“Some people travel to surf, but lots of times I feel like I surf so I can travel.”

Chris Malloy

Have you ever been surfing? It’s one of those sports that has always been on the back of mind – looks cool, ya I think I would like riding waves, how hard can it be?, everyone that surfs has a great body, when I see surfers sitting out there on their boards waiting for waves it looks relaxing, paddling out over the waves looks fun and really, how scary can the ocean be? Those were my thoughts looking from the outside in but that ALL changed as did those perceptions.

An opportunity arose a couple of years ago to go on a yoga retreat that also featured surf lessons. The primary aspect of this week long solo vacation was definitely yoga in fact, I used to love yoga retreats – yoga everyday, daily meditation, the opportunity to go inwards without any distractions from regular life, and usually amazing vegetarian food! Now add surf lessons to this deal – I was totally stoked for sure, however I felt I had a lot of preparation to do, especially for the surfing.

All summer long I prepared for my trip which was scheduled for November. I swam a few days a week in my neighborhood lap pool, worked on strengthening my core (from what I had read – to surf – one needs a strong core) and continued my regular regime of running with my dogs as well as weekly yoga classes. I was feeling pretty strong, however as the date for my trip loomed closer I felt super anxious and honestly, kind of scared. Some say that that can be a good thing – it’s a sign that you are about to experience something amazing however whatever that “amazing” was, was totally unknown. I probably just needed to take a chill pill or do a little meditation or yoga lol… “ommmmmmmm”

A woman on the beach at sunset practicing yoga, sitting in lotus pose.

But there were a few things giving me comfort – I felt physically prepared, I was traveling to my second home – Costa Rica – (I love Costa Rica), I had bought cute yoga gear to look cool (ya that’s a thing for me when I go to yoga retreats!) and my trip was well planned out – hotels and transportation were all lined up, plus I speak fluent Spanish. Instead of thinking what could go wrong, I decided to ask myself – what could go right? What kind of transformation was I going to experience on this trip? (A week of yoga and meditation always brings about some higher sense of awareness and freedom so I knew that that would be fun!).

Arrival at Danyasa – Dominical CR

A large Buddha head. A flowing fountain, water on all sides with flowers and leaves.
A welcoming site, a flowing fountain…

I definitely had expectations when I arrived. I was looking forward to daily structure that included early morning meditations that last way too long and cause pain in my body from sitting in one position for an abnormal length of time, at least 90 minute yoga sessions (maybe twice daily!), fresh vegetarian food and the weird airy fairy yoga people that are always facilitating these retreats. Well, one of my expectations was met – the weird airy fairy yogis were there – however they were not facilitating any type of retreat – they were simply working at this place. This “place” was basically a hotel that had the ability to host retreats, however all I had booked was a hotel room, five passes to attend yoga classes of my choice, and six surf classes. Since I had booked it on a discount yoga retreat website, I had totally assumed that it was going to be a normal yoga retreat – my bad and lesson learned (ask more questions)! The positives? There was a kitchen to cook/prep my own food (I don’t mind food shopping), I could meditate on my own and skip the body pain, attend a yoga class or not, eat out and have a glass of wine with dinner and spend time exploring the town of Dominical while I wasn’t surfing. So I had to redirect my energy and go with the flow!

Transforming my yoga practice

The yoga space. Beautiful bamboo floors, preparing for my first yoga class at Danyasa.
Letting go of my expectations, waiting for my first yoga class to start…

Yoga classes were good, the yoga space was amazing, open air studio and hardwood floors. It was awesome listening to the birds caw while practicing, hearing the rain pound on the tin roof – I definitely felt connected to nature. What happened with the yoga is it became the non-featured aspect of my trip, it became my necessary stretching after surfing. I do love yoga, but after 15 years of teaching it, I found myself finally aware that is was no longer the transformative tool that it used to be, it was and is now a physical tool that I love to use when my body needs to open and repair itself.

You know how yoga can push you to your edge? You sit or stand in a pose for a long time, you feel the burn, you feel pain, your mind resists it and tells you to move however you stay anyway, not listening to your mind, understanding that it’s OK to feel uncomfortable. In that “uncomfortable” space you are playing with your edge because you are moving out of your comfort zone and deepening as well as expanding your own personal version of comfort. You are finding a deeper edge and letting go of fears you may have of expansion or discomfort. Super cool right? Well this is the place I went to on this trip. I found a new edge, a place I had never been before, one that was super uncomfortable (at first) but through the discomfort I found myself on the other side, playing with a new edge.

Hunting for food & Feeling nourished

Raw fruit and veggie plate. Organic apples, carrots, strawberries on a bed of lettuce.
Raw is great when it’s hot!

As I explored the small town, I found a small organic grocery store, very expensive, almost like a small Whole Foods but it was cute and fun to peruse. And then a couple at the back of the store were just starting a kitchen in the back making things like fresh quinoa salad, sandwiches, and other various salads so breakfasts, snacks, and even a take home lunch was super easy. Another popular restaurant right next door (owned by a Canadian couple) called Mono Congo, sold fresh juices which I absolutely loved and still love when I go there. Expensive but good! With the kitchen available to me, I could store anything I bought really easily. You wouldn’t believe how good carrots are when they are dipped in raw peanut butter!

Though I was disappointed when I found out I wasn’t being served breakfast at this place and had to cook or prep, I did enjoy the fresh foods I found and I enjoyed eating around the communal table at Danyasa. The others staying there were interesting people with their own unique stories, a woman overcoming cancer, two young women from the UK who were surfers, a super cool chick from Ireland and another young guy who was finishing up his Costa Rica trip with some yoga and relaxation. That became very soul nourishing for me when we found ourselves together around the table eating or drinking coffee and talking to one another. We all had our own stories about how we got there and our stories about where we were headed.

And sometimes, that is what you have to do wherever you are in life. Adjust to the circumstances even if they do not fit in the scenario you had created. There are times when I find myself pushing for the same old same old, trying what worked in the past to reset my mind, body and soul. But this entire trip completely transformed my spirit and put me on a new path. Unbeknownst to me, subconsciously I guess I was seeking something new and yet still seeking something transformative and reviving.

Enter Surfing.

The surf school was just a few blocks from the hotel, easily walkable. That first day of lessons I was crazy nervous! I really had no idea how hard or easy it would be, I had no expectations for myself, just wanted to get through day one lol! At the surf school, everyone was super nice and totally relaxed, I guess that’s the vibe in small beach towns and the “surfer’s vibe”. For us beginners (there were a few of us), we were measured for our surf boards – height, weight, and no experience (chuckle here) and then we headed out across the street to the beach where the white waves were a crashing towards the shore.

First surfing beach Dominical CR

Looks ominous right? It felt that way when we got to the beach with our surf boards. It was grey and cloudy those first three days of surfing, the water warm though, and shallow, which, helped and didn’t help when I fell off the board almost every time I attempted to stand up. Day one was messy. No way did I feel I had learned anything expect how to fall off the board. Day two, slightly better – I quote – “I think I got this”. Day three – “OK. I got this!” And on day three, my instructor Henry said, Merry you are ready for the green waves!

Green waves

What are green waves you ask? Green waves are where the real surfers go. They are behind the white water waves (which are closer to shore) and they are unbroken. To catch them you have to paddle out past that point where the waves break – that is where you see the experienced surfers sitting on their boards, gently floating up and down with the swells, that is where they wait for good sets to come in.

Costa Rica Surf School. The sun shining through onto the surf boards lined up against the wall.
Bright and sunny!

The sun was shining (yay!) on day four, I was lathered up with sunscreen, and even more nervous than day one because I was entering new surf territory. As per usual we met up at the surf school and waited for the guys to load up the trailer. This time us beginners were headed out with the more experienced crowd, daunting as well. It made me feel even more uncomfortable because I was positive they would be watching me fall off my board and they’d be silently laughing as my inexperience showed itself.

We get to Dominicalito – a small beach just outside of town. It wasn’t anything fancy, still rocky similar to the beach where had been surfing, however the water looked more blue/green and past the white waves I could see the swells. I could see the waves forming (usually in threes) and from the beach they didn’t look so big and scary as I had imagined. Looking out and seeing the sun glisten off the water, listening to my instructor Henry telling us to relax and reminding us to breathe, I thought, I think today is going to be really fun!

The beach in Dominicalito, where we surf the green waves. Beautiful skies and waves rolling in.
Dominicalito – The green waves!

It was literally one of the best days of my life (besides getting married!)! But before that feeling came, I had to figure out how to paddle past the white waves and not get stuck there. I was literally pummeled by wave after wave. You see I was not a fast paddler when I first started, in fact, I called myself the “tortuga” – in Spanish that means “turtle”. It seemed like I was paddling and going absolutely nowhere fast. Henry kept looking back for me to see if I was OK and every time I would come up for air, I would give him a thumbs up. I can tell you this, the ocean at that point felt unforgiving, relentless and oh so much more powerful than me. A feeling I will never forget. Constantly going under and getting nowhere fast was furiously frustrating and needless to say uncomfortable! I did finally make it out to the zone where all the other surfers were sitting on their boards just chilling and shooting the shit as they waited for good waves to catch. My face red, my heart racing yet there I finally was. I sat on my board for a few minutes just catching my breath taking in the view. It was all worth it and that was just the beginning…

Catching waves

Me surfing in the green waves, standing up on my board and riding the wave in.
Can you believe I did it?!
(Photo credit – Costa Rica Surf School)

The experience of catching waves for me, is none like any other. It is the best high I have ever experienced. But before I caught waves, as you know, I had to struggle through a lot! Getting back to where I was. Sitting on my board, hanging out with all the other surfers, feeling my legs dangle in the water and just taking it all in – the ocean, the sky, the sun, and the mountains behind us. I fell in love with the whole experience even before I caught my first wave. I had an overwhelming feeling of being present. Yes in yoga, they tell you ALL the time, to stop thinking, focus on your breath and be in your body but this gave me something even bigger than that. In this space, I found myself constantly present, my focus was always exactly where I was. Paddling out, resting on my board in the chill zone, listening to the chatter of the other surfers, taking in the scenery, and or catching waves. I fell in love!

For my first wave, Henry looks at me and says, Merry, are you ready? A good wave is coming! I lay on my board and face the beach, Henry gets behind me so that he can help push my board, it is my job then to paddle paddle paddle as hard as I can. The wave comes up behind me, I get just over the top so my board is pointing downwards and pop up! Once I pop up, hopefully I stay standing and ride the wave in. Oh my gosh, I can’t tell you how many times I fell off but every time I fell off I couldn’t wait to turn around, paddle back out and try again.

Definitely my biggest obstacle to overcome was overthinking the “HOW”. And this goes back to being present or in the moment. The best waves and rides were when I just got up and did it, I had absolutely no thoughts, and no plan. I would just pop up and go with the flow, I even began turning with the waves and that was intuitive because even Henry (my surf instructor) noticed and said, hey I didn’t teach you that! I also loved hearing the other surfers hooting and hollering their support of congratulations when any of us out there caught waves.

I did get caught up in the break more than once that first day and I was completely exhausted! Paddling was hard work and after being pummeled by waves a thousand times, it did start to wear on me. However, it was all worth it and I couldn’t wait to rest up and recharge for the next day.

My final day of surfing – the transformation

The final day was crazy awesome and crazy huge, waves that is! It was another beautiful day and the routine was the same. Meet at the surf school, pack up the boards and head out to Dominicalito. However, when we got to our spot, one of the surf instructors said, no, the waves aren’t good here, let’s go to another beach. Some of the guys were hooting and hollering in celebration, but I was like, whoa, wait a minute, these waves look fine! Henry looked at me and said don’t worry Merry, you’ll be fine, just stick with me and remember to breathe.

About 20 minutes down the road from our previous surf beach (Dominicalito), we landed at a really pretty beach (Playa Grande). Here, it was more of a whiteish sandy beach, a lifeguard on duty, and people were swimming as well as surfing. BUT, the waves were humungous and there was a lot more wind. This beach was a lot more open and had less protection from surrounding cliffs which completely changed the conditions I had gotten used to the two previous days.

Needless to say, I had to suck it up and just go for it. Henry reminded me to wait until the sets were done coming in because the area where the waves were breaking was relentless and strong. It was almost impossible for me to pass through that break, wow what an experience that was! Being such a slow paddler, I just couldn’t get past those crashing waves and once I did, more waves would head towards me. They were so big, that if I couldn’t paddle fast enough to get over the wave, I had to turtle roll under it. And I don’t know how many times the wave just took my surf board away from me.

I practiced a lot of turtle rolls that day lol! Once I did get out to where my surf instructor was, believe you me, I rested for quite a while. I think that last day I caught one awesome wave and I took it right to the beach. Since I had spent so much time turtle rolling (or trying to) under the waves and paddling out, I was seriously exhausted! Mentally, physically and emotionally.

That last day of surfing was definitely the final step in my personal transformation. I was faced with huge waves and a constant battering but I overcame the fear of those bigger waves. As well, I didn’t feel so angry at the ocean. It wasn’t doing anything it doesn’t normally do, the waves just flow in and out, it was my job to learn to go with their flow. It was my job to ride them or go under them in a turtle roll and or sit one out and just float/chill on my board with my feet dangling in the water simply taking in the whole scene. And that is exactly what Henry my instructor said to me, today you got over your fear of the big waves, when you come back and surf you will feel even more confident, and I quote, “Merry you have good skills, you definitely need to keep surfing!”

Surfing has taken me to a new place in my life. The ocean transformed my heart and my soul. Just like in surfing, in life, you also have to learn to ride those unimaginable waves, sometimes you go with the flow (good, bad, and ugly) experiencing anger, love, frustration etc., and other times you ride those waves smoothly and confidently in the direction of your dreams. Life is never perfect, it is a series of experiences that are ALL worth venturing. I end with that quote by Chris Malloy, “Some people travel to surf, but lots of times I feel like I surf so I can travel.” Travel where you ask? I surf so I can travel deeper into my heart and deeper into my soul, seeking even deeper expansion, more heart opening experiences and anything that brings me joy!

Beautiful sunset in Dominical, Costa Rica with the waves rolling in.
Beautiful sunset inDominical, CR
  • Photo Credits – Meredith Bowerman
  • Other Photo Credits – Costa Rica Surf School Dominical, Costa Rica (surfing photos)