World champion surfer Layne Beachley’s life has not been easy, but she credits yoga for giving her body and mind strength on and off the competition circuit.
By Erin O’Dwyer
It was Australian surfing champion Tom Carroll who first introduced a young Layne Beachley to yoga. Back in the early ’90s, the practice was little understood in the West. But the 19-year-old from Sydney’s northern beaches, with just a few years of professional surfing under her belt, took the sport in her stride.
“There was a part of me that thought he was an overgrown hippie,” laughs Beachley, now 38. “But I saw what Tom was doing and I wanted to be like him. He was strong, he was fit, he was mentally tough and he was a world champion. Whatever Tom was doing, I wanted to do it too.”
As history records, Beachley did more than follow in her mentor’s footsteps. She went on to win seven world championships, including six consecutive wins. She is the world’s best female surfer and is second only to Kelly Slater for the total number of world championships won by a male or female surfer.
Beachley credits yoga and meditation as a crucial part of her success story. “It enabled me to learn to focus,” says Beachley, who began surfing at age four, turning professional at age 16. “It helped me to learn to breathe and strengthen my body through stretching, instead of physical training. Athletes these days underestimate the value of being able to slow the mind down, and the best way to practise that is through yoga and meditation.”
Her first yoga poses were alongside Carroll in Japan. The pair trained there together, rising before dawn to practise asana before they hit the water. Beachley attended yoga classes too, sampling a smorgasbord of styles from hatha to Bikram at home in Sydney and when she was on tour. “I loved how it forced me to stay present for an hour,” she recalls. “It has become a continuous part of my regimen, even outside of competitions.”
Beachley’s determination to succeed was also fuelled by the discovery at a young age that she was adopted (she met her birth mother in 1999). “The sense of rejection drove me to become the best in the world at my chosen profession, driven by a desire to be loved, recognised and respected,” Beachley reflected in a column for The Daily Telegraph in 2009. “It was only much later that I realised that love and recognition needed to come from within me first.”
On paper, Beachley’s surfing career looks like a dream run. But her competitive edge was often blunted by illness and injury. She battled chronic fatigue syndrome twice in her early career. In 1997, a gash on her face required ten stitches. Then, in 2000, at Sunset Beach in Hawaii, she was forced into an inadvertent back bend when a two-metre wave crashed down on her. She credits yoga with helping her through the injuries.
“Sometimes I amazed at what I’ve endured and I thank my yoga practice for helping me through,” Beachley says. “I’ve always had the ability to breathe through it.”
Regarding the Sunset Beach incident, she explains: “At the time I had been going through a really disciplined practice of yoga. I would do about an hour and a half of yoga each evening, turn off all the lights and just stretch, with no rhyme or reason, just staying with the breath…had I not being doing that practice I would have broken my back for sure.”
A hectic schedule prevents us from sitting down together for our interview. But Beachley’s vitality and passion is clear in the brassy, determined voice that comes down the line from Adelaide, where she is working today.
I’ve realised there is no right or wrong way to do yoga. All it requires is a commitment to doing it, even if it’s only ten minutes a day.
Beachley retired from competitive surfing in 2008. But she still travels constantly, juggling speaking engagements and media commitments. Then there is her work with Aim for the Stars, a foundation that she established to mentor young women athletes, the annual Beachley Classic, the richest event on the ASP women’s world surfing tour, and a new surf clothing line, Blue Kiss, which will be available in Myer stores.
Beachley admits yoga is hard to do on the road, in hotels and airport lounges. So she chooses hotels that offer yoga classes and aims to fit in at least a few poses each day.
“Because I know how much better I feel,” she explains. “It improves my day and so I commit the time, even if it’s only 10 minutes. I incorporate all sorts of forms into my practice because I know which stretches and positions benefit me the most. Mostly, because time is so limited, I focus on my hips and lower back which are the two tightest parts of my body, due to surfing. I’ve realised there is no right or wrong way to do yoga. All it requires is a commitment to doing it, even if it’s only ten minutes a day.”
When she can, Beachley pops into a yoga class. Sometimes it will be with her long-time partner, INXS muso Kirk Pengilly. The pair have been together since 2002 and share a home on Sydney’s northern beaches and plan to marry in October. “Kirk and I recently did a couple’s class together,” she says. “It was a lot of fun.” Still, retirement has not been easy. Like many competitive athletes, she has struggled to find meaning in her life.
“When I retired I did encounter moments of depression,” she admits. “Because I’d spent my whole life training to be a world champion, I thought that was the only way you could engage with training. I never really did anything to relax. Everything was with a purpose to win.”
It was former tennis world number one Pat Rafter who stepped in with words of advice.
“Pat said, ‘You’re lucky because you still get to surf,’” she says. “Cathy Freeman doesn’t run, Kieren Perkins doesn’t swim, Pat doesn’t pick up a tennis racket and boxers certainly don’t box anymore. I feel very fortunate that I still love surfing and I will never stop doing it.”
Now, swimming and the occasional run are an important part of Beachley’s daily routine. She has redefined her regimen as “training for life”. Surfing remains her first love and an enduring one, thanks largely to her yoga practice.
“I still surf every day, except today, because I’m in Adelaide,” she laughs. “I’ve had so many injuries that, had I not maintained that solid base of flexibility and core strength, I wouldn’t still be surfing today.
“When I surfed competitively, I was analysing, criticising and observing. When I’m surfing now, I’m just enjoying it. I’ve relinquished the competitive side of it. I’m a lot less judgemental. Yoga has helped with that, too.”