“You can't stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” Jon Kabat-Zinn
This post accompanies one of my most popular series, which you can download here: Yoga for Surfers.
The series consists of 15 x 15-minute routines designed to support recovery and boost performance, plus 5 bonus breathing and meditation audios. In this article, I’m going to cover the 6 key areas that affect surfers of all levels, show you how yoga can help with these issues and give you some tips, tutorials and pointers to ensure you get the most out of the series. I will also link to other relevant articles that I've written if you'd like to go deeper.
If you have any injuries, please check with your physical therapist that you have the all-clear to perform these exercises.
How yoga can improve your surfing
Yoga and surfing go together like strawberries and cream—physically, mentally, and for some, even spiritually. The natural affinity between the two disciplines has attracted some of the biggest names in the sport, including Kelly Slater, Laird Hamilton, Malia Manuel, Rochelle Ballard and Gerry Lopez. So if the highest profile pros are investing time and money into it, how exactly can yoga improve your surfing?
Benefits of yoga for surfing
Surfing is an incredibly demanding sport. Your body and mind need to be in great shape if you’re going to surf really well and for a long time. It requires high levels of strength, flexibility and mobility as well as excellent balance, coordination and body control.
The best way to get better at surfing is to surf a lot and to push yourself to go out in bigger and bigger waves, but there is also a lot you can do out of the water, and that's where yoga comes in. A consistent yoga routine can help you to:
- Relieve aches and pains, especially in the neck, shoulders and lower back.
- Increase your flexibility, especially in the hips and hamstrings.
- Improve your range of motion.
- Build core strength.
- Increase your stamina.
- Improve your balance and body awareness skills.
- Reduce recovery time.
- Correct muscular imbalances.
- Improve your posture.
- Learn proper breathing patterns.
- Reduce your risk of injury.
What you need to start practicing yoga
One of my objectives with Yoga 15 was to create a method that requires minimal equipment. All you need is a mat to stop your hands and feet from slipping and some comfortable workout clothes that allow you to move freely.
As with all skill development, consistency is the key with yoga. I find that most surfers feel so different when they are or are not sticking to their routine that commitment is not a problem, especially since the videos are only 15-minutes long. So as long as you know what to do, the rest should take care of itself.
I recommend you do 15 minutes, 5-7 days a week, switching up the routines depending on what you need to work on. This article should help you to set that up in the most effective way.
Let’s get into the key issues.
1. TIGHT HIPS
Pretty much all pre-yoga surfers have tight hips. There are many lifestyle factors that contribute to this, including too much sitting, sports that involve running fast and changing direction quickly, and a lifetime of not stretching. This tightness can be exacerbated by the contraction of your hips when you’re straddling the board and the misalignment of your pelvis when you're standing on the board with your front foot turned out.
Access to full range of motion at your hips is crucial for a number of reasons:
- So that you can compress, extend and rotate your body quickly and efficiently.
- To increase your power and speed.
- For a faster and more fluid pop-up.
- To increase your agility in turns, jumps and landings.
- To improve your balance and body control.
- To allow you to properly train your core.
- To improve your movement efficiency, stamina and endurance.
- To relieve lower back pain.
- To reduce your risk of injury.
Healthy hips comes down to three elements that must all be in balance: flexibility (suppleness), strength (stability) and mobility (range of motion).
Timing and frequency
You need to warm up your hips before you surf, stretch your hips when you come out of the water and build strength in the joints with standing and balancing poses. Here are 4 of my favourite hip-opening poses. Click on the image for full instructions.
Check out the “UNLOCK TIGHT HIPS”routine in the Yoga For Surfers series.
Pro tip: Practice like you mean it. Stay engaged throughout the entire sequence. Do every pose as best you can, continuously working to improve your alignment, control and focus. If you need to make any modifications, you'll find my recommendations in the Pose Library.
2. SORE NECK, UPPER BACK AND SHOULDERS
Paddling is brutal on the neck, shoulders and upper back and almost no surfer escapes niggling or more serious aches and pains in this area. Even apart from the sheer amount of work that goes through your shoulders, if you don’t have sufficient mobility in your thoracic spine (which many of us do not), lifting your chest up off the board as you’re pulling yourself through the water puts tremendous pressure on the muscles in your upper back and neck.
How can yoga help?
Much of the damage can be mitigated by warming up properly and releasing tension after every session.
And although paddling builds incredible shoulder strength, it doesn't work the shoulder muscles evenly so you also need to incorporate isometric holds of poses like Plank, Side Plank and Reverse Plank to correct this imbalance and reduce your risk of rotator cuff injury.
Check out the “UPPER BODY STRENGTH” routine in the Yoga For Surfers series.
2. Neck and upper back
The same goes for the neck and upper back. Make sure you warm up all the muscles in this area properly and stretch out tension every time you come out of the water. Some really effective poses are Child, Eagle (arms only) and Ragdoll.
Check out the “SORE NECK AND SHOULDERS” routine in the Yoga For Surfers series.
If your chest feels tight, incorporate daily stretches to open up your chest and the fronts of your shoulders.
4. Thoracic spine
Stiffness in the thoracic spine (mid-back) is a common issue and one that is generally neglected in conventional stretching programs. In surfing, it is especially important that you have good range of motion in the spine to make powerful and fluid turns, adapt quickly and effectively to the demands of the wave and maintain the optimal paddling position. Here are my 4 favourite twisting poses. Click on the image for full instructions.
Check out “TWISTS FOR YOUR TURNS” in the Yoga For Surfers series.
Twisting tip: The key with safe twisting is to lengthen your spine before rotation. This will decompress the vertebrae to make space for the twist. If you have any back injuries, please make sure you check with your doctor that it is safe for you to do these poses.
3. LOWER BACK PAIN
Lower back pain is another huge issue for surfers. There are probably a number of contributing factors but here are some of the most common:
- Tight hips and/or hamstrings.
- Considerable tension and compression localised at the lower back.
- A weak core.
- Stiffness in the thoracic spine (see above).
If you have potential nerve or disc damage, please seek the advice of your doctor as you may be contraindicated for forward bends, backbends, twists and seated poses.
A 3-directional approach
If you look at this list of potential factors, you’ll see issues relating to flexibility, strength and mobility, which is exactly the trifecta that yoga excels in.
In the Yoga For Surfers series you will find videos to cover you in all 3 areas: “UNLOCK TIGHT HIPS”, “HAMSTRING AND CALF FLEXIBILITY” and “CORE STRENGTH” as well as a dedicated routine called “RELIEF FROM LOWER BACK PAIN”.
Pro tip: If you’re young, nimble and pain-free, start focussing on athletic recovery now. Prevention is way easier than fixing dysfunctions when things go wrong. Stay flexible, mobile and strong and aim to follow a balanced fitness program.
4. CORE STRENGTH
Yoga is great for building core strength in a balanced and functional way. Your core comprises the abs, obliques, lower back, hips and pelvis, which stabilise the spine and allow it to flex, extend, rotate and sidebend. Targeted core strength training is going to improve your surfing in numerous ways, including:
- Increasing the speed and fluidity of your pop-ups.
- Improving your balance and body control.
- Increasing your power and agility.
- Reducing fatigue.
- Alleviating lower back pain.
Here is a great core exercise you can do every day.
You'll find 2 core stability routines in the Yoga For Surfers series: “CORE STRENGTH” and “BALANCE AND CORE STRENGTH”.
Pro tip: If your core is a weak area for you, challenge yourself to spend the next 30 days working on it every day, even if it's just for 5 minutes.
It almost goes without saying that the best surfers have exceptional balance. It's impossible to predict what the wave is going to do next, and you need to be prepared to adapt quickly and effectively to the ever-changing conditions.
Yoga is great way to train your balance and proprioception skills off the board, especially as you practice barefoot. There are two types of balancing poses:
- Arm balances, which build strength in the core and upper body.
- One-legged standing poses, which strengthen the lower body and stabilise the hip joints.
Here are 4 challenging balance poses. Click on the image to take you to the full instructions.
Look out for “BALANCE AND CORE STRENGTH" and “ADVANCED BALANCE AND BODY CONTROL”in the Yoga For Surfers series.
Pro tip: Fix your gaze on a point that isn’t moving to help you maintain your balance. Slow down your breath and try to stay as still as you can. Move in and out of balance poses with complete control.
There are 5 bonus audios in the Yoga For Surfers series that guide you through some simple breathing and meditation techniques. The benefits of proper breathing for surfers include:
- Increased lung capacity for breath holds.
- The ability to calm your central nervous system when a wave is holding you down.
- Greater core stability.
- Enhanced focus and concentration.
- A technique to help you sleep.
In this video, I guide you through 4 rounds of Box Breathing, a technique that is especially effective for enhancing focus and concentration.
Pro tip: Practice your breathing every single day. A few rounds in the morning to start your day off on the right foot, then in the middle of the day if you start to feel overwhelmed and in the evening to help you to wind down for bed.
Please let me know if you have any questions, feedback or tips that you can share with us. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and you can reach me there anytime.
Beach photo credit: JuanJose Sieiro