Over the past few decades, the sport of surfing has ramified into different variants (body surfing, wind surfing, kite surfing, board surfing, etc.) and evolved from an activity seen by some as an emblem of a slacker lifestyle into a vibrant, competitive, global sport that expresses eco-friendly values, a high-level of fitness, and a strong sense of community. A sport once notably associated with simplicity and even lack now represents an opportunity for corporate sponsors to penetrate a market of sophisticated, earth-and-ocean conscious people who have disposable income to spend on clothes and gear.
What many surfers are now beginning to realize is that there are historic mystical, metaphysical, and philosophical underpinning to the pastime. In the islands where the sport arose, these grew directly from a natural philosophy that had fueled the development of aboriginal island culture all the way back to its polytheistic roots. Worship of the ocean, its bounty and power as well as its beauty, was part and parcel of the joy of surfing during early island days.
In our current Western surf culture here in the USA and abroad, there is another simmering influence on the sport, one that Baby Boom surfers may recognize from the whiff of the 60s they may still hold in their nostrils but which new, younger athletes may not consciously know at all. This influence is the ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism, and its younger, Japanese derivative, Zen.
Taoists believe there is an intelligent, guiding force, Tao, permeating the universe. Taoism is a natural philosophy more than a religion, and one that cultivates a keen awareness of the cycles and forces of nature, as well as its myriad and nuanced interrelationships. In Taoism, the forces of the world and those within us are an expression of the binary opposites called yin and yang. Cultivating a clear and empty mind and a body that moves like water are the goals of practice. Indeed, in a very real sense, Taoists worship water as the ultimate example of precisely the spontaneous, relaxed quality they want to see in themselves.
The ultimate Taoist practice is a martial art known as tai chi. While tai chi also draws on China’s august martial history (kung fu) and its 5000-year-old medical tradition, there may be no system of movement anywhere more intimately associated with a philosophy than tai chi is with Taoism. This link, a way of seeing the world and understanding both its most subtle powerful workings, make tai chi the perfect art for any and every surfer from the casual weekender to the dedicated, top-flight professional.
America’s fastest growing exercise offers the surfer an unsurpassed mind/body link. Tai chi’s emphasis on a meditative mindset, awareness of and connection to the physical environment, a keen sense of the role of energy at play in the world, development of the muscular core, flexibility, and longevity all dovetail precisely with the qualities a surfer wants in order to have a competitive edge and maximize his or her time in the water by getting more and better waves. Tai chi offers the surfer both a powerful preparatory practice to use before getting into the water, and a perfect wind-down that helps ameliorate the long-term, negative effects of surfing on the muscles and spine. Practicing tai chi means more energy, faster and more complete recovery, and, perhaps most importantly, a deeper and more enjoyable surfing experience.
It is a perfectly natural partnership, this link between the crown jewel of Chinese kung fu and the sport that is, in the end, the purest physical celebration of nature. The same spiral movements and deep, conscious relaxation that help everyday folks beat back the degenerative effects of aging by moving blood, lymph, and energy through the solid matrix of the body also help the surfer move through the water, contributing to the longevity of a surfer’s career just as surely as it prolongs an active life for those of us on dry land. Tai chi, it turns out, is a simply, effective program to take a surfer’s skills to the next level. What a marvelous, beautiful, contemporary, functional, useful, and aesthetically pleasing use of a martial art that more people are finding to be the perfect exercise.