Unlocking Nature Mind through Surf and Yoga

On one of my favorite dive trips I stayed on a live-aboard in Belize for 6 amazing days of 3 dives per day. I attended alone and met some really great people on the boat. At dinner one night, we discovered that all of us divers also rode motorcycles. The common thread which drew us to these activities it seemed, was that both are conducive to full immersion in the present moment. Whether it’s the slight bit of danger, or the concentration required to be successful, both diving and motorcycle riding offer an intense, in-the-moment experience. The physical sensation of moving forward, and at the same time 100% immersed in the details of the task at hand soothes the mind.


Many people who participate in activities which combine physical movement with the risk or the uncertainty of nature share the same opinion. Sports like climbing, free-diving, and downhill skiing come to mind. The same might go for activities which require a balance of intense effort and relaxation such as archery, the martial arts or horse racing. Athletes in sports which offer repetitive motion like rowing, running, or cycling have also reported what they love is that feeling of FLOW, the ability to drop completely into the present moment. Wait. What I’m trying to say here is that actually, the joy of what Buddhists call “nature mind” is not exclusive to yoga and surfing.

Nature Mind is the mind that exists when we drop out of the ‘thinking mind.’ The thinking mind, the conceptualizing mind, layers drama, stories, thoughts, worry and other emotions atop what, in its true nature, is an open, spacious, clear and relaxed state of mind.

What makes yoga and surfing both appealing, and what makes them complement each other so well, is that they are both conducive to the experience of nature mind, a full-body experience which rides on intuition, breath and a union with the world around us.


A recent article in the Atlantic presents a debate on surfing as sport versus religion. In the article, the author refers to spiritual metaphors regarding water and the ways in which both sport and religion incorporate water in spiritual experience. I get it, but although the experience of flow is symbolically related to water, I believe it’s the experience of pure present-moment existence, and not water itself, which elevates us to a flow state.


In surfing, we experience a combination of awe (being in nature among beautiful surroundings), danger (big waves, reef underfoot or wildlife), a requirement to pay attention to the task at hand (mindfulness) and the union (samadhi) of literally riding the energy of the earth. We are in control and not in control. We play with a balance of calculated and intuitive physical movements. To exist in ‘the zone’ is to exist in nature mind.

Surfing gives us the opportunity to approach nature mind through physical achievement and physical awareness. For many of us, when we involve body, breath, the sensation of movement, the surrounding ocean and a big sky, we slip more easily out of the conceptualizing mind than if we were seated, at home on a meditation cushion. Yet, the effect is the same, and when we get it, we want to try it again.


Yoga citta vrtti nirodha. The practice of yoga is the practice of quieting the mind. When the mind is settled, we drop the stories which cause us to rehash the past and we drop the stories which cause us to overthink the future. This freedom allows us to become more fully immersed in our current actions and state of being. We can reach this in-the-moment state through consistent daily meditation practice. The physical practice of yoga can assist the mind in achieving this state by moving the body. Our yoga, or our moving meditation, better prepares the body for the experience of enlightenment. Like surfing, a regular yoga practice can assist us with dropping in to the experience of nature mind.


Tradition tells us that through movement, the winds of energy which act as obstacles to our experience of calm abiding, or resting in nature mind, are purified. In yoga, as we work to hold poses more comfortably, maintain a neutral spine, and train our breath, our bodies become better prepared for the experience of flow. We achieve discipline, insight, stability and spaciousness. We move outside our usual planes of existence and invite the energy within us to move in new ways as well.


No one body movement or meditation has exclusivity on recognizing nature mind. But there is something about surf and yoga which encourages a common attraction. Maybe it’s no more than the nature of a free spirit, willing to spend their time trying new things, moving their bodies and being challenged by nature. Maybe it’s no more than the attraction of the beach, travel and the sound of the waves. But I think it’s more.


Are you more likely to glimpse nature mind when, after 20 minutes of drifting in the open ocean, sky above you and sea below, you at last paddle perfectly into a wave, slide weightlessly down the face, and ride the energy of the ocean as it guides you towards shore? I think so. And it’s the yogin, the spiritual seeker, inside me that keeps wanting to try.

**This post has also been published at BookSurfCamps.com

Sara-Mai Conway is a meditation and yoga instructor with Baja Surf Yoga, and frequently attempts to surf at her home in San Juanico. To join her on an upcoming retreat see our schedule here

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