GERRY LOPEZ: Surfing, Yoga, and the Elements to a Peaceful Life
“Whether any surfer wants to admit it or not, I think we’ve all had moments like looking at nice waves coming through the lineup maybe, only for a moment, feeling that we are in the presence of something holy. There is a spiritual-ness when you actually get in harmony with something as natural as the waves and the ocean, and yeah, it is definitely a religious experience.” -Gerry Lopez
Gerry Lopez is someone who truly needs no introduction in our community. As one of the most prolific surfers in modern history, he still continues his odyssey of wave riding with youthful exuberance and a sage-like gratitude, remaining eternally relevant as a master of his art to those who are steadfast devotees of the surfing life.
When I contacted Gerry to conduct this interview, I was taken back by his quick response and overall gracious attitude in helping facilitate the correspondence. I imagined when I initially sent the first email, I may never hear back from him. Thankfully, I was wrong. I felt overjoyed, and to be honest, a bit nervous to have a chance to talk to the style master himself on surfing, Yoga, and a life well lived.
Venture forth and read the words of wisdom from surfing’s guru of methodical grace and mystic-like humility.
Growing up in Honolulu, Hawaii where the art of surfing can be likened to the life’s blood of the island, I imagine surfing has been part of your life ever since you can remember. Being so, can you recall the first time you ever rode a wave and the feelings that came with that experience?
Surfing all the way until I was in college was really more recreational than how surfing is for young people today. I don’t think anyone in those old days was anywhere near as serious as the people are today. Back then it was different, you weren’t going to get a job surfing, nobody was going to pay you to go surfing; there wasn’t any industry to speak of. Surfing in the 1960’s wasn’t for anything except fun and recreation.
Until I was in college I never really felt that surfing was something that I was going to do for the rest of my life. It wasn’t until I had been doing it for about ten years that I started to slowly feel that surfing was something that I did want to do wholeheartedly, make an effort to get good at and put in the time that it took to do it.
That was a long time ago. I graduated from high school in 1966, and it was a different world back then, quite a bit different than it is today.
You’re known as one of original premier surfers at the infamous Pipeline. As one of the best tube riders to have ever surfed the break, your surfing ability and your whole approach is super smooth, almost meditative. Style seems to be a natural gift that was bestowed upon you. Do you consider surfing to be your life’s “dharma”, and if so, how do you feel you have served the human family through your surfing?
I’ve always said that I thought that the first 20 years that I surfed were just kind of a test to see if I was really interested or not. It wasn’t until after that that I started to understand that there were some great lessons that I learned from surfing. I think that’s why surfing has such an appeal to many people. Just as in yoga, a great deal of the surfing experience, as well as life experience, kind of happens in this unseen realm, this place that you can’t really see or touch, but it’s influencing you all the time. In yoga the energy is called “Prana” but that same Prana is really evident in surfing. You might start your session tired or frustrated after a long day, but once you’re out there in the water and you get a good ride, you feel like you can surf for another six hours. You can get so much energy from one good ride.
That is something that is pretty intangible, but it’s real. It happens all the time. So when you connect with surfing or with yoga in that way, you really understand that there is a whole world there that you want to get in touch with and be a part of.
As you said, you grew up in the late 60’s and graduated in ’66. In the early 70’s eastern philosophy and yoga were a relatively new but powerful force that was hitting the west. When did yoga and meditation become a dedicated practice in your life, and what initially drew you to the practice and how do you feel it affected your surfing?
My first year of college was in California, but I ended up going back to Hawaii because I wanted to surf more. This was when I started going to the University of Hawaii. In 1968 I went to a yoga class, and it was the right time for me to connect with yoga. Maybe yoga passes by a person’s consciousness before that, but it seems to come into his or her life exactly when it’s supposed to. Some people may have many close encounters with it before the right time for the connection to occur. For me it was that first time and it has been a big part of my life ever since.
During my first yoga class, as I watched the instructor show the class how to do various poses, I remember wanting to be able to move on a surfboard the way the instructor moved. That is when it really clicked for me.
I think I was really fortunate that I felt that connection the very first encounter I had with yoga, but I have watched how it is with other people. Especially back then when yoga was something that wasn’t that popular. We were hippies so it was making the rounds in our group. The reason someone like Bikram has had so much success with his yoga here in the West is because, generally speaking, in most yoga practices, a westerner would go, and either (just like in surfing) get frustrated or feel that nothing is happening because both yoga and surfing take a long time and involve a lot of practice.
Just like surfing, you have to put in a lot of time and effort. You have to be dedicated and disciplined. Oftentimes, the western mentality wants more instant results. I think Bikram looked at the western mind and put together 26 poses that people can go to a couple of classes and already feel they’ve improved and made progress, even if they have no prior experience.
Yoga isn’t like surfing for most people, where in surfing, oftentimes you’re hooked after catching your very first wave. That little feeling, that glide, that freedom, feeling like you’re flying like a bird just for that moment is enough to keep you coming back. But for many people going in and trying to push your body into some of the simplest poses is not easy and not very rewarding.
A lot of times, if you were to go for the very first experience of yoga to a more advanced class you might get discouraged and never go again. The people that go to Bikram really love it. Most of them never go anywhere else. They just stay there because they feel like that’s all they need, and they don’t need to go any further.
I think that it depends on the person, but yoga, like surfing is a long-time endeavor and the longer you do it, the more you learn about it. You understand and realize how much more there is and how little you really know and how you are just barely scratching the surface. I guess that’s why they are the same in a lot of ways.
I was introduced to yoga when I was in High School, I was about 15 years old. I didn’t come through the doorway of Hatha yoga like many. I practiced Bhakti yoga, as was introduced to me by the Hare Krishna movement. I used to go punk rock shows, surfed and skated and through that world I came to yoga.
I found after searching and seeking different things that I started to view surfing itself as a yoga practice, although not in the traditional sense. That said, I feel the entire act of the surfing process, not just riding waves, but everything that goes into surfing, is likened to yoga. I think that in that process, in the proper frame of mind, we can come to know our higher self or what we might call divine or God.
So I was curious, based on your own experience, do you feel surfing can be likened to a yogic or spiritual path?
Whether any surfer wants to admit it or not, I think we’ve all had moments like looking at nice waves coming through the lineup maybe, only for a moment, feeling that we are in the presence of something holy. There is a spiritual-ness when you actually get in harmony with something as natural as the waves and the ocean, and yeah, it is definitely a religious experience.
It may be sacrilegious to church people, but it is not to me. My church is the Church of the Open Sky. I certainly feel like I am in the presence of God, whether it is in the ocean or anywhere in nature. I like to snow board and I think that one of the reasons that I like snowboarding so much is because being up on the mountains is really that same feeling. It is a feeling that you are in touch with something a lot bigger and more than ourselves. I definitely feel that surfing is a very spiritual endeavor.
You’ve been living in Oregon for a good amount of time now with your family and you’ve taken up snowboarding and your son also snowboards. A lot of people compare surfing and snowboarding, and in my experience, I too have found that there are a lot of similarities. I’m curious what you find unique about surfing that might not be present in snowboarding, and how do you find that they are similar?
I really like being in the salt water, you can’t feel that in the snow. I have gone through some phases in my life where I have really gotten into activities other than surfing and wind surfing was one of them and then snowboarding. But it always keeps cycling back to me as I come to the understanding again and again that surfing really is my foundation. It is the thing that I enjoy doing the most and the activity I get the most return from. I like doing all of it, but I think that surfing just seems more complete than all the others.
Living in Oregon, how many days a year are you surfing now and where do you spend most of your time surfing?
I still take lots of surfing trips, but right now I’ve got a torn rotator cuff and I broke my leg snowboarding last Christmas. So, while I was in the gym rehabbing the broken leg, I tore my rotation cuff. I didn’t realize that I had done it, so I just kept surfing that summer and found out in September that I had this injury. I was advised paddling was not allowing it to heal.
So I haven’t paddled since September. The North Shore has had amazing surf this winter and out here on the Oregon coast has been probably the best overall winter for surf in the last 20 years. With my injury I’ve missed all of it. But generally I’d surf any time I see a good report. I never counted how many surfboards I shaped or how many days I went surfing, maybe not as many as I used to, but as many as I can.
Talking about shaping, since you grew up surfing and eventually became a shaper, do you think it is important for surfers to learn to shape their own boards?
No, I think it’s important for surfers to learn about their surfboards and I think all of them do. I think it has been that way since the beginning of surfing. You go surfing for the first time and you get stoked on it. Then you want to ride more waves, so you get a surfboard and you learn how to ride that surfboard. That first surfboard takes you to a certain level. But to go beyond that level, you need to get a better surfboard. So I think whether it was with the ancient Hawaiians or at any other time in surfing’s long history, it has always been that way.
For me, making my own boards was just a way to try to continually evolve while surfing. I could raise the level of my surfing by improving my equipment. Nowadays, really good equipment is readily available. You can just go to the store and buy whatever you need, so I don’t think it is as important for a surfer to know how to make a surfboard. You should probably know how to repair the surfboard, but to go all the way to make one, I don’t think that that is totally necessary.
It requires a lot of effort and time to figure out how to do that. These days, who has enough time? You might as well spend as much time surfing as you can.
I’m not a shaper but I have friends who shape boards and watching them do it, it looks likes shaping itself is a very meditative process. So I was curious what your frame of mind is when you are actually shaping a board, what you look for in a finished board, and as a shaper, what is the greatest reward that you receive?
Well I think starting from the end there the greatest reward is making a board, and if it is for me, going out for a surf and having that board do what I hope it’s going to do. When I’m making it for somebody else, I want it to be a board that they like, enjoy, and helps to advance their surfing.
But yes, the mindset when I’m shaping a board is a very meditative experience. I’ve been doing it long enough that once I figure out exactly what it is that I’m trying to shape, it just becomes the process and the steps to get it there.
I don’t have to think about it that much which allows me to have a nice space to think about other things, and I come up with some great things [laughs] while I’m shaping surfboards. I don’t have anything to do in those moments, just keep shaping the surfboard which I can almost do without having to think about it; it’s just one step after another. Whether I’m working on a piece I’m writing or a different way to teach at a yoga class, I can think about that stuff while shaping a surfboard. It’s really a nice, clear space for my mind to work.
How do you feel the path of yoga can positively influence and help one’s surfing?
Surfboards of today are so responsive and work so well in any part of the wave, that they are much easier to ride then surfboards ever were. Surfing is all about flexibility and yoga is all about increasing flexibility as well as building strength. So to me, they really go hand in hand, I don’t think there’s anything in yoga that is bad for surfing and in fact everything in yoga is going to enhance your surfing experience in positive way. Just the strength and the flexibility that you gain from yoga is really something that’s going to improve your surfing.
The breathing certainly helped me in big wipe outs. I have been able to hold my breath way longer than I thought was ever possible, and I’m pretty sure that that came from my yoga practice. It certainly paid off! I’m here right now talking to you about it rather than being buried somewhere because I’ve had to hold my breath a long time a few times and it surprised me that I was able to.
So whatever kind of yoga practice or meditative practice you use, it’s going to help. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a Hatha-yoga, physical practice. There are many types of meditation, all of it will make you surf better; I promise. [Laughter] I’ve been into yoga for a long time, I just read a little nice thing that Greg Long wrote about his yoga practice and how it has really helped his big wave surfing. We all need to improve our focus and concentration and yoga certainly helps there.
Being involved with surfing for so long, you’ve witnessed the various paths and ways that surfing has gone over the years. Personally I feel surfing is in a pretty exciting place right now. It seems like things are starting to come full circle in the sense that the roots of style or a more soulful approach and grace are starting to converge with high performance surfing equipment. What do you find exciting about this time that we live in as it relates to surfing?
Did you watch the Mavericks contest yesterday, they showed it live?
I didn’t watch it live, but I have been seeing a lot of footage and photos of the event.
Yesterday I knew it was on and as I was watching it, Grubby Clark [of Clark Foam fame] called me up. I told him how to go online and get it live [laughs]. He started watching it and later called me up while I was teaching yoga last night in the middle of the class so I missed his call.
He left this message, “You screwed me up, I had all these things to do yesterday and all I did was watch that surfing contest.” Then this morning we talked and he was really excited about it. Grubby is 80 years old and he said this was the biggest thing that has ever happened in surfing and if they do it right, this can be as successful as NASCAR racing and he’s right because the big wave surfing is really exciting. Right now, as we’re talking, I’m watching downhill racing in Kitzbuhel, Austria. That’s pretty exciting too, because they are going really fast.
I think that surfing has been in the process of becoming more and more mainstream, but overall it has appealed to a very small segment of our society. The Mavericks contest show will really make surfing even more popular than it was. Maybe not necessarily for people who want to go out and surf. But for people who are interested in watching a competition in big waves like that.
So that’s kind of cool. I’ve watched surfing over my career go from a really small, kind of obscure, almost outlaw sport to a huge gigantic industry. Now everybody’s thinking, wow, surfing is really cool and that’s great. I like that.
So aside from surfing we are living in an exciting and also testing time. I was curious what do you think are our greatest challenges and triumphs as a collective in this present moment that we are living in?
[laughs] You can be happy and try to find some peace in yourself, in your life. I think that for me, I’ve been able to find some peace through surfing and through yoga. That is why I encourage both those things wherever you can get it. I think the world would be a better place if we were all just a little bit more at peace with ourselves.
I agree [laughs] but it’s difficult to get there at times. Especially in the culture that we are living in, there is so much stress to succeed and attain “things”. What would you say are the most profound lessons you’ve learned from yoga, surfing and life in general?
Surfing is such a great metaphor for life because out in the ocean everything is moving, I mean nothing holds still for you. With snowboarding it does, the mountain, more or less, holds still for you when you are riding it. But in the ocean everything is just in constant motion and life is really the same way. If you don’t move with it, life just passes you right by. So from surfing you learn a great and really wonderful lesson that you have to move with it, to be in the moment spontaneously and to go with the flow smoothly.
I think you also learn the great lesson of gratitude. That surfing whatever surfboard you have, in whatever surf conditions you have, somehow always makes it better when done with gratitude. Whereas being negative about it just makes it worse. When you are grateful, whatever it is you’ve got, even if it isn’t very much, just makes it more than enough.
In March you have an upcoming yoga and surf retreat at Turtle Bay on the North Shore. Can you give us a little bit of information on that upcoming retreat and, also, is that something that you do frequently, yoga retreats and things of that nature?
Yes, I’ve done quite a few yoga/surf camps in the past, but this is the first time we are going to do one at Turtle Bay. It works because I’ll be over there anyway. Wanderlust has their second “Wanderlust Oahu” Festival out at Turtle Bay and our camp will happen right after that. I think most of the people that will be coming to our camp are surfers that are interested in yoga, although there may be some who are yogis who are interested in surfing. I’m encouraging all of them to come to check out the Wanderlust event as well because it is really one of the great yoga gatherings here in America and beginning to happen in other countries as well.
They have them in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and they have a big one in July at Squaw Valley by Lake Tahoe. There is one up in Whistler, another in Aspen-Snowmass, Colorado and one in Stratton, Vermont on the East Coast.
At my camp we’ll probably do some vinyasa-style yoga in the morning, surf most of the day and then some Yin yoga in the evening. It will be a fun event, we’ll get to do a lot of yoga and surfing, and it’s a good time of year for surf on the North Shore.
Do you follow any type of dietary restrictions or special diet as a lot of people who do yoga do?
Well I’ve tried to eat as naturally as possible since I got into yoga and I’ve been asked this question before, about the surfing lifestyle and where all that came from, and for me, it came from yoga. The surfers, the generation before me, the real hard core guys, they didn’t have any money. Their lifestyle was about being there every day for the waves, but that meant not working. So without any money, you are not going to live very nicely and or eat very nicely; you’re going to eat whatever food you can get, and I think the whole healthy surf lifestyle is something that kind of came from yoga and hippies and began to develop in the late 1960’s…Well there was one guy named Tom Blake back in the 1920’s and 30’s who really advocated healthy living through surfing.
But I’ve always felt that it was more the yoga lifestyle adapted to surfing that really kind of evolved into the surfing lifestyle. Diet, of course, is a huge part of staying healthy. So yeah I’ve been trying to eat as naturally as possible. I haven’t eaten any red meat since I started yoga and I basically try to stay healthy so I can surf as long as I possibly can.
Where would you like to see the culture of surfing go in the future?
I don’t have any idea where it’s going to go. I don’t have any feelings one way or another where it does go. I just think it’s going to go somewhere and it certainly has gone bigger than any of us ever believed it would. I’m just excited and interested to see where it does go. I think that there’s the spiritual side of surfing becoming a little more interesting to more people and that will lead them into the environmental side. Maybe that will help keep our oceans a little cleaner and preserve this wonderful world we live in a little better for the generations that follow, especially for our children and their children.