The Yoga Of Surfing: Wave Riding As A Spiritual Journey



“…and of bodies of water I am the ocean.” -Bhagavad Gita

It was 3 a.m. and in the utter darkness of what many would still consider night, reverberated the pulsating sound of a variety of Indian instruments as they were loudly being played throughout the ashram’s common place area. The sonic vibrations of beating drums, chimes, and loud chanting echoed throughout every room. This acted as an alarm clock to awaken us for the morning rituals of worship. As the crust of the cocoon of sleep sealed my eyelids closed, attempting to sheath me in my slumber, I reluctantly began to open my eyes. I gripped tightly to the last moments of my repose, only to quickly leap out of bed, as not to fully fall back to sleep. It wasn’t that hard to get out of bed as the term “bed” is a bit of an overstatement based on the suburban convention I grew up with. My bed at the ashram was the bottom half of a stripped bunk, there was no mattress, simply a yoga mat for some comfort and the sleeping bag I slept in. For a 17-year old who grew up with all the amenities of a middle-class upbringing, I felt as if I were a real renunciant of sorts, shunning bodily comfort in favor of spiritual discipline. In retrospect, the bed situation wasn’t so bad; what I really could never adjust to was the cold shower first thing in the morning. I remember slowly shuffling across the cold marble floor, a feeling of dread filling my body with the anticipation of the frigid water shocking my body into what felt like a sudden death followed by a quickened rigor mortis state. I would always cheat when I could, taking a lukewarm shower, but by the time I normally made it to the shower, all the hot water had been drained away. I reached for the shower handle, turned it to the right, and braced myself for the inevitable tortures of the monastic life.

It’s been over 20 years since my coquetries with my on and off life as a wannabe monk, yet I look back with fondness on the naivety of that ever-seeking and somewhat terminally-frustrated young man I once was. I suppose at my heart I’m very much the same person, yet with possibly a little more experiential knowledge under my belt. Although these days I don’t consider myself a seeker, as much as I like to think of myself as an experiencer. I’ve found for myself that in actively seeking, many times I have lost total sight of just about everything, including that which I was seeking. I feel through experience, followed by personal reflection, I’ve found more truth than through constant inquisition.

With a great deal of searching before, during, and after my brief time as a monk, I came to a personal realization: I did not have the answers to many of my questions, nor could I claim undoubtedly any absolute truth. Essentially I came to an admittance that I called the great liberation of “I don’t know”. Through all my reading of Holy Scriptures, experimentation with various religious paths, and an almost obsessive quest for transcendental knowledge, I was left feeling drained and ultimately confused. So to finally admit I didn’t have the answer was like taking the weight of the world off my back. I didn’t know and it was ok. It felt as if there was finally some space to let truth come in its natural due course.

I have been surfing for nearly 30 years. It is the one pursuit that I have invested the most time, effort, and commitment into. Eventually, as religious dogmas and guilt fell away, I began to view surfing as a viable spiritual or yogic path. Now I understand to call surfing a yogic practice unto itself is very unconventional and certainly a huge stretch of the imagination for many people to accept. Some people that are very fundamentalist in their thinking towards yogic practice may say my assertion is somewhat blasphemous or offensive. Yet as I understand “Yoga” it is a mental, physical, or spiritual practice that links or yokes the body and mind to the higher self, spirit, or God. I began to think what throughout my life had brought me into direct contact with what I would consider spirit or God. What practice did I have that gave me a direct interface with that power or energy that I am part of yet is fathomlessly larger than simply myself? It was both simply and profoundly apparent that surfing had always put me face to face with a power and energy that was beyond that of myself and human control. I felt if there is a God, Universal Spirit, or Transcendent Intelligence, the raw and beautiful force of the ocean is certainly an expression of that. So what better way to come to understand that force than by directly connecting with it through the act of riding waves? My path had always been there, yet I was so busy searching here and there that I could not see it standing right before me.

When I think about the act of surfing, not just the riding of waves, but every aspect of the surfing practice, it doesn’t seem that different from my days in the ashram absorbed in spiritual ritual and rites. I will admit, surfing is much more fun, yet I find more than a few common threads that run through both paths. As surfers we watch and study the weather patterns, weather forecasts are somewhat like prophetic Holy Scriptures, we look for the signs of unfoldment of the futuristic predictions of a swell that is to arise on the horizon. We wait in faith for the foretold swell to reach our shores.

The words of the masters of the past and present act as a guiding light for those devout to the path. For me, the words of Tom Blake, Skip Frye, John Peck, Derek Hynd, Tom Curren, and Kelly Slater are as sacred writ is to the humble priest. Yet in listening, respecting, and pondering their thoughts on surfing, I realize that my surfing journey is unique and I will have my own revelations as I continue to ride the wave of life.

Living in a temple there was a good amount of repetitive and ceremonial activities throughout the day. Although surfing may seem repetitive to the untrained eye: you paddle out to catch a wave and ride it to shore only to paddle out again and ride another to shore; as surfers, we understand there are a number of variables to this seeming repetition. Between the crowd, your positioning, the way the actual wave breaks, when you drop into the wave, your footing, and your first turn to generate speed for the rest of the wave, there are a myriad of factors that are present when riding a wave. You will often hear, “no two waves are the same”, and this statement stands firm even if you are surfing a perfect point break where the waves appear the same each time they break, as many of the distinctions are based on the surfer’s approach. With these thoughts in mind, surfing tends to help us learn to go with the flow and adapt to the situation before us, much like the Tao and less like a rigidly-structured religion.

In reference to ceremony and ritual, I see many of these qualities present in the practice of wave riding. The rising before the sun to check the surf is not unlike the rising for morning prayer and the greeting of the deities. As the sun rises and swell is revealed upon the face of the ocean, it is a greeting from that limitless energy that some may call God. The preparation of our equipment for a proper swell, the simple act of waxing our board, the smell of the wax itself invokes feelings and memories from previous surf ventures. It’s not unlike the burning of incense in a sacred space to help calm the mind and bring one into the mood of worship. When the time finally comes to paddle out and enter the lineup, the surfer worships even if they are unconscious to it. Immersed in the vast ocean, surrounded by swell, the power of nature all around, I cannot believe that everyone who has entered the ocean has not felt a sense of wonder, humility, and inexpressible reverence. When our wave finally comes to us, we turn, paddle, drop in to come off the bottom and set our line, all these actions are a ceremonial expression of prayer that we carve out upon the gracious gift of moving walls of saltwater. When we sit, paddle, talk with friends, gaze at the ocean before us, and ride waves we are directly communing with the force of that which is beyond our mind’s comprehension.

Is surfing a Yogic practice in the traditional sense? I would imagine many purists would assert it is not. Is surfing a Yogic path based in its definition as a practice that links one to the divine? Personally, I feel the answer is most certainly yes. In my life I have had moments and prolonged experiences I would call mystical through the avenues of religious ceremony, yet nothing has been as profound and pure as what I have found in the in ocean through the act or sadhana of surfing.

All Photos: Fiona Mullen

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Growing up in New Jersey, Shawn discovered and quickly immersed himself in the sub-culture of surfing and skateboarding in the mid 80’s. With a diverse and eclectic background, Shawn has walked the path of a competitive surfer, Hare Krsna monk, action sports industry player in NYC, DIY theology and religions major, and a touring punk rock musician. Now a father and self-proclaimed seeker of the “soul” of surfing, Shawn enjoys sessions with friends at uncrowded peaks along his home state’s shoreline and writing about his surf related experiences.

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