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What Do Martial Arts and Surfing Have in Common?

A Jiu-Jitsu master answers questions about surfing and martial arts.

Chris Smith in blue.
Chris Smith in blue.


Black Belt Chris Smith owns and teaches at Tiger Martial Arts in Aptos, a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu school that focuses on teaching lessons about the overall lives of its students. His philosophy includes making sure students who are in school get good grades and use the discipline they learn in martial arts in their studies and home lives.

I was surprised when he told me that a lot of famous surfers also studied martial arts. I'd always thought of surfing as the opposite of the ancient disciplines, something for more laid-back times. Not so, says Chris, and the two are more linked than people realize.

One of his most famous students who took both to extremes was Jay Moriarity.


1. You said surfing and martial arts have a lot in common and that many surfers are doing martial arts. I'm shocked. Tell me about it.

Chris Smith: Surfing and martial arts are both individual pursuits versus group activity. Society in general sees surfers as outcasts and/or bums and martial artists seen as oddities? or? But both pursuits take extreme discipline and both develop solid moral character through persistence, patience and ....... 

In many cases society sees one thing but in reality it is another. As everyone is busily chasing the almighty dollar many surfers are building their wealth in terms of health, connection with nature as well as entrepreneurial pursuits, while in turn many martial artists are developing themselves to be better people through diligent practice while simultaneously helping others reach their goals. 

Both pursuits take an extraordinary amount of time and practice in order to become proficient yet to the untrained eye the endeavor seems simple. Ask anyone who's tried surfing and/or martial arts for the first time. You always hear, wow I can't believe how intensely challenging that is, at which point most people give up. Therein lies the rub. Surfers and/or martial artists are not the type to give up. We have come to the understanding that the journey will be fun and rewarding albeit extremely challenging.

The little moments of pure bliss and absolute presence are always worth the untold sacrifices that were necessary to achieve them, to a surfer or martial artist, not to all. The level of engagement is intoxicating. It can feel as if the whole cosmos are suddenly aligned. It gives you a sense of something very right. The memories of those peak experiences can inform your entire life.


2. Who are some of the famous surfers who practice martial arts?

Chris Smith: Famous surfer martial artists include Kelly Slater, 11x world champion in surfing and practitioner of jiu jitsu. Joel Tudor one of the best longboarders in the world and Kelly Slater's jiu jitsu coach, Rickson Gracie, once billed as the world's toughest man and a regular surfer in Southern California.

Locally we have/had the late great Jay Moriarity big wave legend and theme of the movie "Chasing Mavericks" was an enthusiastic jiu jitsu student in my academy. Julian Sekon, top local surfer who has graced the cover of Surfer magazine is another of my former jiu jitsu students. Westside legend Joey Thomas is a surfing legend in Santa Cruz as well as a jiu jitsu teacher. 

3. What's the difference teaching surfing and martial arts?

Chris Smith: As far as mixing the two, coincidentally there is a famous pro surfer named Brad Gerlach who came up with the idea of wave ki. It is a form of martial arts that mimics the movements of surfing on dry land, allowing the student the ability to improve their surfing performance through specified movements designed to increase flexibility and proper body awareness in relation to surfing. 

4.How does anyone have the time to do both?

Chris Smith: As far as having the time to do both, that is tricky. Most surfers are surfers first, martial arts comes second. Surfers are dependent on the ocean conditions for their pursuit. If the ocean does not cooperate , which it sometimes doesn't, then they are left with an energy void to fill. Martial arts is an excellent accompaniment to surfing. 

When the waves are flat or the tide is too high or the time change of winter forces us out of the water earlier, martial arts will always be there to give us an excellent mind, body, spirit workout, second only to the ocean. Or you could always start a martial arts school and be a professional martial arts teacher, which does leave some time open to pursue surfing more extensively. 

Everyone -- and I mean everyone-- is searching for peace of mind and the ability to breathe deeply and be in the present moment. The problem is most people don't know where to start. They dabble in this and they fool around with that but seldom do people stick with an endeavor for an extended period of time, which would allow them the windows of opportunity to reach certain levels of harmony. 

As surfers we become addicted to the feeling of pure presence that is found while riding waves. When we can't surf we are on the lookout for a valid replacement. This is why so many surfers turn to drugs and /or alcohol to try and replace the amazing feeling gained while surfing. More enlightened surfers refrain from this path and gravitate towards healthier options. 

Martial arts is a definite outlet for their need for spiritual fulfillment through physical pursuits. The surfer martial artist is apt to find similar opportunities for relaxed breathing, absolute presence and the sheer exhilaration that can only be found when combining mind,body and spirit. Bottom line is there is no way you are NOT going to be present when you are either dropping into a beautiful wave and /or getting choked out by your training partner. There is absolutely no room for before and after type thinking, strictly in the now only!  

In Hawaiian culture surfing was often relegated to the alii or royalty only. Most citizens surfed in one form or another but they recognized that surfing was an opportunity to commune with nature on a very personal level and that surfing was a direct link to a higher power. Certain areas were reserved for alii {royalty} to surf only. To the Hawaiians , their alii were direct descendants from god and surfing in their waters was punishable by death. Sounds extreme but remember they were trying to protect the mana {energy } of their rulers and they recognized that surfing gave their chiefs an innate window into the natural elements of the universe.

 Coincidentally, ancient Hawaiians were also a warrior culture. Much emphasis was placed on preparedness for battle and warriors were highly regarded. Ancient Hawaiians lived by a simple code of kapu which was essentially to respect the land and all of its inhabitants. I spend a great deal of time in Hawaii, teaching martial arts and surfing, and am always amazed at the deep understanding these people have of the laws of nature.

Times are changing and people are searching for purpose beyond material wealth. We realize material wealth is fleeting and the doors to a sound and sustainable future rest within each of us reaching our full potential as spiritual beings on a human journey. For thousands of years both surfing and martial arts have fulfilled those attributes, the time is ripe again for people to see.

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