Surf as Life Therapy

Surfing can be classified as many things. If it’s competition that entices you, it can certainly be considered a sport with opportunities for big trophies, leaderboards, and paychecks. If scenic travel is more your thing, then surfing can serve as the ultimate tour guide to white sandy beaches and volcanic reef formations. Looking for a spiritual experience? The combination of moving water and our buoyant bodies can be your Shaman. Most importantly, if it’s fun you seek, there is a place in the ocean for you.

My introduction to surfing came rather late in life. I was at the tail-end of a hockey career that I had spent over a decade, completely engulfed in; I sensed that I needed a new passion to pursue. After many years confined to a sport that takes place indoors, the idea of an activity that put you right in the heart of our earth’s energy was a no-brainer. With the mental commitment to my newly discovered passion in place, I fought through the reluctancy and fear of failure that a lot of adults feel when starting something new from scratch.  I created the physical commitment by booking a flight to Costa Rica where I had found a reputable surf instructor to work with me.

The importance of my trip to Costa Rica cannot just be narrowed down to a “learn to surf” adventure. My instructor, who I now consider a very close friend, Elias, had an amazing skill of using the ocean and surfing as a teaching tool: not just for the physical act of surfing, but for philosophical, moral, and psychological topics that I didn’t expect to cover on my week long hiatus in paradise. In fact, Elias’ teaching and coaching abilities had a significant impact on the philosophies that I now possess as a trainer at Pongo Power.

Elias’ surf school, S.A.L.T. (Surf as Life Therapy) encourages surfing to be a little bit of everything that was previously mentioned: Sport/Competition, Travel/Adventure, Philosophical/Spiritual Journey, and once again most importantly, Fun!

Surfing; the people I’ve met; and the places I’ve been because of it, have been of significant importance for my growth in many aspects of life. Here are some of the profound benefits of surfing:


From a purely physical outlook, surfing is an activity that demands a lot of functionality from the body. Throughout the Kinetic Chain, surfing requires a little bit from all aspects of fitness.

Your upper body, specifically your arms and shoulders need to have the endurance to keep you paddling throughout your surf session. It’s common for new surfers to fatigue in their upper bodies first (AKA noodle arms).  The good news is that these muscles recover quickly, and over time become well defined.

Your thoracic spine has to have a great deal of mobility to comfortably maintain the spinal extension you’re constantly in while paddling on your surfboard. If you don’t have good thoracic mobility, your shoulders will move much less efficiently, increasing unnecessary strains on the shoulder girdle. (Thoracic mobility is a great example of the importance that mobility, in one area of the body, has on many other areas.)

Your lower body requires much more fast-twitch muscles in surfing. Adjusting your speed, making quick turns and maneuvers, and navigating through sections of waves all start with head, shoulder, and arm positioning, but without good strength and power output, and strength capacities in your legs, your progress will plateau.

Putting all of this information together, surfing is clearly a full-body exercise. The movement of popping up on your surfboard itself is a Burpee. So if you just practiced standing up on your surfboard on the sand before even entering the water, you’d already have completed a grueling Burpee Circuit. Combine that, with the strength and oxygen capacity you need to fight off waves and the current to get out into the lineup, and you’ve done a full workout before even riding a wave.

This of course, greatly varies depending on skill level, board sizes, and waves heights; but there is a relativity between all these factors that keeps the information accurate.


Elias’ philosophies surrounding surfing greatly resonate with me. The ideas of balance (not just the physical kind), patience, positive thinking, overcoming fears, and losing control were all topics that I was familiar with; and like most people, I’ve spent a fair share of time pondering. Through surfing, and Elias’ ideas of Surf as Life Therapy, there was an opportunity to look at the same old topics, but from a brand new vantage point: the Pacific Ocean.

I was given information and opinions that I was able to form a strong foundation with, and then as I went back to New York and began my independent surf journey, I used those foundations to explore the aforementioned philosophies further.

Balance and Patience

These two topics are completely overlapping in surfing. When there are waves, the balance is swayed towards surfing as much as you can, because you don’t know when you’ll get to surf again. This is especially true for the East Coast and New York, and a reason why surfers here start to drool, when there is even a slight chance of a storm brewing in the Atlantic. With this loss of balance, comes regaining it when you’re forced to be patient.

Sometimes patience is a few hours, sometimes it’s a few weeks, and that’s just talking about waves. For other things in life, the wait can be much longer. Surfing teaches us that the wait is always worth it. We carry on with our lives and balance our schedules around work, family, and all the other day-to-day things, but when the ocean turns on, it becomes okay to lose your balance, as long as you remember the importance of regaining it when you go back to being patient. This idea of balance and patience pertains to life outside of the ocean tenfold to what it does within it. Surfing just has a way of instilling this sense in you, like nothing else can. Mother Nature makes her own decisions & we can only decide to maintain our balance while we wait for her.

Overcoming Fears, Losing Control, and Positive Thinking  

When talking with people about learning to surf, the most common inhibitor is fear. The ocean is so vast and it’s power as a whole is unmeasurable: so the fear is well understood. Even more so, I can empathize with said fears because I have shared them. Elias taught me a lot about positive thinking when in the ocean; this positive thinking allowed me to lose control in the chaos of strong breaking waves and pulling rip currents. When I stopped resisting this loss of control, that is when I began to overcome my fears.

This loss of fear, of all examples, is the one that can be most directly transferred into everyday life. You see, if you imagine the wave as an obstacle in life, or life itself, then you know that you can’t avoid it coming towards you. When this wave pulls you underwater, and holds you there; there is no amount of training you can do, to overpower the ocean. If you fight the wave, you’ll just exhaust yourself, run out of breath, panic, and further augment your fears. Yet, if you just become acceptant of the present moment, and find relaxation in the midst of chaos, the wave will move on and let go of its grasp on your body before you know it. Elias taught me that we cannot control the waves that come at us in life, but we can teach ourselves to surf. The better surfers we become, the less we fear the waves.


This has less to do with surfing, and more to do with being out in nature in general. When you’re constantly in the ocean, it allows you to understand the importance of being environmentally conscious on a very personal level. Growing up in a metropolis, you are desensitized from the devastating amount of garbage and pollution you’re surrounded by. That being said, even for big city people, the ocean is a sign of purity. It is a larger than life reminder of the natural world that sits beyond brick, steel, and concrete. The more time you spend in the ocean the more you understand the cyclical nature of pollution: how trash comes and goes with the tides and the summer crowds and how the water smells of runoff after a big storm. When the occasional plastic bag or Doritos wrapper slaps you across the face, while you’re diving under a wave, the ocean provides a gentle reminder to tuck the garbage into your wetsuit and dispose of it properly after your session.

On the East Coast, we rely heavily on the hurricane season to bring us some of the best waves of the year. Although we hope that all these superstorms develop out at sea, stay there, and just deliver us their waves; it is often not the case. We surf with bittersweet pleasure knowing that other places in the Atlantic are struggling (at times it’s us ourselves struggling too). Understanding the power of the ocean creates the ability to empathize with those affected by it.

For these reasons, there is a great deal of people in the surf community involved in humanitarian and conservation relief efforts. We can all learn something from the way this tight-knit community stands up for the place(s) they spend the majority of their lives. With the increase in Oceanic pollution and relief still needed in many Caribbean islands after a devastating Hurricane Season, here are some of the organizations committed to improving our Oceans: Surfrider Foundation: Home

About The Author

Michael Pisarevsky, Personal Trainer

NSCA CSCS (Specializing in Strength and Conditioning, Balance, and Mobility)

Mike’s experiences in competitive athletics have instilled an ability to persevere through hardship, utilize teamwork, and constantly reach for bigger goals. In addition, his experiences in traveling have allowed Mike to gain a better understanding for the beauty and diversity of our world and it’s many cultures, and a recognition of the physical and emotional needs of other people.

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