As many of you know, I am a huge fan of surfing–I love the feel of the water on my skin, the sounds of sea birds diving, and the spectacular view of the sea meeting the sky on an endless horizon.
I wish I could say that I am a master surfer (I first learned how to do it way back when I was in law school in 2003)…but I am far from it still. It’s just so hard to practice enough while living a busy urban professional here in NYC! But I am committed, and like any good student I want to keep learning and getting better.
So, partly to celebrate my birthday this year, and partly to practice what I always preach to you about taking a vacation, in early September I treated myself to a surfing retreat in Tobago (which is a tiny Caribbean island off the coast of a slightly bigger one called Trinidad).
I’ve long suspected that my surfing form has gotten sloppy over the years, and I really wanted to make good use of my time in Tobago, so I decided to take some private lessons from one of the best surfers in the Caribbean–a man known as Rasta George.
As his name suggests, Rasta George had a laid back style fitting for his home in the far south Caribbean and his chosen profession. For our first lesson, Rasta George told me to meet him at a place under the coconut trees–furnished with a beach blanket and a hammock–that he lovingly referred to as The Office.
When I got to The Office on that first day, like any good teacher, Rasta George started at the beginning. He laid a surf board onto the sand and said “Jump up so I can see where you are.”
So I laid on the board, mimed some paddling strokes, and jumped up.
“Ohhhh noooo, everyting is wrong!” Clearly it was a good thing I had decided to take these lessons.
Rasta George turned out to be a great surfing teacher–and he had a way of speaking that reminded me of an old, wise yogi. Over the course of the week I came to realize that the principles he was teaching me were exactly the same as those I regularly teach my yoga students.
It was a humbling experience to understand that even I need to learn these lessons over and over again. And it was a great exercise in mindfulness to practice integrating what I have experienced as deep yogic wisdom into my skill as a surfer.
So although I went to Tobago to learn about surfing, I ended up learning about yoga too.
And here are three of my favorite yoga lessons that I learned from Rasta George (you might hear one or more of these in a class by me sometime soon):
Be one with the board.
While paddling out and trying to catch the waves, Rasta George kept telling me to be one with the board: keep my feet and legs together at the back, balance on my belly in the middle, and don’t put my head too far in the front.
The idea, as I understood it, was that I had to lose the feeling of being a body on top of the board and using it as a tool to ride the waves–instead I had to experience the board as an extension of me as we both glide across the water in unison.
Okay, I know there is no board in yoga practice, so the correlation of this teaching may not be so clear. But to me it makes perfect sense: in order to surf skillfully I have to drop my usual sense of being totally separate from my environment.
And that is exactly what I do, and what I teach others to do, in yoga practice. In order to effortlessly manipulate the body into various (and sometimes quite challenging postures) postures, we have to become deeply connected with the ground, the air, and our breath. We have to be one with our environment.
Don’t look down.
This is the teaching Rasta George had to repeat to me the most as I wiggled and wobbled trying to balance my board through the waves: whatever you do, don’t look down!
For some reason I have such a hard time keeping my eyes straight ahead while I’m on the surf board–there is something so appealingly curious about the water below. In the beginning, each time I stood up I would give a cursory glance at the shore and then start looking down at the rushing wave. And I would promptly lose my balance and crash into the water.
As any good yoga teacher know, where your eyes go, your energy goes; and when you look down, you fall down. This is true for yoga postures and it’s true for surfing too.
It’s also true that if you look straight ahead at a stable point, you will find your balance there.
Despite knowing this truth, and engaging it relentlessly in my yoga practice, I kept losing my concentration on the board and looking down. As I prepared to catch a wave, Rasta George would admonish me “Focus on the mango tree on the beach, don’t move your eyes from the tree.” Then as I dropped in to each wave, he would shout behind me “DON’T LOOK DOWWWWWN!!”
Finally, with Rasta George’s help, I broke the habit of looking down and sure enough I stopped falling down too.
You have to climb the tree to eat the mango.
The island imagery of this teaching made me laugh out loud when I first heard Rasta George say it after I attempted to jump up on my board before the wave was pushing it fast enough.
For those of you who have never tried surfing, then I should explain this: timing is everything. You have to get the board at just the right place in the water, to get the wave to push you and the board at just the right speed, so that when you do jump up you and the board (in unison, of course) are at the top of the wave’s face and going fast enough to ride down and out toward the shore.
Because of the precision necessary for timing your position and the wave, a great deal of patience is required so that you choose wisely which waves to chase and catch (otherwise you spend a ton of energy flapping your arms around to catch a wave that is not quite right).
Sometimes, if you’ve been waiting a while for a good wave, you start paddling to catch one and in your eagerness you jump up onto the board too soon. This is what I did when Rasta George told me about the mangos and the trees.
And this is what I see my yoga students doing too frequently: jumping into a posture before they have carefully set their body in just the right place and with just the right breathing to be able to do it. But there is no way to get to a final posture, if you don’t do the groundwork movements first.
In yoga, as in surfing, patience is important because in order to do it, everything has to be set up at just the right moment. And timing is everything.
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Hope to see you everywhere!