[This piece was originally published in SURFER’s summer 2020 issue, on newsstands now. To subscribe to SURFER, click here.]
Regardless of where you live, your political leanings, whether or not your surfing has been restricted and for how long, COVID-19 has made all of our lives shittier — that might be the one thing we can all agree on. For most of us, the shade of shittiness depends on the day, what’s happening at work (if we still have a job), how much news we’ve consumed and how many comment section swamps we’ve waded into. But it’s not all shitty, of course, and it’s increasingly important to remember that. There are certain things that have been helpful to keep in mind during the COVID-19 era. Here are four:
1. There Will Always Be More Waves
It takes a special kind of masochism to check the waves online when you’re unable to surf, but we do it all the time anyway. It’s long been a favorite means of self-torture for countless surfers, whether you’re bound to your desks between 9 and 5, away from the coast with your partner because you’ll say yes to any plan 6 months in advance, or eying your phone while holding a plate of questionable casserole at Uncle Milo’s house for Thanksgiving. During COVID-19, however, this type of masochism morphed into something else entirely.
In late March and early April, while many of the world’s beaches were under lockdown and decent swells were popping up everywhere from California to Portugal to Indonesia, surfers tuned into Surfline and Instagram to see something many have never seen in their lives: some of the world’s most iconic waves going off without a single person out. Based on the comments on social media, this filled people with a wide range of emotions. Some were upset by the perceived waste, others were in awe of the unfathomable quality usually obscured by crowds, and a few expressed an unexpected sentiment — some version of “Yeah, it needed a break.”
And maybe those waves did. In Southern California, spots like Malibu and Lower Trestles have been carpeted with surfers on every ripple of swell for decades. Seeing them completely empty, just doing their thing, made many just feel grateful that these waves exist at all—there they are, perfectly peeling away, completely indifferent to our wants, needs and egos. Because that’s what waves do. And they always will.
2. Many Surfers Have Helped Out During the Crisis (And You Can Too)
See that guy in the photo above? You should buy a surfboard from that guy. He makes great surfboards — gorgeous fish, curious mid lengths, Jaws-proven guns — sure, but that’s not why Chris Christenson gets our full-throated endorsement right now.
Back in late March, Christenson’s surfboard factory had to shut its doors like so many non-essential businesses in the face of COVID-19. “I had to lay off my entire crew,” Christenson told SURFER writer Gabriela Aoun at the time. “It was hard, I’d never done anything like that in my life. But at least if I laid them off they could collect unemployment and get something.”
But it didn’t take long for Christenson to create a silver lining along the dark cloud of his business’ temporary closure. After talking with his friend, an anesthesiologist at a local hospital, Christenson realized that the N95 masks normally used in his factory for surfboard production were the very kind in critically short supply in hospitals around the country. Not only did Christenson donate his own stockpile, but he coordinated with his mask supplier, Surf Supply in Oceanside, to donate even more masks (with Surf Supply selflessly eating that cost). All said, more than 200 N95 masks made it to hospitals as near as Orange County and as far as Tennessee — a tremendous help for healthcare workers, many of whom had been sterilizing and reusing masks for days on end.
Christenson isn’t the only one giving surfers a good name during the pandemic. Puerto Rican ripper Otto Flores worked with eyewear company Dragon to provide protective goggles to doctors on his island through the Goggles For Docs program. Electric similarly stepped up in the midst of the crisis to donate to local healthcare workers. And South Africa’s Dylan Lightfoot and friends have been busy coordinating with the J-Bay surf community to feed out-of-work residents who were living at the poverty line to begin with. But you don’t have to be a big-name surf brand or elite athlete to make a difference in this moment, of course. Remember Gabriela Aoun, the SURFER writer who interviewed Christenson a few paragraphs ago? Well, she’s been doing a lot of good herself since COVID-19 shut down her community in North County, San Diego. “I live in a neighborhood near a lot of immigrant families and an elementary school that has many ESL [English as a Second Language] students,” says Aoun. “So when all non-essential businesses and schools were closed in California, my mind immediately went to these families. I knew many would not qualify for government assistance, and even if they did it would take forever to get it.”
She contacted the principal of the local elementary school, who told her about a food bank they were running. Fast forward 5 weeks and Aoun has mounted a social media campaign wherein friends and strangers alike are donating money to fund her weekly grocery store runs (in a mask and gloves) for the food bank, which now feeds about 150 families each day. She’s raised enough money to put in bulk orders with local vendors like bread companies, to keep the money in the local community rather than going to big national chains. As of this writing, the needs of the community only continue to grow, but so does the support. “It has been beautiful to see how much people want to help each other,” she says. “I think I’m coming out of this crisis with a lot more faith in—and appreciation for—humanity.”
For surfers who are interested in helping out in their own communities, Aoun offers some advice: “The only way not to get overwhelmed by this crisis is to attack what is a global problem in a local way. Keep your eyes and ears open and be present in your community so that you can tune in to who needs help and with what.”
Let’s all take note.
3. Surfers Can be Great at Keeping Each Other In Good Spirits
The Internet — what a thing, amiright? It’s the most powerful information-sharing tool in the history of the observable universe, and many folks use it to bait each other into anonymous comment section brawls where the winner gets err…they don’t get anything do they?
Right. But the fact is, our digital spaces can be whatever we want them to be, and if you’ve known where to look, you’ve probably found no shortage of interesting, creative, additive discourse during the quarantine era. Two-time World Champion Tom Carroll has been leading a guided meditation class on Instagram every day at 5:50 a.m., bringing viewers a little inner peace before their morning coffee. Surf stars like John John Florence, Albee Layer and Kai Lenny were gracious enough to answer dozens of fan-submitted questions on video as part of SURFER’s “AMA From More Than 6 Feet Away” series. But perhaps no one worked harder and more creatively to connect surfers and raise their stoke levels in the social distancing era than Tanner Gudauskas.
Paradise Awareness Outreach started out humbly enough: Gudauskas regularly geeks out on old school, VHS surf videos and thought, “Why not share this with everyone else?” So he borrowed an encoder from a friend and looked up some YouTube tutorials, angled his Sony Handycam at his trusty 12-inch TV with a build-in VCR and popped in a cassette of the arguable zenith of surf cinema, “Searching for Tom Curren”. The live stream was an instant hit.
“Before the lockdown, a lot of times people would just roll by the house and we would watch a film and that was a really fun thing in the neighborhood, so this felt like a way to keep doing that,” says Gudauskas. “But it really has snowballed into this whole other thing.”
Gudauskas started opening his VHS broadcasts with FaceTime conversations with the filmmakers or stars behind the seminal films. Dane Reynolds told him that his breakout profile film, “First Chapter”, was almost a completely different, “really, really shitty” movie. Troy Eckert revealed that Bruce Irons’ iconic section in “Magnaplasm” was nearly edited to Black Sabbath’s “Symptom of the Universe”, and then Gudauskas streamed the section with the alternative tune. Before screening “Kelly Slater in Black and White”, Gudauskas got shut down by Kelly Slater when he asked him if he’d paddle out on an elf shoe thruster, just once more, just for old time’s sake.
“I think it’s interesting because it’s almost become this surf history lesson,” says Gudauskas. “I’ve watched these movies and nerded out on this stuff for years, but I’m learning a ton from every one of these conversations, too. If helping put those stories out there is a contribution that I can make back into the collective culture of surfing, I’m super into it.”
While the screenings of the films are one-time only, these conversations live on through Gudauskas’ YouTube channel and website, Theparadiseawarenessoutreach.com — a kind of DIY, digital scrapbook filled with videos, hand-scrawled notes and screen shots of text conversations with friends about these films. The way Gudauskas sees it, he’s just a conduit for an enthusiastic community, one that needed the surf equivalent of a record swap to shoot the shit about the deep cuts.
“For me, the silver lining in this situation is that all of us are slowing down and reflecting on the things we appreciate,” says Gudauskas. “All these people, it’s like everybody’s just trying to help surfing culture in this moment when we’re all just stuck at home. It’s just pure.”
4. Breathing Helps (And Gerry Lopez is Here to Help You Breathe Better)
“Just take a deep breath,” is a common piece of advice offered up in times of high stress. A cliché, in fact. But it does work, even if we seldom pause and actually give our breath the attention necessary to maximize its grounding, anxiety-reducing effects — you know, the good stuff that we could all use right now. Luckily, ever-calming-Yogi-and-living-Pipe-God Gerry Lopez is here to help. He calls the following lesson “The Breath of Life”, and you’re gonna want to get comfy for this. Lay a mat or a blanket on the floor, prop your phone or computer up in a chair or on a low table and we’ll let Gerry take it from here:
“First off, come into a comfortable seated position like lotus or half lotus or easy pose. If sitting on your knees with a block or any variation of vajrasan works, go there. If none of these are comfortable, lay on your back. Let your spine become straight and gently lengthen it, imagining the spaces between each vertebra opening. Begin to turn your external awareness inward, turning the gaze of your entire sensory apparatus so it looks inside. Keep your mind and all your senses inside; try not to let them wander outside of your body.
“Let your body relax and begin bringing your full attention to your breathing. Allow your awareness to embrace your exhale, knowing you are breathing out. When you breathe in, know you are doing this. As you focus on your breath, your concentration will deepen, making it easier for thoughts to subside.
“Empty the lungs completely on each exhale, lifting your diaphragm to squeeze all the air out, doing this without rushing, gently pushing any air out until none remains. You will find a stillness there as you create a vacuum in your lungs so as you begin your inhale, the air will naturally flow in. Help it in an easy, gentle, unforced manner, filling the lungs completely, letting the diaphragm push downward and your abdomen to expand. Allow the bottom of your lungs to fill first. Then as you pull in more air, feel your intercostal muscles engage, letting your ribs push out, your chest expanding, adding more air in the thoracic area. Finally, gently raise your shoulders and collarbones as you continue to breathe in to the very top of your lungs, filling them completely. When no more air will go in, then relax into the moment of breath retention, finding a deep stillness that your entire body will feel. Be aware of the position of your spine, keep it erect if sitting, straight if lying down, allowing the stillness to relax your muscles and release any tension. Our Pranayama practice involves these three aspects: we call the exhalation, Rechaka, the inhalation, Puraka and the gap between when the breath is still is Kumbhaka. When practiced mindfully, this intentional breathing has physical, mental and emotional benefits. Physically, we oxygenate our blood and strengthen our digestive, elimination, respiratory and circulatory systems. Energetically, a Pranayama practice helps balance, concentrate and harmonize the flow of Prana within us. Our mind stays clear and alert. The key ingredient here is attention. By paying close attention to our breath, we increase focus and concentration. This has the effect of raising our meditative awareness and bringing us into the present moment.
“Buddha was once asked what he gained from meditation and he answered, ‘Nothing…but I lost anger, anxiety, depression, insecurity and fear of old age and death.’ Continuing the same slow, deep breathing and sitting quietly, let’s take a look down the path Buddha took.
“Bring your awareness down to your lower belly to the area around our second or Swadhisthana Chakra. Notice the rhythm and movement of your breath. The fall then swell of your abdomen as you exhale and inhale. Let your breathing be easy, unforced and unhurried. Consider, observe and respect your breathing.
“Now let your awareness expand out to feel your body. Note the position of your body on the floor — are you at ease or is there discomfort? If there is some small ache, just feel it, stay with it, then move through it. Be aware of what you hear, the sound of your breath, or any other sounds around you. Be aware of any smells, any tastes. Feel your skin, feel the air—is it still or is the air moving? Is it warm or is the air cool?
“Move your awareness up to your heart center, your Anahata Chakra. Notice any emotions you are feeling. This is different and more difficult but just try to look closely and see. Is there some anxiety? Or anger? Maybe you feel peacefulness and contentment. Try to not let there be any attachment to whatever you’re feeling—don’t judge, just stand back and feel. There is no disappointment for feeling anxious or mad, there is no good or bad about being calm and content. Just take note of what is happening.
“Bring your awareness up to the space between your eyebrows, to your Ajna Chakra. Focus here and pay attention to the thoughts that arise. Try not to attach any meaning to any of the thoughts, don’t try to stop them or influence them, just let them flow in and flow out. Bring your attention back to your breath: let any tension or feelings, emotions or thoughts flow out of you with the Rechaka as you exhale, emptying everything, leaving a still, vacant space waiting to be refilled. Fill that space with the Puraka as you inhale, breathing first into the low belly, the second Swadhisthana Chakra. Let the breath fill up to the Anahata Chakra, your heart center, and finally up the Ajna Chakra at your forehead. Feel the energy swirl through these Chakras and center the energy between your eyebrows as you retain that full and complete breath. Now let that energy settle down into a peaceful, calm stillness in this moment of Kumbhaka as the breath is suspended. And when you’re ready, release the breath again; let it flow over your throat Chakra, the Vishudha Chakra, allowing more tension and whatever other stuff you find yourself holding in to flow out, just letting go of anything you feel like releasing.
“Continue this exercise as long or as short as you want to. There is no judgment, no competition, there is only self and — eventually, if our practice is pure and true—there is Self. Surfing and Yoga reveal the secrets of living a life in harmony with nature. First, we work towards control of our body — proper breathing is the connection between our body and our mind. Pranayama practice is about increasing our intake of Prana and storing this energy in our nerve centers and solar plexus. Every action, every thought, every emotion, everything we do drains our life force, our pranic energy. More Prana equals more vitality. The secret of healing of diseases, injuries or weaknesses is regulating Prana. The control of the Prana leads to control of the mind. The highest manifestation of Prana’s actions in humans is thought. The trained Yogi is able to push his mind into higher states of consciousness. When we get a long tube ride and time seems to slow down, it is because our mind has slowed down…for time is a function of our mind. And for those moments, we approach a state of elevated consciousness—the same state we strive for in deep meditation. When we combine this state of mind with controlled, correct Yoga breathing techniques, we begin to get close to the true purpose of life.”