Finding Wellness on a Surfboard


A woman surfs on a large wave.

Surfing is about more than just standing up. A killer core, cardio and strength workout, the paddling and pop-ups push new and old – and not just in the physical sense. As it turns out, surfing functions as a life and wellness tool in and out of the water. Like yoga, surfing embodies a holistic approach to life.

I was reminded of both the simplicity and strength of this message time and again during a weeklong surf retreat that humbled me, challenged me and inspired me as the waves and I came together (or didn’t) off the coast of Cambutal, Panama.

And it isn’t just me who thinks surfing and wellness go hand in hand. Spafinder Wellness 365 recently announced its wellness trend report for 2016, and surfing topped the list. In fact, catching waves is booming in the wellness travel genre, especially among women looking to blend physical activity with self-care through all-female surf retreats. SwellWomen Surf & Yoga Retreat owner Lulu Agan has built an empowering program in Maui, Nicaragua and El Salvador with the belief that “through the experiential element, such as learning how to surf, you are invited to tap into your inner strength and courage. This experience of riding the wave can be applied to all facets of our lives.”

What happens on a surfboard to inspire wellness?

Nic Jacobson, director of furf at Sansara Surf and Yoga Resort in Cambutal, Panama, tells his students that surfing is about catching waves. It isn’t about looking strong in a perfectly positioned stance on your board over a wave (even if we admit that does look mighty fierce).

There is no doubt: Surfing is a physical sport. Your body will be sore. Your muscles will respond. My core has never been as tight and strong as after I spent five days in the water (and sometimes on my board). But the long lasting wellness that you’ll be able to take home with you and incorporate into your daily life happens in the mind and heart when you embrace the lessons from the water, waves and surfboard.

Surfing teaches you how to cope in daily life.

There is only one reality when you’re surfing, whether you’re a newbie or veteran. The ocean is the only one in full control. Ocean waves come in sets, including the good and the bad, just like life. For Jacobson, the key moment occurs in the fight. He explains, “We push through the rougher waves to calmer waters. We keep paddling so that when the opportunity comes, and a wave rolls through, we are in a position to seize that moment. When life presents us with a challenge, or period of turmoil, we have to have this same dedication. We don’t surrender to the challenge, but we push through it so we’re back in position for greatness, whatever that looks like for you.”

Surfing encourages us to drop our ego.

The good and bad news, even for experienced surfers, is that every day is a new day in the ocean. And even more importantly, every wave is a new wave. Eckhart Tolle writes, “The past has no power over the present moment.” While you can develop strength, form and expertise while surfing more and more waves, each new attempt presents an opportunity to humble us. Through the great waves and the not-so-great waves, we learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable, and that it’s OK to fall. “Challenge exists in our everyday lives, and with the art of surfing, we teach colors outside the lines of life back home, erasing egos and unleashing the bare human spirit. It’s like we’re all kids again, and everyone is on the same playground,” Agan says.

Surfing encourages us to deal with frustration and fear.

There’s  is no doubt that the ocean is relentless. Even on a calm day, surfing involves a lot of paddling through waves to reposition yourself for the next set. Finding yourself furiously stroking through the water in the hopes of catching the wave in just the right moment – only to have it move by you or toss you around – can be frustrating, if you let it. Jacobson reminds his students that “the ocean isn’t going to shut off. So you accept it. You let go of control. And all of a sudden, it’s not that bad.” When you step outside the story of frustration and judgment that spirals into a full-blown novel in your mind to be present in the moment, a new perspective emerges. In that moment, you can face anything.