Jaimal Yogis | Surfer, Buddhist, and Award Winning Author
“Skating was a big part of my life in the suburbs and surfing had this ancient, sort of shamanic history. So I had an inkling that surfing would also be able to connect these two worlds I felt split between – the sacred and profane.” – Jaimal Yogis | July 2017
I was first introduced to the work of Jaimal Yogis through his first book, “Saltwater Buddha”. I connected with the honest stories of a young man seeking peace and balance, in what can otherwise seem like a chaotic world. A modern Siddhartha for the suburban generation growing up on skateboarding and surfing.
Currently Yogis is touring in promotion of his third book entitled: All Our Waves Are Water. He is also doing screenings of the film version of “Saltwater Buddha”. I reached out to Jaimal while he was in-transit and he was kind enough to partake in a short interview with me.
Jaimal Yogis will be in Ocean Grove, NJ this weekend at Ohana Rising Yoga for an event presented by Surf and Abide.
For more information on the event and tickets: www.ohanarisingyoga.com/workshops
Read on, enjoy, and may you find peace.
Tell us a bit about your childhood, growing up with your family, and your initial introductions to spirituality?
I’m a spiritual mut. We had little of everything in our house growing up: Buddha statues, books about Freud and science, the Bible, Native American prayers for thanksgiving. My mom was raised secular Jewish, my dad Catholic. They both encountered yoga and Buddhism in the 70s, started practicing and named me after a yoga teacher named Baba Jaimal Singh (my mom convinced my dad to drop the Baba part).
So I was exposed to meditation growing up and even encountered some great yogis as a kid when we went to ashrams and temples, but my dad was in the Air Force and we were always getting stationed in these suburban towns where eastern thought and practice wasn’t common. I always felt like I had two lives, one that was “normal” and American – tailgating, 90210, skateboarding, etc. And then this sort of secret, weirder spiritual(ish) life at home. It’s hard to remember, but yoga was still considered weird in the 80s.
I think I felt torn between those worlds a little bit and probably started experimenting with drugs in high school with friends to bridge the gap. Getting drunk or high, you could finally broach the deeper stuff – conversations about what the heck we’re doing here, what consciousness is. I mean, that was part of it. The other part was just, you know, being a curious teenager. Anyhow, I was also dissatisfied with the synthetic stupidity of those experiences – not to mention the physical backlash. And the partying also started getting me into trouble, DUI, suspended from school etc. I felt like I was in a downward spiral and that’s when I ran away to Maui as a junior in high school. Spiritual is sort of meaningless term to me because it implies something that is outside of this ordinary world and if there is any unifying divine principle in the world it’s in everything, not in some spiritual realm… but anyhow, that trip to Maui began a couple decades of what you could call pilgrimage for meaning or truth. Often with a surfboard.
What first brought you to the surfing path and what has kept you engaged all these years later?
I went to Maui for a lot of reasons, but what I was most conscious of was learning to surf. Skating was a big part of my life in the suburbs and surfing had this ancient, sort of shamanic history. So I had an inkling that surfing would also be able to connect these two worlds I felt split between – the sacred and profane. The reality was, of course, that surfing was just a lot harder than I expected – especially trying to learn on a 6’6″ around Paia, the north shore of Maui. But I think the difficulty is also what hooked me. It was so challenging and you got so beat up out there and felt so humbled, but then when you got out, you felt great. It was like wrestling the ocean, you also wrestled unconsciously with your own anxiety-ridden stories until those stories just gave up. Later when I finally learned how to surf ok, that feeling became about just playing instead of wrestling – until it got big anyway. Those are both huge parts of why I continue to surf – the challenge and the play – and seeing how they overlap. The challenge is part of the play, and the play part of the challenge and I think that’s the best way to approach most things in life. To see all our challenges as a big playful dance and the pure fun stuff as dependent on the challenges. And then beyond all that, just the water. All the science on what happens to our brains and bodies when we’re in the water shows how the sea just gets us out of planning and organizing and stressing mode. It’s a short cut to a present state of mind and that’s priceless.
When did Buddhism become a part of your life and what role does it play today in your daily lifestyle?
The Buddha was around our house in his statue form. But I didn’t really know what Buddhism was growing up. I used to try and meditate as a kid before I had any instruction and I would picture myself flying over waterfalls and things. I just tried to conjure up happiness, which was useful but it didn’t have any philosophical framework behind it. But when I ran away to Maui, I brought Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha, and because the Buddha also ran away from home when he left his palace, I kind of imagined I was on a similar adventure. I also thought Maui and surfing would solve my problems, but I was a broke 16-year-old alone who didn’t know anyone. I was suffering, just like Siddhartha was, and that suffering was the impetus to pick up a little zen book at the store and started trying to actually meditate on my own.
I thought I’d be a good meditator with my parents and all, but like everyone, I sucked at it. It was hard, just like surfing was, and I started drawing parallels between the two, seeing how emotional waves are similar to ocean waves. If you fight against them, you don’t do yourself much good. But if you relax and just let the wave pass through, you come up and you’re ok. I also started seeing that when my breath calmed, just like wind on water, my mind tended to calm more too. I was hooked. And after high school I went to live in a Zen monastery. I thought I wanted to be a monk and tried to be for about a year, but eventually went to college and tried to bring those lessons into school, relationships, and work life. For a long time, just like in my childhood, those felt like two distinct worlds – the monastery, which was such a refuge – and the world of ambition, heartbreak, failure, and success. I think that’s why I needed to write these books, to try to integrate those two worlds and see that ultimately they’re not different. It’s our own judgment that makes them different. You can find peace anywhere and the challenges out there are what continue to help us expand our internal peace.
Being a writer and author, channeling the Buddhist philosophy through the medium of surfing, what do you wish to offer the surf community and fellow human beings in general?
I hope people enjoy their lives more. It’s so easy to spend most of life caught in endless anxiety stories in our heads. But no matter whether you’re a billionaire or a beach bum, it’s possible to live a more happy existence than that. Contentment is an internal state. So we all have the potential to find it inside, and that’s not easy. We need tools and teachings. Surfing and Buddhism are tools that have helped me find more contentment, even though I’ve made lots of mistakes and fell flat on my face a lot of times. I hope writing about those times and how these ancient tools helped me clamber out is helpful to other people.
Your new book, “All Or Waves Are Water”, is on bookshelves and it’s receiving overwhelming positive press. Tell us about the new book and what you attribute your success to in creating books that your readers can connect with?
This book pretty much picks up where I left off in Saltwater Buddha, but it back tracks a little to the Himalayas where I met this friend named Sonam Wangdue, a Tibetan monk who had lost his family when he left Tibet for India at 11. I was in a really dark spot because my girlfriend of the time just left me for this other guy. I was in an abysmal state, comparing myself constantly to this other guy, and Sonam – who was heartbroken too, but dealing with better than I was – helped pull me out of the trenches. From there, I go to DC looking for journalism work, Mexico – Puerto Escondido – trying to learn about the tube, New York and Jerusalem for more journalism training, San Francisco for work, then Indonesia and the San Juan Islands to for surf trips and retreats. All the stories are about just trying to make sense of the seemingly conflicting worlds of ambition and money and this other world I keep getting glimpses of in meditation or in the water.
I’ve been lucky to meet a lot of people like Sonam – or, say, Carol Schuldt, the 83-year-old body surfers in San Francisco, or Jimmy, the Padang surfer who had to teach himself how to walk again after a months long coma – who helped me find some sort of balance. I suppose the book is a series of thank you letters to those people.
Do you think surfing is intrinsically spiritual or is something the participant must extract from the process?
As I said before, I think the word spiritual can be a bit confusing. In Zen and other non-dual schools of spirituality like Vedanta yoga, everything is considered “spiritual” – even the most mundane tasks like washing dishes. So, surfing is just one of the things I do because I love to do it. And because I practice meditation and am interested in what you might call spiritual or philosophical questions, the sea becomes another place to practice.
That said, I just wrote a big story about this exact question for The Atlantic that comes out this Sunday so I’ll point people to that for a more thorough discussion. I talk to Wallace J. Nichols, the biologist, in that story, and I love this quote he gave me: “Across all spiritual traditions, cultures, and times, you find the use of water to achieve states of awe, grace, and love. We scientists avoid those words like the plague. But if you’re on the water a lot, those end up being the words you need to describe your experiences.”
Through your journey of life, family, surfing, Buddhism, and writing; what are some of your fondest and truth-revealing memories?
I think a lot about the day our first son, Kaifas, was born. It’s a cliche to say it’s the best day of your life when you meet your child, but it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It was the day I realized love is way bigger than I could ever conceive of. I met Kaifas and this simultaneous ecstatic love and almost crazy feeling of power came over me, like something new had been switched on that was going to give me super powers to take care of this little being. But then I realized the power was just the unconditional love. I knew that I wouldn’t have the slightest thought about jumping in front of a car for this guy and there was something so liberating about that – and beautiful because it came so naturally, without effort, just a part of being a dad. I wasn’t concerned about myself at all and I remember thinking that this is a glimpse of what a bodhisattva – a being who embodies the Buddhist ideal of compassion – feels for all beings. I think parenting is a real practice in that way. Because if you can expand that love you have for your kids instinctively to others, even just a little, that’s the path.
Describe your last surf session and what you walked away with after you surfed?
I’ve been on book tour this month and haven’t been with a board, but I have my fins. And I was just down in San Diego when Windansea turned on. It went from flat to like eight-foot faces in an hour. I got to body surf this inside section, had some of the longest body surfing rides of my life and got out really happy. On book tours it’s easy to get caught up in what sort of press is happening or the sales numbers, but that body surf helped me let go of all that for while.
You’re heading to Ocean Grove, NJ this weekend. How is the tour going so far and what can people expect at the event on July 23rd here in New Jersey?
I’ve only been hit by a few rotten tomatoes on this tour, and most of the time people are laughing at my bad Buddhist jokes. So I’m calling it a win. I’m really stoked about being back in Asbury Park. It’s one of the best ocean communities. Hopefully I can borrow a board from you.
If the Buddha had one message for surfer, what do you think it would be?
I’m sure there’s some hidden sutra where he actually went to Sri Lanka and gave a lecture. Probably something like, “Oh monks, be ever mindful of the ride. Be ever mindful of the paddle,” which in modern terms would be, “enjoy the ride. Enjoy the paddle.”