Gary’s friend: “What do surfing and yoga have to do with one another?”
Gary: “They both connect you to… everything.”
Gary’s friend: “Hah — yeah, I’m gonna go get high this weekend too.”
This interaction took place just before Gary, a recent guest at Bodhi Surf School, left for his Costa Rican vacation. When his friend heard that Gary and his wife, Stacey, would be visiting a surf and yoga school, he didn’t grasp the connection between the two (and clearly, thought the idea that they “connect you to everything” sounded woo-woo). And I must admit that I didn’t quite either, until I spent three months surfing and practicing yoga at Bodhi. Yoga has been heightening my awareness, increasing my presence, for years. Surfing, it turns out, serves the same function. Both are vehicles for a state of presence.
What is “presence?”
What is “presence” anyway? I suppose this term has been diluted via its overuse in new-age lingo. However, “presence” is quite simple in essence. It is being wholly where you are. It is paying full attention. It is not avoiding this moment, but being immersed in it deeply — so deeply, that you lose track of time. You lose track of worries, of mental chatter of the past and future. You lose track of yourself. Presence is immersion into nature. It is interconnectedness with… everything.
The entire experience of surfing requires full attention. Whether I am paddling out, riding a wave in, getting thrown off my board, or sitting and waiting, the experience of surfing requires focused attention. Otherwise, it could be quite dangerous. For example, a wave could catch me and throw me when I’m not looking, or I could get hit by the board while lost in my thoughts.
Back to the breath…
The breath moving through my body anchors me here, to this moment.
In yoga, the breath is the intentional focus of attention. It is natural to want to escape when a pose feels uncomfortable, and trust me, I often feel this desire. I notice my calves burning. I notice the sweat dripping. I notice my shoulders aching. I want to stop, in order to be comfortable again. But if I focus my mind on each inhale and exhale, I will move beyond the fluctuating thoughts and desires to a meditative state where I am observing. I learn to differentiate between discomfort and pain. Ultimately, I lose track of my mind completely — synching with the moment. When I guide myself during my yoga practice, I must remember to focus on my breath and instincts, so that I don’t get hurt. Constantly, I go back to the breath.
Ironically, the type of pranayama or “controlled breath” that we focus on during the practice of yoga is called ujaii (“victory” or “ocean” breath), which simulates the sound of the ocean. Ujaii involves slightly constricting the back of the throat while breathing through the nostrils. We practice ujaii in order to build body heat, increase oxygen in the blood, and prepare our bodies for asana (physical postures). Ujaii also increases our self-awareness, our focus, our presence.
While surfing, the breath can similarly serve as an anchor to the moment. The inherent dynamism of the water, the waves themselves, serve as a rhythmic link to the breath — moving in and out, in and out…
Back to the moment…
After a long paddle out, I sit and wait. The waves are gently lapping around me, my board wobbling atop a blanket of water. At this moment, the board is an extension of my body. We rise and fall together with the waves. A few moments ago, I was thrown backward by a great force, tumbled, and turned head over heels. I surrendered, letting the wave carry me, as I was powerless against its immense force. I had no concept of time. I just knew that I needed to get to the surface in order to breathe. Of course, I cannot breathe while underwater. However, the practice of being focused and calm while uncomfortable during yoga allows me to remain calm underwater as well. And ultimately, my instincts guide me back to the breath…
Both surfing and yoga are vehicles for presence. The intense focus that these activities require of us is a natural link to mindful experience. If you are lucky, you will feel immersed in nature, interconnected with everything. And if you get lost, you can always return to your breath.
“I’m wondering why
the birds stop singing when I’m
absorbed in my thoughts.”
-Jim Malloy @elephantjournal
Written by Sam Rose