Wisdom on the Waves

How yogic philosophy can be adapted for surfing practice.

It’s no big secret that yoga and surfing are a good combination—and both require a good degree of both strength and flexibility. Yoga, of course, is more than a physical practice: It’s a lifestyle. According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, there are eight limbs (or concepts) or yoga that create a yogic life.

  1. Yamas: These are the principles of ethical behavior we should follow in our everyday life, regardless of whether we are talking about relationships with others or with ourselves.
  2. Niyamas: These are internal practices that help us to grow and give us the self-discipline and inner strength necessary to progress along the path of yoga.
  3. Asanas: This is the physical practice, or the postures we do. This is the aspect of yoga that the Western world typically defines as yoga practice.
  4. Pranayama: This is the control of breath, which is our life force. Also known as prana.
  5. Pratyahara: This means the sense withdrawal. In our modern world of information overload, this kind of withdrawal is more essential than ever.
  6. Dharana: Concentration. To be sure, you´ll need a lot of this to prepare yourself for the next limb, which is called Dyhana.
  7. Dhyana: Meditation, the active process of calming the mind.
  8. Samadhi: Pure bliss. The inner work to enlightenment.

We’re going to explore what some of the eight limbs of yoga mean for a surfer. To hear more about this, check out famed surfer Gerry Lopez talk about his yoga practice on Wanderlust TV!

The Ocean as a Place of Peace

Part of living a yogic lifestyle is to be kind to yourself and practice self-love. Don’t blame yourself if you don’t progress as fast as you want, or if you don’t get to complete your maneuvers. Keep on practicing. Most importantly, keep having fun while you’re at it!

It’s not just about being kind to yourself, though—it’s also about nonviolence on the physical level. Always be aware of the health of others. Don’t risk their well-being by finishing your ‘cool’ cutback even though someone is duck diving millimeters away from you.

As a beginner, you should always be able to control your board. Make sure that you can handle it from the moment you enter the water until you slip back out of your wetsuit: Don’t push yourself into spots or waves you are not yet ready for. If not, you are risking the health and the life of others.

Everything we say or do has a ripple effect. To effect outward change, we need to first turn inward. Acknowledging our own weaknesses and rough edges can help to develop more empathetic behavior towards others.

Ahimsa and Surfing

Ahimsa is the first of the Yamas and Niyamas. It literally means “do not kill” or “do not hurt people.” For an in-depth exploration of Ahimsa, read here.

It may seem that the world is more aggressive than ever—we see it from long lines at the grocery to overcrowded roadways. People are shouting at each other instead of just enjoying being out there together and in doing so they harm others as well as themselves.

We bring these issues to our surfboard. We’re all fighting our own fears, so a lot of egos are colliding out in the water. Try to be kind to the people around you. Talk to strangers, salute everybody—without making differences regarding the surf level. Appreciate the time where you can share waves with absolute strangers.

Satya and Surfing

Satya is another of the Yamas and Niyamas, and roughly translates to truthfulness. To learn more about Satya, read on here.

Anyone who surfs can think of an easy example when it comes to a surfer not practicing Satya on the water. Beginners often want to get a shortboard, even though it isn’t the right choice for them. Full disclosure: I was one of these! Years ago I switched on a shortboard too early. Looking back, I know it would have been better to make progress on a bigger board at least for a few weeks.

Though beginners know it deep inside, they lie to themselves by assuming they can handle a shorter board. It looks cooler. These lies don’t do any favors. Instead of admitting that they should get a board that suits them, they get frustrated about the prolonged learning process, which could be faster with a bigger board. This frustration has an effect on your surroundings—there we go again with the ripple effect.

The same goes for spot selection. Sometimes you see people in spots where you can already see by their paddling—it’s obvious that they don’t belong there yet.

Here’s where Satya comes in: Am I really ready for this spot? For this wave? Can I handle it, or am I just sitting there blocking others, being an obstacle for them and getting frustrated because I am not getting any waves; just seeing other surfers staring at me and frowning?

You can always talk to others about your fears, about being nervous in that unfamiliar area. Never feel ashamed to ask about the conditions or properties of that respective spot.

Asteya and Surfing

Another of Patanjali’s essential tenets, Asteya is the principle of unconditional sharing and not stealing. Read more here.

One of the most annoying parts of surfing is that it often feels like people are getting so greedy that they sneak around and “steal” waves. This is the number one reason that a relaxed atmosphere in the water changes into a place full of aggression and anger. It’s totally unnecessary.

Some people seem to be unsatisfied with themselves and seem to need to take the fun (here we go again with stealing) of the whole group that just wants to enjoy the waves and the atmosphere out in the line up. Rather, as proposed before: Try to enjoy sharing the waves with people you’ve never met before. It can be difficult to wait for the next wave, even on good day, but try it. It can be also fun—maybe even more, because of the collective positive vibes.

Brahmacharya and Surfing

Brahmacharya is another of the Yamas and Niyamas that teaches us to express our truest nature. For a deeper dive into what that means, please read here.

Getting to the core of surfing, enjoying the time we spend out in the ocean, riding waves to empty our minds, to get relaxed: These are the essential aspects of surfing. It’s about being in contact with nature, and not competing with others or acting out your daily life frustrations. Surfing can be seen like a meditation, getting rid of the bad stuff that’s going on outside, getting closer to our inner selves, recognizing that so many things are actually not as important as we thought they were.

Extra word to the wise? Surfing isn’t about commercialism, either. There are so many products and labels riding the wave of the surfing lifestyle. Someone is not cooler or a better surfer just because he is wearing a name-brand shirt. Period.

Aparigraha and Surfing

Aparigraha is another of the Yamas and Niyamas referring to the principle of non-attachment. Read more here.

In surfing this means to concentrate on yourself. Don’t compare yourself with others the whole time you are in the water, even if another person is better at surfing than you are. Stay ‘on your own mat,’ as we say in yoga. When you compare, you start to wish you were surfing the waves the way others do and this steals your joy. Keep your gaze inwards. Work on your own surfing and be happy about the little improvements you make wave after wave.

On the other hand, don’t be greedy. I see a lot people surf a wave and afterwards paddle straight back to the peak, ready to grab the next one, not considering that it’s actually the turn of the next person. Rather than taking too many waves, maybe experience the fun giving a wave to somebody else and enjoy their smiles while catching them.

Aparigraha is also about not being attached to material things. In surfing most of us already lead a simple life with very few things, but you can always go further. Ask yourself: do I really need this fifth pair of sunglasses? A thirtieth shirt, a tenth wetsuit, another board?

These are just a few examples of the intersection of yogic philosophy and surfing. Ready to experience it? Join us at Wanderlust O’ahu!

Want even more yoga and surfing videos? Check out this profile on Wanderlust TV of pro-surfer Kiana Flores.

thomasThomas Zielinski began his yoga practice during a surf trip in Sri Lanka in 2011, followed by his first teacher training in India at Sampoorna in January of 2016. He is currently working as a freelance copywriter, yoga, and surf teacher based in Hamburg. His writing and photo work for his blogzine GET WET SOON is focused on yoga, surf, travel and spirituality. You can also follow his journey on Instagram, and Facebook.