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Photo: Waves for Change

Surfing and its healing waters

Go Far, Go Together

If you’ve ever been surfing, you can relate to the “surf stoke” that everyone talks about. Whether you paddle out every single day, or you’ve only been surfing once, you know about that stoke that consumes this community. You don’t have to be good to have the time of your life out on the water; for so many, surfing is an outlet. Between the hard work it takes to paddle out, vitamin D soaking into your skin (wear your spf though), the overwhelming peace of being submerged in nature, and the encouragement of the people paddling next to you, surfing feels like the best medicine. 

Those who know, know that surfing is quite possibly the best feeling in the world. You don’t come out of the water the same person you paddled in as – am I right or am I right? What if surfing was prescribed as actual therapy? Almost like, a form of healing for people experiencing PTSD, physical or cognitive disabilities, anxiety or depression, grief, hardship, etc.? It’s gnarly, I know…and it’s happening. Buckle up, because this is wild. 

Surf therapy is taking the west coast by storm and the International Surf Therapy Organization (ISTO) is pumping evidence-based reports and research studies to encourage the beneficial outcomes of surfing merging with common therapies prescribed by healthcare professionals today. SURFING AS THERAPY! WHAT?!

The mission of The ISTO is to “leverage the power of partnership and the ocean to advocate for surf therapy to be used globally to improve mental and physical health and make a collective effort to enable more access to safe, evidence-based surf therapy.” The ISTO grew from 8 impact programs in 2017 to 35 impact programs in 2019, and that number is still growing! ISTO and its supporters “envision a society where surf therapy is universally accessible through prescription and supported financially by healthcare organizations.” Surf therapy is currently being prescribed by healthcare professionals in the UK through an organization called the Wave Project. How cool would it be for your doctor to hand you a prescription that said, “Go surfing”? Of course, the emotional, mental, and physical benefits of surfing are it’s qualifying factors. You don’t have to be a doctor or a research-junkie to know that surfing is hard work (which is good for your body), and the mental freedom that accompanies catching a wave is almost indescribable, encouraging self-efficacy and gratitude, which is good for your brain. It’s simple, it’s cost-effective, and it’s healing people!

The motto of the ISTO is “go far, go together”. It comes from an African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” Various surf therapy organizations have been around for over twenty years, but the introduction of the ISTO in 2017 is what brought these organizations together to inspire change on a global scale. With the mission of using the sport of surfing as a driving force of community, intentionality, and healing, ISTO and their corresponding programs serve people in a unique and unparalleled way – they’re going far because they’re going together. These organizations are represented in Ireland, Portugal, the Netherlands, Australia, South Africa, Argentina, Spain, Germany, Mozambique, New Zealand, Peru, the UK, and the US. With programs spanning globally, conducted research has shown surf therapy to be beneficial for veterans, active-duty service members, youth and adults with disabilities, and youth in need of social and emotional support. 

With the mission of using the sport of surfing as a driving force of community, intentionality, and healing, ISTO and their corresponding programs serve people in a unique and unparalleled way – they’re going far because they’re going together.

Surfing is a physical, mental, and emotional outlet, no doubt. For many, it’s also a second chance; an opportunity to get your life back on track. Mana Khan is an ISTO participant from Tai Wātea, with the Live for More organization based in New Zealand. At 20 years old, he was stealing, doing drugs, involved with the wrong people, and making decisions that eventually put him in prison. After spending one month in prison on remand, Mana was introduced to a surf therapy rep, Krista Davis. Krista wrote a letter to the judge in charge of Mana’s sentence, explaining the benefits of Tai Wātea and how beneficial it would be for Mana to participate in the surf therapy program. The judge took her letter into consideration and Mana was released on a community sentence – given another chance to turn his life around! “Tai Wātea has given me confidence in myself; to move forward, to keep going, to stay positive and to live for more. I was even given the opportunity and rose up as the leader on my program,” expressed Mana. His story is one of many impactful and life-altering testimonies from surf therapy programs around the world. Seriously, go read some of these testimonies… they’ll wreck you in the best way. 

Whether it’s addiction, PTSD, injury, autism, physical or mental disability, depression, anxiety, grief, disease, homelessness, or trying to stay out of trouble, there are various surf therapy organizations that target these specific demographics. These organizations are committed to using the sport of surfing as a means of therapy and healing for individuals desperate for an escape or a second chance. 

So, what can we be doing to support the ISTO and their organizations? Great question! It’s one thing to feel the surf stoke, it’s another thing to put that stoke on paper and in graphs in order to manifest a community of surf therapy supporters and reveal to the world the life-changing benefits related to surfing. As surf therapy is such a new approach to mental and physical rehabilitation, advocating and volunteering at various surf therapy organizations near you is vital. Spread the word, get involved, and spread the stoke!

Head over to in order to learn more about the ISTO and the impact they’re having on people all over the world.

A few surf therapy organizations tied to ISTO (there are tons of others!):

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