Surfing for balance

Over the last several months I have found myself sitting behind a desk more than I have at any other time in my life. Between writing, reading as preparation and research for writing, and continuing to build my businesses, my time in the seated position as well as my time inside, has multiplied beyond what I’d like. Despite twenty years of combat athletics I don’t think my back and body have ever been as sore as they are after eight hours of “office mode”. How so many professionals manage to do that for forty plus hours a week, I do not know. What I do know is that it’s not healthy. My eyes become blurry and my back becomes stiff. I needed a solution.

Surfing is an amazingly healthy option, one that fulfills my self-imposed prescription perfectly. However, there are a few key obstacles that prevent that from being a regular feature for me. The first is the 90-minute commute each way to the ocean. The second is that I am quite possibly the worst surfer on planet earth.

I had almost given up on finding anything close to surfing, and then I saw paddle boarding. My first introduction was the documentary called Surfwise. There are a few scenes with one of the sons of Dr. Paskowitz moving around the ocean on a paddleboard, and it looked like the perfect fit. It is fresh or salt water compatible, it doesn’t require waves (although you can surf), and it looked a whole lot easier than regular surfing.

A few weeks ago I had my first chance to give stand up paddle boarding (SUP) a try, and found out that I was almost correct, except for one critical piece. It’s not as easy as it looks. My son Liam and I took a two-hour lesson on the Willamette River here in Portland Oregon. After a few basic instructions we pushed off shore and stood up. My son took to it almost immediately, falling off just a couple times before he acclimated to the board and began shooting around the river like Silver Surfer. The benefits of youth. As for myself, I fell off at least twenty times within the first half hour. Looks easy? Maybe. Is it easy? No.

While I engaged in repeated dips into the Willamette, the instructor, Matt, would patiently coach me on my technique using methods that were all too familiar. His advice was as follows:

“You’re thinking too much.”

“Just relax and keep breathing.”

“Find your base and breath.”

“You’re still over thinking it.”

“Try and relax and use your core.”

“Bend your knees, it’s all about posture.”

And finally back to, “You’re thinking too much, relax.”

If you’re one of my students, or one of the thousands of people who’ve taken a class or seminar with me at some point in your life, then I am sure you must be laughing to yourself, at least a little bit. It was as if Matt had attended one of my Jiu-Jitsu workshops, memorized the sum total of my usual advice as well as the flow it is often presented in, and read it back to be verbatim. It was equal parts humbling and reassuring, humbling to be on the other end of the conversation, and reassuring to affirm that the fundamentals of performance transcend specific sports.

After about an hour my feet began to get incredibly sore. I am not sure I have ever felt anything like that before, little muscles spread throughout that region which tend to go unnoticed most of the time, now screaming for a break. I mentioned this in passing to my wife later that evening, and she said she had experienced that before in her yoga practice. It’s a unique sensation that occurs when you’re intensely focused on balancing, each muscle in the foot contracting and releasing in a fluid effort to find, and maintain, that perfectly stabilized posture.

Matt corrected my paddling. Like most everyone else, I was using way too much upper body. The trick, he said, was to fix your arms in position, use your core rather than your limbs, and let the posture do the work for you. Sound familiar? Paddling, he said, was a practice, one where he tried to find ways in which he could get maximum gains, from minimum effort. It was a constant search for more efficiency. He had managed to give what I consider to be the perfect description of proper Jiu-Jitsu, in just a few sentences that were related to the mechanics of paddling; again, the fundamental principles transcending the sport.

After about an hour I found myself able to follow Matt’s excellent coaching advice. I relaxed, feet and all, kept breathing, found my base and posture on the board, and was able to move around without falling off. It’s beautiful on that part of the Willamette, to look back on the city of Portland from the vantage point of mid river, float alongside geese, and move with the wind and water, is just as relaxing and peaceful as you might imagine it to be.

Afterwards I felt refreshed rather than sore. My mind was revived, ready to attack the challenges of the pen in a better, more energized state.

The entire experience brought to light a few things for me. First, the Greeks had it right when it came to our need for a balance between the life of the mind, and the building of the body. Plato was after all, a wrestler. The software of a self-programming computer is indissoluble from its hardware. Exercise absent contemplation and continuing education, or contemplation and intellectual effort absent exercise, doesn’t seem gratifying in quite the same way; at least as far as I am concerned.

Secondly, all professional coaches, regardless of sport, should take a lesson from a good instructor in an activity they are completely unfamiliar with. Aside from being humbling, it also brings to light those core fundamentals of performance which meliorate all athletics; and that knowledge is priceless.

Finally, even when we do manage the mind-body properly, we can still suffer from a lack of communion with nature. I don’t think there is anything particularly mysterious about this evolutionary need, and certainly nothing supernatural. Our brains evolved in ancestors which have been on this spinning rock for over 7 million years. How much of that time was spent behind a desk?

Consider this, when we are in our buildings and in our cities, things produced by thought constantly surround us. If you’re in a good city and a good building, then you may be lucky enough to at least surround yourself by some creative and inspiring thought. If you’re one of those unlucky enough to be trapped in the urban sprawl of corporate suburbia, then you may find yourself surrounded instead by the lowest common denominator of thought; in either case, that unnatural surrounding, combined with the 24/7 bombardment of advertisement we all face, is bound to make you sick after a while. The solution is simple, we need to get outside.

Martin Amis once said, “The first thing that distinguishes a writer is that he is most alive when alone.”  I think about that quote a lot. Writing is above all else, a solitary pursuit. But that doesn’t mean it has to be an unhealthy one. Finding occasional sanctuary in nature and maintaining the body as we engage the mind, will only sharpen the pen to even greater precision. And it makes sitting behind this desk a hell of a lot more bearable.