Life’s A Wave. Learn To Surf.

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“You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”
– Jon Kabat-Zinn 

I went on a surf and yoga retreat in Costa Rica during the second week of March in 2016. I made new friends, embraced a different culture, and learned countless new things. The 10 of us stayed in a magical bungalow at the end of a long dirt path, up and down 3 hills, leading away from the beach town and deeper into the jungle. Our daily routine consisted of a group meditation at 7am, light fruit salad for breakfast, surf lessons at 8:30am, brunch at 11am, then go to the pool/beach/shopping or get lunch in town for the afternoon, then yoga practice at 3pm, with dinner around 6pm, and lights out by 10pm. The most important piece of wisdom I learned on this adventure was how to strengthen my connection to my breath, and it became most obvious to me when I was learning how to surf. This new knowledge was reinforced by an effective “riding the wave” technique that helps an individual focus on the present moment, which I was exposed to while reading Stephen Cope’s fantastic book, Yoga and The Quest For The True Self.

If you’re not calm, collected, and focused on a clear intention, you’ll never be able to ride a wave. If you’re rushing to stand up, you will fall off of the board. If you look down at your feet or the water, you will fall off of the board. Surfing can be overwhelming for beginners. You need to be focused on the relationship between the board and the water, yourself and the water, yourself and other surfers or swimmers, and remember all of the directions and tips your instructor just gave you on the shore. The most important piece of advice my teacher gave me was to focus on my breath.

When you take slow, deep, powerful breaths, it is easier to concentrate and relax. I could connect with the ebb and flow of the ocean, slow down my thoughts and my movements, and next thing I knew I was up on the board riding the wave. When I would become frustrated, rushed, or upset, clinging to the outcome instead of focusing on the present moment, it was as if I was making a choice to fall off of the board before the next wave even came. However, when I’d focus on my breath, trust my body, trust my balance, and concentrate on the palm trees (forcing me to keep my head and chest upright and face the direction I wanted to go), that’s when I was able to ride the wave with confidence, excitement, and enthusiasm. I’d fall down a million times and walk back out to sea, battling against the waves, towards my instructor, just to be able to stand up and ride the wave in once.

Stephen Cope’s book, Yoga and The Quest For The True Self, examines Eastern yoga philosophy through the lens of Western psychology concerning identity. One of the techniques, aside from asana practice or meditation, that he uses to practice living in the present moment is “Riding the Wave”. It integrates major aspects of being the witness, or passive observer, of one’s thoughts/feelings/experience in an unbiased manner that expands one’s awareness of the present moment. Assuming the role of the witness allows one to connect to their prana, or life-force energy, and experience the ebb and flow of internal energy with more clarity and ease. The technique is broken down into 5 stages. Information can be found on pages 212-215.

  1. Breathe (connect with prana, allow for reintegration, focus. “Open/loosen” previously “closed/tight” areas of energetic body. Enter the world of energy, of movement, of arising and passing away, of constant change.)
  2. Relax (think: soft belly, release muscular tension in the body, which allows for deep, diaphragmatic breaths. Intense sensation and feelings will begin to become obvious. Explore and consciously relax as much as possible.)
  3. Feel (moving actively toward the sensations, the energy, the emotions. Actively feeling means turning attention minutely toward our moment-by-moment experience. Learning to focus deeply on sensation in this way develops our capacity to be with sensation and feeling.)
  4. Watch (shift toward witness consciousness, to the zone of neutrality, where we’re not choosing for or against any kind of experience, but just being with experience exactly as it is. The voice that repeats the mantra. No longer fighting what is. Asking self, “how is it?” instead of “why is it?” or “do I like it?”)
  5. Allow (finding freedom through surrender to the wave of sensation, of feeling, and of energy. Relinquish resistance and let the process of healing and full integration happen to us. Explore a willingness to be changed by life and to trust life. Letthe wave of life happen and trust in prana’s intelligence)

This technique can be applied in any physical, mental, or emotional sense. It helps us to welcome the fullness of life into our bodies, minds, and hearts. This practice of being the witness of one’s life can even reduce suffering to an extent. Whether we are riding the waves of life literally or metaphorically, it’s important to acknowledge the happiness and sadness, successes and failures, peaks and valleys, ebbs and flows, highs and lows, that we all experience. Connecting to your breath is a key to unlocking the present moment that helps you to observe and focus in any area of your life. We live and we learn. We can’t stop the waves, but we can learn from them, and maybe even flow with them, allowing them to propel us forward in the direction of our goals and dreams.

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