Learning to Surf On The Inside

There is something very essential surfing can teach us about life balance. This I discovered on a week’s yoga, meditation and surf retreat…

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My first surf lesson with Cid Nuno in Ericeira.

There is something very essential surfing can teach us about life balance. This I discovered on a week’s yoga, meditation and surf retreat in West Portugal. Slightly obsessed with big wave watching, I wanted to be near The Atlantic — and in the tiny village of Fontanelas near Sintra, I couldn’t have got much closer. On my first night at Shamballah Yoga Retreats, I stayed awake listening to the roar of a storm producing some of the big wave season’s last XXL size waves. It was loud and clear I was there to learn much more than how to detox and be “zen” for a week. I was on a roaring journey inward.

The quiet location, close to Praia da Aguda and Praia Grande, is where the biggest names in Portuguese surfing come from. The coastal region has produced three big wave riders, those guys and girls who ride the 15 to 22 metre colossal things that only one percent of us ever even get to see. So we’re talking people who really understand the psychology of the ocean. People who have been brought up in an environment that teaches you everything about wave selection and balance.

An Ex-escapist’s Story

To me, the most inspiring surfers of all are those who through their own experiences have learned that not every wave on the beach is worth catching. And who at a time when surf tourism in the country is booming (because so many of us want to escape our pressured daily lives) are going against the stream.

Patricia Graca, the “mother” and yoga and pilates teacher of Shamballah Yoga Retreats, is an ex-escapist. Born in Lisbon, she was never far from the ocean when she was growing up.

Patricia Graca learned to surf watching big wave surfers.

– As a child, I always loved being in the ocean, collecting shells and playing with sand. My parents had a boat and my brother did aquatic skiing. Back then I was afraid of dark water, she explains.

Patricia wasn’t into surfing until she was twenty. Like most of us, she learned her craft the hard way.

– I began surfing with a small board that hit my head. I thought “that’s it”, this really wasn’t for me. 10 years later I ended up in Morocco with my big wave rider boyfriend. There I tried my first white water surfing and finally enjoyed standing on the board.

Patricia came back home to the popular surf resort of Ericeira and bought her first surf board, a Malibu 7’6″. In the tight-knit surfer community she learned from the best, including big wave surfer Miguel Ruivo.

– The first wave I caught was a metre high. I was elated for four hours afterwards.

Patricia had always been attracted to sports that required balance: rollerblading, riding a motorbike, mountain biking and snowboarding. Still, surfing was the thing that swept her off her feet — quite literally.

Patricia’s love of balance lead her from surfing to snowboarding.

– I had such motivation. Surfing required me to be more focused, more patient and to wait for the right moment. It also taught me how to deal with the frustration when the weather was bad and I couldn’t go in. I was really enjoying the emotional challenge.

One of the biggest observations Patricia made early on, was how happy office workers were when they could change their suits and ties to wetsuits. Surfing was a way of running away from something and it soon became very addictive.

Coming to a Halt

– I started to feel anxious. The sensation of going in the water with my board was never enough. I began to see the patterns. Then I realised I also had the same, dysfunctional patterns in many other parts of my life.

Patricia took time out of surfing to work on her feelings. Soon her beloved Malibu 7’6″ was replaced by a longboard. She battled hard not to be so competitive with herself and gave up on comparing herself to other surfer girls. Whenever she went longboarding, it wasn’t to escape but rather to celebrate the moment — a skill she now teaches people like me.

Patricia is often seen practising yoga and meditation on her home beach in Sintra.

The real halt to surfing on the outside came eight years ago. Patricia had just returned home from the School of Meditation in Germany and really missed her surf. She was so desperate to run in to the ocean with her board she wanted to rush straight to the beach. Instead, she decided, quite radically, to sit on the beach and calm down.

– Just to be there in the sun without having the need to run into the water really was a “wow” experience for me. I began to consciously relax deeply.

Releasing Emotions

Before she truly learned to surf on the inside, she went on a journey to discover the energetical side of humans. One of the things she learned was shiatsu, which she now offers at her retreat.

– With the help of shiatsu I finally began to release a lot of my emotions. It was really important to me to find this space inside to relax. It’s like a light expanding inside.

Patricia has found a deep connection between surfing and yoga. 

Patricia continued on to learn meditation techniques which helped her deal with emotions such as anger in a more positive way. She realised emotions are just like water and that surf brings up a lot of emotions: fear, success, frustration and joy. In fact, surfing is all about emotions!

– I started to feel much more free. Learning to “flow” and “surf” with emotions instead of being totally drowned with them was the biggest discovery for me.

Today Patricia prefers sitting or doing yoga on the beach to surfing. She might still, occasionally, join her partner Zarqa Correa, a keen surfer, for some gentle surfing. (By that she means surfing only small waves!) Zarqa, the co-founder of Shamballah Yoga Retreats, supports her 100 percent:

I see what she means. It’s like being more and more aware of your motivation in doing things. Why do we do things? Many people go surfing to escape themselves. To me the real responsibility towards ourselves comes from our ability to respond to life from a place of harmony.

As part of my retreat — and in order to qualify to write about surfing — I also tried surfing. In Ericeira, with my roommate Anja who was as scared of the one-metre waves as I was — and our coach Cid Nuno who just kept smiling. I enjoyed my first surf lesson that much I already want to go back, but instead, I intend to learn how to stop first.

Although surfing is exhilarating, it is worth asking yourself: who or what are you surfing away from?

How to surf big waves inside by Patricia Graca:

1. Switch to a vegetarian diet. Eat preferably non-processed, organic food.

2. Be close to nature as much and as often as you can.

3. Learn how to breathe deeply through meditation techniques.

4. Give space daily for creativity: music, painting, learning new things.

5. Bring positive emotions to your life by giving less time to negative people and things.

6. Have a massage treatment once a month — to experience touch is crucial to our wellness.

Originally published at

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