The culture that has grown up around the sport and pastime of surfing has been seen by many of its practitioners as implicitly spiritual. The mix of spending long periods of time “baptized” in the water while absorbed in quiet contemplation, together with the supportive surf community, and the devotion, discipline and rituals associated with surfing have long lead many to consider surfing a bona fide religion.
The surfing worldview is heavily influenced by ecology and naturalism, together with the psychological states exalted by Daoism and Bodhism. Surfer culture is often seen as a sort of rebel or outsider response to the mainstream cult of consumerism and modernity. A “back to the land” ethos has hallmarked Surferism since its beginnings in the mid-20th century. Psychology also plays a prominetn role in the surfing experience, with surfing often seen as a metaphor for navigating the ups and downs of life (waves) and a training in “going with the flow” as specified in Daoism and other religions. Surfers tend to believe that getting closer to nature and living in harmony with it can help to make us spiritually whole, especially when that nature is our primordial origin: the sea.
There isn’t much recorded history regarding surfing, but it’s widely believed that Polynesians practiced it for hundreds of years before it was discovered by outsiders. In Hawaii, surfing was deeply integrated into the culture, and seen as part of warrior training, with religious rituals and a social hierarchy of respect and access to the best surfing spots.
Surfing began to catch on with non-Polynesians around the beginning of the 20th century, with Hawaiian athletic hero Duke Kahanamoku helping to spread awareness via a series of traveling exhibitions. However, surfing really advanced in world awareness and popularity in the mid-20th century after it began to feature in popular music and films. Around this time, the rise of a naturalist counterculture led by the beatniks and hippies began to influence the surfing community and gradually surfing became to be seen as a counterculture of its own, one that stressed independence from the mainstream, self-reliance, and a code of ethics that appealed to those disenchanted with the postwar consumer-oriented culture.
Surfing itself makes up the bulk of the surfer’s practice. But maintenance of equipment such as boards and vehicles form part of the ritualistic practice as well. Following the patterns of the sea and its swells require the surfist to be keenly aware of their environment, which has also led to a great interest in conservation and ecology in order to preserve the health of the sacred oceans required for religious practice. Surfers often indulge in other related board sports such as snowboarding, wakeboarding, paddleboarding and skateboarding both as a means of maintaining their surfing skills but also for their own sake.
My religion is the religion of surfing and nobody can tell me that what I and everybody I know does, and what we did yesterday, is not a religious experience … When you practice something regularly, what you are doing is practicing union with nature in order to become aware of the things that are important to you and the things that a lot of of other like minded people happen to believe.When a whole lot of us do it, we become a formidable vibration on planet earth, able to influence and inspire others, maybe even help save the planet. I feel very strongly that surifng has been underrated from the religious side.
— Nat Young
Soul surfers consider surfing to be a profoundly meaningful practice that brings physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits. They generally agree on where surfing initially developed, that it assumed a religious character, was suppressed for religious reasons, has been undergoing a revival, and enjoins reverence for and protection of nature. This subset of the global surfing community should be understood as a new religious movement, a globalizing, hybridized, and increasingly influential example of what I call aquatic nature religion. For these individuals, surfing is a religious form in which a specific sensual practice constitutes its sacred center, and the corresponding experiences are constructed in a way that leads to a belief in nature as powerful, transformative, healing, and sacred. I advance this argument by analyzing these experiences, as well as the myths, rites, symbols, terminology, technology, material culture, and ethical mores that are found within surfing subcultures.
— Bron Taylor
The sea holds a magic for those of us who know her. A magic so simple, pure and powerful it works as an unseen force in our souls. We’re drawn to her. The spirit of the sea moves in us as we move within her, undulating folds in pursuit of our peace. As surfers, we inherently know this to be so. The sea brings comfort, solace, release and escape. The sea brings healing. The spirit of the sea, for some of us, is the very essence of life.
— Keith Glendon
Some argue that surfing is a religion. If so, the great Hawaiian surfer and Olympic swimming champion Duke Kahanamoku would certainly have to be seen as surfing’s messiah or prophet, and from the vantage point of the present day we can see that Tom Blake became his chief apostle.
— Dave Parmenter
Surfing has a spiritual aura that you only get once you’ve experienced it yourself. It’s always a journey to the inner self. It never will lose its soul and spirit, because the magic that envelops you, when surfing, is far too powerful.
— Steffen Mackert