.Waves of Wellness

Get stoked with Surf Therapy Santa Cruz

Inspiration hit in a moment of desperation on Jody Wilfong’s August 2021 flight back to San Jose from her hometown of Hartland, Michigan.

Alongside family, she’d just buried her niece, Carissa, who passed away from a fentanyl overdose at 23.

“I had a complete meltdown on the plane,” says Wilfong, in shock that Carissa was gone and heartbroken for the life experiences she’d never have. In an effort to calm herself, Wilfong pulled a scrap piece of paper from her bag and scribbled out a bucket list.

“I didn’t know what else to do and that felt like one way to honor her memory, by making the most of the time I have left on this planet,” Wilfong recalls.

Among the turbulence and tears, Wilfong wrote out her wishes. “Learn to surf” landed in the top three.

secure document shredding

While stoked at the idea of getting on a board, she didn’t want to go it alone. A board-certified music therapist and mother of three, Wilfong had a birthday coming up. She phoned her best friend, Kendra, and invited her out to Santa Cruz, where just two weeks after the funeral, the pair took lessons with Surf School Santa Cruz.

She didn’t know it at the time, but owner Bud Freitas would later support Wilfong to grow something called “surf therapy” here in town.

“I got pushed into my first wave by my surf instructor and it felt like therapy,” Wilfong says.

With 25 years of experience teaching mindfulness and presence using percussion and sound, she instantly knew that being on the water put her fully in the moment. So, she bought a foamie and made the drive over the hill to surf once a week, for months.

Between sets at Pleasure Point, Wilfong found herself processing emotions on the water, held by the ocean and rocked by rolling waves the way a mother might comfort her child. The more Wilfong surfed, the better she felt.

The trained therapist undertook a quest to understand why her bucket-list activity came to be so healing, and if others shared her experience. 

Where Surf and Therapy Meet

If there’s truth to Rumi’s infamous quote, “What you seek is seeking you,” then Wilfong was looking for surf therapy, and surf therapy found her. A Google search of the phrase brought her to Groundswell Community Project, the premier organization providing certified and accredited surf therapy training. Wilfong completed Surf Therapy for Trauma Recovery Training Level 1 and Facilitator Training Level 2.

International Surf Therapy Organization defines surf therapy as “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.”

With her credentials, a newfound community of practitioners and established curriculum, Wilfong was ready to facilitate the “therapy.” She required support with the “surf.”

“Jody needed our instructors,” Freitas says. “Professional surfers that live and breathe surfing, that know what the water’s doing, know what the tides are doing. And she needed access to a permit through a licensed, recognizable surf school, which we have.”

Freitas’ dad says he was born with gills and dries up on land. So it’s no surprise Freitas has surfed professionally and turned the sport into a livelihood for his family and the employees he mentors. Life hasn’t been easy, though. Therapy and surfing got him through a debilitating head injury, bouts of deep depression, and a relationship with alcohol that didn’t serve him. When Wilfong presented the two together—surf therapy—asking for Freitas’ backing, he said it made perfect sense.

In 2022, on the shores of Cowell Beach, Wilfong held her first Surf Therapy Santa Cruz program. Sessions are two hours long, once a week for four weeks. The first hour is akin to group talk therapy, with check-ins around the circle to arrive, followed by mindfulness, mental health awareness, and self-love practices to support holistic healing.

“Group therapy can be tough for a lot of reasons,” Freitas says. “Jody’s sessions are intentionally small, creating an intimate circle, giving you more time to express yourself and really connect with each other, engage, and deeply feel what’s going on.”

It’s synergistic with how Freitas runs surf lessons through Surf School Santa Cruz, with one instructor for every two clients versus the upper limit of four—allowing for a more private, personal and present introduction to surfing.

For Wilfong’s program, impact statistics are of critical importance. So before hitting the water, everyone rates their physical and emotional state on a sliding scale, documenting how strong, focused and excited they feel, for example.

Then it’s time to surf.

Solace at Sea 

Professional surfer and Surf School Santa Cruz instructor Dane Anderson is Wilfong’s key counterpart, ensuring Surf Therapy Santa Cruz participants are safe and supported on the water.

“In our last session, I was holding space for a woman named Robyn who hadn’t surfed in over two years after losing her husband to colon cancer,” Anderson says. “He’d taught her to surf. It was something they did together, and after I helped her into a wave she paddled back over. She simply said that was the best ride she’d caught in a long time, and the closest she’d felt to him since he left.”

Robyn Williams’ husband was diagnosed in 2018 when they were pregnant with their daughter. He passed in May 2021; three months later, she gave birth to their son.

“I’m finally just coming out of fight or flight and starting to rediscover who I am,” says Williams, now a widowed, single mom of two who made the move to Felton from landlocked cities just eight months ago. “When I heard about surf therapy through a friend, I intuitively knew it would fill me up, so I could be a good mom, build the life I want for me and my kids.”

Williams felt nerves ahead of her first session, self-doubt filling her head around whether she’d be able to get back on the board after so long. Fear subsided when she learned the group is for all surfing levels, as long as participants have confidence swimming in open water. There would be no pressure to do anything other than show up.

“After being in survival mode for so long, this whole experience showed me that I can get from my house to the beach, find parking, carry my surfboard, get in the water, surf waves,” Williams says. “I can do it.”

These tasks can feel like a lot to ask of a person who’s healing from trauma. But Williams recognizes she holds pain in her body that needs to be moved—an awareness entering mainstream consciousness through the popularization of books like the No. 1 New York Times bestseller The Body Keeps the Score, by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.

“Being in the water gets me out of my head and physically releases some of that trauma,” Williams says. “After a session, I feel renewed, cleansed, energized. And I’m stoked to have found this intentional community, a gathering of people who need extra support and find solace in the ocean, like I do.”

Surfer’s Stoke—It’s Science   

Monterey Bay resident and marine biologist Dr. Wallace J. Nichols—who goes simply by “J.”— showcases neuroscience and anecdotes suggesting the healing power of water in his book Blue Mind.

In a dedicated section on surfing, J. writes, “Like other aerobic exercises, surfing produces endorphins, the opioids that affect the prefrontal and limbic areas of the brain involved in emotional processing, and create the feeling of euphoria known as runner’s high.

“Surfers often report feeling calmer and happier after a session on the water … as if they’re experiencing the Zen-like experience that’s called surfer’s stoke.”

Surf instructor Anderson sees the stoke in the data. Those check-in sheets participants fill out at the beginning of a surf therapy session are filled out again at the end.

“People often rate their emotions on the lower end of the spectrum before getting in the water,” he says. “It’s pretty cool to see how 99 percent of the time, each rating increases at least two points after we surf. It’s working.” 

Hope, Happiness and Holy Water 

When asked what gave her hope for the future, Williams paused, smiled. 

“Funny, my daughter’s middle name is Hope,” she says. “My kids give me hope. And surf therapy helps me show up better, for them.”

Reflecting on the pairing of surf and therapy, Freitas described it in a single word: happiness.

“Not a ton of people in the world know true happiness,” Freitas says. “And yet for many, just getting in the ocean can change your day like nothing else can. It’s like a rinse, like holy water. I just love that feeling.”

To date, Wilfong has run 14 women through Surf Therapy Santa Cruz and is now accepting applications for the next session, which begins April 20.

She’s also offered several Waves of Grief programs supporting over 60 people—notably participating in a session for Dr. Vivek Murthy, the 21st U.S. Surgeon General, and his staff. Additionally, Wilfong provides inclusive service to the local special-needs population with one-on-one and small group lessons in partnership with Surf School Santa Cruz.Learn more at surftherapysantacruz.com.


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