The Zen of Surfing

While in high school, Jaimal Yogis ran away to sea in search of good surfing and lasting spiritual truths. (“Note to Mom and Dad: I am somewhere in the world, and I will call you when I get there.”) In his new book, Saltwater Buddha: A Surfer’s Quest to Find Zen on the Sea (Wisdom Publications), Yogis recounts in short, candid chapters, the waves, experiences, and insights that ignited and sustain his ongoing investigation of the way of Zen. Here, Yogis talks about the resonance between surf and spirit.

For those of us who don’t surf, what’s it like?
When you’re riding a wave, you’re physically riding energy, the memory of wind energy that’s pulsing between water molecules. You really do become part of the wave. Especially in the hollow, you’re really inside of that vortex of spiraling energy. You’ll hear surfers who have no background in the metaphysical or Zen say, “I rode that wave and didn’t feel like I existed. The wave was there; I was there; we were together.” That really is the feeling, that feeling of merging with an energy that is much greater than yourself.

Is each wave the same?
Every single wave is different. It’s never the same wave twice, even if the wave is going in the same direction. Even if you have a general idea when a wave hits a reef that it will make this shape or that, it will always surprise you. You have to be completely focused. There isn’t any room for intellectual analysis, just moment-to-moment presence. It’s a very full and dynamic experience in the way that the wave changes and the sense that you are actually merged with this energy — the wind energy, in particular. Wind pulsing into the water is this great metaphor of how all of reality begins. Surfing is like investigating the way — the way things are.

And how often do you get to investigate the way?
Every day. I live across the street from the beach in San Francisco, so every day that it’s not super-stormy, I’m out there. Sometimes it’s just half an hour; sometimes for three hours or more, if work permits.

What about surfing is spiritual for you?
Ninety-eight percent of a surf session is sitting, waiting for a wave, bobbing, looking at the horizon. The waiting is a good time to stop, check in, and appreciate the surroundings. Because ocean life is so different from our land lives, you can’t help but be a bit mesmerized by the beauty of it. It puts you in a beginner’s mind. Doing that every day, just bobbing — even if you don’t get a wave, just appreciating that you get to be part of this world — is amazing. It’s time to be quiet, to be with yourself.

How does the physical environment affect you?
Along with the spiritual aspect, you’re doing something that’s really healthy. There’ve been numerous studies about how being out in saltwater is good for the skin and lungs, and breathing in the ocean air feels good. You feel refreshed, as though the stresses of the day are literally washed away.

The environment is always changing, so you have to let go of what’s going on to focus on something other than problems at work... Not that I let go completely; I often process work or relationships while I’m out there. But being in that unique environment that’s so different from our land lives helps give a fresh perspective. You can’t help but feel you are part of something greater, and the story you’re telling yourself about not having enough money in the bank or your relationship not being what it should be seems a bit trite. I’m always impressed, when I wonder, “When will this surfing thing stop working?” It never does.

What is your spiritual background?
We had this great mishmash in our house growing up — Catholicism from my dad, Judaism from my mom, and explorations of yoga and Buddhism. I never felt particularly religious, but when I was going through a rough time in high school, as a mischievous youth, I needed some guidance. The Buddha’s story of finding truth on your own, investigating until you find what’s true for you, and tapping into a greater universal truth — that resonated. That’s what I try to do in my life. On his deathbed, the Buddha said to work out your own salvation with diligence. I use that as a lens. There are so many great philosophies and traditions, mediations and otherwise; I have a particular connection with Zen Buddhism. I lived in a Zen monastery and almost became a Zen monk. But even Zen Buddhism is kind of limiting, so I keep with “investigating.”

What is your meditation practice now?
I sit in meditation every day. There’s not a particularly religious flavor to that, just running in what’s going on for the day, checking the surf in my mind: How are the waves today? Oh, cool. It’s stormy today, but I’m sure it will settle at some point. (To check the surf in Yogis’ world, go to

Jennifer Derryberry Mann writes, edits, and teaches yoga in Athens, Georgia.

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