Yoga for Action Sports Addicts

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By Troy Eckert

It was 2005. I was Executive VP Global Marketing at Volcom. We had just gone public, and I was up to my eyeballs, spending more time than ever in front of a computer. Hadn’t surfed in weeks or snowboarded in months. I would race home for a lunch-hour session with my yoga teacher every few days. Suddenly I was back in my body again. I regained control of my racing mind. It was a tiny liberation that made a huge difference. During those years, yoga saved me.

I started surfing at age 10, and my dad was a desert racer, so I was on dirt bikes from the beginning. My friends
and I always pushed each other, sometimes too far. By my late teens I was surfing professionally, going to Hawaii and other places with powerful waves. I also snowboarded, mainly riding the Southern California parks, and competed in the H20 Winter Classic surf/snow contests.

With that kind of activity for 30 years, injuries are unavoidable. Here’s my partial list: spiral fracture, tibia (dirt bike).

Nearly broken neck (surfing the Wedge). Broken elbow (skateboarding). Broken ribs and collarbone (dirt bike). Broken finger (surfing). Shattered heel (dirt bike). Third-degree shoulder separation (snowboarding). Broken wrist (wrestling a buddy). Tons of lacerations requiring stitches (mainly surfing).   

Even before the injuries, the normal wear and tear of surfing and snowboarding was thrashing me, and I was looking for a way to stay healthy. In my early 20s, I met Tim Brown, a sports medicine innovator. His unorthodox treatment is sought by world class athletes from Kobe Bryant to Kelly Slater and he has helped me through every injury I’ve ever had with healing and advice. He suggested yoga; if I had more range of motion, I might avoid more injuries. He recommended Sarah Reese, who teaches yoga with an emphasis on functional movement. I had no knowledge of yoga, except the common Western portrayal of girls in yoga pants. I was pretty skeptical, but I have so much respect for Tim I tried it.

At first I felt so stupid and stiff. It was totally foreign, not just the movements but the ideas. I was so tight I didn’t even think the movements Sarah was telling me to do were possible.  

Looking back it’s obvious I was completely locked up from all my injuries, and from sitting at a desk for over a decade. Sarah often says her new students are shocked at how good they begin to feel, because feeling crappy has become their normal. That was me.

After just 30 days of consistent practice though, I could see my body change, and my awareness grew with it. I started getting rid of old habits. I became more sensitive to what foods, what movements, what thoughts made me feel better after I indulged in them. Eventually I could feel every little creak in my body, and knew what it meant. I could detect the earliest hint of a sickness, and get in front of it before it took me down.

I was hooked. I wanted to learn more. Sarah gave me various books that brought me so much. I had never practiced meditation at that time, but there was a presence that came in yoga that was amazing. It was addicting.

I feel like I’m in better shape now, mentally and physically, than ever. And I’m 44. “My back hurts,” or “my knees–” or this or that, is common among guys my age. I don’t feel like I’m slowing down at all. A few days ago at Lower, Trestles, I had the best surf session I’ve had in a long time. It gives me confidence knowing I’m not holding back because of my knee or something.

I’m discovering more friends with similar stories. After many years of high impact activities, yoga is allowing them to prolong their active lives too. I met Chet Thomas when we were both 12. Now he’s a legendary street skater, and after three decades of falling on concrete he couldn’t even walk from back pain. “I realized if I still wanted to skate, I had to re-balance out my body. For me the main thing that worked was yoga,” he said. “The rad thing about yoga is it’s all natural movements. In skateboarding you need to be flexible, be agile, have great balance and be in the present moment. After a while you realize there is a big mental part of it too. Work, kids, cell phones, social media – yoga is that hour and a half where you can just focus on your breath, and being present in the moment.”

Top big wave surfer Greg Long, known for his intense training, which includes yoga, said, “Upon incorporating a regular yoga practice in my life, I noticed an immediate increase in my strength, flexibility, and balance both in and out of the water. But for me, it is equally, if not more so, a mental and spiritual practice. The embodiment of the teachings and philosophy behind the practice has benefited me most in my life. The self-awareness it has helped me cultivate allows me to move through life with much greater ease and clarity, especially during the most challenging and stressful of times…like in the line-up surfing a giant day.”

Strider Wasilewski, Pipeline surfer and WSL commentator, suffered a shoulder injury during a near fatal wipeout at Teahupoo, one of the world’s heaviest surf spots. “I tried almost everything and in the end yoga was my ticket! It opened my shoulder back up, and it opened my mind to the rest of my body and understanding how much improved blood flow would transform my health.”

Lance Pitman, former top pro snowboarder from Jackson, Wyoming, got into yoga to relieve asthma. “Soon after I realized it was a good replacement for karate. Less danger of injury. Then I realized it was building strength and flexibility that really helped in snowboarding. My snowboard stance gave me scoliosis. But with yoga I could keep hitting kickers despite my twisted up spine. Today I practice more to stay centered, maintain strength, and to learn the teachings,” he said.

The beauty of yoga is the fact that it’s not competitive. The reason a lot of us turned from conventional sports when we were kids to surfing, skating or snowboarding is that those sports are about enjoying what you’re doing, in that very moment. Your only competition is yourself. Your progress is internal. It’s a lifelong practice and progression. Just like yoga.