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Did Native Hawaiians Use Surf Therapy?

Updated: Apr 22

The following is an excerpt from Cash Lambert's Surf Therapy: The Evidence-Based Science for Physical, Mental and Emotional Well-Being, published by Hatherleigh Press and Penguin Random House in 2024.

While there is no definitive history that tells us surf therapy was used by ancient cultures—the term “surf therapy” itself  is exclusive to the 21st century—we do have interesting hints that are worth examining.  

For centuries, many cultures around the world feared the sea, a massive and unpredictable body that stretched to the horizon.

Tales of angry gods, along with out-of-this world-creatures who trapped its victims underneath the salty surface abounded.  

Though there were many cultures who feared the sea, some  respected it—and lived in harmony with its unpredictability. One of  those cultures was the Native Hawaiians, who left us a hint that surf  therapy may have been practiced.  

This hint comes from The Epic Tale of Hi’iakaikapoliopele. The ancient story, which was translated in this century, chronicles the use  of surfing as a modality of healing.  

Did native Hawaiians use surfing as a form of therapy? While we have no definitive answer, we have hints.

In Ancient Hawaiian lore, Hi’iaka is known as the Hawaiian patron goddess of hula dancers, chant, sorcery, and medicine, and is  the younger sister of Pele, the Goddess of Fire and Volcanoes.   

In the tale, Hi’iaka is sent by Pele, the Goddess of Fire and Volca noes, on a journey from Hawaii’s Big Island across the Hawaiian Island  chain to Kauai to bring back Lohi’au, a mortal chieftain, because Pele  favored him.

When Hi’iaka arrived in Kauai, she discovered that Lohi’au had died.

Instead of taking it as a finality, Hi’iaka uses chants, prayers, and  medicine, which temporarily brings his soul back into his body; but to finish the job, she takes him surfing:  

“As the rays of the sun shimmered upon the surface of the  sea, Hi’iaka beckoned the waves to rise. A great gust of wind suddenly struck and an enormous swell arose, billowed up, and towered steeply, as Hi’iaka spurred on Lohi’au...

"He flew like a wave-flitting ‘akihi bird as he perched on the crest of  the wave. Hi’iaka followed, alighting on the crest … Hi’iaka’s  skirt became a surfboard for Lohi’au, while Hi’iaka’s chest, her  whole body, actually, became her board to ride the waves. As  he surfed, Lohi’au could see that everything about him was in  peak condition...

"All of his physical strength had come back to  him, just as it was before. Lohi’au surfed the wave, shifting his  stance, coasting forward over the broad part of the break and moving back along the narrows, gliding back and forth...

"Hi’iaka stood upon the surface of the water with her skirt of  pahapaha seaweed and mokila grass fluttering behind her. And  Lohi’au tried out every possible surfing stance, each of which he could perform with ease. They continued on until the uplands of Ha’ena lay clearly before them and its populace saw these  three people standing in the curl of the wave...

"They surfed along and cut right in front of where Kahuanui and the rest were sitting. From there, the wave broke and swept back out to sea. And now they surfed it back out, riding atop the shoulder of the  wave. The shore filled with shouting voices of the people, their roar echoing against the sea cliffs. Nothing could compare to the beauty of this surfing.”

What I found so fascinating is that, in this Native Hawaiian story, the  healing process consisted of prayers, medicine, and surfing—the last  of which was used to bring Lohi’au back to full strength.

Hi’iaka—the goddess of medicine—knew the power of surfing, and when it was  used alongside other healing modalities, it had a powerful and therapeutic effect. 

Does this story definitively communicate that Native Hawaiians  used surfing as a part of the healing process?

Dr. Puakea Nogelmeier, the story’s translator, and the Professor Emeritus of Hawaiian Language  at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa told me that it doesn’t.

“Surfing is certainly used as part of the healing process to revive  Lohi’au, but it’s unique. I can’t think of another instance where surfing is used like this,” he said. 

What makes it so difficult to analyze whether or not Native Hawai ians used surf therapy is that we’re looking at it from a 21st century,  Westernized perspective. 

“Hawaiians have always had a healing relationship with the ocean,”  said Dr. Kau’i Baumhofer Merritt, an Assistant Professor of Indigenous Health Sciences at the University of Hawaiʻi - West Oʻahu.

She  explained that there likely were no connections between surfing and  therapy at the time because Native Hawaiians didn’t separate the two as  we do today.

Surfing was a mental, physical, and spiritual activity—an  activity that excited and healed—all wrapped up in one. 

For Kris Primacio, CEO of the International Surf Therapy Organization (ISTO), we can’t draw historical conclusions from these hints,  but we can draw personal ones.

“In surf therapy, surfing alone is not considered the same as surf therapy,” she told me.

By the International Surf Therapy Organization’s definition, surf therapy is “The use of surfing  as a vehicle for delivering intentional, inclusive, population-specific, and  evidenced-based therapeutic structures to promote psychological, physical, and psychosocial well-being.

"By ISTO’s definition of surf therapy,  we don’t have any evidence that people intentionally came together to  promote well-being," Kris said. "But I firmly believe that Native Hawaiians had  already been experiencing the therapeutic benefits of the ocean and  surfing centuries before it was officially recognized.” 

This is part 1 of an excerpt from Cash Lambert's Surf Therapy: The Evidence-Based Science for Physical, Mental and Emotional Well-Being, published by Hatherleigh Press and Penguin Random House in 2024. You can read part 2 by visiting right here.


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