The 10 Most Essential Yoga Poses for Surfers

This article originally appeared on Yoga Journal

Some of the most famous surfers in the world preach that yoga drastically enhances their surfing abilities. Gerry Lopez. Taylor Knox.

Surfing demands a lot from our bodies, primarily creating tight shoulders and compression in the lower back and hips. Surfing requires you to lie on your board, prone and paddling, while lifting your chest and straining your neck and upper back, sometimes for hours on end. When you pop up on your board, you're also essentially doing a quick push-up or burpee-like movement that engages your shoulder muscles and requires strength and mobility in your hips.

There's a beautiful balance and synergy between surfing and yoga. Yoga helps you restore your state of well-being after surfing so you can get back out there with as little aching and stiffness as possible.

The Anatomy of Yoga for Surfers

When you surf, you're actually moving your upper body similarly to how you move in yoga--you're lifting your chest into a backbend, drawing your shoulder blades together, and pushing yourself up from lying on your belly. You're essentially holding Cobra Pose (Bhujangasana) for however long you’re paddling on your board and creating strength in your back body.

But unlike yoga, surfing doesn't balance your body through stretching and strengthening the opposing muscle groups. A single surf session can easily overtax your muscles and leave you needing to release some serious tension in your shoulders, chest, and upper back--specifically, your trapezius, pectoralis major, and deltoids.


An illustration of the muscles engaged in during surfing, including the deltoids, trapezius, and pectoralis major
Three of the most commonly overworked muscles during surfing. From left, trapezius, pectoralis major, and deltoids. (Illustrations: Sebastian Kaulitzki Science Photo Library | Getty)

There’s commonality of desk workers and surfers needing to open the upper back, neck and shoulders] It's common for desk workers to face the issue of having rounded upper backs due to hours spent hunched at the computer. Leaning forward in that fashion draws the shoulder blades apart, while surfing pinches everything on the back body together. Although the strain from desk work and the strenuousness of surfing are worlds apart, the same stretches for the shoulders, upper back, and chest can bring relief to both parties. So even if you're an armchair surfer, yoga can help.

Essential Yoga for Surfers

The following yoga for surfers practice is designed to balance the specific muscle groups strained by surfing through enhancing flexibility, quickening recovery, and making for a less painful session next time you're out.

Focus on Your Breath

Why It Works: Breath awareness is essential to your surfing as well as to your practice of yoga. On your mat, being able to slow your breath helps keep you centered. On your board, having strong lung capacity is essential for those moments when you're stuck underneath a wave. And throughout your surf session, keeping your awareness at least partly on your breath can keep you focused and calm.

How To: Before you try the following poses dedicated to yoga for surfers, take several moments to become aware of your breath. Begin seated in a comfortable position and place one hand on your heart and your other hand on your belly. As you slowly count to four, inhale through your nose and feel your belly, ribcage, and chest inflate. Then slowly exhale through your nose as you do the same slow count of four and feel yourself deflate. Continue breathing like this throughout the duration of your yoga practice.

Yoga teacher demonstrating Child's Pose on a mat while leading a yoga for surfers class
Child’s Pose (Photos: Alexandra Martin)

1. Child’s Pose (Balasana) Variation

Why It Works: Stretches the chest and releases tension in the upper back, traps, and neck. When you reach your chest toward the mat, you also stretch the triceps.

How To: Come into Child’s Pose with your knees wide and your big toes touching. Extend your arms in front of you. Take two blocks on the lowest level and place one under each elbow. Bring your hands into prayer position and draw them toward your upper back so your forehead and chest can sink in between the blocks. Release your head and chest toward the mat. Breathe here. for as long as several minutes.

Cat Pose (Photo: Alexandra Martin)
Cat Pose (Photo: Alexandra Martin)

2. Cat Pose (Marjaryasana)

Why It Works: Relieves tension in the upper back and strengthens the spine.

How to: Come to your hands and knees with your shoulders stacked over your wrists and your hips over your knees. Exhale and round your back toward the ceiling as you release your head toward the mat. The pose should look like a cat stretching its back. Breathe here.

Puppy Pose (Photo: Alexandra Martin)
Puppy Pose (Photo: Alexandra Martin)

3. Puppy Pose (Anahatasana) with Thread the Needle

Benefit: Stretches the spine, shoulders, upper back, and arms.

How to: From hands and knees, slowly walk your hands out in front of you, lowering your chest and forehead toward the mat while keeping your hips over your knees. You can either press through your palms or let your arms relax. Breathe here. With each exhalation, let your chest sink toward the mat. Then slide your left arm underneath your right armpit, flipping your left palm up and rolling onto your left shoulder in a variation of Thread the Needle. Breathe here. Make sure to repeat on the second side.

Locust Pose (Photo: Alexandra Martin)
Locust Pose (Photo: Alexandra Martin)

4. Locust Pose (Salabhasana)

Benefits: Stretches the front of the body and opens the chest and shoulders.

How to: Lie on your stomach with your arms by your side. Rest your forehead or your chin on the mat. As you inhale, lift your head, chest, arms, and legs off the floor, firming your shoulder blades onto your back and broadening through your chest. Breathe here.

Woman practicing Downward-Facing Dog on a yoga mat while teaching a class on yoga for surfers
Downward-Facing Dog (Photo: Alexandra Martin)

5. Downward-Facing Dog Pose (Adho Mukha Svanasana)

Benefits: Stretches the back deeply and builds upper-body strength.

How to: From hands and knees, tuck your toes under, press into your hands, and lift your hips up and back. Reach your chest toward your thighs as you let your head hang heavy. Breathe here.

Low Lunge with Eagle Arms (Photo: Alexandra Martin)
Low Lunge with Eagle Arms (Photo: Alexandra Martin)

6. Low Lunge with Eagle Arms

Benefits: Stretches the thighs, hips, shoulders, and upper back, specifically the traps. This pose especially opens the space in between the shoulders to help release tension and improve mobility.

How to: Come into Low Lunge and take Eagle arms with elbows crossed in front of your chest so that one arm rests above the other. (Your bottom arm--the arm that wraps underneath--will be the same side as your straight leg extending behind you. The top arm is the same side as the front bent knee.) Breathe here.

For a variation, bend forward and touch your elbows to your front knee, creating a Cat Pose sensation. Emphasize the space directly underneath the shoulder blades. You can include this same movement in other poses to bring a yoga for surfers benefit to the postures.

Squat (Photo: Alexandra Martin)
Squat (Photo: Alexandra Martin)

7. Squat (Malasana)

Benefits: Stretches the lower back, sacrum, hips, and inner thighs.

How to: Bend your knees deeply, sinking until your hips are lower than your knees. Bring your hands together at your chest and wedge your elbows against the inside of your knees. Push your elbows into your knees to open your hips. Lift your chest forward and up, attempting to lengthen through your back. Breathe here.

Woman sitting on a yoga mat with crossed legs and Eagle Arms while leading a yoga for surfers class at a retreat
Cow-Face Arms (Photo: Alexandra Martin)

8. Cow-Face Arms (Gomukhasana Variation)

Benefits: Rather intensely stretches your hips, ankles, thighs, shoulders, armpits, chest, deltoids, and triceps.

How to: Sit tall with your legs in front of you. Bend your knees and slide your left leg under your right leg so your knees stack. Your left heel will rest outside your right hip. Bring your right foot around to the outside of your left hip. Inhale and lift your left arm, bend your left elbow, and let your left hand rest at the middle of your upper back, palm facing your back. Then reach your right arm behind you, bend your elbow, and bring the back of your right hand to rest against your back. You can clasp your fingertips, grab your shirt, or reach for a strap, sweatshirt, or towel to bridge the gap. Breathe here.

Reclined Figure 4 (Photo: Alexandra Martin)
Reclined Figure 4 (Photo: Alexandra Martin)

9. Reclined Figure 4

Benefit: Opens tight inner and outer hips, releases neck tension.

How to: Lie on your back and cross your right ankle over your left knee. Keep your right foot flexed. Bring your left knee toward your chest and interlace your fingers in front of your left shin. Using the strength of your arms, draw your left knee toward your chest as you lean your right knee away from you. Breathe here.

Woman reclining on her yoga mat in a twist with one leg straight and the other knee bent while practicing yoga for surfers
Supine Twist (Photo: Alexandra Martin)

10. Reclined Twist

Benefits: Lengthens muscles and encourages mobility along your spine. Also stretches the hips, lats, and shoulders.

How to: Lie down on your back with your legs extended straight on the ground. As you inhale, hug your right knee into your chest. As you exhale, bring your right knee across your chest and over to the left. Reach your arms straight out from your shoulders to create a “T” shape. Turn your gaze to the right. Breathe here as you complete your yoga for surfers practice. Change sides.

About Our Contributor

Emily Meersand is a Hawaii-based yoga instructor and practitioner, located on the North Shore of Oahu. She began regularly practicing yoga at a young age with her mom, who was an avid yogi. Her yoga practice and teaching style is derived from yoga classes all over the world. She has studied yoga in Bali and has led surf and yoga retreats from Mexico to Sri Lanka. She has taught yoga at San Francisco studios including The Assembly, yogabeachSF, Yoga Flow, Lovestory Yoga, and Equinox Market Street and has trained with Janet Stone, Stephanie Snyder, Diana Oppenheim, Suzy Nece, Anna Hughes, and Schuyler Grant.

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