Ujayii, the breath at the heart of most yoga asana practice, is oceanic in quality. Smooth, consistent, steady, audible. Teachers often instruct students to ride the breath like a wave, allowing the inhales and exhales to smoothly roll off one another as though they were waves in the ocean. While both the surf and yoga communities have always been strongly represented in Southern California, they are becoming increasingly intertwined. On any given day you may observe surfers at the edge of the water warming up through various yoga-inspired sequences. You are likely to see some of those same surfers lay their mat next to you in a yoga class. Communities are blending even more with retreats and beachside classes combining yoga and surfing.
So what are the aspects of these two cultures that make them so similar?
The surfer with a yoga asana practice will be a stronger, more efficient paddler with added precision and balance once she pops up, and a yogi aspiring to surf will already be well on her way to catching her first wave.
Cobra “Bhujangasana”/ The Paddle Out
Surfing requires tremendous mid and upper back strength and flexibility. The physical configuration of cobra pose and the positioning of a surfer while paddling out beyond the break are essentially one and the same, minus the actual paddling of the arms. Lying face-down on her board, the surfer lifts her mid and upper back into a bend, coiling the thoracic spine into her chest, all the while keeping the legs and core engaged so as to maintain balance on the board. One could make a case that the surfer maintains even stronger, more innate alignment, as she has the added primal incentive to maintain balance on the board.
Plank and Chaturanga / The Paddle Out and Pop Up
While cobra will support more ease on the paddle out, without developing powerful arm and shoulder strength, that paddle can be brutal at best. Non-surfers tend to have the impression that surfing is primarily about balance on the board once you’ve caught a wave. Yet most surfers work long and hard to paddle out against the current to wait for the next wave, and once they find that wave, they again paddle ferociously with precision to catch it.
Any yogi who practices vinyasa flow with consistency knows the tremendous amount of strength and endurance that can be gained through the repetitive practice of plank and chaturanga when practiced safely with correct alignment (please don’t lower your shoulders below your elbows). These same arm muscles, the wrapping back of the triceps, the firming of biceps, as well as the muscles of the rotator cuff are the same muscle groups engaged by surfers, not only when they paddle to catch a wave, but also when they pop up on their board.
Boat Pose “Navasana” / The Pop up on the Board
Even with strong arms and upper body, the attempt to pop up to standing will be futile without the core strength to support the lift up and landing. Any series of core building yoga postures can ease the transition by building the strength necessary to make that jump up. Again, the non-surfer may not realize that the jump up requires an immense amount of strength and is a move that a surfer will make dozens of times in just one single surf session.
Beginning yogis can practice navasana with their hands behind their thighs and their legs bent with shins parallel to the floor until they build up the strength to reach their arms forward and straighten their legs. More advanced yogis can work with straighter legs, arms reaching forward, holding the pose for increasingly longer intervals.
Chair Pose “Utkatasana” / The Surfer’s Stance
Once a surfer successfully catches a wave and stands up, what keeps her there? Aside from the clear and resounding answer of balance, leg strength is required to maintain that balanced stance. A consistent practice of utkatasana (chair pose) will build that leg strength.
Anyone who has ever held utkatasana for more than one or two breaths understands the strength and endurance it builds. Utkatasana will have the practitioner sitting deeply into an invisible chair, maintaining a neutral pelvis, neither tucking nor arching the low back. This same symmetry is practiced by surfers once they are standing on their boards riding a wave. Depending on the size of the wave or whether they ride in the tube, the surfer’s utkatasana may be a very, very deep seat.
Crescent “Anjaneyasana” / The Surfer’s Down Dog
“Crescent pose, the downward dog of surf poses, is essential to keep hip flexor mobility and flexibility,” says Jake Simon, a yogi and surfer based in Santa Monica. According to Jake, beginning in a low lunge variation is beneficial to warm up the hip flexors, perhaps then moving on to full crescent or warrior 1.
Perhaps the skill most used in both yoga and surfing is balance: Balance in body, breath, and spirit. While there is a balance component to many yoga asanas, tree pose provides the opportunity to feel grounded and steady in one leg with the simultaneous challenge of lifting the other.
Surya Namaskara B / Endurance
The popular perception of a surfer is a happy, fit looking dude standing on his board on the perfect wave. However, surfing is an endurance sport – hours and hours spent paddling out and catching waves, time and time again.
In yoga this same endurance, combined with strength and flexibility, can be attained through the practicing of the sun salutes, particularly Surya Namaskara B. Sun salutation B sets itself apart from its Sun Salute A counterpart because of the addition of utkatasana (chair) and virabhadrasana one (warrior one) on each side. If there were to be a perfect series of poses that could prep a yogi for surfing or a surfer for yoga it would be this. This series begins with the solid, beautiful symmetry of tadasana (mountain pose), the strength of utkatasana (chair pose), the opening of the shoulders and upper back with cobra or upward facing dog, as well as the grounded, yet uplifting work of warrior 1. This sun salute practiced even two or three times sequentially, moving fluidly, intentionally on the breath, can build strength and endurance, while paralleling the quality of surfing as moving meditation.
Mindfulness / The Soul Quality / Samadhi
Ryan Kwanten, actor and yogi, says there is “so much more to yoga and surfing than just the physical. They both have a beat to the unconscious mind, a soul quality, one of the boundlessness of nature.” Ryan, who grew up in Australia where surfing is a “prerequisite,” has also been a practicing yogi for over 10 years. He explains how both yoga and surfing support his “being and feeling balanced in his body’s own natural equilibrium.”
John Canova, owner of Three Jewels Yoga & Surf Retreats (threejewelsretreats.com), offers, “Yoga and surfing create an inspiring fusion that wakes our bodies, clears our mind, touches our souls and connects us to the beauty of life.” Ultimately, yoga’s goal is to bring the practitioner closer to samadhi, a higher level of consciousness: a phenomenon many surfers would describe they attain on their boards.
If you were to ask a surfer or a yogi why they practice day after day, there will undoubtedly be a pause and wash of something almost ephemeral across their face, and more often than not, you will hear answers ringing of connection, joy, meditation, and beauty.
Jocelyn Solomon is a 500 hour RYT who practiced yoga throughout a long and successful career as a criminal trial attorney. She transitioned careers to pursue teaching yoga full time and raise her daughters. She can be found gratefully on her mat, beyond the break on her SUP, or loving life with her family. Jocelyn teaches at both YogaWorks and Equinox and can be found on Facebook and Instagram.
Jocelyn Solomon is a yoga teacher for YogaWorks and Equinox in Los Angeles, as well as life and sober coach, and co-founder of Shinetribe (shinetribemovement.com), a community committed to becoming more brilliant and bold together. She can be found on Instagram @jocelynsolomonyoga, Facebook at Jocelyn Denison Solomon or on her website at jocelynsolomonyoga.com.