How a Surf Retreat Taught Me More Than Surfing

I wanted to learn to surf. It wasn’t a rational desire, but ever since I stood on the beach watching children learn to surf in Sayulita, Mexico – I was determined. It was an admirable goal, except that I had a reasonable inkling that I’d be bad at it. Like really, really bad. While I might be able to balance like a rockstar on my Wii Fit or XBox, I had a feeling that my core wasn’t quite ready for the challenge. But maybe just maybe, a surf retreat could get me started. A girl can dream, right? Photo by Sansara Surf and Yoga Resort

Registering for a surf retreat seemed like the perfect answer since I certainly wasn’t going to learn to catch a wave on the Potomac River. I read about the SwellWomen surf retreat program online and was hooked. Across the portfolio of destinations (from Maui to El Salvador to Nicaragua in 2017), the retreats boasted top notch surfing, yoga, wellness and luxury. I booked my week (in Panama) before I could talk myself out of it. It would be perfect. The retreat would offer an escape to paradise, daily yoga, expert surf instruction, massages, bonding with like-minded women and delicious (and healthy) cuisine.

Except that I was right. I was bad at surfing. Like really, really, really bad. And even though I stood on my surfboard (for a few brief seconds) by the end of the week, I accomplished a goal I never even knew I was trying to achieve.

Lessons learned from a surf retreat

My journal paints the picture or marks the navigational points that led to my learning.

Notes from our surf instruction – where the wise Nic Jacobsen, director of surf at Sansara Surf and Yoga Resort – hinted that our experience would be intense. “There is no hiding in the shadows,” he told us on our first day. He suggested that there were essential steps to learning to surf.

We needed to understand that slow is smooth and smooth is fast. We needed to learn to see things in slow motion. We needed to learn to let go. We needed to learn to drop the ego. And lastly, we needed to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Lauren, our gentle and incredible SwellWomen yoga instructor, knowingly or unknowingly led us through practices that seemed to dance in sync with what we were learning on the water.

Photo by Sansara Surf and Yoga Resort

“Let it be.” She suggested. On our second day, I wrote, “The energy I need is inside me. All I have to do is tap into it, through breath, through intention, through practice and through trust.” Little did I know that I was writing my future on the page. We learned that surfing is not really about standing up. Surfing is about catching waves. Feeling the water, the energy and the moment.

But still, I struggled. I paddled. I sat up. I turned. I paddled more. I’d pop up halfway and then promptly fall – as if that was what I was meant to do. My eyes and mind watched the other women in our group, making it look so easy. I froze in that moment. I was paralyzed with an overwhelming sensation of not being good enough but camouflaged my disappointment with a cavalier attitude that I was simply going to practice catching waves, even if that meant staying horizontal on my board. Nic told me that I had great sportsmanship, but in my heart, I knew that I’d stopped daring greatly.

And just like that, I walked into our afternoon practice where Lauren asked us to set an intention. To reflection on an action that we intended to take.

I’d already set the intention of getting out of my own way. To let the puzzle pieces come together without adding my own judgments as stumbling blocks. But I hadn’t practiced that in the water. So I wrote: “I will rise up on the board. Slow and smooth, and probably with a great many falls. But I will RISE.”

Photo by Sansara Surf and Yoga Resort

Surfing is more than just catching waves

And then…on the next day…I did it. My journal says it best.

“Oh my goodness! I popped up! I also fell but each fall (ok – almost all) were so joyful…”

As we moved on to our throat chakra during our yoga practice, we contemplated the idea of fight vs. flight and the idea of speaking our truth. At first, the words that came to me were chaser, proud, journey, determined…and then the idea of surrender emerged. But not in a deflated kind of way. More like acceptance.

The words came to me, like waves are drawn to the shore. “Find flight in the fight.”

In those waves at Guanico Beach, I learned something even more important than surfing. I learned to celebrate falling. To find joy in the journey. To be determined without expectation.

Surf and yoga retreat with SwellWomen

My transformation evolved not from a single moment but from a week of perfectly choreographed and organic moments…and perhaps most satisfying of all, from deep inside me. While I had help from masterful surf instructors, nurturing and thoughtful yoga flows that focused on our chakras and the SwellWomen energy that comes from friendship and connection – the work of pushing past my own judgments and perceptions came from me. Despite the perception of frequent courage and determination on my part – the ability to find flight instead of freezing and losing myself in waves of salty tears was new to me.

My initial wobbly attempts to pop up got stronger. My (epic) belly flops off my board even more joyous. I was anticipating waves. Catching waves. And best of all, I was riding waves. I may not have looked like a surfer girl, with proper form and technique. But my heart, body and mind had found my true North. My inner fire. A sense of self that would forever guide me. I’d done more than just find wellness on a surfboard. Somewhere between the yoga, surfing, blissful massages, scrumptious food, morning walks under a still star lit sky and poolside giggling with frozen beverages in hand – I came away from my surf retreat with so much more than just learning to hang ten. I had learned to find flight in the fight. And I’ll never be the same again.

*This blog post was orignally published on