The allure of the waves is intense in Hawaii and when conditions are good, surfers surf. But like many athletes they may be pushing their bodies through chronic tension and injuries just to catch the perfect ride. Due to the repetitive use of certain muscle groups, surfers need cross training to maintain optimal performance and reduce sport-specific pain. Physical yoga practice is particularly beneficial to surfers because it emphasizes upper body and core strength, as well as the ability to balance from a variety of angles. Additional inner yoga practices are effective for establishing mental focus and resilience. And yoga’s mindfulness and meditation disciplines offer both competitive and recreational surfers a way to become deeply in sync with the waves they love so much.
When I began surfing three years ago, I realized that my yoga therapy practice was the key to developing the flexibility and strength needed for surfing, as well as the remedy for healing surf related injuries and muscle fatigue. Yoga therapy is typically an individualized practice tailored to a client’s specific conditions and goals, but here are three common surfing related aggravations that yoga helps dramatically.
1. Surfer’s Neck
A problem affecting surfers of all levels, ‘surfers' neck’ can be either an overuse injury or a degenerative condition of the cervical spine. Commonly at the C5-C6 level where the neck hinges into extension, it is aggravated when a surfer is in the paddling position, lying down but looking up and forward. It is very common among surfers over 40 years of age and can be very painful. To counteract the effects of positioning the neck in this way repetitively while paddling, try this variation of cobra pose. Start by lying on your belly with the arms back by your sides. Lift your chest away from the ground but allow your head to hang forward with your chin tucked into the throat. If you have a friend nearby, they can gently pull your shoulders back for an even bigger stretch. To balance this stretch with some strength training, roll onto your back leaving arms by your sides. Lift only the head away from the ground, again tucking the chin into the throat. Hold for 10-30 seconds.
2. Shoulder Flexibility
Whatever size waves you choose to surf, in order to paddle in with maximum efficiency, you need both shoulder power and flexibility. Beyond the typical shoulder rotations or overhead elbow pulls, yoga offers a plethora of shoulder openers for developing a full range of motion in this essential joint. For example, try this variation of eagle twist. Extend the arms straight out in front at shoulder height. Bring the right elbow under the left and twist the lower arms around one another bringing right fingers to left palm. Level the shoulders and then lift the fingers toward the sky and away from the face. Breathe into the space between the shoulder blades. Then without twisting the chest or waist, just move the arms to one side and take a couple of breaths there. Move them to the other side as well. Repeat the entire sequence with the other arm on top.
3. Breath Capacity
Cardiovascular endurance is essential whether you are working on surfing bigger waves, or preparing for the inevitable moment when you get held under water for what feels like far too long. Yoga has numerous techniques that not only increase lung functioning, but also develop the mental focus needed to stay calm in precarious situations. Practice this simple pranayama exercise daily for a week, and you will quickly feel greater breath control and increased lung capacity. Exhale completely and then slowly count as you inhale to full capacity. Then hold your breath for the same number. Exhale for the same count. Then hold the breath for the same number. Repeat 20 times. Do this daily and watch your numbers increase.
Surfing is far too much fun to be compromised by stiffness, stress or injury. With yoga therapy cross training, surfers of all levels can enhance their strength, flexibility, balance as well as their mental game, and enjoy a phenomenal season.