“There are no shortcuts in surfing,” our instructor, Aaron, told us. “The learning curve is pretty steep.” We weren’t standing on the shore, poised to paddle out to catch some tasty waves. We were on the fourth floor of a building in a busy block of New York’s East Village, spiritually very far from the beach.
It was my first time at Surfset, a group fitness class that builds off the tenets of surfing. The class is land-based, but it promises to help adults learn some of the basic skills that they’d need to do some light Point Break cosplay the next time they’re at the shore. That or just get ripped in a more entertaining setting than the local gym.
Surfing is hard. Notwithstanding its association with laid-back stoners and the Beach Boys, it’s one of the most unpredictable and punishing sports out there. I learned this on my one prior attempt at it, on a family trip to Spain. I was in my mid-20s, and my idea of exercise still had an element of magical thinking. Maybe, just maybe, I’d try something — javelin, acrobatics, snowshoeing — and discover hidden reserves of immense athletic talent, as when a golden retriever turns out to be fantastic at basketball in Air Bud. Maybe I was secretly incredible at surfing, and I could be one of those cool Brooklyn people who ride out to the Rockaways to catch waves at daybreak, my hair sun-bleached and casually wavy from the salt spray.
I’ve found that there is freedom in trying something and being very bad at it.
This was not what happened. After a perfunctory lesson, I spent an hour being repeatedly hurled into the ocean. I was on the surfboard for probably a combined two minutes, and spent the rest of the time flailing and accumulating interesting bruises. Even so, I had a lot of fun. And so here I was at a beginner’s class at Surfset, a decade older, once again throwing myself at the mercy of a surfboard.
Surfset’s starring piece of equipment is a small surfboard strapped on top of three exercise balls and anchored to a base, the whole contraption set up over two criss-crossed yoga mats in a striated cerulean blue that I assume was chosen to evoke actual water. The faux surfboard, formally called the RipSurfer X, debuted on the TV show Shark Tank in 2012 and scored an investment from panelist Mark Cuban. The Surfset studio I went to, which used these as-seen-on-TV pieces, was founded in 2014 by our instructor Aaron and his wife, Diana.
Aaron, who has the exact Keanu Reeves-adjacent California accent I associate with surfing experts, led a group of ten of us through exercises on the boards as a pop-punk soundtrack filled the room. He was sporting a sleeveless tie-dyed Lifeguard shirt, baggy shorts, and no shoes. He had started surfing at age 30, he told the class, so he knew how challenging it was to pick up the sport as an adult. But there are skills you can practice on land that will help, he promised.
So we practiced popping up from a plank position as the boards wobbled to varying degrees. We rapidly jumped from side to side while keeping our eyes fixed in place, in surfer stance. We pretended to paddle to the dulcet tunes of Weezer’s “Beverly Hills.” Though this was the beginner class, roughly half of my fellow classmates had clearly done this before — one dude was already sporting a tie-dyed replica of Aaron’s t-shirt. For my own part, I wiped out multiple times attempting to pop up from my board, and huffed my way through exercises called “mountain climbers” and “starfish sit-ups.”
I was still very bad at it. At certain times I found myself chuckling softly as I modified the recommended positions into something that better equipped me to fight gravity. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that there is freedom in trying something and being very bad at it. These days, my relationship to exercise is more about convincing my body to produce the chemicals to soothe my anxious brain than about uncovering a hidden well of talent. When I go on a run, it’s not to beat a time or to train for a race — it’s to steadily get stronger and be outside. So often the point is doing the thing, not mastering or even being half decent at it.
After 45 minutes of cycling through surfing positions, I felt more confident, and a little less wobbly. During the last few minutes, I managed, once, to pop up off my board in one single fluid motion, my head to the front, my feet staggered behind me, ready to propel the board over any wave that might come rushing past Avenue A. Maybe.