Learn how the nonprofit provides surf and yoga therapy for veterans
Veteran and founder Andy Manzi says surfing has kept him alive.
Surfers have to gauge a wave’s temperament before riding it, and they know better than anyone that water can soothe and heal. That’s the premise behind the Warrior Surf Foundation, which gives veterans the physical and emotional space to heal with surfing lessons, wellness coaching, and yoga. “I’ve seen it first hand,” says Andy Manzi, one of the nonprofit’s founders. “It’s magical. It washes away anxiety and fear. People get cleansed of a lot of the stuff holding themselves back from their lives.”
Manzi, a Marine who served in Iraq from 2003 to 2007, experienced the limitations of traditional treatment for what he calls his “issues.” “I was at the VA [Veterans Administration]. I saw the power of the treatment they provided, but the environment was wrong. You can only heal so much in a hospital,” he says.
While teaching surf lessons on Folly Beach, Manzi recognized the therapeutic nature of the sport and the community it offers for veterans. In 2015, he helped created the Warrior Surf Foundation, which provides 12 weeks of free surf, yoga, and wellness lessons. A licensed social worker experienced in veterans’ issues heads up the wellness program. Equipped with a staff of six, a number of on-call coaches and surf instructors, as well as about 120 volunteers, the nonprofit has helped more than 500 veterans over five years, Manzi says. Program graduates can return any time for more surfing or wellness sessions. In the future, the foundation plans to offer more programming aimed at female veterans, who, he says, have a unique military experience.
(Left) The Warrior Surf Foundation provides surf, yoga, and wellness classes for veterans; (Right) A former Marine and a graduate of the Warrior Surf program, Jeremy Miller now serves as a wellness coach.
Jeremy Miller, a Warrior Surf wellness coach and graduate who served as a Marine in Iraq in 2004, agrees the transition from military life to civilian life can be challenging. “Four days after I got back from combat operations in Iraq, I was in a college classroom,” he says. “They weren’t really addressing my needs. When I first got out, this type of program would have been incredibly helpful.”
Surfing, Miller says, teaches you how to be present. “You can’t think about the previous wave or the next wave, you have to think about the wave you are on right now,” he says. “These are all micro messages, teaching you to be present and mindful of what’s going on in the moment. So many times with PTSD, it goes hand in hand with anxiety, and you need to be calm and present. The whole program offers support to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Manzi has found practicing yoga provides a perfect complement to surfing and the healing process. “Yoga is a second gift that came to me in adult life,” Manzi says. “I saw immediate benefits. Yoga has helped ease a lot of issues I have with head trauma and with a number of issues with back, neck, and shoulder pain that began during my time in the service. It has given me a way to let my body grow stronger.” The breath work in yoga also helps with anxiety and depression, and it can be done anywhere, he says.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the nonprofit was forced to speed up plans to offer yoga and wellness classes remotely. Still, Manzi says, “the human element is very important, and it was challenging not to be able to see each other every month.” The group hit the waves again in June.
Manzi understands the importance of empirical data to prove the program’s efficacy and recently began working with The Citadel to conduct research and track the veterans’ progress. “We are trying to be the best damned surfing therapy program we can be,” he says. “I try really hard to keep science and academics off the beach, but we have something really powerful here, and we have to support it scientifically. I would love to see doctors prescribe surf lessons and yoga sessions one day.”
For Manzi, surfing is intrinsic to healing. “I never felt so comfortable,” he says. “The water’s like the comfort of a mother locked up around me. It kept me alive.”