STEPHEN TRIOLO: Drawing Parallel Lines to the Divine
“As different streams having different sources all mingle their waters in the sea, so different tendencies various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to God.” -Swami Vivekananda
As a teenager I became interested in eastern philosophy and Bhakti yoga, strangely enough, through the hardcore-punk scene of New York City. In India’s foremost holy scripture, the Bhagavad Gita (Song of God), Bhakti is one of the various forms of Yoga that is described in detail. The word Yoga in Sanskrit means to unite or connect with the divine. There are various yogic processes with Bhakti being the path in which we connect to the divine through love and devotional service. It is the Yogic path of the heart.
Since my introduction to Yoga in 1990 and straying from the traditional path of Bhakti in 1995, I have explored and loosely practiced various forms of spirituality always feeling somewhat dissatisfied and bewildered. During a time in my life when I was left utterly confused and depressed, I read the novel by Herman Hesse entitled “Siddhartha”. Through the story of the fictional character Siddhartha in Hesse’s novel, as well as my own experience and intuitive knowledge, I came to see surfing as a spiritual path unto itself, a form of Yoga in a modern context. Surfing appeared to me as a path in which the practitioner can connect with and experience the energy of “God” or the divine. It was as if I came full circle back to my first love, seeing her as I had failed to see her previously.
Recently my childhood friend, Steve Triolo, returned from a spiritual pilgrimage to India. Upon his return, he was kind enough to come to my home and patiently walk me through various yogic asanas. After the yoga practice, we enjoyed a surf session together, coming back to the origin of our friendship, in the surf, enjoying the riding of waves.
What follows is a conversation between Steve and me about the parallel lines drawn between surfing and yoga.
How did you first get into surfing and what are some of your earliest memories of riding waves?
I grew up a mile from the beach. My older brother and his friends would ride their bikes to the beach to surf, but being younger, I was never included. So a neighborhood friend and I decided to take his brother’s bodyboard to the beach one day. We were only 10 years old, and I’m pretty sure we weren’t supposed to be there by ourselves. We decided to paddle out near the lineup of surfers with both of us holding on to the bodyboard. There was no leash on it, and we were knocked off by a set wave. This was the farthest out into the ocean I had ever ventured. I was by no means adept to the ways of the ocean at that point and I nearly drowned. I was flailing and calling for help, but to no avail. By the time I thought I was done for, my friend came paddling over with the bodyboard. I jumped on and together we paddled to the safety of the shoreline.
It wasn’t until a few years later in 7th grade that I became friends with someone that actually surfed and I ended up buying a board from him. It was a 5’6” single fin Cream. I’m sure you remember the board, it had the brick wall on the bottom with “O-Hut Rocks” spray painted underneath the glassing. This was around the time you and I had met. This brings me to right around the very first time I ever rode down the face of a wave. It’s twenty six years later and I still remember that day and that wave. Your mom dropped us off at Mantoloking beach, our local break. It was overcast and rainy, the sky towards the horizon was dark, almost black in color. You and I were the only people in sight. At this point you were already able to catch waves and move down the line, all I knew up to then was riding in the whitewater. The water was gray and shallow, the waves were maybe thigh high at best. A wave came in and I was starting to realize that being in the right position counts for a lot. I paddled, stood up and started to go left. The next thing I knew I was riding a knee high peeler. I could see the sand on the bottom and feel the sensation of my board gliding along the face of the wave. I will never forget that feeling.
Has surfing influenced your approach to life, and if so, in what way?
I don’t know if it’s a subtle or more direct influence, but it has definitely taught me to take each day as it comes. To go even further, it has taught me to take each moment as it comes. I think this comes more from being in the ocean than the act of surfing itself. When you are in tune with nature, the water and the weather, you can see that everything is always in a state of flux. Change is always occurring and in that sense there is no tuning in, we simply become aware. Anyone that surfs knows very well the changes that can occur in a matter of days, hours, minutes, and even seconds. Head high and light offshore winds one minute, then howling onshore the next and flat the next day. That might be the extreme, but it happens, and more so here on the East Coast. You can see how the changing of the tides will effect how and where the waves break, that goes for the cycle of the moon as well. I can go out, sit on my board and be mesmerized by what’s happening in the sky. These are impressions that become ingrained in the heart and in the mind. Everything is calm, beautiful, and serene, then comes the storm. This is life. Surfing and being in the ocean is like a mirror. We can see in ourselves the same things that occur in nature, the various moods of the heart and mind. If we are looking for everything to remain unchanging and static, this will only lead to unhappiness. Things are going to happen in life and it’s how we are able to view and adapt to these events that are going to make the difference.
Surfing tends to change for us over the years as we move forward in life. How has surfing changed for you and what new forms has it taken on?
Surfing has taken on many faces for me over the years. I’ve gone from the aggressive competition phase to that soul-to-soul connection of just being in the water. Competitive surfing seemed to be the thing to do when I was younger. I was looking to satisfy the ego and show just how good I was if I got a trophy. I suppose I needed some sort of validation in life. Don’t get me wrong though, I’m not invalidating competition. I still keep up with the WCT and professional surfing. I love watching those guys surf, it’s so inspiring to see. They are making a living doing what they love, which is amazing. I think for me, as the childhood aggression wore off, so did the need to compete. It even got to the point where just going out to surf with friends became competitive, that wasn’t much fun for me. But that was my mindset back then. Eventually there came a point where I was exploring different avenues of life and living, I was learning about myself. I needed some time to develop as a human being. I didn’t stop surfing, but I wasn’t surfing as much. I eventually fell out of touch with the surfing world, my friends, and the surf breaks I had always been connected to. It was a gradual process of fading and eventually reemerging. I can look at it now in retrospect and see that we were just trying to push each other harder, we were all just young kids looking for something. We were just trying to make our own way and find a lasting connection to something. I still see the same guys out all these years later and it’s a beautiful thing. We all have that lasting love for the ocean and surfing.
We’ve known each other a long time and came up surfing together. We’ve both followed our own unique paths, yet have drawn many parallel lines. I became interested in eastern philosophy and yoga, specifically Bhakti yoga in the early 90’s, through the hardcore-punk scene. What initially drew you to the “east” and yoga?
That was around the same time you had brought me to the ISCKON temple in Brooklyn; you could call that my introduction to Bhakti yoga and Krishna consciousness. I was given a variety of books on eastern philosophy, and I was talking to a lot of new people. Everything was so foreign to me. I didn’t understand much of what I was taking in. There were so many names and forms of God. I had only known God as Christ. It brought more confusion than answers, and at that time I wasn’t even comfortable in my own skin. This led to further exploration into other religions and philosophies. I was also trying to get to the heart of the teachings of Christ. It was a search for truth, the heart of it all…a search for the Soul. I was looking for a “teacher” as well, someone who could help guide me along this path. But I had yet to discover exactly what that path even was. It was a path to God, but who is God? What is God? I always felt God through the ocean and in nature, but there was something more that I was looking for. In 1999 I enrolled in school for massage therapy. That was my introduction to yoga asana, as it was part of our curriculum. When school ended, I pursued different yoga studios but didn’t remain committed to a particular practice. It wasn’t until a few years later that I committed to a regular practice, which eventually led to doing a teacher training course. I kept telling myself that it was just to deepen my study and practice, but was encouraged to start teaching. I don’t like to call it teaching, because teaching is also just another form of learning. Over the past five years, the path of Bhakti yoga has come full circle. I had developed the state of mind to embrace it and make it a daily practice and study.
You just came back from a pilgrimage to India. What prompted the trip, what was the experience like, and did you come home with any newfound wisdom?
This was an unplanned trip that fell into my hands. I had been going through a very difficult period in my life, and at the most opportune time, I received a phone call from my friend and teacher Raghunath Cappo. He was leading a pilgrimage to India, and someone on the trip had pulled out a month before they left. Instead of asking for a refund they said to donate the trip to someone and he offered it to me. It was as if God himself had called.
It’s hard to describe the experience of the trip with words. I made it a point to go without any expectations. I was able to immerse myself into a daily Sadhana (spiritual practice) for an extended length of time without the everyday distractions of life in the states. Every moment was for God in India. I was blessed to have had the close association and guidance of people who walk the talk. I met and befriended some really amazing people who I know will be a part of my life for years to come. It’s only been two weeks since I’ve been home, the whole experience is still in it’s process of sinking in, but I can tell you that it definitely does something to a man.
As surfers, it would only be to our benefit to stay strong, loose, and agile. These qualities are key in performing well and maintaing longevity. How do you see the practice of yoga as a benefit for surfers?
Strength, balance, and flexibility. Through the practice of yoga, we not only imbibe these qualities on a physical level, but on a spiritual and emotional level as well. Surfing and yoga compliment one another. Practicing yoga gives you the chance to keep up when there aren’t waves or you are missing a swell.
“Yoga” means to yoke or unite with the divine. As I grew in my surfing, I felt that the simple act of wave riding was a form of yoga. In surfing, we come to commune with nature in it’s raw form. What is nature, if not divinity manifest? Do you consider surfing a spiritual practice and a way in which people can connect with what may be called “God”?
Without a doubt. There is a saying that “God is in everything, but everything is not in God”! How can this be? Haha! That’s a really hard one to comprehend. To my understanding, we’ve made a conscious decision to be separate or step away from God. It is like a child that runs away from home, and somewhere down the road they come calling out to their mother and father. Take me back! I miss you! I need you! Such is the way with God, except it’s not something we may fully realize. So, God being in everything (the ocean), but everything is not in God (our separateness). As we take our first steps into the ocean, we are reuniting with the divine and in that way it has become a spiritual practice for many.
In a more practical sense, what does the practice of yoga and surfing bring to your everyday life?
Surfing and yoga help bring me into the present moment. During the act of riding waves and practicing yoga, you need to be on top of what is happening now. Each wave and asana offers its own unique challenges, you don’t know what is going to happen next. You have to become very aware of what is happening internally and externally, each moment is a new discovery. We are constantly moving into the unknown.
Do you think the paths of yoga and surfing can help make life on planet earth more peaceful and joyful? If so, how?
I think it comes down to each individual. In order for life to become more peaceful and joyful, there has to be a change in consciousness. In the Yoga Sutras, it states that yoga is the stilling of the changing states of the mind, and when this occurs, we are able to see our true nature. We become selfless. It’s an inner transformation. “If yoga ceases to become about inner transformation, it ceases to become yoga, it just becomes exercise”. There is nothing wrong with reaping the physical benefits of yoga and surfing. It’s important for the body and mind, but for there to be peace, we need to make a conscious effort to reconnect to that peace within. To see our true nature, the Soul, is to see with love.
Any final thoughts or words of wisdom?
Be here now. Moment to moment. Breath to breath. Each movement to each movement. Exist as all things exist. Be kind and compassionate to all living beings (this includes yourself). Try to see how our choices not only affect ourselves, but those around us. Be of service to others without the expectation of something in return. Above all, we need to develop quality of heart. You can practice yoga all day, sit in meditation for hours or wear holy robes, but if we don’t have the quality of the heart then it all means nothing.
All photos: Christor Lukasiewicz