I frequently find myself trying to put into words how surfing makes me feel and what’s behind my obsession. While it’s a many-faceted thing, I present you with a few insights from one of my favorite Surfer magazine articles on the subject, The Science of Stoke, written by Brad Melekian which ran in the publication’s April 2012 issue.
The Science of Stoke really dives in to what happens to the brain when someone is surfing, specifically what causes surfers to feel things like “a connection to something larger than themselves in the water” and “…the rest of the world is all but nonexistent when setting up for a clean tube.” I don’t really know much (yet) about clean tubes, but I do know I forget about everything including my day-to-day worries and I rarely consider the shark that I know isn’t stalking me below my trusty board. I realized if these are universal thoughts, it’s no wonder the sport is becoming so popular for treating issues from autism to depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder.
Melekian’s article references several interesting studies that were designed to specifically explore the emotions experienced when someone hangs ten. One centers on work done in 2011 by a University of California, San Francisco post-doctoral fellow, Benjamin J. Levin, along with psychologist Jim Taylor. They published a paper, “Depression, Anxiety, and Coping in Surfers” in The Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, where they tried to find out more about what physically happens to the brain while surfing, hypothesizing that surfing might affect mental and emotional states such as anxiety and depression. They go on to connect the state of meditation which is “characterized by an ability to disregard personal concerns and impulses to action and instead focus on the sensory world”, a state that is remarkably similar to the emotions frequently described by surfers. The hook for me in this thinking is that “surfing can be conceptualized as a meditative as well as an athletic endeavor. Thus the psychology of surfers may reflect elements of athletes as well as those who participate in mindfulness-based activities.” I believe that part of my love affair with surfing is the way it connects my desire for really fun, physical activity (in the sun and on water) with my regular yoga practice. It’s the best of both worlds for my physical and emotional well-being. The research claims that surfers do exhibit fewer anxiety and depression symptom but getting to why is still largely unknown.
The second nugget, and probably my favorite, explains why surfers at all levels become so passionate about the sport. Dr. Soren Solari, a surfer with a Ph. D. in integrative neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego references a significant work in psychological literature done in 1990 called Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi that theorizes “there is an optimal psychological state to be found when a person matches their abilities to their challenges, a state of “flow.” And to achieve that state, we have to be doing something that we’re good at.” Solari expands on this this saying that “the amazing thing about surfing is the diversity of the experience that is possible and thus the capability for each one of us to find that sweet spot interaction between our own capabilities and the task at hand.”
While my sweet spot, sadly, will likely never be on top of Jaws or Mavericks, I love that I can keep finding happiness gliding along waves built more my size. And these theories certainly go a long way in explaining how surfing has the ability to satiate mind and muscle whether you’re learning your first pop ups or winning your 3rd Vans Triple Crown.