Features Latest News

Healing the Soul One Board, Breath and Brush At a Time

On the beaches of San Diego, she stands wearing a straw hat secured around her neck and is wearing a black wetsuit.

Her blonde hair reflects the San Diego sun and her smile reflects the San Diego attitude.

She walks up to a group of women and they grab their surfboards and hit the waves.

To an outsider, they look like a group of friends, having fun with each other as they surf and take in the beautiful weather together.

But to Natalie Small, this is her dream made reality and to these women, this is their new found sanctuary.


Small’s father threw her and a few guy friends in the car with some boards and drove to the beach where they could catch a few waves and for her, her first few waves.

She paddled out on her board and began to surf.

This activity would be one that would humble her and bring her closer into her relationship with the outdoors. The water was her place to think and her place to reflect.

After graduating Point Loma Nazarene University with a degree in psychology, Small started working at a practice and began to notice a trend in her main recommendation to her patients which was to spend time with the ocean.

“The ocean can handle anything you throw at it,” said Small.

Something sparked inside Small as she realized that she could use her gifts of both therapeutic practice and surfing to help women heal, spend time on the waves and get back in touch with their own bodies.

So she grabbed her surfboard, signed up for business classes and created Groundswell, surf-therapy for women.

“This is an experience of the present moment,” Small said.

Small reached out to a woman named Teri Hedman, the director of transformational services at Shakti Rising in San Diego, and asked if she should could take a group of Shakti women out on the waves.

Shakti Rising is a nonprofit organization that helps create a safe space and a place to stay for women recovering from abuse and also those women with depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses.

“I was so grateful after the first session,” said Hedman.

Hedman grew up in Reno, Nevada and learned how to climb at a young age. When she moved to San Diego a couple years ago, she wanted to learn how to surf but doing that meant overcoming her greatest fear.

“I grew up in a desert and I was scared of the ocean,” Hedman said.

She was jumping into the water with zero experience and a whole lot of fear. But as she kept forcing herself to go back out and face her fear of the ocean time and time again, she fell in love with the sport.

“It gave an outlet physically where I could relieve some of my anxiety,” said Hedman.

Hedman says that giving these women at Groundswell the right equipment along with the right training and a group of supportive individuals cheering them on is the best way to encourage women to go out onto the highly male-populated waters.

Hedman likes that women are pushed to go out and test their limits physically with surfing, and they can easily apply it to their own life and their own limits they are facing.

“The ocean is our master facilitator,” said Hedman.

Small gets help from local volunteers who want to become surf sisters and if men want to volunteer to teach the women to surf, they can become surf brothers and go on this journey with these women.

Groundswell also includes yoga, journaling and other mindfulness practices to add to the surf instruction to appeal to the learning styles of all of the women in the group.

Another woman who believes yoga is important when talking about mental health is Jessica Matthews, a part-time faculty member in the Kinesiology department at PLNU and also a certified yoga instructor.

She says that yoga can help someone just slow down and be in the present moment, which can help students lower their stress levels and anxiety.

“Self awareness really allows for that opportunity in life when you’re present and fully attuned to what’s happening, you can have a clearer picture of when things are transpiring, how to respond to them and how not to react to them,” said Matthews.

And though one can easily pull up a video on YouTube and go through the motions and poses, a group setting can provide that social support and also that spiritual practice in addition to just the physical side of yoga, according to Matthews.

Also joining a yoga class that meets at a specific place in time can create a healthy routine to go to that class, even just once a week.

“That element of having that camaraderie, that social support can be quite powerful in actually making and sticking to a type of new change for them,” said Matthews.

Matthews stresses the importance of mindfulness practices like just focusing on breathing for a minute a day and taking that moment to be present.

Guided meditation apps like Headspace and Insight Timer can be a great tool to use to focus on that time to be present.

“It sounds, again, very simplistic but these are things that are continual practice for a lifetime,” said Matthews.

She said that whatever mindfulness practice or activity one chooses to pursue, it should be fun and it should be done with intention and a focus on self-care.

Member of the PLNU journalism faculty, Danielle Cervantes Stephens, says that she uses mindfulness in addition to cognitive therapy, behavioral modification, self-soothing and prayer as she tries to stabilize her mood.

Stephens has bipolar disorder, which is a disorder of the brain that causes unusual shifts in moods. There can be manic highs and also depressive lows.

She noticed her disorder later in life and saw the symptoms escalate during her college years due to the high stress and high anxiety atmosphere.

It was especially hard because this was a disease that didn’t have any visible symptoms to an outsider. Nothing physical changed, but her mental state was going crazy.

“Emotional, psychological and mental pain seem abstract, yet they are really quite physical, or at the very least chemical,” said Stephens over an email with The Point. “But if others can’t see the pain, it might as well be imagined.”

She emphasizes the need for safe spaces where students can go and talk about how they are feeling and to get support from on-campus and off-campus services and also teaching people how to treat each other especially if someone is suffering from a mental illness.

“Do not judge each other if you perceive the world differently, through your shattered but vivid kaleidoscope of colors,” said Stephens.

Stephens wants to create this space and also include speakers that can come in and talk about living with mentally ill loved ones and also practitioners to come in and share cognitive therapy techniques like meditation, yoga and art therapy.

One option for a practitioner to speak on art therapy is Lisa Falls, an art therapist who has her own practice in San Diego.

Both Falls and Matthews use the airplane oxygen mask procedure as a metaphor for self care. The person on the plane is instructed to put on their own oxygen mask before helping others and it should be the same for self care.

Personal self care should be the priority before helping other care for themselves according to Falls.

Falls’ father committed suicide when she was 27, and she had suffered major depression after that loss. She also experienced the weight of a stigma surrounding her and her illness.

“Back then, I felt like there were a lot of people that did think I was a crazy mess,” said Falls.

She received her bachelor’s in art and then realized that she wanted to do more with her art and her friends were saying that she’d make a great therapist. So she decided to combine the two and create her own art therapy practice.

Falls said that due to her past and to her family history that is filled with depression, anxiety and PTSD, she is able to connect with her patients is a special way and she is able to empathize with them in a way that wouldn’t be possible without that history.

“It informs what I do in terms of feeling like I can empathize that much more with people,” said Falls.

Falls will talk to her patients to get a feel of their background and what they are going through presently. Then she will get a sense from the patient of what art they want to focus on for the upcoming weeks.

“And I think it’s something that I’ve worked on so hard myself that even though I still have my ups and downs, it’s not like everything’s all perfect with me, I feel like then I have something to give to people in that level of understanding,” said Falls.

She says that self care is important and for Falls, that means going to therapy herself, or using the tapping technique, neural feedback or doing art.

“I can’t be taking care of other people if I’m not taking care of myself,” said Falls.

Rather than reaching for paints, PLNU freshman music and psychology double major Ana Gates reaches for her guitar or a seat at the piano.

Gates said she has a desire to go into music therapy by getting both of her degrees in music and psychology because she wants to use her love of music to help people.

“My mom says that I started singing before I could talk,” Gates said.

Though she plays both piano and guitar, Gates’ real love lies with her favorite instrument, her voice.

She got the idea to become a music therapist after she had joined her church’s special needs ministry and started to play the guitar and sing for her audience. Though they tended to want more Taylor Swift than worship music, she said she found joy in their joy for the simple things.

For Gates, music is more than notes on a page and more than a treble clef or a bass clef. It’s a stress reliever and it’s an outlet for her to cast away her worries and her anxiety for a song or two.

“Playing piano is a good way for me to calm down and relax a little bit,” said Gates. “Because it just puts you in a different state of mind.”

Whether it’s her favorite classical piece, “Moonlight Sonata” by Beethoven, or her favorite hymn, “How Deep Our Father’s Love For Us,” Gates said she feels right at home as her fingers gently move across the piano as her voice follows along.

Her goal is to use music therapy to help dementia patients with their memory loss because music can be a great trigger for memories. She brings up the movie Coco and says that it’s a great representation of the power music has and what it can do.

“Music is just music to me, but to some people, it is all the difference,” said Gates.


The women make it back to the beach and now sit in a circle on their surfboards, each huddled over their own journals.

Small takes a look around at each one of them and thanks God for the unique opportunity she has been given to be a part of each of these women’s lives and to show them the power of the ocean’s waves.

She has seen the power of therapy and has seen the power of the ocean and putting those two together, well it doesn’t get much better than that according to Small.


About the author

Jenna Miller

Add Comment

Click here to post a comment