How Surfing Has Helped Me Heal My Fears and Anxiety

Bodhi Surf + Yoga / Surf + Yoga Camp Blog / How Surfing Has Helped Me Heal My Fears and Anxiety

Having decided to share my personal journey in dealing with fear and anxiety, I want to move to a more positive chapter. It is a subject that we talk about a lot (and from different angles) here at Bodhi Surf + Yoga. It’s one of our main gigs, after all. What am I referring to? Surfing, of course! This time, I want to share how surfing, even more than yoga, has contributed to my personal healing, and helped heal me in a moment that I truly felt stuck in the shadows.

Overcoming fear of surfing

Why I chose to give one of my top fears, surfing, a chance

I was in the process of discovering how to deal with the symptoms of my fear and anxiety, and consciously decided to create my own “exposure therapy.” I should mention that surfing occupied a top position on the list of “things that I am most afraid of”; ironic, since I work in (and am the co-founder and co-owner of) a surf company. For context, free falling is at the top of the list. Airplane turbulence is not far behind. Yet also on that list is surfing. That being said, I signed myself up for a whole week of Bodhi Sessions as it seemed like a practical, simple, and economic way to do exposure therapy.

The weeks leading up to the surf camp I felt brave, proud, and confident about my decision. I was doing it — actively conquering my fears! Yet all of that disappeared the night before I was about to do the first of the camp’s five surf lessons. My creative/overactive brain thought up every possible believable excuse to back out. I literally scanned my whole body, praying and hoping to find any signs of illness that would allow me to skip the lesson, yet I could come up with nothing. It was time to face reality and jump feet first into the first lesson.

Ahead of class number one, I had a great deal of anxiety, and even moments of panic. Yet at least this time, it had a good reason. Even arriving at the beach was intimidating. I spent a good portion of the first lesson with my heart pounding and my head spinning with thoughts of every possible danger out there. However (and to my surprise), I made it alive through the first, second, and even third classes! My confidence grew as I went along.

How to overcome surf anxiety

Surfing’s lessons of respect and humility

The fourth lesson provided me with a healthy dose of humility, something I now believe is a mandatory step in the process of learning how to surf. The ocean is full of natural wisdom. As we approach it, whether it is for surfing or just being in it, we are given the opportunity to learn very valuable lessons. If we are paying attention, that is. Some of these lessons are respect and humility.

When you’re on the surfing path, at some point when you have had several good sessions in a row, sometimes your ego can get a bit inflated. There is no better teacher than the ocean for putting it back in check and reminding you why you’re doing what you’re doing. The ocean has a way of gaining our respect in order to give us a better chance to stay both present and safe.

I made it to the fifth and final session with some struggle, and a few bruises here and there. The one thing I knew for sure was that there was a high probability that we would “paddle out” (past the white water waves (and my comfort zone) and into the blue-green waves). This concept was for me as intimidating a concept as free-soloing “El Capitan” like the rock climber, Alex Honnold!

The day started with the good news from our surf instructor that as conditions were not good, we would not be paddling out. I immediately felt a deep sense of relief. But the story changed when we got to the beach. Very unexpectedly, we were told that we were actually paddling out. I panicked internally but kept my cool externally — or at least I tried.

The lesson comes when the student is ready

It all happened so fast. The rest of the people were able to paddle out and I got stuck in the impact zone, a place I like to call “the laundry machine” for the way it can vigorously churn you around. I couldn’t paddle out — or at least my mind was fully convinced that I couldn’t. I held onto the board and cried big, salty tears. Yet it was right there in the impact zone that I received therapy from the instructor. Yes! Aside from just being surf instructors, the good ones can also be really great ocean therapists as well!

He told me it was ok if I wanted to quickly go back to the beach, but I decided not to. I couldn’t. I knew that if I turned back now, I would stay there, in my “fear zone.” I wanted out, and the only way out was OUT into the lineup. So I kept trying and somehow I made it. As it turned out, I was ready.

Learning to overcome surfing fears

Surfing is a state of mind

Once there I felt lonely and scared, even though there were others with me. This is a common of the surfing fears shared by many. That’s one of the first things you realize when you are out in the lineup for the first time. Yet you can decide if you want to be lonely or alone. Because while there are typically some people around you — more if you are at a very crowded beach — you are by yourself. That fact used to be scary for me, yet it is now one of the beauties of surfing. You get to be there, in this massive body of powerful water, with and by yourself. It is like nature’s sacred temple where, when you’re there, you have the ability to enter a different state of mind, a deeply meditative one.

After having experienced it a few times, I now understand why surfers feel so passionate about what they do. Surfing is not a sport. To me, it’s not even just a way of life. Surfing is a state of mind. I guess if you do it long enough, there’s a moment of transition, where you go from practicing surfing to actually becoming one with the wave. And that is a sacred relationship.

The lesson of fear itself

All this time before actually getting out into the blue-green waves, I thought that once I did, my fear, panic, and anxiety were going to disappear. But alas, they did not. And it was so frustrating! The experience did however culminate in one of my biggest “aha!” moments of my life. I sat there, face-to-face with my fear and allowed it to be there, with me. For the first time, I didn’t try to avoid it, fight it, or run away from it. I just let it be, knowing that eventually, it too would pass. Right there in that moment, I finally understood that fear is a very essential part of life.

We all feel fear, at different times, and for different reasons. It is something that we as humans (and all animals) share. Our society tends to teach us to hide or ignore it so that we don’t look weak or cowardly, but the reality is that fear doesn’t make us weak. It is what we do and how we react to it that makes all the difference. I realized then and there that there are two types of fear: the kind that keeps us alive and the kind that prevents us from really living. So maybe the key is to choose wisely which fears we listen to, and which ones we should ignore.

My first surf experience that I have described happened years ago, and I have continued to surf on and off (maybe more off than on) ever since then. I am not planning to become a pro or big-wave-surfer — in fact, I refer to myself as “the whitewash queen.” I am a constant beginner, “constant” being the key word here that shows how disciplined I am in my role! I keep trying. Sometimes I have lots of fun, sometimes I feel I am progressing, and sometimes I have one terrible session after another which makes me question just why I keep trying.

Tips for fear and anxiety

So why keep doing what scares us?

I keep trying surfing because both it and the ocean have become metaphors in my life. Every time I enter Mother Ocean with my board, I am reminded that I have no control of the external circumstances of life. What I do have is the opportunity to try; to live. It’s another chance, and it’s a blessing!

There’s so much uncertainty in both life and in the ocean. All we can do is try and hope for the best, and surrender to whatever that may be. Just like the ancient yoga text of the Bhaghavad Gitta says: “We are the owners of the action, but not of the fruits of our actions.”

I like to keep surfing because it is a reminder that we only get stronger by facing challenges and obstacles in our path. If we give up, sit down, and don’t progress out of our comfort zone, it will be difficult if not impossible to reach our full potential. This reminds me of a paragraph I wrote in my journal from Swami Satchidananda:

“Remember, Yoga Practice is like an obstacle race: many obstructions are purposely put on the way for us to pass through. They are there to make us understand and express our own capacities. We all have the strength, but we don’t seem to know it. We seem to need to be challenged and tested in order to understand our own capacities. In fact, that is the natural law. If a river just flows easily, the water of the river does not express its own power.”

There are many lessons I have received from surfing that go beyond trying to catch a wave. Some are very difficult for me to put into words. I know that regardless of whether I get better or not, there is always an opportunity to receive deeper and more important lessons from the experience.

Gratitude for the lessons

Every time I am about to enter the ocean I take a moment to do my own prayer: I request permission to enter, and I thank the ocean, nature, and the divine energy that have allowed me one more opportunity to be there. I give thanks for the next breath that I am able to take, for the next paddle, for the next wave I can potentially catch. I thank all of this energy in the shape of nature and water for allowing me to be present, to feel alive, to surrender and release the illusion of control. The beauty of surfing is that you don’t necessarily have to be really good at it to feel the beautiful connection with the ocean, we just have to show up!

So for that and much more, thank you and Namaste, Mother Ocean!

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About the author


Pilar is Bodhi Surf +Yoga's head yogini and travel planner. When Pilar is not doing her own Ashtanga practice, she can be found assisting guests improve their own practice, reading food and yoga blogs, or spending quality time with her beautiful daughters Maya and Clea!