Windsurfing for a Better Zen

For those who don’t know what ZEN is all about, here are some of the main aspects…

FOR THOSE WHO DON”T KNOW WHAT ZEN IS all about, here are some of the main aspects of this Buddhist view of life. ZEN developed mainly in Japan. While the heart of ZEN cannot be explained, what you can entertain are some of the exercises that enhance the quality of life. It’s important to realize that ZEN knows no formulas. Even the rules which lead to a certain goal should be left behind after you have reached a certain knowledge.

The reason for this attitude can be explained in an analogy. If someone had a broken leg, it helps to put the leg in a cast and to use crutches to walk. But to accept this as a permanent situation would severely damage the person. ZEN looks at rules the same way. They might help you for a certain period, but if you cling to them permanently, you will weaken your psychic muscles.

In windsurfing, in the beginning you have help from teachers, videos, magazines, but you are striving to arrive on a level of independence. A teacher’s intention must be to liberate  the disciple.

Why ZEN in Windsurfing?

The reasons why people choose windsurfing are often not readily apparent to them.  Windsurfing demands a lot of attention to present moves and actions.  You can’t think of anything else. What seem to be important problems disappear out of your mind.  Later, when they come back, solutions are clearer. Windsurfing is like getting out of the center of what seems so important and seeing it from the outside. That’s what ZEN is all about, to see things as they are and not as you have created them in your mind.

Attention Versus Thinking: 

In doing ZEN you learn to focus your consciousness towards attention, away from thinking. When windsurfing, you have to be aware of what’s going on around you or you’ll find yourself in the water, instead of on the board and sailing! Only full attention to the real world with zero thinking enables you to experience easy learning, fast progress and 100% joy in windsurfing.

It is this capacity to give full attention which gives the highest pleasure of all and the highest level of value fulfillment in life. Just imagine someone who is thinking rationally while having sex!

Windsurfing exercises:  

Let’s say you tried a certain move or maneuver many times already and you’re not having much success. Stop  doing it. If you exercise a failure too often, you only become good at repeating the failure. The next time you are on the water, do something  you can perform easily. Check out how and when you move your feet and your hands, how you feel the forces from the rig through your hands into your body and how the shape of the sail is changing when you do a certain move.  Look, watch and listen to the sail (but be sure that there’s no one in front of you!).

In ZEN, you train to focus this attention with breathing technics, certain ways of walking, or meditation. A big help in critical windsurfing conditions is a ZEN breathing pattern. You put inhaling and exhaling together with holding the breath in a constant pattern. One way is to count: … “one, two’ (inhaling) , “one, two” (holding the breath), “one, two” (exhaling), “one, two” (holding the breath), “one, two” (inhaling), … After a while you get used to this pattern and you don’t have to count any more. This is a powerful instrument to focus attention because it helps you to stop thinking which in turn frees the body to do the right moves.


Modern Cognitive Science, Emotions and ZEN: 

In the past decade modern science has made a big step towards better understanding the way human brains are working. For windsurfers with a deeper interest in it, the books of Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence), Antonio Damasio (Descartes’ Error), or books by Luc Ciompi are highly recommended. What they and other scientists have found out and think of as new is something that has been known for centuries through Zen teaching. Simplified, it is the following:

Every second, the body consciousness absorbs several trillion signals from the outside of the body and then transforms these signals into information that is put into some kind of hierarchical order by the emotional part of your psyche. A small selected part of that information is then sent to the mental consciousness, where a decision is made on what has to be done. Thus, your body has all the information before you form a mental concept.

Translated into windsurfing, thinking inhibits what’s going on in the real world. Attention provides you with the important information, while thinking when sailing locks your awareness. Therefore, your attention should be on the present action.

Windsurfing exercises:  

If you find you’re having difficulty in learning a move you’ve seen in a magazine or book, the problem could be that your mental concept is being forced onto your body consciousness. As long as you hold onto the mental receipts for the movement, the problem will continue. Try paying attention to the present action, knowing that  thinking while  you’re sailing will block your awareness.  Keep your attention on the wind direction, the force you feel in your hands, the wave direction, etc.

A Mental Illness: 

Just as some have developed an addiction to various substances that cause illness, a Buddhist sees a constant need for experts as a typical Western addiction or mental illness. People in western societies are made to believe that you have to depend on a so called “expert”. If you would give to this illness a name, you could call it the expert system syndrome. In windsurfing it shows up in the form of books and articles like this one. Those affected by the expert system syndrome believe that they are stupid, that their personal experience doesn’t count and that they should ask for the so called “expert help”.

ZEN sheds the expert system syndrome and puts personal experience where it belongs, into the first line. If you haven’t made a jibe with your body, no book or explanation is going to help you. You might learn the move in spite of the expert system syndrome, but never because of it.

In windsurfing that means, that you should trust your personal experience more than anything else. For example, you rely on personal experience when you learn something new in windsurfing. You start from something you know and add something unknown. Doing the new moves, you’ll find yourself in a situation where you have to, all in a fraction of a second, adjust your balance, your foot position, the weight distribution, your body and hand position, etc. To perform this task, many hundreds of muscles have to work in cooperation. It’s not only impossible to describe this coordination task, it’s also impossible to follow it with the mental consciousness. It’s too slow. That’s the main reason why the books, videos, and articles in many cases just don’t work. The only expert you should always trust is your feeling, your body consciousness. A good teacher knows that.

Windsurfing exercises:  

An easy way to learn to trust your feelings are with some fast tricks. One is called a “helicopter,” which is a 360° turn with the sailor and the sail together. You start sailing close reach. Let the boom out and rake the sail to windward until the sail is balanced right over the board. Then you lean only with the sail hand against the sail. The pressure goes exactly towards the nose with absolutely no pressure on the mast hand! When the leech turns through the wind, you pull the sail towards the nose with your mast hand. Then the turn will be completed. You’ll be successful if you concentrate only on the two body movements, first the pressure with the sail hand, and second, the pull with the mast hand towards the nose. You can also try it on land.

The Right Attitude:   

When asked some years ago by a German journalist how he did a forward loop, Mike Waltze had a ZEN like quality in his explanation. He said something like this: “Oh, a forward loop? I do it like this: whamm, banggg, whoww, ufff, whafff.” He translated the experience of body consciousness directly into emotions instead of going through the sieve of mental consciousness. The latter can provide you with alternatives, but the final choice is always done on an emotional level. You can learn every move on a windsurfer if you’re driven by emotions.

Learning is a growing experience. That seems obvious. But when someone falls into the water, that idea sometimes is forgotten. Benjamin Franklin, when he worked on the light bulb, showed the right attitude. After 800 tries he said: “OK, we are closer now, that’s another way that it doesn’t work.” Being disappointed in windsurfing and other sports appears mainly when people get mind driven, instead of following their feelings.


Windsurfing exercises:  

When you watch other windsurfers doing a move you want to learn, don’t do it with your “mental eye”. Stop the inner talk and try to feel what you see with a point behind the navel. Later when you’re on the water, just concentrate on the same point and try the move. If it doesn’t work the first time just remember Mr. Franklin’s advice.

Widening the Range of Awareness:  

Awareness is mainly an unconscious act. As long as the parameters of surviving and living are inside the natural range of safety, there’s no reason to become conscious of every action of your body, like the heart rate, the body temperature, the balancing system, etc.


But in critical situations the time gap for decisions is shortened. It is then crucial to have more information available to decide the right action. At that point, it helps to be able to widen and narrow the focus of your attention. You can compare it to someone who’s looking for a certain object with a flashlight inside a dark room. With a narrow beam or focus, you could be close to it and not even realize it. With a wider beam or focus, it’s easier first to orientate yourself and get in the right area. Then you narrow your focus on what you want to find.

In windsurfing you’re forced by certain conditions to use other levels of consciousness. An important role in pulling the attention off from the ‘normal’ style of awareness is played by the fact that you have to adjust your balance every fraction of a second. There are too many parameters (wave-direction, wave-speed, wave-height, foot position, weight distribution, sail angle, wind speed, etc.) to pull the attention totally off from this part, even as an advanced or expert windsurfer. Windsurfing is different from rocking chair activity.

Obviously, if you’re not able to move your attention into different awareness levels, then you are stuck. You would be like the drunken guy who’s stumbling around the cone of a street light, looking for his lost keys. Another person comes along and asks him what he’s looking for. He says, “I’m looking for my keys.” When the keys couldn’t be found, the helpful person asked if the man was sure that he had lost them there. He responded, “No, I didn’t lose them here, but this is the only place with light.”

Windsurfing exercises: 

Try freestyle movements. They can be done in every wind condition and with nearly every board and sail. If the wind isn’t strong enough for planing then there are hundreds of freestyle tricks to keep you very busy! But the main thing is that they widen your range of attention in balance, sail position and board steering.


Intention shows itself through the accumulated energy of emotional consciousness. Most times, you can recognize the intention through the results. In ZEN, in archery, this is done by checking out the positions of the arrows in the bull’s-eye. The more they are centered, the higher the capacity to focus your intention.

In windsurfing, intention drives people to progress and even if it is misleading, it will show in the results too. Once I had three customers in a windsurfing lesson. One of them was much better then the other two, but he wanted to stay with his friends. The third day of the class, he didn’t show up on the beach and his friends told me that he had a business call and would join us later on the water. When he arrived, his jibing was worse than ever. He started a jibe in the right way, but after turning only 90 degrees he shifted the sail, the clew stopped in a downwind position, the board came to a halt and he fell into the water. He continued to perform this pattern until I told him to sit down and I said, “Listen, you’ve started a new business deal which is now halfway developed. You shouldn’t do the actions now which will be right at the end of your transaction.” Then he talked to me about his business for a while, never asking me how I knew about the situation.

This is an example of how intention shows itself through action. The intention of this person was, in that particular moment, to find a solution for a situation which he considered a problem. He then acted it out, more or less unconsciously, with windsurfing. With a little practice of ZEN, he would have been aware that he changed the timing of the jibe. And then he would have realized that he was acting out his fantasies, ignoring the material world. He would have realized that he changed the subject of the prior intention. ‘Doing a jibe’ dropped to a lower level of importance. It’s significant to know that there’s nothing wrong with this, but it makes life easier if you are aware of it!

Windsurfing exercises:   

There are no specific exercises in windsurfing to improve intention. But I can give some examples how intention can show up in different disguises. Sometimes, difficulty in learning to water start can be traced to a reluctance to letting go of rational control and allowing oneself to be carried only by emotions. Through this projection they refuse to let themselves fall backwards into the water and be carried by it.

With some people who had difficulties in learning to use the harness, I found the root in personal relationships. More or less all of them have recently been in a situation where they felt controlled by a partner. “I got hooked” is the right expression for this feeling which is projected then on an unconscious level into windsurfing.

Avoiding routine, establishing routine:   

The ancient Greek philosopher Heraklid said that you cannot step two times into the same river. You cannot step one time into the same river is said by ZEN teachings, because ‘river’ as a term is defined by permanent change. If there is no change any more, there is no river.

But there must be some permanent aspect which makes the river recognizable as a river. Change and duration aren’t opposites, they are complementary aspects of the same thing. In windsurfing the change is represented by the learning process, the duration by establishing a movement pattern for the body consciousness. A repeated pattern of movements becomes a routine after a while . Once a routine is established it works as a foundation stone for the next move. Before you start to work on a duck jibe it’s better to have the jibe established as a routine.

Some people like to play it safe and do only those things they know about. Remember, if you don’t fall off the board anymore, you’ve stopped learning. It’s time to avoid the routine and add something new. Otherwise you can be sure that the fun of windsurfing will be lost.

ZEN teachings tell you about the balance of duration and change, of routine and unexpected events. It is said, if you want to get rid of an unwanted attitude, just overdo it, and the opposite will show up automatically. If someone wants to stop smoking, he just has to smoke 20 packs a day. He might die from it (that’s a usual way to quit smoking) or he’ll feel so terrible that the next time he sees a cigarette, he will only feel horror and disgust.

If you don’t let the unexpected enter your activities, you will feel annoyed (bored?). In windsurfing this happens to people who are afraid of falling into the water. They’ll stop learning and after a while they’ll become fed up and just don’t do it anymore.

Windsurfing exercises:  

If you are on a beginner level there’s no shortage of new things to learn. As an expert, you need to become creative. Let’s say you’re able to do a 360° with a short board. How about doing the 360° sailing backwards with the fin in front of you? And to increase the challenge, do it standing on the leeward side of the sail? With this maneuver, you’ll definitely break your daily routine! Just some hints how you can do it. Start on a beam reach, luff up until you sail into the wind. Now, briefly pull the sail back over the centerline. With the sail empty of wind, push it to windward with your sail hand. You are now sailing on the leeward side with the face towards the wind. Now you turn yourself backwards and with a step to the bow, turn the sail 180° with the clew towards the bow. You’re now sailing in a normal position, but backwards. The board will turn immediately into the wind and then you are in the right position to start the “360°-backwards-on the leeward side” Just watch what’s going on.  The board will do the move more or less by itself.  You just have to keep your attention on the balance. 

Living in the present:  

A major point in ZEN teachings are exercises where you learn to live 100% in the present. This is a plus for windsurfing, because you need to move your attention away from thinking and towards the awareness of the body consciousness. This is especially true for difficult conditions. As skills improve, the definition of what’s difficult will change, but the principle will stay the same.

Many people have a concept in mind when they want to learn a new move and about what kind of commands they’ll give the body to perform the move. The problem is that they get distracted from the things going on in the present. For example, let’s say the power in your left hand is decreasing rapidly. The left elbow should be bent so the sail will sheet in and the power will come back again. But if in that moment, the person is thinking about a foot position or something else, that distraction from body consciousness to mental consciousness could result in a splash. She or he didn’t lived in the present.

This demand of staying in tune to the present helps windsurfers to shed some daily problems. Influences from the past and expectations (or fear) of the future have no place.

Windsurfing exercises: 

In windsurfing moves usually you have a small range for correction. But this area gets very narrow in high winds or in big waves. This forces the active sailor to concentrate on the present and to cut off thoughts from the past or about the future. In this way windsurfing brings not only joy back into a life previously controlled by a 9 to 5 job, it also helps the person to raise their ability in concentration, to overcome frustration, to exercise endurance and to become patient.

The SATORI Experience:  

Just as you cannot explain the taste of a papaya, no adequate explanation or description can be given for SATORI. In ZEN, it is a name for an experience of your body, which occurs when a person lives totally in the present, when feeling, thinking and acting become one. One achieves a natural high and becomes very happy. ZEN disciples reach SATORI through a long and dedicated exercise in meditating. Windsurfers can reach that experience by pushing themselves toward their personal limit. Once a person has experienced this flash of enlightenment, he or she will be longing for time and space to repeat it. It can happen on every level. The beginners experience it and the world cup participants know it. It’s pushing yourself to try new moves and it will have a strong impact on your behavior in daily life as well.

Annabella Hofman was the head instructor for the German Windsurfing School Association (VDWS) She has just completed a book on Quantum Physics and spend most of her time making art. She is a frequent contributor to AW from her home in Lake Garda, Italy.

by Annabella C. Hofman

Annabella Hofman was the head instructor for the German Windsurfing School Association (VDWS). She has just completed a book on Quantum Physics and spends most of her time making art. She is a frequent contributor to AW from her home in Lake Garda, Italy.