Zen and the art of wave riding

The Independent on Sunday, Review 2 October 2005

Six-time world champion surfer Kelly Slater swears by it.  His predecessor at the top of the surfing world, three-time world champion Tom Curren – one of the smoothest, most fluid surfers ever to ride a board – is an avid practitioner.  And before them, the epitome of style and grace – Gerry Lopez, ‘Mr Pipeline’ himself – knew his yin from his yang better than anyone.

Surfing and yoga have long ridden in tandem, but the benefits of their combination are available not merely to surf-Gods such as Slater, Curren and Lopez.  As surfing continues its exponential rise in popularity - with women accounting for at least 20 per cent of newcomers to a sport now worth an estimated £42m a year to Cornwall alone – more and more surfers, from beginners to old hands, are finding that yoga is the answer to both that ‘surfed out’ feeling of total exhaustion - and also a route to better performance in the water. 

Next weekend, thanks to an alliance of tour operator BigFriday.com, the Watergate Bay Hotel and Cornish surfer-cum-yoga instructor Mara Luke, a group of Londoners will jump on a coach and head to Cornwall to experience the thrill of surfing and the therapeutic benefits of yoga. 

BigFriday, set up in 2002, is targeted – according to co-owner and surfer Rhona Gardiner – at “mid-twenties to late-thirties people with attitude – young professional Londoners who are sociable, active and looking for something different to do with their weekends.”  From mid-May to the end of October, the BigFriday bus is packed with people whose sense of adventure leads them to Cornwall’s Atlantic rollers.  Gardiner says that many will be new to surfing, though “there are often one or two Australians and New Zealanders who’ve heard that England has waves, and want a no-hassle way of getting to the coast.”  BigFriday takes away the strain, ferrying clients to Cornwall and sourcing accommodation – and surfing lessons – for them once there.

This summer, Gardiner teamed up with the Watergate Bay Hotel for a pilot weekend in which surfing and yoga were combined.  As Gardiner says:  “Many top surfers are yoga enthusiasts – we thought that if it works for the likes of Kelly Slater, there must be something in it.”  Watergate Bay is one of best surfing beaches in the country, and its eponymous hotel has recently undergone a revamp that has turned it into the nearest thing to California beach chic in Britain.  The inaugural surf and yoga trip was such a success that it is back by popular demand. 

But there is more to it than a beach and a bus.  The key to the package comes in the shape of Mara Luke, a Cornwall born and bred surfer and yoga instructor who, in 1991, was ranked second in British women’s surfing.  Luke teaches yoga twice a week in nearby Newquay, and sums up the synergy between surfing and stretching:   “Surfing builds strength and aerobic fitness, but – especially for those new to it – can be very tough on the shoulders and upper back.  I’ve been surfing for 15 years and teaching yoga for eight, and found that yoga really helped my surfing.  A lot of surfers come to my classes.  Yoga helps their flexibility and suppleness, and means that they have more fun in the water.”

Luke will take yoga classes in the afternoons, once BigFriday’s clients have spent a morning surfing.  She has worked as a surfing instructor, and knows just how demanding a lesson will be for someone who has never surfed before – as well as how yoga can help those who know their twin fins from their thrusters:  “Beginners will need to stretch out really well afterwards because they will have been using muscles they don’t normally use.  Those who know how to surf will find that yoga is a way of balancing the body.  Surfers often have extremely well-developed upper bodies but neglect their lower back and leg strength.  Yoga is a counter to this – it’s relaxing and restores balance to the body.” 

So much for yoga, but what about surfing?  For many, surfing is beyond a lifestyle – it is a religion.  For many more, it is a dream to which they can only aspire.  But if we cannot all be Kelly Slater – widely acknowledged as the best surfer of all time and so elastic that he has been described as “a yoga teacher’s dream” – we can all enjoy the ocean.  For as Steve Bough, editor of Wavelength, Britain’s longest-running surfing magazine, says:  “It doesn’t matter what level you are.  There’s a purity to surfing that you can only appreciate once you’ve tried it.  Everyone should surf.”

See www.bigfriday.com and www.watergatebayhotel.co.uk for more information.  The surf and yoga weekend organised by BigFriday and hosted at the Watergate Bay Hotel is on 8-9 October.