel like a wall looming to one side — that brings the need for oneness into clear focus. And when a surfer is in the barrel, it’s still the ultimate thing because the surfer and wave have to be one.

A few weeks back, the Friday after Thanksgiving, my nephew and I caught a great swell near Huntington Beach. Some head-high waves, great shape, and some little hollow sections, super mini versions of what breaks at Pipeline (minus the gnarly coral bottom). One wave in particular I can still picture straightening up in front of me, a steep, rippling expanse of gray (it was foggy that morning). I got through that section, and the wave just set up for a cutback. It was the right move for that moment, a little bit of oneness.


Sadly, that’s the last weekend I got in the water, ending my consecutive surf streak dating back to mid-August. I’m intent on getting in this weekend, even though I don’t know how I’ll fit it in with all our yatra preparations. Plus, the forecast looks pretty awful. And, sadly, I don’t seem capable lately of any similar sense of oneness during the actual act of yoga.

Unnecessary update: The world title I referred to above is settled: Australian Joel Parkinson won both the Pipe Masters and surfing’s pro title, beating out one of the few surfers most of you have (maybe) probably heard of: Kelly Slater, who was going after title No. 12. In local news, it is a clear but cold day in LA, but the surf doesn’t look good.


Posted by Steve