USA TODAY International Edition


‘ Culture of support’ promotes well- being at holistic surfing retreat

- Kathleen Wong

I traveled for two days straight, from my home in Honolulu to the remote Pavon Bay in southern Costa Rica. The long journey included a single- propeller plane and a bumpy hourlong van ride past cows on dirt roads. I was also leaving behind a recent breakup.

By the time I arrived at my oceanside accommodat­ions, I was greeted by a red sunset. There were about 20 minutes left of daylight and all I wanted to do was give myself to the waves.

As the car pulled into the driveway, I saw some women surfers paddling out. Without missing a beat, I changed into a swimsuit, grabbed the first surfboard I saw from the rack and ran down the beach. The water was warm and comforting. I caught some gentle kneehigh waves and glided across the bay, leaving behind negative thoughts and worries — for a while at least.

To me, and countless others, the ocean is a sanctuary. For centuries, cultures around the world have found deep, spiritual meaning in the ocean. Studies show that just being near the ocean — and taking in the sounds and smells — helps reduce stress. The constant ebb and flow of the waves also helps us relax.

My week in Pavon Bay, home to one of the longest left waves, revolved around the ocean and how it can help us heal internally. I was part of a holistic surf coaching retreat with Surf with Amigas ( SWA), a woman- run surf retreat company founded by former California pro surfer Holly Beck.

Surf retreats are a popular way for surfers to meet and refine their skills in a boot camp setting, but SWA’s holistic retreats take it one step further by also addressing how unconsciou­s beliefs and inner self- talk can impact your surfing — all while in a supportive, inclusive allwomen environmen­t.

Beck and her instructor­s, who have background­s in mental health, lead various workshops on concepts like fear, trauma and belonging. Of course, there’s lots of surfing too. Around 15 women ( a few retreats are co- ed), ranging from 29 to 70 years old, from around the world attend the retreats.

“If you can also address what’s going on with them internally, it’s going to happen even better, it’s not just physical. Surfing is much more than that,” Beck said.

“I think the cool thing about surfing is it’s so dynamic because the waves are always changing.”

Holly Beck Surf retreat company founder

What can you expect in a holistic surf coaching retreat?

Surf therapy programs are a burgeoning concept for helping to reduce depression and anxiety while building confidence. In a 2011 study, weekly surfing was found to help improve post- traumatic stress disorder and depressive disorder in active- duty military members because of mindfulnes­s and a sense of community.

Beck has been running surf retreats like this one in Indonesia and Peru since 2010. She started to notice “themes in people’s lives also came out in the water,” she said.

“A lot of times people come on retreats on milestone birthdays, like the kids leaving the house or they just got divorced, so people are oftentimes going through something and they want to talk about it in this safe, empowered retreat setting,” she said.

After receiving her master’s in psychology, Beck launched her first holistic retreat last June.

“I think the cool thing about surfing is it’s so dynamic because the waves are always changing,” she said. “There’s other people, and it’s a finite resource, and you have to take

turns, and there’s the hierarchy that happens in surfing. There’s that extra element because it’s also nature and fear. You can’t just put time out.”

Here’s what my week at the holistic surf coaching retreat was like:

● We went to bed early and woke up at the crack of dawn to surf.

● In the afternoons, we participat­ed in workshops such as sharing our biggest fears when surfing and practicing grounding breathwork. ( One thing about the ocean is that waves don’t stop just because you’re getting tossed like in a washing machine.) Many of our fears overlapped, and ranged from society’s expectatio­n of us as women to common surfing accidents.

● Daily restorativ­e yoga.

● All meals were made by local staff from ingredient­s grown at a nearby organic farm.

SWA partners with local nonprofit organizati­ons to coordinate activities with the community. We went on a hike through an 800- acre private biological reserve at Tiskita Jungle Lodge to spot capuchin monkeys, toucans and other animals in their natural habitat.

Daily journal prompts on topics such as reflecting on a moment of belonging, in or out of the water.

Paulette Adams experience­d a traumatic injury surfing last April that sent her to physical therapy. She didn’t surf for six months and felt “really, really scared to get back in the water again.” She was drawn to SWA’s holistic surf retreat as a way to overcome her fear. At the retreat, she found more than good surf advice, she surprised herself by sharing about her difficult relationsh­ip with her mom, something she rarely likes to talk about.

I also surprised myself on the retreat. Since the breakup, surfing was one of the only ways I could find solace. I knew being able to surf for a week in Costa Rica was going to be healing, but I could never have guessed how the other elements of the retreat would help me too. As someone who never journals ( because I already write for my job), having to answer a daily prompt helped get the racing thoughts out of my head and the yoga classes forced me to slow down. As each day passed, my mind felt clearer, even if only slightly.

I also found community and support with the women who started as complete strangers. Sometimes while surfing I would be randomly hit with grief, followed by anxiety. I felt comfortabl­e paddling up to the instructor­s to lead me through a quick grounding exercise. Throughout the week, I found myself opening up to the other women about my breakup, and hearing what they were also going through helped me feel less alone.

A safe space

Although surfing has been around for centuries, it’s been quickly growing in popularity. Between 2019 and 2020, the number of surfers grew by 28%. The sport was just recognized as an Olympic sport in 2020.

As lineups get more crowded, the atmosphere can be aggressive and intimidati­ng, especially for beginners. Lineups are also typically male- dominated. Sixty- five percent of surfers identify as male, according to the Surf Industry Member’s Associatio­n. Although things have improved, there’s still a long way to go.

When Beck launched her retreats for women, she wanted to imitate the supportive environmen­t she felt when she was touring with other female surfers during her pro surfer days.

“For the most part, the ( retreat) staff is all- women, and that in itself is empowering,” Beck said. “It’s all a culture of support.”

No matter if someone nosedived right into the water or successful­ly dropped into their first big wave ever, everyone cheered.

On some days, we were the only people in the lineup. I’d never seen an all- women lineup before. It’s not uncommon for me to paddle out alone or with a friend and be the only woman in the water in Hawaii.

Sarah Lockhead, who just moved to North Carolina, had never been on a surfboard when she signed up for the holistic retreat as a way to celebrate earning her yoga certification. She was drawn to SWA because it was all- women, which she hoped would be “safer to learn and less judgmental.”

“People might hear holistic surf retreat, and they might think it’s gonna be a super woo- woo crystals and kind of thing, but it was really more about working through your fears not only in the water with surfing but how it also affects you in life and how those two can coexist together,” Lockhead said. “You can find ways to work through that in the water through surfing in nature and then be able to hopefully carry some of that with you throughout life.”

 ?? ?? Throughout the week, Wong says she found herself opening up to the other women and feeling less alone.
Throughout the week, Wong says she found herself opening up to the other women and feeling less alone.
 ?? PHOTOS PROVIDED BY LENA HENTSCHEL ?? Reporter Kathleen Wong turned to a surfing retreat after a breakup.
PHOTOS PROVIDED BY LENA HENTSCHEL Reporter Kathleen Wong turned to a surfing retreat after a breakup.
 ?? PROVIDED BY LENA HENTSCHEL ?? Former pro surfer Holly Beck would join in sessions, showing her effortless style.
PROVIDED BY LENA HENTSCHEL Former pro surfer Holly Beck would join in sessions, showing her effortless style.

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