In the book, West of Jesus, author Steven Kotler chronicled how his life devolved with a diagnosis of Lyme disease. It took his physical health, his ability to work, his relationship, and at times, his will to live. And then he got hooked on riding waves.
“At a time when everything else was gone, when nothing made sense and nothing worked, when suicide seemed a damn viable option, surfing saved my life — and I wanted to know why,” Kotler wrote.
Like plenty of other people and just like the bestselling author, Kotler, I also found salvation while playing in the ocean, only my saving grace was provided by an even simpler way of riding waves: bodysurfing. In March of 2017, in the midst of a deep, dark depression that featured a two-month stretch of insomnia, I hopped on a plane to Hawaii to fight for what little was left of my sanity.
As I kicked out to the lineup at Pine Trees I found myself experiencing a pleasant dose of adrenaline for the first time in months. What is more, my breathing — which had become painfully shallow and out of rhythm due to the crippling anxiety — inexplicably began to ease. My calmness of breath made little sense considering the size of the waves though. The surf was easily five feet by Hawaiian standards — the biggest I’d ever attempted to bodysurf. And even though I was operating at the lowest physical and mental capacity of my life, I swam out anyway.
Let’s just say I got in the water prepared to let the cards fall where they may. More important than the surprise of surviving that two-hour session, I realized I had been experiencing pure nirvana, and just like Kotler magically climbing out of the grips of Lyme, I wanted to know why.
In the must-watch bodysurf film Come Hell or High Water, there is a beautiful scene featuring world-renowned surf photographer Don King bodysurfing at Makapuu beach with his autistic son Beau. “One of the neat things about Beau,” King says, “is how comfortable he is in the water, and how much he likes it. And so, when I go in the water with Beau, for a while, I can just play with him and forget about all the problems of autism.”
Anyone who watches this scene can clearly see the calming effect the ocean has on Beau, and just how much pleasure he derives from diving beneath the waves.
In recent years, there has been a push from scientists around the world to understand the positive affect exposure to nature plays on the human psyche. In his best-selling book Blue Mind, marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols makes the case that being in and around water has therapeutic benefits that can make humans happier, healthier, and more connected.
Nichols claims that the average person in today’s society has to process more information on a daily basis than any other time in history, which has resulted in unprecedented levels of anxiety and depression. He believes that most people operate constantly in a reptilian fight or flight red mind. We can counteract this newly-evolved state of high-stress awareness simply by spending more time in or around water.
“What happens when you’re at the water,” says Nichols, “is your brain is getting a break. Getting to the water forces us to disconnect from the stream of auditory and visual information, and switches your brain to blue mind, which helps us relax, reconnect with nature, reconnect with others, and reconnect with ourselves.”
Bodysurfing is arguably the best way to harness and connect with those healing properties of the ocean simply because we are fully submerged when bodysurfing. When you ride a wave sans surfboard, sans bodyboard, you are receiving energy that has traveled hundreds, if not thousands of miles to ultimately be transmitted through you. Anybody who has caught a wave in any form, with or without any craft, knows that experience can be transformative.
“It simply feels good,” says world champion bodysurfer Mark Cunningham. “I get exercise, I get to go outdoors, I see my friends, and I’m completely surrounded and immersed in nature.”
Considering the human body is nearly the same density as water (which allows us to float), and that our mineral content is almost identical to that of the ocean, it makes sense that bodysurfing would “simply feel good” for most people. What’s more, physiologically speaking, is that bodysurfing provides a full-body workout that increases the release of dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins that can help combat the negative effects of anxiety and depression — all effects that are sited when pointing to the positive impact of things like surf therapy.
What I learned that day bodysurfing Pine Trees, swimming in big surf with nothing more than a pair of fins on my feet, is that the ocean, like life, can seem chaotic at the surface. But once you shed the nonessentials and dive deep beneath the tumult, you’ll discover peace and tranquility.