Life’s a wave. Catch it.

My yoga & surfing retreat in Portugal

​Learning to surf has been on my bucket list longer than I’ve even had a written bucket list. I’ve always thought that there’s something magical and immensely empowering to connecting with the power of the ocean by riding a wave. Surfing has always seemed like the perfect epitome of excitement, connectedness to nature and a deep sense of freedom.

Living in a landlocked country didn’t exactly make it easy for me to pursue my dream. Austria has an abundance of crystal-clear lakes that are great for swimming, paddleboarding and sometimes kite- and wind-surfing, but none of them produce waves that are big enough to ride. The nearest ocean is several hundred miles away, so it’s not exactly a quick hop to get to surfable waves. And although I had been traveling extensively since my early 20s, I’d somehow never gotten round to taking some surf lessons.

So when I found myself with some free time at my hands at the start of this summer, I decided that the time had finally come to make my dream come true and (literally) dive in to the experience of surfing for the first time. I researched some options for surf & yoga trips in Southwestern Europe and came across a pretty little retreat on Portugal’s Algarve coast that immediately resonated with me.

Chicks on Waves was founded more than a decade ago by Belgian-born Katrien Kegels. Just like many others, she fell in love with surfing but faced the same problem as I did: not living close to the beach made it hard for her to follow her passion of surfing. So she took to traveling the world in search of the best surfing spots. She caught waves in Indonesia and Costa Rica and organized surf retreats in Morocco, until she found her heart place on the southern tip of Portugal, in the small village of Burgau. The place soon became home for her and her family, and the idea was born to host yoga & surf retreats there.

Katrien was specifically passionate about making surfing more accessible for women. Surfing, she thinks, is a deeply feminine sport. “The waves, the fluid lines, the poetry of the sea. We dance on the water, and we’re out to have fun. Men want to prove themselves. Sometimes they break up the waves with their tricks, whereas women go with the flow of the sea.” [1]. That’s why she decided to found Chicks on Waves, a retreat run by women for women who are looking to find a home away from home and share the experience of practicing yoga and surfing together. Men are of course welcome too, but at least once a month the place is exclusively reserved for female guests.

When I stepped foot into the villa I was immediately captivated by the good vibes of the place. Bright-white painted and nestled against the hillside, the villa seemed like a sanctuary of peace and tranquility. Co-hosts Karine and Anja gave me the warmest welcome and offered to help me out with stuff I might need due to the fact that my backpack hadn’t made it to Portugal together with me (thanks Eurowings!). They showed me around the spacious villa and explained everything worth knowing about the retreat. The place was oozing with charm. The interior sported a clean beach chic with accents of lime and turquoise all around, and was lovingly decorated with Portuguese tiles, seashells, coffeetable books and surf magazines. The sunny outdoor terrace around the pool was lined with deck chairs and lounge spots for hanging out and relaxing.

I learned that women from all parts of the world had come to the retreat in the past, and some of them had come back to stay and work there. Karine, a beautiful beach-blonde and sun-kissed girl from the Netherlands who is never seen without a big smile on her face, had found the place while looking for somewhere to work and surf all year round, and is now a co-host of the retreat. Swiss Anja is part of the family too, and spends about half the year in Portugal to help take good care of the retreat guests. Anina from Switzerland and Monica from Portugal are the villa’s culinary angels and responsible for all the healthy and nourishing breakfasts, lunches and dinners we devoured during the retreat week. Only once a week they can sit back and relax when Niek, Katrien’s Dutch husband, takes over the outdoor grill for the weekly barbecue.

Nourishing and creative cooking is an integral part of the retreat, and the ritual of eating together creates an even deeper sense of community among the guests. The kitchen team also makes sure to accommodate special dietary requirements, from gluten-free toast and pancakes for breakfast to vegetarian and vegan dinner options like sweet potato-beetroot salad and asparagus quinoa with walnuts.

Days at the retreat followed a blissful flow. Every morning we would greet the day with an energizing yoga class on the rooftop terrace. Our teacher Iaci made sure to incorporate many poses in our practice that would help us prepare the body for surfing: hip openers for a stable stance, arm-strengthening asanas for strong paddling, and core-strengthening exercises to help us pop up and stand firmly on our surfboard. Throughout the week she progressed to more restorative flows to stretch our muscles and facilitate regeneration after days of surfing.

After a healthy and nourishing breakfast (with the best guacamole toast ever, hands down!) we would grab our wetsuits and head off to the beach in an old van with the girls from a local surf school. Praia do Castelejo on the west coast of the Algarve was an ideal spot for us kooks (beginner surfers). Situated right in the pristine Vicentine national park, the wide-stretched beach break flanked by huge black cliffs offered plenty of white water waves rolling continuously towards the shore, but also a more challenging break a little further from the beach for more experienced surfers.

Sara, our Italian surf teacher, explained the basics about catching waves: where to position ourselves on the board, when and how to paddle in order to catch a wave, and how to push ourselves up to standing once the wave carried us forward. After a round of stretches on the beach we were off into the water. The waves that had looked so gentle and small from the shore seemed way bigger and mightier once I was face-to-face with them. Carrying my board tail-first across them to get into the deeper water proved harder than imagined and consumed a lot of energy (I was glad I had had second helpings of breakfast every day). Once I got to the point where the waves were breaking I would turn around, jump onto the board and “paddle, paddle, paddle!!” as the water was building up behind me.

The first 3 days were like continuous and relentless rides in a salty washing machine for me, meaning that the waves I intended to catch either rolled past me because I wasn’t paddling hard enough or sweeped me off my board as I was trying to push myself up on it. My body soon felt sore and exhausted, but I refused to give up. And after countless unsuccessful attempts I finally I did it! Just like every beginner surfer, I will never forget that first wave I rode through the foaming white water, exhilaratingly letting myself fall into the shallows with a big splash as my board reached the beach. It lasted only a couple of seconds, but they felt like forever. I guess this is what people mean when they say they’ve caught the surf bug. Nothing could wipe the big smile off of my face for the rest of the day!

@ Massimo Pardini Photography

The excited chatter about the waves we had caught (and those that had smashed us), the saltwater we had swallowed and the sand that was everywhere on our bodies dominated the late lunches we had in the shade of pine trees at a little picnic spot overlooking the hills. As I was looking at the glowing faces of my fellow surf-yogis, I remembered something I had once read in a surf magazine: “You won’t wear make-up all day long and your hair will be all messy and your eyes will be red from the saltwater, and yet you will never feel more beautiful and comfortable in your body.

It felt wonderful to share this experience with like-minded people from all around the world who I had only just met some days ago. Surfing and yoga forge community like hardly any other activities do. It was easy to bond over downward-facing dogs, salty waves and outdoor dinners (and delicious Portuguese wine), and by the end of the retreat we almost felt like family. On our last evening, as we were watching the stars glittering in the night sky from the terrace, I found myself understanding why so many people had come back and made this place their home away from home. It had become sort of the same for us too. And so we didn’t say Good-bye to each other the next day; we said See you again soon!, knowing that the ocean is right out there waiting for us to come back and surf waves together.

Surfing & yoga

I guess you’ve heard people say many times what a perfect match yoga and surfing are. And it’s true: they have a lot in common. Besides the quite obvious benefits of stretching the muscles and restoring the body after surfing, yoga is also the perfect prepatory practice before hitting the waves. It supports the build-up of the physical condition you need for surfing, including core strength, balance and flexibility. The repetitive movements of sun salutations, warrior flows and other sequences you practice on your mat train body and mind to build muscle memories – just like those you need to cultivate for surfing. In other words: your body learns to execute the sequence of movements you need to stand up on your board automatically, until they become second nature and you do them without thinking. Yogic breathing (pranayama) helps you control your breath on (and under) the water and calm and focus the mind while you surf. One of the most common breathing techniques is even called ocean breath because the sound of it is reminiscent of the ebb and flow of waves.

For me, the most profound common teaching of surfing and yoga was the importance of letting go. Letting go of expectations and high standards, letting go of worries and even fears. To catch a wave you need to be mindful, patient and resilient. You need to trust your instincts and just be here now, totally present with yourself and with the ocean around you. And when you get to that mesmerizing point where you rise from your board as the water underneath you carries you, making you feel like flying, you know you are one with the universe.

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