Yoga is an ancient practice that originated in India and has been referenced in texts that date back to 3000BCE. The practice involves breathing, stretching, balancing and deliberate periods of stillness. The benefits are widely documented and include increased strength, flexibility, pain relief and reduced stress. Much more than just a set of stretching exercises, practiced by groups wearing Lululemon tights, Yoga is a way of life. It builds strength, flexibility and self-awareness. It is the perfect toolkit to complement surfing and certainly will improve both your surfing performance and general wellbeing.
While many surfers say that surfing is the best training for surfing, there are times when surfing is impossible. Yoga can be practised anywhere, anytime. There are plenty of videos that will help you through the sequences. Hot yoga will require visiting a studio or warming up a room in your home. Many people find visiting a studio forces you to persevere and stick with the session. At home, it is way too easy to get distracted or condense the session down to your favourite few postures.
What are the benefits of yoga for surfers?
Builds strength and flexibility
Let’s start with the easy one. There are many poses in a physical yoga practice (yoga asana*) that are going to be directly beneficial for your surfing ability. You can increase your arm strength in poses like like downward dog (adho mukha svanasana), core strength in plank, your surfing stance and hip flexibility with warrior II (virabhadrasana II), and increase your overall flexibility and accessible range of motion with a variety of other poses. Just type “yoga for surfers” into Google and you’ll see the plethora of poses that will improve your performance in the water. But please, find a good teacher before attempting to practise on your own.
Not only does yoga offer specific balancing poses that will challenge and improve your balance, it’s also fantastic for learning how to ground through you feet, strengthening the legs, improving spatial awareness and finding the centre line of your body. And of course balance is related to focus…
Not that we’d know it from all the blonde beauties pulling seemingly impossible poses on Instagram, but traditionally a physical yoga practise was a preparation for meditation. In working towards meditation we concentrate our attention on one thing to the exclusion of others. Practising this, whether in seated meditation practice, or while practising postures, is a way to increase our focus and attention span. Take this ability to hone your focus into the surf and you’ll be amazed the difference it makes.
One of the greatest teachers alive today, Lesley Kaminoff, says the yoga mat, far from just being a piece of rubber we pull poses on, is actually . What the hell does that mean and how will it help my surfing? When we take time to exclude all distractions and spend time with ourselves practising yoga asana and meditation, it’s magical the things you notice that are normally hidden in the buzz of our modern lives. When we strip back layers you can begin to see clearly your habits and beliefs, and how they translate into your actions. You may well discover limitations, physical or mental, that are holding you back.
Yoga philosophy teaches us acceptance of ourselves and our situation, in any given moment of time. By all means we can strive to change those things we can influence, but anything else we need to accept or we’ll fight an uphill battle that will never be won. And waste a great deal of precious time on it. By accepting physical, financial and geographical limitations, we can direct our attention and energies towards those areas we can change, and have a whole lot more time and mental clarity to work on them.
At the most basic level you’ll find knowing the postures could be quite useful – you can use the poses for your pre-surf warm-up (yes you probably don’t bother, but you should 😉 and post-surf stretch.
You should always begin your practice under the guidance of a good teacher – then you can practise at home. Be sure to take the time to find a good teacher and one that is teaching a style that matches your goals.
*This clarification is made because most classes in the West focus on physical postures or asana but in fact asana is just one component of ‘yoga’ as such. Other components include the yamas and niyamas (a sort of yogic 10 commandments), pranayama (breathing practises) and meditation.
Top 5 Yoga Positions for Surfing
Yoga on a very basic level is made up of three parts, stretching, core workout and breathing.
Many yoga positions are centered on balance and centering the body, this means we engage our core muscles in order to maintain perfect balance.
While performing each yoga position you concentrate on your breath, the same way you would do when meditating. Taking note of your breath helps the body relax into the stretch and you are able to push yourself a little further and really get those muscles working.
There are a few sports I can think of where balance, flexibility, and focus are really important, skateboarding, skiing, wakeboarding, and of course surfing.
Now that you know a little more about the benefits of yoga perhaps you can see how beneficial it can be for your surfing. Let’s have a look at the top 5 helpful poses to improve your surfing.
The downward dog is a standard yoga pose which many will be aware of. What are the benefits and what’s the hype about it? Well, the downward dog gives the body a phenomenal stretch.
By stretching your body into the downward dog position you are getting a full stretch of your hamstrings, which is essential to do before any physical activity. With the downward dog, you also stretch your lower back, build arm and shoulder strength as well as get a healthy rush of blood to the head.
I do this position throughout my day just to wake up and get a kick of energy after sitting at a desk for many hours.
Another yoga pamphlet staple which I am sure many have seen. Often I have looked at yoga position and gone, ok wow what’s the big deal anyone can do that. Ah, well I was so wrong. You think your balance and core strength is as good as it was in first grade, nope think again.
Many of these positions are super challenging and the Tree Pose is no different. This position is great to gain balance and work out the core. It also provides practice to center yourself and work at regaining balance when it is lost.
A lot of regaining your balance has to do with being aware of where your center point is and keeping your breathing calm, steady and regular.
This is the perfect practice before hitting the waves. It creates balance and maintains focus while warming the core up.
There are a few different warrior positions. Depending on your flexibility or your yoga level you can choose which one you feel most comfortable doing. The warrior is a position of strength, hence the name. It focuses on maintaining balance in any type of situation.
Perhaps you have mastered the Tree Pose and you feel your balance is superb. Doing the warrior shows you how to balance when your center is in a different direction.
During the Warrior Pose, you will balance while your torso is turned to the left or right. This will give the torso a much-needed stretch as well as show you your ability to stay upright when twisted in different positions.
Again these look easy, try the position, hold it and breathe.
The Garland Pose is a brilliant hip opener. You may think, well surfing isn’t gymnastic what am I opening my hips for?
By stretching your inner thigh or hips you are getting your body ready to move more fluidly while you surf. Performing a hip opening position has great benefits for the lower abdomen, and back too.
Stretching your hips before you surf, will make sure you are ready to bail in any position without tearing a muscle.
The Garland pose combines opening your hips with some centering balance work. It works as the perfect warm-up for the lower half of the body and works those hips into ready position.
If you are a runner, then this is a great pose too. Running has a lot of compression impact on the hips which can affect you in other sports. Try the garland pose before and after our activities and you will feel a difference.
Upward Facing Dog
Finally, we have an upward facing dog, or we could call it the submerging surfer. Looking at this pose you can see why it is a good idea before you hit the waves.
Coming up from under a wave, or getting up to catch a wave this is the motion you make. Opening up your chest and giving a good full breadth stretch is what is important here. This pose also warms up your arms and pulls the muscles from chin to hip to make sure they’re ready for when you’re in the water.
Remember, most of the time you head into the ocean to surf, the water is cooler than the outside air. This means that when you get into the water your muscles immediately contract and stiffen up.
Imagine if you have not warmed them up before how tight and immobile your body would be compared to doing a few super cool yoga poses before your surf?
Yoga is hugely beneficial to your mind, body, and soul and now to your surfing too. Breathe in, breathe out and hit the waves.
What about Hot Yoga for surfers?
Hot yoga – also called Bikram Yoga – is a series of 26 postures repeated in the exact same sequence each session. The room is heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit (or thereabouts) with around 40 per cent humidity. Participants enter the studio and position themselves in front of a floor to ceiling mirror. When the instructor enters, the yogis stand up and the session begins.
Here are some of the benefits of hot yoga for surfers.
There’s nothing like a full-length mirror to highlight poor alignment. Practitioners of hot yoga are forced to confront themselves face-on and to make subtle real-time adjustments to improve their form. This process helps participants to unlearn bad habits and get used to activating muscles that improve alignment. Many people notice their shoulders are not straight or that they lean more heavily on one foot than the other.
To improve posture focus on:
- Ardha-Chandrasana (Half-Moon Pose). This is the second pose in the sequence and while it looks relatively easy can be one of the most intense stretches when done properly. Instead of just flopping to one side the goal is to pull your opposite side up and over you. Notice the difference between sides and the tendency to twist forward or back. Breathe naturally, make tiny adjustments and keep your eyes on yourself.
- Trikanasana (Triangle Pose). Triangle is without doubt one of the most intense poses in yoga. To check posture take a quick look at the mirror (from the side) and notice if your knees, hips or shoulders are out of alignment. Adjust as necessary. Triangle begins with a warrior-style stance before wheeling the body down towards the floor. It’s easy to see the benefits in terms of leg strength for surfers who stand on their boards in similar (though less wide) stances.
Many people think yoga is all about extreme flexibility. It’s not. Bikram balances strength, flexibility and endurance. The outcome of consistent practice will include increased flexibility but that’s not the goal, so ditch any preconceptions before walking into the studio. And don’t worry, there’s no chanting, crystals or super-advanced yoga twists in the hot room – you’re in for a seriously practical workout.
You’ll notice the benefits in your hips when bottom and top turning.
Supporting postures are:
- Supta-Vajrasana (Fixed Firm Pose). The opposite of Hands to Feet, this stretches out the quads and increases flexibility in the chest and shoulders. It feels really good.
- Pada-Hastasana (Hands to Feet). This is an incredible antidote to the hyperextended back posture required when paddling a surfboard. It stretches the entire back side of the body.
Improve back strength
An important aspect of the Bikram sequence is that you balance back bends with forward bends. Surfers spend way more time than most people in a highly unnatural hyperextended position while paddling. Neck and back pain is almost guaranteed for lifelong surfers. Many surfers report scoliosis – like Mick Fanning’s early and almost debilitating condition – while some may even experience Surfer’s Myelopathy – a rare condition causing paralysis.
Keep your back strong by balancing the ubiquitous paddle posture with a range of supporting exercises designed to increase full back strength. Focus on:
- Sasangasana (Rabbit Pose). An amazing forward fold that creates space between the vertebrae.
- Salabasana (Locust Pose). Activate the upper back muscles and enjoy a posture that helps with back pain.
Proprioception is your sense of balance. In my experience, consistent yoga practice is one of the best ways to improve proprioception, enabling more dynamic and adaptive surfing. Even after time out of the water you’ll be less rusty if you’ve been practicing some of the postures available in hot yoga.
- Janu Sirsasana (Standing Head to Knee Pose). This is perhaps one of the most challenging postures, requiring strength, balance and focus. It is also an excellent progress measurement as you’ll notice improvement quickly.
- Dandayamana-Dhanurasana (Standing Bow Pulling Pose). Another single-leg balance posture requiring focus and persistence. One of the highest intensity poses of the sequence – it will leave your heart thumping.
Test your limits
Hot yoga is not easy. It’s probably more challenging than 90% of surfing experiences. The process of homeostasis guides most life forms on earth to seek comfort over distress. Think of it this way: you get hot, then homeostasis triggers action – to go and open a window. This action is impossible in a hot yoga studio. You’re locked in for the 60 – 90 minute session with nowhere to go but into the depths of your undoubtedly busy mind. You’ll learn a lot about yourself and your inner chatter during this relatively short time.
It is good for us to experience active distress. To push the limits and realise that what seemed impossible is actually just a mindset. Hot yoga challenges your version of reality and trains the body to endure discomfort. You develop a new baseline. Your homeostasis may eventually crave the hot room.
Learn to hold your attention
When the mind wanders in hot yoga you make mistakes. You’ll feel wobbly or miss an important cue. Yoga is often touted as a form of meditation or mindfulness and it deserves all the recognition it gets. If nothing else, you’ll find a reprieve from life’s busyness within the confines of studio. Enjoy being disconnected. No phone, no email, no social media, no meetings, no obligations. Just you, your body and your thoughts.
In the rest periods, whilst lying in Savasana (corpse pose), your mind may start to drift but keep your eyes open. Focus on a single spot on the ceiling and make that spot your whole world. Breathe your way into the present. Enjoy the scientifically proven benefits of meditation. You’ll develop increased attention control that will make you a better surfer and a more focused person.
Much has been written about hyperthermic conditioning and the benefits both for athletic performance and everyday wellbeing. Some clear benefits of heat exposure are explained by Dr Rhona Patrick in an interview with Tim Ferriss. These include increased Growth Hormone release, neurogenesis (production of new brain cells), antioxidant effect that protects cells, muscle repair and growth.
You might not consider yoga to be on par with an activity like jogging in terms of developing cardiovascular fitness but prepare to be surprised. Just like jogging or paddling a canoe, you can consider hot yoga a moderate to high intensity workout that will push your heart to somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of your maximum. The beauty of the practice is that the better you get, the harder you work. It never gets easier – you just get stronger.
If you’re unable to surf for a while, hot yoga is a great way to maintain a level of cardio fitness in addition to strength and flexibility.
Cross training improves performance
Many would say that surfing is the best exercise to improve your surf performance and this is true. However, cross training helps you build up strength and flexibility in muscle groups that are neglected when performing the repetitive surfing motions – think long paddle outs. You’ll also improve your general conditioning, get the benefits of hyperthermic exposure and improve your focus.
Whether it is a way to proactively improve your surfing performance or to stay fit during those flat periods, hot yoga can and will make you a better surfer. If the hot room turns you off by all means try a normal yoga class. There are styles to suit every taste. The benefit of hot yoga is you get to track your progress because the sequence remains the same no matter where in the world you go.
How do I start Yoga?
The easiest way to get started is to go to a group class. The instructor will guide you and provide feedback as needed. However, this can be intimidating so the stepping stone might be simply watching a Youtube video or two at home.
The reason it is recommended to begin with a class is because your alignment and form might be wrong, meaning that you’ll adopt bad habits and perhaps miss out on yoga benefits, such as correcting poor posture. You’re also locked in to the session and probably won’t run out before the end of the class. There are online classes for those who wish to have expert instruction without joining a group.