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Experiencing Sisterhood on a Surf and Yoga Retreat

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Article by Sherry Ott

I bobbed in the ocean, sitting on my board, breathing heavy from the paddle out past the break. I already felt like giving up, but my eyes were zeroed in on the horizon, squinting away the sunrise. My brain was on overdrive. This one? Too big. This one? No, wait…maybe…no. This one? No, I can’t do this! This one? Yes, …wait…shit…yes. I quickly did my sitting turn I had learned and lay down on my board. I scoot into position with my toes on the back of the board tense and ready.

I take a deep breath mentally running through all of the things in my head I was supposed to remember; breath, look at the horizon, keep my hands by my chest when I push up, pop up with my left leg in front, put my back foot down, breath. I look behind my shoulder and see it building. Without thinking, I start to paddle. I hear Kate yelling at me, “paddle, paddle, harder!” The board suddenly lifts beneath me as if a monster has risen out of the sea and is moving me. I paddle as hard as I can. I think about giving up. I keep paddling. Suddenly I panic and am elated at the same time; I caught the wave.

Why Do a Surf and Yoga Retreat?

The answer is simple; it was the best vacation I’ve had in a very long time. I know after reading those first few paragraphs, it might not seem like it, but it was. For me overcoming fears, pushing myself, and trying new things is essential to my wellbeing. I feel most happy when I’m on that edge—the edge of fear and exhilaration. That’s exactly what this experience was for me. And I’m not just talking about the surfing; the yoga also had me on an edge where I wobbled between uncomfortable and mental peace.

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This was my chance to focus on something I was interested in learning. I have tried surfing all over the world for an hour at a time; Sri Lanka, AustraliaHawaii, and Maine. I’ve always liked it and had a few successes while taking short, individual lessons; however, it always left me wanting more. And since the lessons were so far apart in time (and geography!) I always felt like I was starting over again. Plus, the beginner classes mainly focused on getting you to stand on the board. But I wanted more than that; I wanted to become comfortable with the ocean and know which waves were good surfing waves. Because of that, I always had my eye on a surfing retreat where I would finally have the time to work on my skills more and understand the sport better.

 “As an adult, a surfing camp gives me an excuse to go in and play in the water. “ –Cynthia a participant in my surf camp

In addition to this great reason by fellow surfer Cynthia, I also think doing a retreat like this was necessary because I was in a rut mentally and needed a jolt.

Finisterra Travel

I worked with Finisterra Travel to organize this adventure. Finisterra is a female owned small business designing custom travel experiences to the further-flung corners of the globe. I met Keri and Nicola, the owners, when traveling in Salta Argentina last year and we have become fast friends. These are two women that have traveled just as much as I have around the globe and their fun-loving attitude was evident in everything they did.

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It was in Salta when I learned that Finisterra offered a surf and yoga retreat. Keri’s sister is a surf instructor in Tofino, Canada and she runs winter camps in Panama and El Salvador. In addition, it was an all women’s retreat; something else I had never done before!

Women’s Only Adventures

Women are joiners. We like to do things together, we feel power in numbers, and we bond quickly. Basically—we are a sisterhood.

I learned this fact when I started Meet Plan Go Travel events in 2010. Our attendance was 80 percent women. They loved the idea of a class that gave them the confidence and knowledge of how to travel and take a career break.

Even though I have spoken at plenty of women’s travel groups and write about female travel, I had never done an all female retreat or trip before. The idea of them always seemed too self-helpie or woo woo woomen for me. And if you know me, I’m the type of person who feels yoga is about as woo woo as I can be.

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However, when I learned about the surf and yoga retreat, I knew I could do that kind of female trip because it was something active. I’m not good at sitting around and talking about feelings, but I am good at sweating. I felt that it would be a nice chance to take this intimidating sport and learn it with women because we approach learning differently than men. I felt like it would be the perfect camaraderie and community feeling for me.

I’m not the only one who feels that way, there has been a steady increased popularity of women only travel—and it was about time I tried it out.

Who Were These Surfing and Yogi Women?

All of the women in the group happened to be from Canada, but other than that, they were all very, very different in age and backgrounds. If you think that a surf and yoga retreat is just for the young, then you are wrong—we had a diversity of ages—primarily 30’s, some 40’s, and two of the women were 65 and 66! And let me tell you, Cynthia and Anne did way better than me when it came to standing up on that board!

It didn’t take long for us to bond and get along; maybe it was the five hour van ride to start off! I loved how diverse all of our backgrounds were:

Anne – Retired biology teacher
Jenny – Corrections Officer
Sam – Remote Search and Rescue Paramedic
Cynthia – Fish and wildlife administrator in Canada
Nicola – Entrepreneur
Tara – Ski Lift Mechanic/Millwright
Lydia – Surf instructor
Kate – Surf instructor
Melissa – Small Business Owner
And me…The travel writer!

I felt like we had an uber capable group. I’m pretty sure if we were stranded on an island in Panama for a few months to a year that we’d be okay as a group. I’m not really sure what skill I would’ve added, except that I could document the whole ordeal!

We all came individually, but we bonded together well. In fact my roommate, Mel, told me this was only the second time she had traveled alone without her husband in 23 years! The first time is when she went to surf and yoga camp last year! She had so much fun on her own and meeting other women, she wanted to come back again.

What Was a Typical Day Like?

We’d get up for coffee and head to the beach by 7 a.m. for our first lessons. Even though I’m not a morning person at all, I loved these mornings because the beach was completely deserted. The sun had just come up, and the waves were good; it didn’t get much better than this!

We’d have little lessons on form, etiquette, paddling, turtle rolling, etc. Then we’d be let loose to hit the waves. We had three instructors—two from Surf Sister and a local instructor. We’d spend at least 90 minutes out in the waves. Then completely famished we’d come back to breakfast at 9:15 a.m. After breakfast we normally had yoga and free time.

In the afternoon we’d sometimes go through the gopro footage from the morning and get more advice on form from our coaches. It was sort of like a football player watching footage; you are too far up on the board, you need to put your back foot down, paddle longer! The afternoons were about hammock naps, massages, swimming, or biking into town. I was normally so exhausted I would just sit in a hammock and edit photos or relax.

We’d meet again at 4 p.m. for another lesson about surf reports, breaks, more etiquette and we’d head down to the beach again. This time the beach was much more full and it was a good chance to put our etiquette lessons to work. I found the afternoons really stressful with the additional people and surfers, but it was necessary to get comfortable surfing with people around! We’d head back, clean up, have drinks and dinner and then maybe play games at night before we all passed out early.

In addition to this typical routine, we did a couple of day excursions to go snorkeling out at Coiba National Park and a beach picnic day at Santa Catalina Island. I loved that we had these little outings available to us so we could see and experience a bit more of the area. But what I loved most was being able to stay in one place; no rushing around to see every sight, no packing and unpacking, no pressures. It was a week of just surfing, yoga, beach, and being still. It’s really rare I get vacations like this and realized how important they are.

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Meet Our Surf Coaches

“You have to remain positive,” Kate lectured me as we were bobbing out in the water and I had just fallen off my board yet again. I was beating myself up about some stupid mistake I made or upset that I couldn’t progress as much as I wanted. But Kate was reminding me that I wouldn’t make progress if I was too hard on myself. She was absolutely right, however it’s sometimes hard to be gentle on yourself. I appreciated the reminder though; as women we are super critical of ourselves and it really does get us nowhere.

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Kate and Lydia, our instructors from Surf Sister in Tofino, were the perfect pair. They clearly loved teaching; they were constantly positive and patient. We started the retreat by sitting around a bonfire at the beach talking about what we hoped to accomplish for the week. My goal was to be able to pick a wave to take and paddle onto it myself.

I think one of my favorite things about the week was that it wasn’t about progressing or mastering one step and then moving on to the next. It was more about learning how you are supposed to do many different things and working on all of them simultaneously. And this worked because many times I only was able to get one part of the process right—maybe it was the middle part (catching the wave), maybe it was the end part (like standing up), or maybe it was simply being able to read the wave by myself. I had to learn how to take little victories and not expect that I would get it all right. I was far away from being consistent.

Kate and Lydia built a camaraderie that was supportive and fun!

Learning to Relax…and Laugh

All of this fun did not come without its share of aches and pains—at least for me. It’s amazing how our body gets stuck in a rut doing the same stuff over and over. When I woke up on day two and turned over—my whole body hurt. I knew I had moved out of the rut…and so did my sore muscles. Surfing is one of the most demanding sports on your body. It uses so many different muscles; especially lower back, shoulders, chest, and arms.

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Yoga and surfing is like ying and yang; you beat up your body in the water, and then turn around and heal it in yoga! Our yoga instructor, Eva, was also a surfer, so she knew exactly how to get to those important (and numerous), sore areas and stretch them out. She did various versions of yoga, but focused a lot on our shoulders! I do love yoga and I think it’s so important as we get older to stay flexible. However, Eva also pushed us out of our comfort zone and really turned it into a learning and bonding experience.

“Would you like to try laughing yoga?” Eva asked us in her Catalan accent. I cringed for a second. I have enough trouble with the normal yogi stuff—and now she wants to try laughing? I tried to remind myself I should embrace and try new things. But laughing…oh boy this was going push me way out of my comfort zone. As we all gathered in a circle she explained how important it was to laugh. It not only would be an emotional boost, but it also builds our core muscles. We wouldn’t necessarily have anything to laugh about, but “The mind does not know that we’re faking it,” Eva explained. She went on to describe how the session would work and that we would be laughing for 20 minutes and then she’d lead us into a deep relaxation.

Whoa—20 minutes of laughing? This was as daunting to me as trying to catch a green wave and stand up. I took a deep breath and followed her lead. We all were a bit uncomfortable at first—but since we had already bonded as a group, it was actually pretty easy to be silly together. What started as fake laughter ended up being real as we were all nearly in tears. I don’t think I have laughed that much in years and years. My stomach hurt and my face was sore from smiling. I did it…I let go…and I was reminded once again that letting go is always worth it.

But it was the deep relaxation that she guided us into afterward that was my highlight. You hang between sleep and awareness for about 20 minutes—it’s an incredible place to be.

The Perfect Active Vacation

I watched all the women the last day and thought about how much progress we had all made—together. Aspects of my surfing did improve, such as reading waves, getting comfortable on a smaller board, and how to paddle myself onto a wave; the standing part…well…that still needs some work. But I can safely say that I haven’t had a healthier more relaxing vacation. I ate wonderfully, drank minimally, was active, learned new things, and learned how to relax. And this all happened with the camaraderie of nine other women who started as strangers and ended as friends and teammates.

One night at dinner we were all talking about dating and relationships when Cynthia who was 66 said, “As you get older you practically have to pay people to touch you!” We all laughed and without hesitation, Sam looked at her and said—“no you don’t!” and gave Cynthia a big hug.

Thanks to my ‘surf sisters’ for making this a vacation to remember! This week in Panama taught me about surfing, yoga, relaxing, being kind to myself, and most importantly it reminded me how incredible the power of women together are. Sisterhood!

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Follow Sherry Ott @ottsworld

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