Similar Paths to the Same Destination: Spirituality in Surfing, Yoga, and Life

by Cait Lawson ERYT200, YM500 + Therapeutic Specialist

Cait paddling in the ocean on her surfboard

The parallels between surfing and a yoga practice are seemingly endless. Speaking only from the viewpoint that is my personal experience, the more surf sessions I gather under my belt, and the more times I sit in stillness or roll out my mat, the more I am reminded that the reason the two run so parallel is because they are both rooted in spirituality. The two practices like similar paths that bring us back to ourselves and reconnect us to the rhythm of life.

Spirituality is something that I think is often hard to define. I really love this definition by Brené Brown where she so eloquently explains that: “Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.”

And yoga, at its core, is a spiritual practice. In the Yoga Sutras, the sage Patanjali describes the two aims of this spiritual practice as abhyasa, or perseverance, dedication, and vairagya, or denunciation, non-attachment. While seemingly opposite ends of the spectrum, Patanjali goes on to compare these two attributes like “the wings of a bird that work together.” I've also heard them described as the “two legs upon which we walk our spiritual path.”

Cait at the beach sitting on a Yogitoes towel next to her blue surfboard

I was a student of surfing long before I was a student of yoga. I was fortunate to grow up near the beach and in a surfing family that valued time together outdoors. My greatest childhood memories come from the weekends we spent together at our local break or traveling up and down the coast in search of surf.

With nearly a lifetime of ocean experience, my dad would always – and still does – teach me a little something about surfing and the ocean each time we would paddle out. He taught me the importance of observing the conditions before entering the ocean – watching the waves, the wind, the people, the wildlife. From him I learned about surf etiquette, how to navigate the rip currents as well as the other surfers, and how to handle both wiping out and getting caught inside. Getting tumbled by the whitewater, a pretty regular part of the surfing experience.

“Never panic,” he would always tell me. “That's one of the most dangerous things you could do in the ocean. If you're caught inside or being held under during a bad wipeout, the best thing you can do is just relax, go with the flow, and trust that the ocean will eventually calm down and let you go.” He'd remind me that, “It's important to treat the ocean with respect, because it will always be a force more powerful than you. All you can do is control yourself.”

Unknowingly, at the time, these lessons were some of my first experiences with yoga and with spirituality.

Cait surfing a wave entering the barrel

I found my way to yoga while in college. I suffered a knee injury (doing nothing cool, I fell on the dance floor while wearing high heels during my 21st birthday, resulting in a torn MCL) which kept me off of my surfboard for a few months – the longest I had ever been away from surfing since I fell in love with it as a kid. My physical therapist suggested I try yoga to help improve my flexibility and range of motion. I was honestly a little resistant at first, but I signed up for a class anyway. At that point I was willing to try anything to get back to surfing again.

I'll never forget that first class. More specifically, I'll never forget coming out of savasana in that first class. The best way that I can describe it is that it was a similar feeling to kicking out of a good wave. Complete oneness. Overwhelming gratitude. Total bliss. A deep knowing that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. Needless to say, after that first class I was hooked. I kept showing up. I wanted to practice more, and I wanted to learn more, and eventually I completed my 200-hour teacher training at that same studio and with that same teacher.

Like the testimonials of so many others throughout time, yoga proved to be life changing for me. It brought me back to surfing, back to myself, and back to what was important – back to what was real and true. And like so many others who first come to yoga for the physical, myself very much included, I think that the more time we spend on our mats, the more we come to understand that the practice of yoga is so much more.

Cait practicing yoga in an outdoor room

And in that same avenue, I think this is where surfing and yoga run so parallel. While surfing is widely considered a sport, I think most surfers would agree that surfing is also so much more. Similar to how a yoga practice encompasses more than just the asana.

Similar to yoga, surfing can be a spiritual practice, if we allow it to be. Like yoga, surfing is a way of living that influences how we connect with ourselves and interact with the world around us. Just as yoga reconnects us to our prana – our life-force energy, the pulse of life that connects us all – the ocean, both literally and figuratively, has a way of connecting us all, as well. It connects us with other surfers and with our environment. It sheds light on our choices and actions and how those can impact others, our shared coastlines, and favorite surf breaks. Surfing and its experiences can provide us with soul-fueling passion and purpose, as well as a lifetime of lessons to broaden our perspective.

Both surfing and yoga bring us into harmony with what is. Both ask us to anchor our attention into the ebb and flow of the eternal now, encouraging us to find a steady rhythm with life as its unfolding. In yoga, our attention tends to be directed more inwardly, towards what I like to think of as our “inner-body landscape” and its conditions, while in surfing, our attention tends to be directed more outwardly, towards the external landscape of the ocean, its inhabitants, and its conditions.

Cait practicing yoga in an outdoor room

And here's the thing: Everytime we choose to show up, whether on our mats or for a surf, we can pretty much guarantee that those conditions will be a little different than the time before.

The warm, glassy waves of yesterday could give way to choppy, stormy conditions tomorrow. We could go from the ride of our life to the wipeout of our life, just as sometimes we come to our mats feeling wonderful and enthusiastic – the practice feeling smooth and easy – and sometimes we reluctantly roll out our mats feeling tired, unmotivated, distracted, or unsure.

But our practice reminds us that it's not so much about how we show up, it's really just about showing up. And as we give ourselves permission to drop our attachments or expectations around those ever-changing conditions, we then open ourselves up to seeing things a little more clearly. We can see things as they are. And with that clarity comes an abundance of opportunities to learn, to adapt, and to grow. And by dropping our expectations, we also give ourselves a little more space to simply have fun.

I think it's important for us to remember that getting “better” is never the goal. Through practice and dedication, patience and time, you are very likely to improve, but if performance is your focus, then you're just setting yourself up for disappointment. In yoga, surfing, and life, there will always be more to learn. There will always be room to grow. There will always be bigger and better waves to catch. So instead of letting that discourage you, scare you, or overwhelm you completely, this is where we come back to the pillars of our spiritual practice – the abhyasa and the vairagya – the two aspects that remind us that the journey in itself is the destination. That there is no finish line, that we are exactly where we are supposed to be, and that each step along the way is surely getting us to where we need to go. That sweet, sweet rhythm with the eternal now.

Cait stretching while leaning on a guardrail and looking towards the ocean

For me, yoga was the pathway that opened both my mind and my heart to a spiritual practice, helping me to realize just how spiritual surfing can be, and for that matter, how spiritual life can be. Anything can be a spiritual practice so long as we hold space for it to be sacred, and so long as we offer our attention and our dedication without expectations around performance or what we might get in return. The expectations keep us closed off. The letting go opens us up to limitless potential. Plus, like my dad would always remind me, the letting go also helps to make the bad wipeouts and getting caught inside not quite so scary.

I like to think of these practices, yoga and surfing, like microcosms of life. Like mini adventures that simulate the overarching journey of life. Mirrors that often reflect back to us how we're showing up. Yes, both yoga and surfing can be fun, joyful, and they can be there to simply help us feel good – And that's enough! But as we continue on, both can also challenge us and humble us and, if we stay open to it, both can also help us learn and grow. And despite the many uncomfortable moments we may experience on our mats or out in the ocean, we always keep coming back. Because in return for showing up, these practices always have a way of bringing us back to ourselves and reconnecting us to what's true – The gift of life before us.

Cait surfing a wave

In closing, I wanted to share a passage from Gerry Lopez's book of short stories, Surf is Where You Find It. In this particular story, “Caught Inside Again,” he shares a near-death, out-of-body experience he had while getting caught inside on a big day at the infamous and deadly wave known as the Pipeline. He writes:

“Getting caught inside is such an everyday occurrence in surfing that it becomes a metaphor for dealing with adversity of any kind. Obviously any lessons learned in the water can have a significant application back on the beach. We live today in a civilized world where life-or-death situations are rare in our everyday lives. Sometimes, however, those critical moments when a person's whole life flashes before them is an opportunity to see into their inner self. The inner self is a part of each of us, and holds answers to complete happiness and a life free from pain and suffering.

This inner place of harmonious bliss is layered over with ego, individual belief systems and mundane concerns. We live in the past where nostalgia makes us sad, or in the future where our worries cause us anxiety. We fail to grasp that this moment we are in is all there ever was or ever will be. Life is, was, and ever will be, simply now.

Moments of surf realization are here to remind us of our true potential. If that is why we surf, that's good because surfing reconnects us to who we really are. This is all the more reason to keep surfing. Life is good. Surfing reminds us of how good life is.”

Cait Lawson is a Puerto Rico based Yoga & Therapeutic Specialist and lifelong surfer. To learn more about Cait, visit her website or follow her journey on Instagram.



Sharing good vibes + the best mats, apparel and yoga gear since 1997.

Sharing good vibes + the best mats, apparel and yoga gear since 1997. Share your yoga story with #FromTheMatUp.

More great posts in your inbox