SOYELA SHAFER: Yoga, Surfing, and Hula Hooping in Central America
“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.” -Martha Graham
Combining a love for Yoga, surfing, and what she describes as “Circus” arts, Soyela Shafer spends much of her time sharing the secrets of these various paths with children in local communities. Her work is focused on helping her students find their concentration, balance and strength; while also guiding them to find trust in themselves and one another.
Soyela currently lives in Bocas Del Toro, Panama; although she spends nearly half the year traveling. Shafer trips across the globe on her own personal explorations, as well as to continually seek out new and exciting places to host her unique retreats.
After reaching out to Soyela to find out some more about her work, I discovered she had an interesting story to tell. Her journey is both unique and coupled with profound insight. Read on and enjoy.
What initially drew you to the ocean and surfing? How would you describe your experience the first time you glided across the face of a wave?
It was a Sunday. I was living in Vail, Colorado and heading down a dark path. While I found the mountains beautiful and majestic, something was missing. I was remembering how my time in Hawaii helped me through something similar. I found the ocean calling me as it had done before. Without a second thought, I sold my belongings, packed a bag, and set course for California. I landed in northern California checking out multiple farms I could live on.
After only a week I found myself once again not following my heart. I looked in the mirror and asked myself one question. What are you truly looking for? In my heart I was searching for happiness and I found that happiness with the ocean. I had this desire to learn to surf. When I asked myself this question I said. “Why are you on a farm then?”. Within minutes my bag was packed again. I walked to the main road and hitched a ride to southern California. I found someone on couchsurfing.org, which is the world’s largest travel community site, to take me in. I was in Mission Beach, steps away from the ocean and the bay where I was surrounded by all walks of water life. I found peace my first day there. I went to the beach every day playing my guitar and singing.
A few days after my arrival I met a man, Phil Gentile, who forever changed my life. We became best friends and companions. He is an amazing surfer and surfboard shaper. Not only did he teach me how to surf, he had me in the shaping room within a month helping design my first board.
I did not grow up by the water and definitely grew up being fear trained with all those Hollywood movies feeding me exaggerations of ocean life. Not knowing anything about the ocean and then watching Jaws is a great example of fear being pushed into my head at such a young age and then my mom being terrified of the water did not help either. I had created a phobia for the ocean. I remember the day I saw my unrealistic fear start to fade as a more real perspective started to come into play. At first it was that fear of a shark attacking me, but as I learned more about the ocean, the false evaluations appearing real to me were not. It was the first time I experienced a real sense of freedom from my own self, my own mind. I started to gain a respect and understanding of how powerful mama ocean is. She started to show me how important my breath is, how to be patient, how to enjoy my surroundings and be present instead of fearing the unknown.
I started appreciating and becoming grateful of the simplicity life has to offer. I have found true love with surfing and learned to love myself like I never had before. Surfing changed me and the ocean forever stoked me. I will never forget my first overhead wave. I swore I was going to get barreled. The sensation coursed through my blood, breath and smile. Time had slowed down just like you see on surf videos slowing down the wave so you can see the ride and the thrill. It was a sunny day in San Diego, the water was clear. I could see below me and I could hear the sound of the wave crashing behind me. Then there it was my hand connecting to good ol blue, her wall of glass sitting up in front of me allowing me one of the many rides of my life to come.
Being a Yoga practitioner and instructor, how would you describe your personal approach? What does Yoga mean to you and how does in enrich your life?
There are so many different styles, ideas, and opinions out there in the Yoga world, well in every world really. The one thing I know for my life is the understanding of who I am, not just mentally but physically as well. Sure I can take on someone else’s practice, but we are all so different. How can I explore the depths of my own body so that I may go deeper? I understand that I need to learn the science and spirit of movement. I learn to slow down and find my grace within those movements. It is then that I can connect to my body.
I help people to explore their practice by bringing awareness into their tensions and to let go all that does not serve them and listen to their breath. I have incorporated a circus approach to Yoga, teaching hula hoop Yoga, slackline Yoga, stand-up paddle board Yoga and acro Yoga. All these intense practices have proven vital to my approach of teaching and finding my own personal flow. With slackline, I focus on engagement. The hula hoops brought a strong balance practice. The stand-up paddle board brought recognition of my alignment. Acro Yoga has brought trust and confidence. All of these different extremes have brought breath, meditation and the ability to let go of my anxiety ridden mind.
Yoga is a way of life. A life of connection. It is to radiate light, freedom, ease, and to do more with less. It has helped me to reconnect to energy and life that surrounds me. My mind races often and usually exceeds my ability to do all the activities that I desire to, never taking a break and having this feeling of not being satisfied. Nothing was good enough. I would get irritated and experience stress if I stopped moving. Yoga helped me to find a place of relaxation, to be aware of my thoughts and let them pass instead of marinate in them. Yoga has enriched my life in so many ways, but the one thing I notice the most out of my practice is the freedom I am finding within myself. I am focusing on experiencing energy in and around me. To be in tune with being alive.
There has been somewhat of a kindred relationship between surfing and Yoga going back to the late 1960s. Although that seemed to be lost as the more competitive era of surfing took over, people are now being drawn back to the soulful roots of surfing as they get burned out on the aggressive approach. Now there is a huge reemergence of that Yogic/Surfing connection. How do you feel your Yogic practice compliments and connects to your surfing?
Just like surfing, Yoga changed my life. Yoga was more than a stepping stone to better my life, it helped me sculpt it the way I desire it to be. I was not sure how I wanted the sculpture to look at first, but when surfing joined in, there was already a woman gazing with a smile as if she saw what lay ahead for the future and I knew it was going to be incredible. Just like surfing, Yoga helps one find their present moments and with the ocean you need to be present otherwise anything could happen right under your nose and change everything in an instant. It is all a practice, every day strengthening your mind, body and spirit. Not only spiritually, Yoga helps my surfing physically. I am a better surfer when I stretch and become more flexible and deepen my breath. I am able to take a beating with minimal injury and Yoga allows my body to be more mobile so that I can be more fluid in the ocean.
Do you consider surfing a Yogic practice in and of itself? Do you feel the act of surfing is a way in which people can commune with that which is divine?
Yes 100%! Although Yoga and surfing are two very different practices, they both focus on breath and meditation, staying calm and being aware of yourself and your surroundings. You need to be connected to your environment and take care of the greatest instrument you will ever play which is your body. I believe surfing has opened a doorway for me. I walked into a place where all my fears were locked away. I discovered panic attacks in the water and so much anger in a way that I had not experienced before. I was absolutely mad at the water for a bit because of the raw emotions that came up. I felt as if mama ocean was teaching me a hard lesson and the great thing was I could not stop coming back for more. I felt I was growing so much deeper and I was scared of it. I knew when I had doubts or a bad attitude she would set me straight. She has taught me to calm down, to feel and witness my life in the present moment, here and now. I know because of the growth I have experienced and the love the ocean has given me that there is so much more to our lives than just ourselves.
Along with Yoga and surfing, you are also an avid hula hooper. Many people may not realize that there is a huge blossoming underground hooping culture just about ready to explode into the mainstream. How did you get into hooping and how does it interweave with your Yoga and surfing?
You’re right-so many people have not yet seen the greatness blossoming from hula hooping. It is such a powerful and inspiring community. I was living in Denver, Colorado at the time I discovered hooping. I was at work with my friend Natalie when she pulled out her hula hoop. She was playing around with the most basic hoop tricks, but I remember how fascinated I was, and decided that day I was going to be a hooper. When she gave me that first hula hoop, I had no idea how that would impact my life. The tricks did not come first. It was learning how to hold the hoop, to isolate, to use momentum and how to hula up and down my whole body as fluid as possible. I found my grace with the hoop. It took two hours a day, every single day for six months to find my flow. Once I found that I researched looking up videos and teaching myself how to hoop in Yoga poses. I started hula hooping hiking, hooping my way up mountain sides without stopping. I have been hooping for four years and I have met many other hoopers who love to teach each other their dance and tricks. The community is strong and most of us want to teach each other. Hula hooping helps me with my balance and focus. I find a lot of common ground with movements on surfboards, Yoga poses, and hooping. There is a lot of core engagement that helps me understand and relate to the movement of the ocean and on land.
Tell me a bit about your mission with “The Grounded Way”?
The vision here at The Grounded Way is to support and provide health and wellness to all communities. Have you ever heard the slogan, “buy an eco-friendly Yoga mat and we will plant a tree”? When you book a retreat with The Grounded Way, not only are you supporting your health, but you help to provide health and wellness to the community in a variety of ways. Some of the profits will be used to help the local communities. We will provide Yoga mats, surfboards, skateboards, hula hoops, books about health, natural medicine and so much more. This will also help to provide communities with free classes on all kinds of Yoga, sports, fitness, and health. The Grounded Way is also creating opportunities for others who want to travel and volunteer their skills to help out a community in need. Our goal is to provide funds for those wanting to help. Because of this healthy circle of giving back, we hope to create a grounded way of life!
It seems in our so-called modern culture, especially in the west, there is a lot of stress, anxiety, and unhappiness. How do you feel Yoga, surfing, or hooping can help people alleviate the pangs of industrial culture and bring them more personal freedom?
Western culture definitely has its work cut out for it. I myself was in that mental space not too long ago. My life now compared to how it was, is a product of the immersion of myself into all these elements wholeheartedly. I see people being inspired and looking for outlets that they can bring home and invite into their world whether it’s hula hooping, surfing, or Yoga, these lifestyle changes can alter perspectives and improve health.
Describe your last surf session and what possible realizations you may have had while in the water?
It was at Bluff Beach in Bocas Del Toro, Panama where I live! It’s so amazing. Bluff Beach is a shallow beach break that loves to break surfboards. The barrels are as wide as they are high, and it is a very intense wave regardless of the size. To be caught under one of those majestic barrels is both exhilarating and terrifying. One of the realizations I experienced was how mother ocean does not care if you are having a bad day, she does not sympathize or show mercy. If you find yourself being careless or without focus, the ocean can be terribly unforgiving. I realized how insignificant I felt amongst these bone crushing waves.
What is the greatest gift Yoga, surfing, and hooping have given you?
I am now living my dream. A dream I couldn’t have predicted and life I’ve always imagined. I have created this journey and am traveling down this amazing path. A life full of surfing, hula hooping, Yoga and more. Every day I wake up to the sound of the ocean. I allow my life to flow and I am learning to let go of my desire to control it. I truly live in the now. I am in the best shape of my life physically and mentally and I challenge myself more every day. All these wonderful practices have given me my life and for that I am grateful.
Any last thoughts or words of wisdom you may life to share?
The day “I” died was the day I promised myself I would never give up, life is too short. I have a favorite saying, although it is not mine I know it will resonate with many: “Don’t ask what the world needs, ask what makes you come alive and go do it, cause what the world needs are people who come alive”. I am alive!!! This does not mean there are no struggles. I look at it this way: I am terrified of the water and the power of large waves crashing down on me. To this day it is still difficult to surf new spots or large waves. As I sit on my board and gaze around, I notice the life above and below. My curiosity sometimes gets the best of me. My mind goes to sharks, stingrays, and more. I have to remind myself that we are part of the circle of life so why not enjoy it? Letting go is not always easy. Find simplicity, so I do! Staring out on the horizon I spot a wave rolling in. I paddle to it scared and stoked wondering will I make the drop, and if I don’t, how long will I be under with my board tomb stoning above. I know it’s okay to wonder, but all I want to do is catch this wave and capture that incredible feeling that only surfing has given me. I remember why I am here and why I surf. It’s the closest to life I have ever felt. When I am on a wave, time slows down and I am truly free. Throughout the day, I will wipe out but you know what? Without those intense moments I wouldn’t be who I am today. I found confidence, strength, love, peace and tranquility through surfing, and I will never see life any other way.
Contact Soyela Shafer: firstname.lastname@example.org