Finding Your Soul Through Surfing

Surf guru Ian Ahaki Masterson shares what we can learn from the waves.

“It comes as a pulsing feeling deep inside the heart and gut, and sometimes as a burst of adrenaline that leaves the muscles burning and trembling and hands clammy. This feeling goes beyond butterflies, as if the monster is actually feeding on the butterflies in your stomach.” – Ian Ahaki Masterson

Meet the Surf Professor, aka Ian Ahaki Masterson, an O’ahu-based educator and surf instructor specializing in Hawaiian culture, archaeology, and ocean recreation and safety. His approach to surfing relates to his deep reverence for the natural life and rich cultural history of his home. For Ian, surfing is a practice; a daily ritual of the Hawaiian people. He is interested in the way that Hawaiian myths exist lyrically within the environment, and how this can be experienced directly through the practice of surfing.

“Surfing is more than just a popular sport, it’s part of a greater poetic vision encoded with environmental and cultural information,” Ian says. He was born in 1971 in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. His family moved around a lot when he was young, as his father worked for an international bank. When Ian was nine, they moved to Ko’olau in Oahu, where his mother’s family had emigrated to from Madeira, Portugal in 1879.

“My mother wanted to raise us the Hawaiian way,” he tells me. Masterson has surfed all his life; both his mother and father were avid surfers and taught him when he was young. Ian recalls his days growing up in Ko’olaupoko as inspiring.

“It was a sleepy town with motivated young athletes like Lynn and Jill Boyer, who taught me to windsurf and told stories of surfing the North Shore; Hans Hedemann and Buzzy Kerbox, who took me out on a Jet Ski when it first came out in 1982,” he says. By eleven he was jumping waves at the longboard break, Castle Point. 

It around this time that Ian learned to foster deep respect and reverence for the land he explored. “But we also had some great mud battles as well!” he jokes. He and his friends were quite wild and adventurous, often “pushing each other to the edge, doing wild things that required both skill and courage.” Ian reports they would climb banyan trees hanging 150 feet over a cliff, traverse rickety old irrigation flumes spanning valley streams, and climb rock walls and doing backflips from 25 feet in the air into the small Maunawili pool.” 

Growing up with such rich experiences of the Hawaiian landscape ignited Ian’s interest in the relationship between Hawaiian culture, natural life, and the physical body, particularly in relation to the ocean. Studying the history of surfing “led him beyond surfing as a way of life, toward integrating it rather as a kuleana, a personal responsibility towards the proper care and representation of surfing around the world.” He made it his goal to teach surfing as a traditional, spiritual practice rather than mere sport. His studies led him to integrate his historical findings into his own surfing practice; he even built his own ancient-style olo surfboards from wood and plant materials.

Surfing as a Study 

What Masterson lacks in longstanding Hawaiian lineage, he makes up for in extensive study. He received his Masters of Arts Degree in Pacific Islands Studies from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Ian recalls the excitement he felt when surfing was first officially considered a subject of academic study.

“In March 1999, a small article came out in the Honolulu Advertiser about the Surf Science and Technology Bachelor in Science Degree created by Plymouth University in England,” Ian says. “For the first time in academic history, surfing was being acknowledged as a valid form of knowledge at an industry-based school.”

Hawaii is the cradle of surfing, thought Masterson, so why not introduce such a course into Hawaiian schools? Led by feverish passion to study and share his findings, Masterson has since taught a number of courses at schools around Hawaii, including Windward Community College, Hawaii Pacific University, Kamehameha Schools, Punahou School, and Hakipu’u Learning Center.

To give me a taste of what his classes look like, Ian sent me some essays that he’s written. In one essay called Science of Soul, Ian writes, “The greatest surfers of our time are often considered to be mystical gurus that live beyond our abilities and understanding of the surfing world. They accomplish maneuvers that we may have never even considered possible… They move with a silent rhythm that seethes with pure soul…We are constantly searching for a way to become the soulful surf gurus that they are. Is there any hope for the rest of us, thrashing about on crowded wave faces amongst the throngs of accessory clad look-alikes? Absolutely, every one of us has soul, and it can be cultivated.”

The Gifts of Discipline Lead to Awareness

Ian lives by the notion that discipline and training leads to ease and wakefulness, much like the practice of yoga. He posits that the way to achieve the grace and ease of those who we look up to is by simply observing and becoming more in tune with our natural surroundings. The ability to notice and make connections between things builds up the strength of the soul. It’s important to revel in the learning process and not expect to be perfect right away. Once the practice becomes intuitive, the poetry of the practice emerges.

Masterson lives by the mantra “respect, train hard, and believe.” He emphasizes the importance of believing in the natural flow of the universe. When you are surfing, you are riding this natural flow. Trust in it.

“The simple principles that I have seen in all great surfers on this planet are easy to embody: respect yourself, other surfers, and the ocean; train your mind and body to handle physically and emotionally stressful moments in and out of the water; and believe in yourself, others, and the good, positive reality that is our universe. It is a simple code to live by but one that changes lives for the better—systematically, scientifically, and soulfully.”

Ian’s theories of surfing are in line with a number of meditative practices. It’s moving meditation. He continues, telling me “It sends that shiver of excitement down the spine that enacts universal energy, the welling up of the soul from the unique experience of every individual wave, a moment of space and time where we flow with the currents of the universe.”

For Ian, the ocean is a way of life that directly connects us to nature. It is vital to make a connection with the ocean regularly.

“Whether virtual or actual,” He explains. “Exposure to and constant observation of the sea will guide us.” 

But his theoretical background of the practice doesn’t diminish the raw exhilaration of the practice. Ian’s life is busy (three kids, a band, and numerous jobs), but he makes sure to make a daily ritual of spending time in nature every day. His descriptions of what he calls “the monster,” or the urge to surf, are tantalizing. He describes waking up in the dark of the morning to catch a wave before work:

“There is a certain smell to the whispering breeze—crisp, oxygenated air drifting down from the mountains mixed with a heavy and dense mist dancing on the spindrift of a rising sea. The thunder is apparent in the distance, again and again, like your own heartbeat, and you know the surf is here. Believing yourself—trusting your feelings—leads you to the surf where you score the epic session; and so your day continues, full of creative expression and with a confident, knowing feeling inside that will only reinforce your sense of swell in the future.”

Getting hungry for your own dose of surf culture and history? Ian will be leading culture walks at Wanderlust O’ahu in March 2018. Experience the gorgeous landscape with this knowledgeable, poetic mind and expand your awareness of the language of nature.

“There soars a sea bird on high, a turtle near the shore, these are all the signs in nature that the universe loves us and is full of bounty. Just connect.”

Get your tickets for Wanderlust O’ahu, March 1–4. We’ll see you on the water.

Jillian Billard is a poet, yoga teacher, cellist and avid wanderer. A native New Yorker, she is often caught daydreaming of sprawling green fields and mountains. She trained and received her ashtanga yoga teacher’s certification in Goa, India and works at Laughing Lotus Yoga Center in Brooklyn. You can often find her with her head buried in a book, doused in lavender. Follow her on her (very newly developed) Instagram page for class schedules and updates at @jillboyoga