Harnessing the healing power of the ocean

The sea has long enchanted human kind – perhaps through its unexplored mystery, awesome power and continual ability to provide useful resources. But Naomi Tolley meets one man who believes our connection runs deeper, and is using it as a focus for therapy

It was a chance, silent encounter on a beach in wild Warrnambool that helped carve the path for Adam Royal’s future.

Early one morning, while gazing at the sea off Australia’s Great Ocean Road, he noticed another lone surfer, a man he later learned was a recovering alcoholic.

To Royal, their daily, fortuitous meetings at dawn, spent silently ‘reconnecting with the ocean’, highlighted the enormous healing powers of the sea.

He has since trained in psychology and worked as a therapist, founded wellbeing company Surfer Billie and created the unique sea-centred ocean therapy programme. The programme helps people with mental health issues, disabilities and both first-time and experienced surfers to escape the stresses of daily life: to ‘let go’; heal; and find a similar, deep relationship with the ocean.

“I have subconsciously been using ocean therapy since I was a child on family holidays spent on the Victoria and Queensland coastlines,” recalls Royal, fondly.

“I vividly remember getting up at dawn every morning and walking down to the beach just to stare out into the ocean. The energy I would receive back from the sea always gave me a peaceful feeling – there was a deep spiritual connection.

“The ocean can not only heal cuts with salt, but it has the ability to trigger a psychological state of calm and contentment. It can literally wash away the pain.”

“It was on one of these early mornings that I noticed another person on the beach,” explains Royal. “He was a recovering alcoholic who lived in a nearby caravan. I didn’t realise it at the time, but that was ocean therapy at play. Every morning we would stand and stare at the waves without saying a word to one another. It was powerful stuff and it never left my memory.

“I knew that meshing my psychological education with my love for the ocean was the perfect move for me and so Surfer Billie was born.”

The idea of being immersed in nature to improve health and wellbeing is not a new one. In 1901, naturalist John Muir wrote how: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilised people are beginning to find that going to the mountains is going home; the wildness is a necessity; that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.”

Even before then, the Greeks had evolved a healing therapy called the ‘water cure’. This was made up of a number of therapies, including hydrotherapy, which gave way to Father Sebastian Kneipp’s system of natural therapeutics, which formed the basis of what is now known as naturopathy.

Royal believes that immersion in nature plays an important role in therapy, but adds that, from a holistic perspective, literally being submerged in the ocean plays a particularly powerful role and claims he is one of the first to incorporate direct contact with the sea into such a programme.

“The basic premise of ocean therapy is nature immersion therapy but there is a lot of depth to the research conducted on humans’ internal desire to move towards water, which appears to be much more than merely being in nature,” says Royal.

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So how does Royal’s ocean therapy programme work and what sets it apart from other forms of nature immersion therapy?

“Ocean Therapy is a combination of programmes that are all ocean-centric and chosen to create balance through fostering the mind-body connection,” explains Royal.

“Surfing is at its core: learning to surf; improving surfing skills through the observation of wave formation; and listening and feeling the ocean’s energy. Forming a connection with the sea through the power of visualisation through beach meditation and yoga forms another part of the ocean therapy programme.”

And it seems to be the perfect way to relax the mind and reduce stress, according to Royal and of his clients.

“With regards to working with individuals with mental health issues or physical disabilities, what is most important is that the ocean is a great leveller. It strips away the notion of ability or disability, because for all of us we are at the mercy of the ocean, none of us can control it.

“This is empowering for individuals who have been told that they are different or weaker, or whatever negative connotations that have been derived from their diagnosis, the ocean provides a level playing field for everyone to connect. From a purely therapeutic perspective, providing ocean therapy programmes to individuals with mental health issues or physical disabilities is an amazingly powerful therapy tool to approach treatment from a non-linear perspective. It enables an element of space, creativity and fun, which is often lacking in traditional therapy options.”

Another differentiating factor is Royal’s belief in humanity’s intrinsic connection to the ocean. Citing the work of Dr Wallace J Nichols and his book The Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, In, On, or Under Water Can Make You Happier, Healthier, More Connected, and Better at What You Do, Royal says: “He has published incredibly interesting work on the evolutionary connection to water, specifically to the ocean, with his most recent work further examining what he calls ‘the blue mind’, asking why we are drawn to holiday by the ocean, what the neuroscience is behind this desire and how it forms a part of wellbeing.

“It is complete sensory immersion leaving us with no choice but to remain in the present.”

“It is an incredibly exciting time as further studies reveal what many of us have already intuitively known – that the ocean can not only heal cuts with salt, but it has the ability to trigger a psychological state of calm and contentment. It can literally wash away the pain.”

Covering 71 percent of Earth’s surface, the oceans provide much of the food we eat, supply 50 percent of the oxygen in the atmosphere, support more than 90 percent of the trade between countries by ship and house half of the world’s communication cables underwater. Yet just 10 percent has been explored by humanity and from Royal’s perspective, the exploration of connecting to and ‘knowing’ the ocean at a deeper level is only now truly beginning.

“The ocean provides perspective in a way that nothing else in nature therapy can. It is constantly changing and shifting right before your eyes, which is engaging from both a physical and psychological perspective. It forces us to learn to quickly adapt and take in new information as the environment changes before us.

“The ocean bombards us with multi-sensory stimulation, we feel the grains of sand, we taste and smell the salt, the wind rushes over our face and body, we hear the waves break and move and feel the water on our skin. It is complete sensory immersion leaving us with no choice but to remain in the present.

“It is this awakening of present state consciousness that is the element my clients take with them long after our ocean therapy programmes conclude, ingraining positive behaviour modification which enables self-regulation.”

As Royal expands his ocean therapy programme to Noosa, Queensland this year, he remembers that chance silent meeting on the beach at Warrnambool and reflects on a day spent sharing the water with about 30 surfers: “I was just looking at everyone and every single surfer appeared just so at peace with themselves. I didn’t know their backgrounds, psychological state, what personal issues that they had, but in that very moment everyone had this peacefulness about them, not a word spoken, just an amazing connection with the ocean.”

Surfer Billie was created by Adam Royal and his partner as a result of their desire to help others heal. They are currently establishing a base on Sydney’s Northern Beaches and are running a retreat in Sri Lanka in November with ocean therapy forming an integral part of the programme. They have two pop-up retreats in Europe planned for 2016 and are currently compiling a database of similar, personally recommended ocean therapy programmes in Europe, which will appear on their website soon.