10/07/2012 11:02 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Why I Don't Love Surfing, But Am Awfully Glad I Tried

Have you ever read a single magazine article, blog or book where the author doesn't sing the praises of surfing? Describe it as something akin to a spiritual experience? Claim that it will transform your life?

People gushed when I said I was going to Costa Rica for three months in 2007 to write, do yoga, and learn how to surf -- especially about the surfing part. "Oh my God, you're going to love it! You're going to get addicted! Surfing is the most amazing sport ever!"


Well, I didn't have that experience. I enjoyed surfing. Sometimes. Other times I downright hated it. Many times I was ready to quit.

Maybe it's because I didn't try hard or long enough. Maybe it's because I already had fallen head over heels in love with yoga, and had been declaring for the past decade that it had transformed my life. Maybe it's that I never have considered myself a natural athlete, and I am not a daredevil when it comes to physical activity.

Whatever the reasons, surfing just didn't click for me, in spite of the fact that I grew up boogie boarding in Hawaii and have a deep love for the ocean. Each morning in Costa Rica that winter of 2007, I'd head into the warm water with my board under my arm feeling like it was something I had to or should do rather than something I wanted to do.

This past summer, my husband Kiran and I returned to Costa Rica, where we met on my "learn to surf" trip nearly five years ago. Kiran is an avid surfer who gets excited at the mere whiff of wax. "It reminds me of fun times!" he'll say as he races out the door to check the waves at 6:30 a.m.

Kiran inspired me, again, to want to love surfing. So once again, this summer, I tried to fall for it. But again, I did not.

Nevertheless, I'm really glad I tried. Here are some of the lessons I learned -- and why you might enjoy giving surfing (or some other unfamiliar sport) a go, too.

1) Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

My brother recently shared this quote from Philippe Petit, tightrope-walking subject of the documentary Man on Wire: "To me it's really ... It's so simple: That life should be lived on the edge of life. You have to exercise rebellion. To refuse to tape yourself to rules; to refuse your own success; to refuse to repeat yourself; to see every day, every year, every idea as a true challenge, and then you are going to live your life on the tight rope."

I believe in this -- in pushing myself outside of my comfort zone on a regular basis. And trying new physical activities is one great way to do that. It forces you to confront your fears and your insecurities.

Speaking of fear...

2) Face Fear Head-On

I've been lucky enough to get to read an advance copy of Jaimal Yogi's latest book, The Fear Project. In it, he explores the evolutionary, biological, psychological and spiritual underpinnings of fear and what we can do to overcome it.

While writing the book, Jaimal took on the personal goal of surfing the big waves at Maverick's, one of the most notoriously treacherous surf spots on earth. Just reading his description of paddling into waves with 40-foot faces -- the height of a four-story building -- made me feel overwhelmed by fear. My heart beat as fast as a hummingbird's wings when I tackled four-foot waves with eight-foot faces this summer.

How did he do it? He put all his fearlessness research to work. He trained. He meditated and did breathing exercises. He visualized success. (You'll have to read the book to find out more.)

Facing my fears proved powerful in ways that I couldn't anticipate. Learning to surf gave me courage, self-confidence, and a sense of being able to take on whatever life might bring my way.

3) Practice Patience

Five years ago, my friend Christie and I signed up for lessons in Nosara with Surf Simply, which is now a full-fledged surf and yoga retreat center offering weeklong camps with world-class instruction. After my second lesson with the amazing Gem Yates, I wound up on the beach sobbing with frustration that I still could barely stand up, even in the whitewater.

Gem said, "You're like me. You're the type of person who is used to being good at what you do. But you're not going to be any good at surfing for a while, and you're just going to have to accept that." I nodded and she continued, "The only way you're going to get better is to keep trying. So you have to have patience with yourself."

Patience and more patience: my spiritual practice in action on that board.

4) Make Mistakes

A few weeks into my surf lessons in Nosara, I was struggling because I wouldn't commit fully to waves. I'd half paddle in, then try, too late, to back out and end up getting slammed. I'd say, "This one looks good," but then change my mind and not go for it.

Coach Ru Hill, who still runs Surf Simply, gave me this advice: "Make mistakes. Make them big and make them quickly. The only way you're going to improve is by failing a lot. So get to it. Jump on those waves. Wipe out. Take off too soon; take off too late. That's the best way to learn."

After that, my entire attitude changed. I paddled into waves and wiped out as often as possible. And sure enough, I started to improve. (I can't believe I'm doing this, but if you want evidence of my meager skills, here's a video Ru made of me (pink) and Christie (blue) surfing in Nosara.)

5) Be in the Present Moment

I think one of the reasons why surfing is a spiritual experience for many believers is because it is the only sport performed on a surface that is constantly changing. Sure, in skiing you never know the exact conditions of the snow until you're on the mountain. But the snow doesn't move massively and unpredictably while you're on it.

When you're surfing, you can't plan your next move more than a few seconds in advance. You have to watch the wave, as my instructors reminded me over and over again during our lessons. Where is it breaking? Where are the other surfers beside and in front of you? What's happening to the wave as you ride it?

This makes you totally present with the moment at hand. And that presence you cultivate while out on the water is addictive. Surfing forces you to forget your worries, your to-do lists, your plans... and just be.

6) Feel Humbled

Nothing I've tried, short of being caught in a natural disaster like an earthquake or hurricane, is more powerful than surfing in terms of reminding you how nature really has the upper hand. You can feel strong and confident one moment, then get tossed like a tortilla chip off a plate of nachos the next. You find yourself struggling underwater for breath and suddenly you're thinking, "Woah, I might not make it here. I could seriously die." (Although that's not very likely in the three-foot conditions I usually surfed.)

It's a great reminder of how small we humans are. How insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe. And that feeling of being a tiny spark of light in a massive universe lifts a load off your shoulders. You and your problems just aren't that important.

7) Enjoy the Journey

Martin Reynolds, my surf coach on this past trip to Santa Teresa, Costa Rica, had these wise words to share:

Learning to surf is all about the process, not the end result. Unfortunately, our modern lives aren't geared towards this; we've got deadlines, goals and targets that we impose on ourselves every day. If we're not achieving, we're failing. People tend to view surfing in the same way: once you've stood up, you check it off your list.

But surfing isn't something that you can just "complete" like a video game or office project. You have to appreciate and enjoy the learning process. All of the wipeouts and humblings that you take aren't failures, but things that you can learn from to improve -- like the rest of life.

If you can't stop the waves, you might as well learn to surf!

Photo credit: Kiran Ramchandran

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