Yoga for Surfers rides wave of popularity

Ray Call, a life-long surfer, rides wave after wave, achieving effortless balance on his short board. Not so easy on a yoga mat. Standing heel to toe, eyes closed, spine straight, Call's legs wobble.

"I have a lot less balance than I thought I did," said Call, a 46-year-old engineer from Mission Viejo, Calif.

Instructor Peggy Hall explains the importance of balance postures to a class of eight, dressed mostly in surf T-shirts. "There are times you slip on your wax," Hall says. "Even just pulling on your wetsuit you have to balance on one leg so it doesn't get all sandy."

Hall leads the class in stretches to strengthen their shoulders for paddling, core work to more quickly pop up on the board, and how to relax with visualization of a favorite beach. One student describes the session as "yoga on surf steroids." It's also an accidental connection Hall discovered a decade ago that swelled, like the perfect wave, into a $100,000 a year business.

Her company, Yoga for Surfers, coincides with record numbers of women surfers and an overall explosion in the popularity of yoga. An estimated 2.3 million Americans surf, 30 percent of them women, according to Board Trac, a market research company. Out 16.5 million yoga enthusiasts, 77 percent are women.

"It's such a perfect combination," Hall says. "We just got on the wave and we've been riding it."

Hall's fusion of yoga and surfing has taken her to the beaches of Hawaii, Tahiti and Australia. But her story began off the shores of Orange County. Hall, 47, grew up in Dana Point, where in high school she was the only girl to swim on the boys team.

She continued to swim at University of California Santa Barbara and especially loved long-distance ocean swimming. But she never surfed. "Back then girls just didn't surf," Hall says. That changed about 10 years ago, when Hall decided to try surfing while on vacation in Hawaii. Around the same time, she took up yoga, hoping to avoid shoulder surgery for tendonitis caused by years of swimming.

Then she noticed something funny. Her shoulder pain went away and her surfing improved. "I felt stronger in the water, I felt calmer. More balanced," Hall says. "I was looking around for some kind of yoga for surfers video. There was nothing. I thought, `I've got to tell people about this because it's so amazing.'"

Hall, who at the time worked as an administrator in UC Irvine's extension program, decided to create a DVD. Her husband, David, a graphic designer, produced the DVDs and created the Yoga for Surfers logo. Both the name and logo are trademarked. Hall narrates the DVDs in a calm, upbeat style, mixing in surfing footage from professionals, including Taylor Knox and Rochelle Ballard, who appeared in surfer girl movie "Blue Crush."

She demonstrates poses on a yoga mat over the hardwood floors of a studio and on the beach. Her work has filled the niche she once sought. A Google search for yoga and surfing turns up luxury resorts in Costa Rica and lots of hits on Peggy Hall. She's come out with three DVDs that have sold more than 100,000 copies. They sell for $19.95 each.

Hall quit UCI in 2004 to work exclusively on Yoga for Surfers, which she runs from her Aliso Viejo home. She's expanding into yoga for board sports, including snowboarding, wake boarding and skateboarding. "I think it's a clever marketing concept," says Corb Donahue, a San Clemente action sports marketer. "You could do (yoga) for circus acrobats. It works for anyone who needs continuing conditioning and strengthening."

Back at the yoga workshop in Laguna Beach, Hall begins the practice with a warm-up that she says can be done while scoping out waves. "Pretend like you're at the beach," she advises the class, which isn't too hard in the studio right off Pacific Coast Highway where an ocean breeze blows in through a door propped open with a yoga block.

During a foot stretch, she says, "You can imagine how good this feels in the sand." Hall demonstrates how to modify poses in the water, where to hold the surf board. She focuses on reducing tightness in hips and shoulders. She emphasizes posture and breathing. The benefits aren't just strength and flexibility. Hall says the yoga zone is similar to the surfing zone - a place without distraction, a place without time.

"You are in complete immersion. It's so freeing for the rest of your mind," Hall says. "Surfing is also considered a very spiritual endeavor. People will say `I feel like my soul was cleansed.' The same thing in yoga."

James Ruiz, 31, isn't naturally flexible, so he sought out Hall after reading about her in a surfing magazine. He's incorporated her DVDs into his weekly fitness schedule. He says he's experienced physical and mental benefits from the workouts.

"I'm not as stiff," says Ruiz of Laguna Niguel. "I see it physically from the aspect of being a lot looser on the wave, which is super important because you want to be fluid while you're going down the line on the face of the wave. Mentally, it's helped me get in control."

Ruiz, who works in real estate finance, incorporates poses in the water by sitting up straight and stretching his legs on the side of the board. The stillness and patience of the practice also helps him let go and be "more focused on simply being."

"If there are no waves, you can do yoga," Ruiz says. "I'm closing my eyes. In my mind, I'm catching wave after wave."

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