Is Surfing More Sport or Religion?

Even hardcore devotees disagree, though many acknowledge there’s something profoundly spiritual about catching waves—a feeling scientists attribute to the power of being in the water.

A surfer walks on the beach.
Mike Blake / Reuters

A decade ago, working my first journalism job while also pretending I surfed for a living, I rented a cheap loft in a three-story Victorian across the street from Ocean Beach in San Francisco. The home is still there as it was. Seahorses are still engraved in the blue window shutters, and the same landlord, Carol Schuldt, can still be found feeding her chickens in the backyard. If she’s not out surfing.

Schuldt—who I also write about in my new memoir, All Our Waves Are Water—is something of San Francisco's patron surf saint, her home a pelagic shrine where local surfers have long left firewood offerings. At 83, after a lifetime of wave riding, helping beach bums find cheap rent, and sometimes helping them get off drugs, too, Schuldt still rides her rusted beach cruiser to the dunes and bodysurfs these frigid waves without a wetsuit. “It’s where I can still connect to the Universal Mind,” she told me while we hiked the ice-planted dunes a few years ago, “to God, Jaimal—you know.”

Schuldt is one-of-a-kind. But surf culture is full of people who have made their daily plunge a spiritual practice. Though Calvinist missionaries outlawed surfing when they first came to Hawai’i in the 1820s—they viewed it as frivolous and wanton—the last 50 years have seen single-fin riding rabbis, short boarding priests, and bodysurfing Buddhist monks. Surf-related yoga and meditation retreats are common, too, led by the likes of the Pipeline master Gerry Lopez. Bethany Hamilton, the professional who lost an arm to a tiger shark when she was 13, looks to her faith in God to compete on the same level as pros with two arms (which she does mind-bendingly well). The big-wave champ Greg Long sits in lotus to prepare for confronting apartment building-sized walls of ocean.

For Schuldt, and many others like her, surfing doesn’t need a specific religious structure to give it power. Nature is God, she says, the sea holy water, and surfing a meditation—a comparison that would have likely resonated with the poet Philip Larkin, who wrote, “If I were called in / To construct a religion / I should make use of water.”  While pop culture and the subculture of surfing have both contributed to the mystical reputation of wave-riding, psychology and neuroscience may play an even bigger role, with researchers finding that water is a key ingredient—if not the key ingredient—in experiences people often call holy.

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One can make a good argument that surfers, or at least water lovers, have access to divine real estate. After all, Genesis describes how, “In the beginning … the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters”—not a volcano, not a canyon, not a tree. Muslims perform wudu, ritual ablutions, before praying. Buddhists offer bowls of water as a symbol of clear enlightenment. Baptism is a major component of many religions; converting to Judaism requires full immersion in a mikvah, a bath that must be connected to natural water. Surfing—immersion into the liveliest of waters—has spiritual roots that started well before hippie surfers were passing the peace pipe. Hawaiian chiefs demonstrated their clout by braving big waves. When the surf raged too big for humans, it was called ‘Awili, meaning the gods were surfing.

But whether walking on it, surfing it, or bathing with it, water has been at the center of transformative rituals throughout history.  “Across all spiritual traditions, cultures, and times, you find the use of water to achieve states of awe, grace, and love,” said Wallace J. Nichols, a biologist and the author of the New York Times bestseller Blue Mind, which explores how humans can benefit from being close to water. “We scientists avoid those words like the plague. But if you’re on the water a lot, those end up being the words you need to describe your experiences.”

Scientists are still learning why people say they feel increased amounts of unity, reverence, and happiness in the water, Nichols told me. But if you look at the scientific recipe for flow states—the psychological term for when people are fully and pleasantly absorbed in what they’re doing—being in water checks a lot of the boxes. First, you’re removing a lot of distractions: buzzing cell phones, traffic, written language, and even the need for language, period. Second, you get many of the perks of solitude without the side effects of pain and loneliness.

Then, there’s what psychologists call the “soft focus” that water provides—meaning that watching water is stimulating, even entertaining, to the brain, but in a relaxing, rejuvenating way. Look at the brain of a surfer or swimmer in an fMRI, Nichols said, and you’ll see a more distributed set of points, a more spherical thinking, than when you’re, say, solving a math problem, which takes more prefrontal cortex power. What’s more, surfing—as a form of exercise that involves risk-taking and play—triggers the release of feel-good hormones that help make it so enjoyable.

Surfer Magazine has some anecdotal data to back up Nichols’s points. In 2010, the outlet’s editor at the time, Sam George, wrote:

If some malevolent being came into the world that forced us to close down the doors here at the Palace of Stoke, we could continue to fill editorial pages for two years solely with letters written by surfers to tell us of their spiritual quests in the waves. It’s a phenomenon, really. And it’s one, I believe, that is unique to surfing.

Still, some of the most dedicated surfers balk at the salted spiritual musings.  “You can get the same feeling playing golf,” Justin Housman, a current editor at Surfer Magazine, told me recently. “Surfers need to stop acting like we have some special access to the Tao or whatever just because we ride waves. It’s addictive because it’s fun, because you’re getting dopamine and adrenaline and serotonin. But that’s it. If you think only surfing can get you that feeling, you’ve got to get out more.”

Housman said he sees no problem with surfers taking a metaphysical or religious approach to what they love if they happen to have that orientation to life in general. But he also believes that spirituality gets unfairly foisted onto surfing to the detriment of enjoying surfing for what it is—fun. “You don’t need to add any deeper meaning to make surfing great,” Housman said. “It’s already good enough to take over your entire life.” The reason for the mystical rhetoric, Housman told me, is that surf culture and brands—the latter dependent on surfing remaining cool for its existence—have always pegged themselves to films and TV shows that reinforce that stereotype.

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In the ’60s and ’70s, surf media tended to depict surfers as symbols of a life outside the rat race (like with the classic 1966 documentary The Endless Summer) or figures communing with the gravity of the moon (the 1971 film Morning of the Earth)—all reflections of the hippie and back-to-the-land ethos. Surfers in that era experimented with psychedelics as much as any subculture group, and Timothy Leary even spoke of the tube as the ultimate metaphor for “the highly conscious life.” In the ’80s, ’90s, and early 2000s, surf flicks pivoted toward competitive and human-versus-nature themes, perhaps a reflection of Cold War posturing. But even in films about professional contests (North Shore) or adrenaline junkies conquering death-defying waves (Riding Giants, In God’s Hands, Point Break), there is always a soul-searching bent. Recall that Patrick Swayze’s character in Point Break, for example, is named Bodhi, short for bodhisattva, a being who embodies the Buddhist ideal of compassion for all sentient beings.

In the internet age, mass media about surfing touches on a bit of everything, though contests and Red Bull stunts play a huge role. Now there are more contemplative films about female empowerment, including the 2011 Bethany Hamilton biopic Soul Surfer and the documentary about women surfers It Ain’t Pretty. Other movies criticize consumer culture, like 2010’s Stoked and Broke and 180° South (the latter features Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia, reflecting on his Zen practice and its overlap with surfing). But no matter the era, Housman said there have been far too many surf books and films with the words “soul” or “Tao” in them, a phenomenon he attributes to surfing gaining its popularity during the Beatnik and hippie eras. Now the baby-boomer surfers’ kids are grown up, addicted to surfing, and basically continuing the trip.

Housman isn’t a surf jock arguing for more wave pools and more Olympics (this coming summer Olympics will be the first for surfers). “I’d push back on surfing being called a sport alone,” he said, leaving the activity’s definition open-ended. His point, however, which many surfers would echo, is to let surfing be surfing.

Identifying too closely with surfing—whether spiritually, athletically, or territorially—can also add to what many see as the sport’s dark underbelly. Surfers are famous for becoming like angry zealots when access to their god—the waves— gets obstructed by crowds, fueling gang-like turf wars in hotspots like Palos Verdes. Steven Kotler’s book West of Jesus captured this tension well: “The irony of it was that most of the people considered surfing a religious experience and that their religious experience was being ruined by all the others surfing for the same reason.”

So why does surfing appear to be so much more freighted with spiritual meaning than other water sports? One key distinction is the structure and pace of the activity. Yes, there are those brief adrenaline pumping moments of actually riding a wave, but in between sets are long lulls when the surfer is just waiting, bobbing, staring at a horizon—time in which there’s nothing to do but breathe and consider saltwater’s flirtatious dance with the sunlight and sky. So whether you’re spiritual or not, there’s still a need for a contemplative solitude in relative stillness. There’s also the constant paradox of having to exert great effort to paddle, while simultaneously surrendering to the power of a wave you’re riding (or falling into)—a Zen metaphor if ever there was one.

All this may feed into why, when you look at the science of peak experiences, water and music are basically tied for first place, Nichols told me. “The ‘oneness thing’ people get is, in a sense, a brain-chemistry response of letting go of that ‘need to know.’ And interestingly, that’s also where the poetry and music is.” Of course, it would be reductive to say neuroscience explains away rapturous moments in the waves—moments that perhaps become spiritual when there is a spiritual language to describe them. And as Housman suggested, surfing is not unique in its ability to give people more happiness, well-being, and awe. But Nichols’s point—and also Carol Schuldt’s—seems to be that water is the best at it. “We try to re-create the water with stained glass, grand architecture,” Nichols said, “but it really doesn’t get close to the real thing.”

Schuldt, for her part, agrees. After doing her own readings on biology and astrophysics, she thinks science has only scratched the surface in revealing why the water is so healing for people. Part of of her reasoning is personal: Her son, Peter, was hit by a car when he was just 3 years old. The doctors warned he’d be completely dependent on others for life, if he made it at all. Unable to accept that prognosis, Schuldt took Peter off life support and rolled his frail body in the icy surf. Today, Peter has a crooked gait and slurred speech, but lives a full life, competing in swimming and running—a fact his mother attributes to his daily saltwater therapy.

But if you really want to understand Schuldt’s religion, follow her on her afternoon ritual sometime, up the steep hill she rides on that old cruiser. Hike another mile with her over the golden dunes, gather firewood, build a bonfire, dive into the cold waters for a bodysurf—and, perhaps, wait for a revelation.

“People ask, ‘How do you do this, at your age,’” she said with a laugh. “I tell them to jump in the ocean.”