We often think of surfing as an individualistic pursuit — and to a large extent, it is. Sure, surfers tend to congregate at the same breaks, enjoy paddling out with friends, and might even engage in the occasional “party wave,” but when it comes down to it, the apex of the wave riding experience is typically experienced alone. In fact, participants in the other “extreme” sports often comment on how selfish and self-absorbed surfers and the act of surfing can become.
While rock climbers cheer perfect strangers on as they struggle up cracks and mountain bikers make a point of stopping and checking on riders who are experiencing mechanical issues, surfers tend to go into battle mode when they hit the water, aggressively jockeying in crowded lineups in order maximize their personal wave count. You’d think that immersing yourself in nature and interacting with moving waves of pure energy would be akin to a Zen experience, but sadly many surfers end up paddling in more frustrated than when they paddled out.
But what if it were possible to make surfing a communal activity? What if wave riders could take what is often considered a solitary pursuit, and turn it into something that is shared? For a small group of athletes striving to preserve surfing’s rich history, that is exactly what has happened.
Tandem surfing has likely been around for as long as people have been sliding on waves. The pre-contact Hawaiians rode together on boards long before Western missionaries arrived and outlawed the practice of wave riding. And when surfing reemerged in the early 1900s thanks to the influence of the sport’s greatest ambassador, Duke Kahanamoku, sharing waves quickly became popular again. Back then, most of the waves that were being ridden were gentle, rolling “straighthanders,” so there was typically room on the face for more than one board. And, because the boards were so big, there was usually room on each for more than one person.
The Waikiki beach boys were instrumental in bringing tandem surfing to the masses. As the popularity of surfing grew, taking a surf lesson became a requisite part of a visit to Hawaii. While the beach boys have pushed millions of people into waves over the past century, they figured out pretty quickly that it was much more efficient and enjoyable to ride waves together with their students — particularly if those students happened to be petite, attractive coeds. From the 1920s through the 1940s, images of couples riding waves together at Waikiki became an iconic (if not downright ubiquitous) symbol of the Hawaiian lifestyle.
As surfing spread throughout the world, tandem riding popped up nearly everywhere with surf culture. At some point, competitions in California began to include tandem surfing, and that’s when the activity became more than just a way to share a ride, and evolved into an actual sport. In order to win “king of the contest” honors, surfers had to place well in all divisions, so in addition to practicing “hotdogging” and paddling, many of the top surfers found small, lightweight partners they could lift and twirl above their heads while riding waves, rapidly driving the progress of tandem surfing.
By the 1950s, it was practically unheard of for a contest at Makaha, Waikiki, or San Onofre (in California) to not include a tandem division. But then the shortboard revolution of the 1960s hit, and suddenly everything changed, practically overnight. While hotdogging once meant fancy footwork and noserides on 10-foot longboards, the new standard of excellence included barrel rides and aggressive turns on 7’6″ miniguns and 5’3″ fish boards without the necessary volume to support two riders.
As longboards quickly became a thing of the past, tandem surfing all but disappeared. It was only around the turn of the century, when surfing experienced an open-minded renaissance and “retro” boards became commonplace in lineups, that tandem surfing made its comeback. And interestingly, its comeback was aided by another physical practice that had recently become popular in the West — asana.
When Lauren Oiye moved to Hawaii from the Mainland, she knew she needed to find a new outlet for movement and artistry. As a gymnast and former competitive synchronized swimmer with the Olympic training squad, acro lifts and water time were an integral part of her life, and something that she quickly came to miss. It was only natural that she would gravitate toward the ocean, and she quickly immersed herself in a beach lifestyle and the various types of surfing. Then one day after paddling in from a surf session, she ran into a group of people doing acrobatics on the beach, and decided to introduce herself. She told them her sports background, and before she knew what was happening found herself being lifted and thrown around in all sorts of acro poses.
This quickly progressed into lifts on tandem surfboards, and Oiye eventually teamed up with tandem partner Chuck Inman. The team would go on to win the 2012 tandem world championships and dominate tandem surfing for a number of years. Combining Inman’s strength and balance on the board with Oiye’s flexibility, core strength, and natural grace, they were able to do things on waves that most would consider impossible.
Today, Oiye still regularly tandem surfs at her favorite surf spot, Queens Beach in Waikiki, where another tandem surfer named Tiffany Chen regularly practices with her partner, Sean Apis. The two women have a lot in common, beyond the fact that they love the ocean and being lifted into awkward, overhead poses while riding on waves. One of those similarities is a passion for yoga. In fact, both women suggest that asana is integral to being able to tandem surf at an elite level.
For anyone with an active yoga practice, the overlap between asana, gymnastics, and even tandem surfing should be pretty apparent. There is a lot of similarity between the poses and body positioning of all three disciplines, particularly when you take into account acro yoga — a practice that both Oiye and Chen actively pursue. Asana in general develops core strength and flexibility, both of which are essential to holding tandem surfing poses (especially while moving over an ever-changing, unstable surface). And acro yoga in particular regularly mimics many of the poses that tandem surfers use when riding waves.
But perhaps more so than the physicality of tandem surfing, it is the communal aspect of what is typically a “solitary” pursuit that reflects the yogi’s experience. When on the mat, it is easy to think of our practice as an individual thing. After all, the more deeply we focus on our own breathing and movement, the more deeply we can sink into poses and retreat into the mind, quieting the noise and distraction of modern life. In this way, yoga can often feel like a private practice—and as with all personal pursuits, there is the risk of becoming so focused on ourselves that we lose sight of the reason we discovered it in the first place.
But ultimately, yoga is about far more than what we accomplish while sitting and standing and balancing on our mats. It is about becoming a healthier, happier person —and when we do that, we naturally open ourselves to the world, casting aside our self-focus to become better, more empathetic humans. Just as surfing will always be more enjoyable when we can let go of our selfishness and share it with others, life is better when we are able to let go of our self-focus and remember that we are one with the rest of humanity. While the foundation of yoga might be an individual practice, the end result is a deeper capacity for connection — whether you are being lifted into the air by your tandem partner, or simply riding the wave of life.