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Life lessons from the ocean

Writer Susan Czyzo began her surfing journey with lessons nine years ago. She shares some of those learnings with Good, and why she believes in the transformative powers of surfing.

Words Susan Czyzo. Photo: Escape Haven, Uluwatu, Bali. escapehaven.com

Every day, people leave inland cities and drive hundreds of kilometres to the nearest ocean-side. Why? The ocean, like the mountains, has healing powers, held within its size, its sound and intensity, even in its smell. Science behind the far-reaching benefits of oceans highlights the weightlessness of water and breathing patterns used during swimming as potential explanations. We can experience the ocean’s benefits just by our proximity to it, but even more so when we immerse ourselves in it physically, feeling its power first-hand. It’s only then that we truly come to grips with how small we really are and how much influence nature has over us.

If you’ve ever played in the surf, you know the feeling – getting knocked off your feet by an incoming wave while laughing wholeheartedly and feeling like a kid again. Add a surfboard to the mix and the experience intensifies. Surfing a wave is not about luck; it’s the product of a focused mind and an ability to read the surf, synced with proper technique and timing. The feeling when this occurs is what repeatedly pulls me back to the sport. In that moment, I don’t need any other proof that the ocean is exerting its restorative energy on me.

Disconnect to reconnect

The benefits of spending time in nature for the sake of our mental wellbeing have long been stressed by health experts. Learning to surf requires such dedicated focus that it’s a perfect outdoor activity for bettering our mental health. Whether you’re stuck on a minor problem or you’re dealing with an issue that’s been weighing heavily on your mind for weeks, or you just need a time out to gain a new perspective on something, there’s no better way than focusing on a new skill in an environment that requires 100 per cent alertness. Reconnecting with nature in this powerful way can leave you feeling recharged and refreshed, with a more optimistic outlook for what lies ahead. My mind is never more clear than after a surf, even more so than after a tramp in the mountains or a run in the bush. Without the possibility of smartphone distractions, even half an hour spent tackling the surf is enough for me to return to the week’s tasks with greater focus and efficiency.

Between the flags

All too often, the ocean is taken too lightly and those who don’t respect its power succumb to it. Being fearful of it, however, can also be a handicap. When you sign up for a surf lesson, you not only learn surf techniques, you gain surf awareness, or knowledge for life. You will learn about rip currents; how to spot them and what to do if you’re ever caught in one. You’ll hear about wave types and how to recognise them; tides and their importance; and how to read the surf before hitting it. If you get nothing else out of your surfing experience, you’ll at least be well-equipped to safely enjoy this majestic body of water.

Let surfing be your teacher

Learning to surf isn’t easy, even in the most ideal conditions. There are countless failed attempts and plenty of opportunities to get frustrated and walk back onshore. You’ll get dumped by large waves; the board will bang you up; your feet will get tangled in the leash. You’ll see other beginners stand up and ride waves earlier than you and more often. Conditions are never the same, making it difficult to progress your skills.

But you will stand up on a wave and ride it out at some stage while you’re learning. Surf schools even guarantee it. And when you experience this natural high it will infuse you with the determination to continue trying, wave after wave. Stick with it and you’ll walk away from the beach not only pleasantly exhausted but also personally fulfilled.

Lessons learned

Surfing, given its unforgiving and unpredictable environment, is an ideal activity for personal development. I didn’t realise it at the time, or for years afterwards, that by signing up for a surf camp in North Carolina nine years ago, I was embarking on a journey of personal growth. The hours I’ve spent in the ocean with my board, experiencing the natural highs and lows that make up any journey, have taught me a great deal about myself.

Some days I make progress out on the water. I leave the beach riding a wave of confidence and success that feeds into many other aspects of my life. I can only describe it as a double-shot of that post-exercise high we’re all familiar with, amplified by the unique benefits of time spent in the ocean. These days have shown me that I have the patience and determination to achieve my goals.

On the days when I feel like it’s my second time out, well, those are the days I actually experience the most growth. There can be a multitude of reasons, both external and internal, why a particular surf session doesn’t go smoothly. Swell conditions, personal energy level, and mental focus are but just a few examples. Initially, frustration and self-doubt would set in quickly on these days. Over time, I’ve learned to check in on my state of mind and steer away from any negative or unproductive thoughts. I am also better at appreciating those imperfect sessions, knowing that they are making me a better surfer in the long run.

Early on, I would also catch myself comparing my skills to nearby surfers and the session would downhill quickly. Nowadays, I stay away from the comparison game by directing my focus inwards. I choose one aspect of my technique to focus on and see the success of others as an opportunity to observe and improve my own skills.

To this day

Surfing continues to show me that I still have room for improvement in many areas – patience, self-confidence, mental outlook, determination and commitment. Although I have made progress in each of these areas, I am still challenged each time out. So I continue to surf, looking back on that first day with gratitude and satisfaction. I’ve come a long way and I can’t wait for how much further I can go.

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