Combining yoga and surfing for a tristana of benefits

I know it probably has to do with the 74 degree water here in Southern California lately, but I’ve been surfing a lot more than usual — at the expense of morning yoga practice.

As far as I can tell, though, that’s totally OK.

You can choose to parse yoga’s benefits however you want. I think a pretty good way is this tristana: physical health, mental health, spiritual well-being. And I suppose it is worth saying that, from my experience, Ashtanga maximizes these best.

There’s the vinyasa and asanas, the stretching and the strengthening that’s good for the body. There’s the breathing and mental focus that’s good for the mind and emotions. The spiritual effects perhaps can vary with the user. (Let’s just say I’m guessing there is more likely to be spiritual benefits from Ashtanga than Y7.)

For me, surfing combines all those, too. There’s the paddling and the heart workout when you’re on the wave. There’s the calm in between sets, moments of quiet while enveloped in nature. (This morning’s sunrise in Venice was a fiery orange that blazed the glassy water.) And the spiritual effects can vary with the surfer.

Also there’s this story from Outside magazine that talks about the benefits of surfing:

Nick Caddick, a psychologist at Loughborough University in the UK, spent 18 months studying the effects of surfing on British soldiers. One of Caddick’s subjects had been hatching concrete plans to hang himself from a tree in his yard, but every time he went surfing he put it off for at least another week. “Regular surfing,” Caddick wrote in a paper published last year, “was necessary for disrupting the cycle of PTSD symptoms that would otherwise remain a continuous or uninterrupted source of suffering.”

The reasons for this are not well understood. Rogers developed Ocean Therapy with psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s flow theory in mind. The physical exertion and intense focus required to surf often produces flow states, which flood the brain with neurochemicals like anandamide and serotonin, the same substances found in antidepressants. In addition, it’s believed that when people are submerged in water, their bodies alter the balance of epinephrine and dopamine to the levels achieved during meditation.

Some of that sound familiar?

It does to me. And while I didn’t need more rationales, it’s further reason why my sense of being able to blend yoga and surfing — do one a day, at least — into a foundational practice makes sense.

At least while the water temp remains in the 70s.

Posted by Steve

A surfing lesson you can apply to your yoga practice

I’m on day nine of 10 down here in Encinitas that I got out in the water and surfed. (We’re 10 for 10 when it comes to getting in the water.) The surf hasn’t been anything near epic, and the promised swell that is supposed to begin arriving today hasn’t yet. But that hasn’t stopped me, and it hasn’t stopped me from A. having super fun in the water and B. finding some fun, often little, waves when there weren’t supposed to be any.

Proof the surf hasn’t been that good.

Thursday’s session was the best case in point.

First, though, one example of the process of figuring out where, and whether, to surf. Surf reports. Online surf report have pretty dramatically changed how surfers find ways (most dramatically enabling big wave surfers to drop everything, get aboard a plane and get halfway around the world for a huge swell). It used to be rumor, guesses based on the past and some general following — if you were really serious — of long-range weather patterns. (Which, back then, weren’t accessible like today.) I’ve got three different reports, from which I try to triangulate my own best guestimate. Right now, they are suggesting we’ll get a 3 to 5 foot swell tomorrow, more likely later in the day (that arrival has been pushed back); today, they are saying 1 to 2 foot (or less) around Encinitas.

Figuring there wasn’t much out there, and maybe hoping to give myself a little rest (I won’t bore you with the painful “research poses” I found myself in this morning, so rest is welcome), I just trotted down to Stonesteps, near where we’re staying and where I’ve mostly surfed. (Reason? See the phrase “just trotted down.”) It was pretty low tide, but that maybe was going to help.

After paddling out — which didn’t take much — and catching a couple of closeouts, I began to realize that this might be the worst waves of the trip. And that was coming on a day when, a few days ago, it was supposed to be picking up and maybe be among the better. Maybe I ought to just make it a really quick session, I thought.

Then the horizon lifted, just a bit, and a little wedge of water grew up just north of me. A few paddles over, quick turn around, some strokes in and the wave held up (maybe just kissing the sandbar I’ve been staking out) and an opaque, seaglass green wall of water, shimmering and reflecting the midday sun, appeared before me as I angled in, long enough for a few pumps of my board, chest high, enough power to get the board moving, before I tucked into the barrel and got surrounded for a second or two with the familiar rush and roar of a breaking wave.

(Quick digression on that board. Self-shaped, the first I’ve ever done after 35 years of surfing. Hanuman carrying the mountain of herbs on the deck; red; and a slightly modernized ’70s-shape single fin. The point was to have something a little more laid back, a little less in need of rapid turns and slashes. A different style of surfing, and I’m still figuring it out.)

A wave to make the whole session worth it.

I briefly hoped I might have lucked into the front edge of the swell, but that was mostly it. There was a handful of other closeouts, and a final wave that also was worth it. (I’d decided I’d come in after I caught another wave that made me happy. And that could be the surfing lesson to apply to your yoga practice, but it isn’t.)

But if I had listened to the surf reports and, more importantly, listened to myself after the first two waves, I would never have gotten that ride.

The lesson of this session, I thought to myself as I bobbed in the water, said hello to a passing woman on a bodyboard and waited for another wave, was: “You won’t know until you go.”

It really is the lesson of all my sessions. Each time, I’ve found a wave that was far better than the report said. (I surfed a spot on Wednesday, mostly alone, that wasn’t supposed to be any good and kept directing fun, waist-and-a-little-higher waves my way.)

I wouldn’t have found them, wouldn’t have known they were there if I didn’t go.

The same is true of a yoga practice. And it is the reason to give poses that might be beyond you or maybe someone hasn’t “given” you yet a try. (A try, I say, not a “do it all the time.” Although, maybe.)

You won’t know what they will do for you, what the experience will be, how they might help you, until you do them. You won’t know until you go.

Come to think of it, that’s certainly how Bobbie has approached Third Series. Second, even.

This isn’t to dismiss the extreme value of a teacher. (This post helped kick off our time down here. Also, don’t dismiss the value of surf reports.) But you won’t know until you go. Reading about poses, watching videos of people talking about them, studying books, etc. etc. only will get you so far.

On a lot of the material for the Ashtanga Yoga Center, Tim Miller has a quote: “My goal as a teacher is to inspire a passion for practice. The practice itself, done consistently and accurately, is the real teacher.”

You won’t know if he’s right until you go.

Posted by Steve

Give a guru a try

The water is 74 degrees (F) here.

That’s my, our, excuse for the lack of posts thus far.

Perhaps, really, the fact that I’m here, with Bobbie, is the culprit. Rather than return to our lodging and transcribing parts of the Tim Miller’s Third Series Teacher Training, she downloads it to me. So I can tell you this: On Monday, they started with Surya A. It’s fundamental, right? Rather than jumping right into “Third Series,” it sounds like Tim is leading them through how one would practice it. And that starts with Sun Salutes. (We also are making it a habit of getting her into the water to cool everything down; harder when the water is so balmy.)

I also can say that I forget the power of the teacher’s presence. I still don’t really think of myself as a “home practitioner,” that strange subset of the Ashtanga crowd. But I am. It’s probably going on four years, in fact — perhaps half of my Ashtanga “life span.”

And for many reasons, this past year has been one that we’ve been unable to make it down for a “recharge” with Tim — even a Sunday Led Primary does the trick. It’s a reminder of where you might be slacking, what you might be starting to do wrong and how long you really can hold those poses.

It’s more than that, too. It’s the teacher shakti, the will or force that compels you to twist just a little more, to find that deeper place in the pose, to do Vrksasana because the guru says so. (Today after pranayama — again, hard! — was a Primary class that Tim practices along with you. So he calls out the pose names and when you’re to breath five.)

I was wrecked going in. Holly’s Intro to Second followed by Monday morning Mysore (Ashtanga confession: I actually did the first three poses of Second and got away with it; it helped there were approximately 800 people in the room) and the two pranayamas and a bad first night’s sleep conspired to make me feel stretched thin. Oh, and the couple hours of surfing on Monday.

By the time we were to Trikonasana, I realized my shoulders were exhausted, along with my quads. Later, I’d realize my forearms also were tired. (Today was more beautiful than Monday, the waves cleaner with less wind, and so despite my best intentions, I was in the water another couple of hours. Woe is me tomorrow.)

But I soldiered on. And I wouldn’t have at home.

As I bobbed in the water, checking the shifting breaks, I realized once again the absolute value of having a teacher and a place to practice, even if it is just sometimes — even rarely. I know there are lots of home practitioners out there, of various stripes and connections to shalas here and there, and to none at all. And I know there’s anguish about practicing at a shala, or not, or whether to try, or how best to maintain a home practice.

I’m biased here, given I’ll argue I somehow lucked into the best yoga teacher there is. But I really really urge everyone to give a guru a try. There is, without a doubt, something magical and wonderful about a solitary, focused, contemplative home practice. But it’s even more so with the invisible hand of the guru guiding you.

Posted by Steve

Asanas to help your surfing

While we haven’t officially settled on a time, I think given a few Facebook convos that I have at least one of Tim Miller’s Third Series trainees lined up for a few surf sessions.

That’s my lead-in to noting that poses in First and Second, apparently, make up the 10 best asanas for surfers. (Reminder: Being better prepared for surfing was a major reason behind my starting an asana practice.)

I’ll link you over to this post, which isn’t new but is one I happened upon when scrolling through something else. And not only is all you need in First and Second, most of what you need is in the two Sun Salutes:

You can transition into this pose from downward dog by shifting forward into plank pose. From plank you will keep your hands on the floor and elbows in while bending them at a 90-degree angle. This is a really hard pose and you will need to make sure that your elbows don’t splay outward. Hold them in by the side of your torso and push them back towards your heels and look slightly in front of your fingertips to keep your neck in line with your spine. When done properly, this pose will set your triceps and shoulders on fire!

Can you guess the pose? Of course you can: Chataranga.

The full list of 10 also includes: Down and Up Dog, Utkatasana, Warrior II (thus my note that you almost only need Sun Salutes), Tree Pose, Malasana, Navasana, Salabhasana and finally Paschimottanasana.

I’d suggest you could swap Pasasana in for Malasana, if you want; I think Malasana is one variation for that pose. Also, if you want to keep it all Ashtanga, I’d sub in Ardha Baddha Padmottanasana for Tree Pose, which isn’t in any of the Ashtanga series (I’m 99.9% sure). Maybe Utthita Hasta — but who wants to do that, right?

This is the point, if you’re a regular reader, where you’re expecting a “but…” from me. Nope. The list seems pretty solid. (The site itself is pretty hit and miss; but, amazingly, there really isn’t a good surf site online; plenty of good ones where it counts, though.) I might add in Supta Virasana to help stretch the quads and hips more and perhaps Ardha Matsyendrasana to incorporate a twist, but then you’re at the best 12 poses, and that’s not how we do things.

Pranayama also is good to help if you’re going into big surf. And with El Nino forecast for this winter, the West Coast of the U.S. could be in for some epic surf. It might even still be around come Confluence time.

Posted by Steve

Talk about balance: Being a Hindu priest and a surfer

The story of Mega Semadhi is featured in the latest issue of The Surfer’s Journal. Semadhi not only has won on the pro surfing tour, but he’s also a Hindu priest in Indonesia. More from TSJ:

Mega is a member of the Pecatu community, one of the largest and oldest on the Bukit. His grandparents owned a ranch atop the massive cliff that overlooks Bingin. At a young age, it was determined by his elders at the Uluwatu temple that Mega would take up the role of high priest as an adult. Between the sense of duty to his community, his own world-traveling ambitions, and the many points of conflict that a local on Bali faces, Mega has a lot to balance with his surf life.

There’s a video that’s worth watching, too.

Some old coverage of his contest win is here. And there’s an older YouTube video:

Those spots are a lot more exciting than Venice Beach.

Posted by Steve

A good Ashtanga practice, or, a benefit of practicing at night

Bobbie and I have both written about practicing Ashtanga at night.

Yesterday, just by change, I happened upon what might be the best reason for my sticking with an evening practice schedule. It all started before sunrise.

That’s when I’d gotten my butt out of bed, into a car (after two cups of coffee, don’t fret) and down to the beach. (Venice Beach, if anyone’s wondering.) And then, into the water.

It was my first dawn patrol in probably years. In part that was due to Ashtanga’s getting in the way. (I wonder how many activities there are that an early morning Ashtanga practice trumps? Usually it’s late night before activities, right?)

The waves, for those who care, were super walled up, with sets touching head-high; it might have had the fewest clean shoulders of any surf session I’ve had with a solid swell in the water. (Lesson: There are no sand bars in Venice. Dive bars, yes.)

But… the morning was beautiful; conditions were perfect. A slight offshore wind, clear skies, a pink-and-purple sunrise, even a sliver of waning moon.

Plus a sea lion, a dolphin, seagulls and the closest I’ve ever had pelicans fly to me. As in they almost knocked me over as I was catching a wave.

The experience was great. Peaceful but exhilarating. Tiring and rejuvenating. A lot of one-with-the-moment-ness.

Sort of like a good yoga practice?

I then finished off the day with a short asana practice (it turned into a late day at work): the “hold steady” Sun Salutes with a few shoulder and hamstring and hip stretches just because I need those. And, finally, pranayama.

Combined, I got the physical workout that is important, if not the purpose. (You have to stay strong and healthy.) I got the quiet of meditation / a sense of being in the moment, both in the morning and on the mat. (A nice way to bookend a day.) And there was deep, regulated breathing.

What really was noticeable was how both played off each other — and, really, amplified each other. As I settled down after pranayama, the feeling was about as close to what I’ve heard Tim Miller, Richard Freeman, David Swenson and other describe about their own experiences with yoga.

Probably the next step is to manage this with a full asana practice at night. But that might be more goodness than I can handle.

There’s also my planned week or two in Encinitas while Bobbie (and the host of other Third Series crazies) is at Tim’s Third Series Teacher Training. Then it will be: practice early, go to the beach, surf, lie around, repeat.

My suggestion application to you is: Is there an activity you could slide into the surfing spot (rock climbing comes to mind because of those two dudes who climbed El Capitan) and see what kind of “yoga experience” you might discover?

Posted by Steve 

Surfing, yoga and treating PTSD

We’ve highlighted the beneficial treatment that yoga can provide in regards to PTSD. We’ll assume it is one of those topics that just makes sense to you (since you’re reading this blog).

We’ve also talked about the similarities between yoga and surfing, and so we’ll point you to this NPR story about the benefits of surfing when it comes to treating PTSD:

Lwandile Mntanywa is zipping up his wet suit. The tall, soft-spoken high school junior comes to Cape Town’s Monwabisi Beach almost every day after school and starts running when he sees the water. “I can see the waves are cooking, I will run fast as I can,” says the 18-year-old.

Before he began surfing, he was running as fast as he could — in the wrong direction.


Waves for Change is an innovative new program that uses surfing and therapy to promote mental health. It offers surf lessons, a safe space and a sense of family — together with life skills training and the opportunity to speak with a counselor. Nolwazi Makhuluphala, the head counselor, says children are taught how to recognize when they’re being overcome by anger or sadness, and how to control their impulses.

The program’s founder, Tim Conibear, says surfing is a great way to develop trust between kids and their coach: “Because [the ocean is] a superscary environment, and the bloke who takes you in or the girl who takes you in can make you feel safe immediately, if they do it in the right way.” The surf coaches are from the same community as the children and are encouraged to become mentors. Some are also being trained to do basic counseling.

It sounds like the makings for a really good yoga and surfing retreat are in there.

Finally, if you missed it, a link to this week’s Tim Miller blog.

Posted by Steve

Sva dharma, yoga, and “The Fear”

Before we moved to Los Angeles, we lived in Orange County. I practiced there with Diana Christinson at Pacific Ashtanga. Diana helped me overcome a lot of fear. In addition to the blown disc in my spine, I had a torn shoulder. I had never really done a full backbend or a handstand. I was scared of headstand away from the wall. I’d never dropped back, or jumped through. I wasn’t an athletic kid growing up, but Diana convinced me these things were possible. It was Diana who taught me how to overcome my fear in Ashtanga.

Diana, from The OC Register
Diana, from The OC Register

If you’d like to get a sense of how she did that, I’m pleased to find that she’s written a guest column for the Orange County Register. Turns out Diana has some fears of her own: Surfing.

“The fear of not being a strong enough swimmer, of not being able to control the conditions, or not having enough breath when I really needed it, but most of all the fear of the raw and awesome force nature packs behind a powerful wave as it hits the beach.”

In her column, she makes some connections with following your dharma and overcoming fear. The fact that she uses surfing as an example just makes me miss practicing with her even more: Although I grew up surfing in South Texas, I’m afraid of the surf in Southern California. I’m often afflicted with what’s known by surfers at “The Fear.”  After all these years, she’s still teaching me. Check out her column.

Posted by Bobbie

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

Ashtanga, surfing and the art of being in the moment

When I started practicing yoga, I had no deeper goals than trying to loosen myself up a bit in order to improve my surfing.

I wasn’t seeking to purify the Subtle Body. I had no thoughts about any Patanjali limbs. Samadhi, sh-amadhi.

Surfing great Gerry Lopez, from an ad in Yoga Journal; via

In that, I think I’m pretty typical.

But then one thing led to another; the yoga flow classes transitioned to Ashtanga, and then — as I’m sure you’ve experienced — the Ashtanga took over.

Dawn patrol? No can do — got to practice.

Sneak down for a sunset “glass-off” session? Other things managed to conspire against it.

Amazingly enough, after a few years of hit-and-miss surfing due in no small part to Ashtanga, Ashtanga itself came to the rescue.

A week slumming in Encinitas with Bobbie while she was in Tim Miller’s Second Series teacher training meant nine days in a row on the beach and five days in a row of surfing.

My best guess is it had been 21 years since I had surfed that many days in a row; it may have been even more.

Every weekend since, I’ve managed to get in the water at least once.

It’s thanks to what they call “stoke.” But it also has been due to something more.

To the art of being in the moment.

Last night, I was reading an article in The Surfer’s Journal (and, yes, I should have been reading something from our Yatra list), and the writer talked about riding a wave and how it involves being totally in the moment.

“Right,” I thought. “That’s part of what’s been different. I’m more ‘trained’ to be in the moment.”

This is definitely a place where yoga — meaning something beyond just asana, but certainly rooted heavily in it — and surfing meet. 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.

There’s something else, too. While all the glamour and glory of surfing begins when you paddle for a wave and ends when you pull out / wipeout, most of the time you’re either paddling back out to the peak or just sitting there waiting for the next wave. (Or, worst of all, paddling against the current to stay at the peak.)

Surfing also is an act of patience. And yoga — Ashtanga perhaps especially — teaches patience.

You breath your five breaths in a pose, hold it — while you’re waiting to move on, especially if the pose is challenging. But you learn to wait, to — again — be in the moment, but in this case as an act of not hastening things along.

You learn patience when you’re “stuck” on the same poses, the same sequence, waiting to advance to whatever is next. Your practice is what it is, and you patiently allow its development to come.

That’s pretty much surfing in a nutshell.

For the past six weeks, surfing has been more fun, thanks to yoga. And not just because I’m a bit more flexible, although that certainly helps.

To try to give a sense of what I’m taking about, I leave you with this. Sadly, it ain’t me:

Posted by Steve