What does an 83-year-old woman who surfs the cold waters of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach have in common with a Buddhist monk hiking through the Himalayas?
They’re both people who author Jaimal Yogis encounters as he scours the planet looking for the secrets to internal happiness. Yogis is a San Francisco-based surfer, journalist and meditation teacher, whose new book, “All Our Waves Are Water,” chronicles his quest for the perfect wave, and for an internal life that can weather storms, lulls and thrilling rides.
Sasha Khokha, host of The California Report Magazine, sat down to talk with with Yogis about surfing Mavericks, the origins behind his name and how the ocean became his Zen master.
This book chronicles your travels to places like Mexico, Bali and the Himalayas, and explores what surfing and meditation have in common. What is that connection?
There is this sort of instant solitude that happens because you can’t bring yourself when you are with the elements. You have to be present because the ocean is very dynamic.
So it’s a little bit of a shortcut to some of the states of solitude that you might find in a Zen monastery.
This is a follow-up to your first memoir, “Saltwater Buddha,” about leaving your home and your military family in suburban Sacramento as a teenager, buying a one-way plane ticket to Hawaii without telling your parents, and just going off in search of the wave. Then you spent a year in a Buddhist monastery as a teenager?
When I ran away to Maui I had this vision that surfing in the islands would save me. And when I got there at 16, I had no money. Maybe just enough to buy a surfboard and some avocados. It was hard. And I was lonely. I think you have to bump up against suffering, though, to really want to look deeper into who you are. And so that was sort of my introduction, both to surfing and to sort of a real loneliness.
Surfing was my bridge between the temple and the world, because there was this meditative aspect but you’re also getting beat up by the waves.
Surfing is hard and it’s dynamic. You can be getting your face ground into the sand, which doesn’t happen at the monastery! You might get whacked by the Zen master but it’s different. If I can use surfing as a sort of transition between this meditative place and the world, I’ll be in good shape.
People may be surprised to know that Yogis is your real name even though it sounds so appropriately spiritual. What’s the origin of your name?
It’s Lithuanian. Lithuanian is strangely the closest European language to Sanskrit. My family became interested in yoga in the ’70s, and then their teacher’s teacher in Boston at the time was named Bob Jaimal Singh. My dad wanted to name me Baba Jaimal.
I understand! My dad is from India, yet I have an Eastern European name.
We were meant to do this interview!
She’s 83 now and she lives on the Great Highway in San Francisco, and she’s still here almost every day on her beach cruiser or she goes to a secret spot and body-surfs without a wet suit. She gets some pretty amazing rides.
I’ve got to ask you about the macho “bro” attitude in surf culture, where people get cuthroat and fight over waves. It’s oftentimes also a very white culture that makes some women and people of color feel left out.
Yeah. You know like anything, a good wave is a rare commodity and there are a lot of surfers who want that wave. So it’s people who are going to compete, and it’s going to bring out sort of that competitive macho culture.
It’s one of those things where you can avoid it if you want to surf for just the joy of surfing, and you just have to go to the right spots. Don’t go to the point breaks in Santa Cruz where there’s a bunch of people competing in a small area of water. Go to a beach break where it spreads out. There has been a wonderful rise of great women surfers and more diversity in surfing over the last decade.
So now you are the parent of three small kids. If they’re anything like my kids, I can imagine your home life is not very peaceful. How do you maintain that sense of calm or even find a quiet corner to meditate?
I meditate with them before bed. As they’re falling asleep, I sit with them. Sometimes they fall asleep in five minutes and I get to actually meditate.
Then there’s times they’re making me tell them the Giants score for 30 minutes, and I’m saying “shh!” So it just becomes more dynamic. There are more waves. It’s a little more stormy, but I try to surf the ones I can and let the bad ones pass.