Mindfulness and Sailing:

Nurturing Your Mind, Body, and Soul In These Stressed Out Times

Sailing and mindfulness might seem like two unrelated concepts, but they share many of the same beneficial physical and emotional benefits and embrace the wholistic nature of life. It’s easy these days to get swept up in the relentless tide of demands and chaotic rushing current of distractions. We’re inundated with emails, texts, calls, pings, dings, personal and work demands that pull us in countless directions at once. Our minds race with endless to-do lists, worries about the future, and ruminations about the past. This constant state of busyness and overstimulation leaves us feeling drained, anxious, and disconnected – from our deepest selves, from those we care about, and from the present moment itself.

As stress levels rise for all of us and the effects of stress take their toll on our physical and emotional well -being, it behooves us to seek out ways to support our nervous systems, bodies, and minds against the negative effects of all of life’s stressors, and it doesn’t have to be another chore or thing to do on your list but activities and practices that are fun and even magical.  We know that meditation and mindfulness practices are great remedies with many health benefits  – all well documented.  Most of us have very limited viewpoints on what these practices look like and how to integrate them naturally.  Adding outdoor recreation to these practices can amplify the positive effects and add fun and joyful presence to the process. 

yacht charterSailing, beyond its recreational appeal, puts us at the heart of nature navigating with the wind and waves, with an intense realization of the oneness of nature anchoring us in the center of mindfulness activities. Being on the water is one of the most relaxing experiences of nature from a physiological and psychological standpoint, and  immersing ourselves in the beauty and serenity of bodies of water is naturally calming. The rhythmic sound of the waves, the feel of the breeze against your face, and the panoramic vistas of the ocean on our beautiful San Francisco Bay create a profound sense of connection with the natural world. Being surrounded by bodies of water naturally fosters a deep appreciation for the wonders of our planet, ushering us into a state of tranquility and a natural entry into mindfulness.

One of the key connections between boating and mindfulness lies in their ability to foster a sense of serenity, tranquility and freedom from stressful thoughts and ruminations – those nagging thoughts that keep repeating over and over and never seem to go away. You have about 60,000 thoughts a day and science tells us only about 90% are repetitive!

Why is being in nature such a relief for us humans?  We can understand the importance of our relationship with the natural world through the concept of biophilia and the biophilia hypothesis. This hypothesis, popularized in the 1980’s by Edward O. Wison,  stated that humans possess an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and other forms of life. 

It was not a new idea, as this concept goes as far back as Aristotle and his “love of life’ concept,  but Wilson advanced the idea that the deep affiliations humans have with other life forms and nature as a whole are rooted in our very biology, and we subconsciously seek these connections and carry within us a desire to be in nature as part of our natural needs.

The interest of science to understand the importance and impact of the innate connection between nature and humans has informed our understanding of our evolutionary history as well. For over 99% of our history on the planet we were closely connected to nature.  From an historical perspective, humans who had better access to food and lived close to water and near vegetation had survival advantages. It’s no wonder we crave and immediately respond to these natural surroundings.

These days, survival is not about navigating a physically safe world but more about dealing with stress and an emotionally and physically distressed world.  It’s estimated that we now spend about 90% of our lives indoors, which begs the question, is our disconnection from the natural world amplifying the stresses of modern life? Although the survival theory is difficult to test, the popularity of camping, hiking, boating and the myriad of outdoor activities support the idea of a necessary connection to nature for our “survival” in today’s world.  

Sailing has the ability to change our physiology as well as our psychology almost immediately and in good part because of its proximity to water, where you experience what has been coined the “blue mind” effect.  Blue Mind is a term used to describe a state of water-associated peace whereby you enter into a mildly meditative state experiencing calm, peacefulness, unity and a sense of general happiness.

This effect of bodies of  water on our psyche has been well documented in the Blue Mind Theory, which was introduced by the late author and scientist Wallace J. Nichols. His treatise on the subject is passionate:  “I have done a tremendous amount of research on the benefits of being near, in, on or under water,” said Dr. Nichols. “The best place to begin is by first considering the negative stressors that go away when we step aboard a boat – the traffic noise, televisions, the office, computers – they all fade away. The boat is the greatest technology ever invented to access and explore a vast world of ‘Blue Mind’ benefits and escape the ‘Red Mind’ mode of an anxious and distracted life on land — although its application is understudied and under-prescribed.”

Science has studied the effects of the ocean and your “brain on a boat” and documented increases in the levels of our “feel-good” hormones such as dopamine and oxytocin within the human brain, while at the same time, a reduction in the levels of cortisol, the stress hormone.  As reassuring as the science is with recording all the evidence, we merely need to trust our innate responses to the natural environment to validate the data and experience how the outdoors can lead to restoration of our mind, body and spirit.  The direct experience that the outdoors promotes mental well-being has been felt by probably all of us at some time. 

Much of our  daily activity demands directed attention, and in order to sustain this, we effort to resist competing stimuli or intruding thoughts so we can pay attention in the moment and complete what we set out to do.  The constant demand for this kind of inhibitory control causes directed attention to become depleted and we suffer from attention fatigue.  Now step on board a boat, surrounded by expanses of water, our immediate response is one of awe and connection with nature. Our senses naturally become more keen, and we naturally fall into a presence of mind that unchains us from the distractions, stress, worries, and negative tethers of daily life.  How much better than a Netflix binge to remedy our stressors and overstimulated nervous system.  

BOATING AND MEDITATIONIt’s not just the sound of the waves, beautiful scenery and the motion of the boat that induces relaxation, it’s in the air.  Salt air is high in negative ions which are molecules floating in the air that have been charged with electricity. Negative ions exist in nature in a lot of places, including wherever water collides with itself like the ocean shore and waves, creating the Lenard effectExposure to negative ions helps in reducing symptoms of depression for some people, having an activating influence on cognitive performance, reducing insomnia and sleep interruptions, promoting antimicrobial activity, and neutralizing free radicals which revitalizes cell metabolism and enhances immune function. All with just with a breathe at the seashore or on a boat. 

Researchers have been studying the affect of negative ions on us for about 100 years, so there is lots of real evidence for their beneficial claims.  What is more remarkable is that high levels of exposure (several hours or more) to negative ions can cause people with chronic depression and seasonal affective disorder to experience a reduction in their depression symptoms. And all with just with a breathe at the seashore or on a boat. Remarkable. 

Sailing offers a unique combination of freedom and relaxation, much like mindfulness and meditation practices. Both boating and mindfulness invite us to let go of our worries and immerse ourselves in the present experience. Freedom from the mind’s constant chatter and rumination is the biggest blessing of meditation and mindful practices.  With both meditation and sailing, we can actually cause change to the brain’s structure and functions. Research confirmed that the amygdala – the part of the brain responsible for emotions such as stress, fear, and anxiety – actually gets smaller in people who meditate. People exhibiting this brain change also report feeling less stressed.

seal on bouyWhile some meditative mindfulness practices involve intentionally focusing our attention on the present moment while letting thoughts about past or future events flow in and out of our awareness, sailing affords us a natural and easy way to slip into paying attention to our surroundings, feelings, and body in the moment. We use the wind to guide us in sailing so focus is naturally placed on the surrounding elements. The surprise arrival of a seal, dolphins or flock of giant brown pelicans overhead helps anchor us in the moment an adds that element of surprise and awe. 

Moreover, both boating and mindfulness offer an opportunity for self-reflection and introspection. Sailing experiences, when approached with mindful attention, builds the capacity for self-awareness and self-regulation, 2 of the 5 pillars of emotional intelligence (EQ). The ocean is an apt metaphor for the mind and thoughts passing through it like the waves in the ocean. Mindfulness practice teaches us many different ways to observe our thoughts and emotions without judgment or attachment which leads to a deeper understanding of ourselves. Having greater awareness of how our minds work allows us to be less reactive and develop new levels of awareness and self-control. 

With the rising levels of stress and constant bids for our precious attention, it’s crucial we take the time to nurture our minds, bodies, and souls.  Now more than ever we need to rest and refresh and learn ways to integrate and weave healing practices into everyday life.  Our prescription for these hurried days of too many pulls for our attention and time is to take body and mind to the water. The combination of sailing and mindfulness meditation training is like a cool drink on a hot day. 

By integrating mindfulness practices into our lives, we can find our way back to a state of calm presence and appreciation for the beauty that surrounds us, even when waters are turbulent.

Our mission is to offer ways to combine the natural benefits of being on the water and on boats with fun, joyful charter experiences and celebrations and learning experiences that help us create a sense of peace and presence in nature’s embrace. Being out on a boat provides an opportunity for introspection and connection with both oneself, the wind, and the ocean’s vastness. For a brain reset and physical and emotional balm, check out our sailing + meditation day workshops

Or take one of our skippered charters. To add boating to your lifestyle for regular doses of mindfulness, fun, and joy, try out our affordable boating clubs.