Riding the Waves of Life
Legendary waterman Gerry Lopez explores the deep connections between surfing, yoga, and living.
Gerry Lopez began riding waves at the age of 10. In his native Hawaii, the ocean was his backyard, so surfing was a natural fit.
In the years since, Lopez, now 69, has become a surfing legend. He’s hailed as Mr. Pipeline for his glorious rides on the Oahu North Shore’s Banzai Pipeline tube. He helped usher in the shortboard revolution in the late 1960s and was a pioneering big-wave rider in the early 1970s. He’s also a snowboarder, stand-up paddleboarder, and a surf- and snowboard maker. But his premier accolade is at once humble and abstract: He’s revered simply as one of the most stylish surfers of all time.
Lopez credits his graceful style to a lifetime spent in the water — and a longtime commitment to yoga.
“Riding the waves of life is like riding the waves of the ocean,” he says. “I’ve come to believe that to surf, you need that same focus that’s necessary in deep meditation.”
While Lopez only had to look out the window of his Honolulu home to find big waves, his discovery of yoga was serendipitous. As a self-described “hippie surfer” at the University of Hawaii in the mid-1960s, he one day spotted several young women conferring by a bulletin board. “I walked over to check them out and they put me on the spot: ‘We’re going to this yoga class — are you?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’m going!’
“I went to that class hoping to see those girls again, but what happened was really a life-changing event.”
Parallel Paths Converge
Watching the yoga teacher move through a sequence of poses, Lopez says he realized immediately that yoga would improve his surfing. The perks seemed myriad: It could build his flexibility and core strength, benefit his balance on the board, help him shift with each wave, and aid his breathing while lying down and paddling out. It could also teach him to hold his breath and stay calm after a wipeout in big waves.
In the 1960s, yoga studios were a novelty, Lopez remembers, so he largely taught himself from a book. And he continues to practice daily — “first thing every morning, even though that’s when my body is stiffest.”
Yoga has indeed boosted the physical side of his surfing, but it’s also inspired new insights into his life. “It absolutely heightens my mind’s sense of clarity, alertness, in-tune-ness,” he explains. As does surfing — so much so that Lopez says he now understands that “surfing is a meditation exercise.”
“I started to see there was something much deeper about surfing than I’d originally thought,” he says. “Obviously there was something way deeper about yoga, because it goes back for centuries.
“I’ve come to believe that surfing and yoga — what I thought were parallel paths — may well be the same path. And these paths are very spiritual in nature. Maybe what yoga and surfing are trying to do is to tap into exactly the same energy.”
The World in the Curl
Lopez has surfed for almost 60 years and practiced yoga for 50, but he says he’s still learning. The lessons ripple through every aspect of his life.
“I always laugh about it now — how my first 20 years of surfing were just a test to see if I was interested. It wasn’t really until I had that much time that suddenly all these lessons that had been presented to me started to make a little sense,” he says.
Riding waves gave him confidence to handle life onshore. And he says yoga helped him become more aware, centered, and present.
“In the process of learning how to surf — which is difficult and uncompromising — there were some profound moments along the way,” Lopez recalls. “When I applied the lessons learned in the surf, in a metaphorical sense I found I was able to paddle out to the lineup a little easier; I was able to find that rip current that let me slide smoothly through the closed-out sets of day-to-day life.
“There is a spiritualness when you get in harmony with something as natural as the waves and the ocean — and yes, it is definitely a religious experience.”
These days, Lopez lives in Bend, Ore., where he’s a pioneer in river surfing: riding tidal bores and standing waves. He also builds boards, serves as a Patagonia ambassador, and has compiled a lifetime of surfing adventures into his book, Surf Is Where You Find It. He continues to surf and snowboard every chance he gets.
Lopez credits surfing and yoga with keeping him active and healthy as he ages. “We all need to keep our bodies moving, even if we need to try to still our restless minds,” he says.
“When I was young, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it — more just doing it. I didn’t understand or realize pretty much any of the implications of what was happening,” Lopez explains. “I do a lot of instruction in yoga and a little in surfing as well, and I’ve come to believe that these activities come to people when they’re supposed to and the people are actually ready for them. Because, while both yoga and surfing start out as purely physical pursuits, the longer you do them, the more each activity’s depth of character starts to reveal itself.
“It must have been the right time for me, because yoga took right from that first moment — wow, this must be something I’m supposed to be doing! I threw myself into it. Here I am, 50 years later, more into yoga than ever. Just like I am with surfing.
“Waves keep coming — that’s the one thing you can count on in life.”