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The Tao of Surfing: Yin Yoga

{published on The Inertia}

The tides move from high to low as the moon rotates from new to full.  In just one day the ocean’s energy can change from pumping waves with spitting barrels to flat calm seas perfect for snorkeling.  Things are always changing.  It is the ebb and flow of life.   

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, there is a concept of yin and yang, an understanding of how the world functions.  It is the belief that nothing is absolute.  Everything has two sides, a duality:  light and dark, male and female, hard and soft. It is believed that between the extremes of the yin and the yang, we find contentment, a state of bliss.  The Buddhists call this moderation or “the middle way.”  I call this balance.   

As surfers, we are the bodies in motion that want to stay in motion.  We want waves that peel for kilometers, and a body that allows us to surf forever.   I think I have figured out a “no fail” way to manifesting this dream of a life on the water.  It is through surfing in combination with yoga.

As a yoga teacher living in Bali, I find surfer bodies easy to look at, but hard to bend.  Of the few surfers that actually make it to a yoga class, most can’t touch their toes.  Of course this isn’t true of everyone, but i find it quite often.  

Lets take a look at Gerry Lopez for a minute. He continues to surf incredible waves with grace and style, just as he did in his youth.   Obviously it is not age that slows us down, but how we maintain our bodies throughout the years.  He is not only a ripping surfer, but an inspirational yogi as well.  In my opinion, this is the key to his timelessness. Much like riding a  motorcycle on a long distance journey, we will only arrive at our destination  if we watch the engine temperature, oil the chain and check the tire pressures enroute.  Its all about maintenance.

What I am talking about is not merely religion and belief, there is actually science behind this as well.  Let me explain.  Fascia is our packaging.  It wraps around everything in our body.  When one experiences physical trauma, scarring, or inflammation, the fascia loses its pliability. It becomes tight and restricted.  This shows itself as tension, pain and injury.  

Connective tissues are the deeper, denser parts of the body, like cartilage, ligaments, joints, and bones.  Over time our joints lose their natural lubrication and the ligaments become hard.  We become increasingly stiff.  Unless we stop and give our overworked bodies some tender love and care,  eventually these parts will have no other option but to suddenly stretch or even worse, snap.   In the world of surfing, this is time out of the water.  Game over.  

With the exception of heavy waves breaking on shallow reef, I don’t believe surfing to be an injury prone sport.  I believe a majority of surfing injuries are caused from this lack of balance, in other words, too much yang and too little yin.   Lets face it, as surfers we live for the yang.  We want wave after wave, turn after turn, countless cutbacks and speedy barrels.

Surfing is a “yang” form of exercise, full of movement, rhythm and repetition.  Through this movement our muscles expand and contract, growing stronger.   By limiting our bodies to the yang, we tend to lose the natural softness becoming more inflexible and growing increasingly tight.    In order to keep the inertia, the momentum, the longevity in our bodies, we must mix the yang with the yin.  Therefore, if surfing is your “yang”, let yoga be your “yin.”  

Yogis are always trying to convince surfers to stretch.  With a list of benefits longer than a vintage log, I agree that all styles of yoga will make you feel better.   But there is one form of yoga in particular that you actually need.  This is Yin Yoga.  Yin yoga is a soothing balm, a technique used to heal.  With hours of paddling,  arching your lower back, and repetitive take offs on a particularly fun day, your body grows overworked and tired.  

Yin yoga is similar to a myo-fascial massage without the excessive costs.   Think: “massage meets meditation.”  It is a slow and gentle form of yoga.  There are no leg behind the head poses or excessive back bends.  It works by relaxing the muscles.   With a round spine while resting on bolsters. The aim is to hold basic beginner yoga poses for an extended amount of time, usually 3-5 minutes.  While the muscles get a nice stretch in just a few short breathes, the fascia and connective tissues require 90-120 seconds before things start to relax, to loosen.  By breathing deep and slow, you find a stillness.  In this stillness, you are allowing your body to relax.  Through relaxation, you heal. 

Although it is slow and gentle, it isn’t always easy.  I recommend finding a class in the beginning or at least following a good video online. The hardest part about yin yoga is finding the time to do practically nothing, to be still and silent, to relax and rejuvenate.

The combination of surfing with yin yoga, gives us the balance our bodies need.  Through this balance we can live in optimum health, which leads to greater happiness.  If you enter the world of yin, I guarantee you will surf not only longer, but better.  You will not only heal injuries from the past, but prevent injuries in the future.  The tao to a long surfing life is by getting zen with yin. 

Written by Kori Hahn