Photo of Lopez at Cloudbreak, Fiji, 1995, by Jeff Divine.

Gerry Lopez is one of the most influential surfers and surfboard shapers of all time. Known as “Mr. Pipeline”—for his mastery of the huge waves that form large, hollow, thick curls of water that surfers can tube ride—Lopez is an entrepreneur, a family man, a movie star, and a lifelong yogi who brought surfing to new frontiers. In an interview about the documentary of his life story, The Yin & Yang of Gerry Lopez (Patagonia films), Lopez reflects below on his surfing career and the tremendous influence Yoga had on it and him.

Surfing didn’t really click for me until I was in college in California. A friend of mine who was surfer invited me to go to Mexico. The water was freezing. Eventually I got too cold. I was laying on my back on the beach, had my eyes closed, and I was seeing in my mind’s eye images of surfing. All of a sudden I looked a little closer, and it was the first time I saw an image in my mind’s eye of me surfing. I was doing all these things that I’d never done before on a surfboard. I was born to be a surfer. I didn’t know it until that month, at the moment.

After college, I moved back to my native Hawai’i. One day I saw a group of girls looking at this announcement for a Yoga class, and I went to that Yoga class expecting to see them again. And this was like an outdoor class, and the instructor was this young gal. And I remember just watching her move, going, wow, look at how smooth and fluid that is. By the end of the class, I was convinced that Yoga was going to make my surfing better. Right from the start, I dove into it. I embraced it in a bear hug. I went to the Honolulu bookstore and I said, let me see all your books on Yoga. The one that I still have and really made an impression on me was The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga by Swami Vishnu Devananda. From the beginning, there was this relationship that I was striving for between surfing and Yoga. It wasn’t something that I had to bond with. I was already bonded with it. I remember thinking that if I could be as smooth doing the poses on my surfboard then I could be a good surfer. I was 20 years old.

I felt like my surfing was improving. I was doing my Yoga. I was competing in events. Studying Yoga, that’s what allowed everything to happen at the Pipeline for me. There was a real fascinating advertisement in Surfer magazine in 1972 for a Guru named Yogananda. I started reading Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. It really revealed to me, obviously, the concept of yin and yang, which is more of a Chinese philosophy, but also a very big part of Yoga philosophy, especially the part where it said that health and harmony is created when yin and yang are in balance. He said that a person with a calm mind is a happy person instead of becoming uptight. One should be able to swing into intense activity and like the pendulum return to the center of calmness Yoga produces that calmness. Isn’t that amazing and that was in Surfer magazine?

What Yogananda is preaching, so to speak, was this balance—a pendulum swing between dynamic action and stillness and calm and that it’s that pendulum swing, not living in one space not living in the other but the balance of the two. You know, it’s constant, you know readjusting. All of that requires tremendous discipline, you know, you got to practice, you gotta do it the Yoga poses over and over again. But that’s what surfing was too. And that’s why both of them were things that I embraced more than anything else in life because to me they were going the same way. They were side by side. I needed that same stillness and calmness at the pipeline. You had to be at peace with this wave. You had to have that type of concentration where your mind was steady. For your mind to be still, your breath has to be still.

And to calm the breath, your body must be still. So, you know, a lot of times you’d see pictures of me standing really still. But I’m not standing really still. I’m going like a bat out of hell because the surfboard’s going really fast. But my body is still because I’m trying to still my mind. And that was really the only way to really connect with that wave at the Pipeline. In a Western sense, the concept is you’re riding this wave and you’re concentrating on it, but you’re concentrating by thinking all these thoughts about this wave.

And Yoga concentration is much different. It’s one-pointed focus on the object of concentration. By focusing your mind steadily on this object, you actually absorb the essence of your object of concentration of this wave. And this is what developed for me at the Pipeline. To be a great surfer you have to have some kind of physical advantage, you have to have great balance, great awareness about your body.

I wanted to say something about waves. They are hard to ride. In the process of learning this demanding and often uncompromising activity, we can discover something extremely profound. So while the waves of life may seem indeed more difficult to ride than the waves on the ocean, when we apply those lessons learned out in the surf, we sometimes can find, in a metaphorical sense, that easier paddle out. You know, like hooking into that rip current that slides us smoothly through day-to -day life. So, you know, I’ve been studying and practicing Yoga for a long time and I found that the state of samadhi, or enlightened consciousness, can be attained through a regular an

Photo: Gerry Lopez practicing Yoga on his surfboard.

d dedicated practice of deeply focused meditation.

I’ve been a surfer for a long time too and I truly believe that the focus necessary to surf successfully is also a state of deep meditation. So it just may be that we’re onto something a lot deeper than we thought the first time we decided that surfing was going to be our life. The waves of life are difficult and dangerous to ride, but these are waves we must ride, and we have to ride them on our own. No one can ride them for us. And in these waves, we encounter outside sets of doubt, shallow reefs of guilt, close-out sections of fear. With endless currents, rips, tide changes, we easily and often lose our way. You know, on our board, too. I mean, the board gets dinged, takes on water, delaminates, and frequently buckles when we least expect it, and usually when we need it the most.

And if none of this lends itself to the development of a peaceful and happy state of mind, we need one to stay on the wave. Where do we find the balance and the direction, keep our feet on the board, stay ahead of the whitewater? You know, I’m speaking here in a figurative sense, I think you figured that out. But surfing and Yoga teach us about living a life in harmony with nature. The most natural thing we do, the simple act of breathing, really becomes the foundation of our surfing and Yoga practices.

For many of us, every time we paddle out or come to our mats, this may be the only time we breathe the right way. We were born knowing how to breathe properly, but along the way, life came along, we forgot. You know, that rapid, irregular, shallow mouth breathing takes the place of rhythmic, slow, deep breathing through our nose. And when we breathe correctly and concentrate on our breathing, we become aware of an increasing sense of mindfulness.

And from this mindfulness, we begin to understand the value of being in the present. Mindful awareness and being present are all about paying attention. Our world has endless distractions. Losing focus is easy. Concentration and staying focused is hard. A large part of attention is being able to be in the moment, right here, right now. How easily we drift back to the past where nostalgia makes us sad, where we worry about the future and are too anxious to stay in the present. This moment is all there is. The past and the future only exist in this moment. I mean, think about that. If you weren’t thinking about what’s already happened or what hasn’t even happened yet, where would they be?

Only by thinking about them now makes them happen. So when we live in recollection and anticipation, we have a much less clear picture of the present. Staying present is really an excellent intention to set for ourselves before we paddle out, before we start a Yoga session. Before each day, surfing and Yoga mindfulness build a really solid foundation for our life. Staying present is really an excellent intention to set for ourselves. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was once asked, what surprised him most about humankind? And he answered that man, sacrifices his health in order to make money and then he sacrifices his money to regain his health. And he’s so anxious about the future that he’s not able to enjoy the present. The result being that he’s not able to live in the present or the future. He lives as if he’s never going to die, and then dies, having never really lived. The message here is that life is for living. So if you have the intention to try and live each moment to the fullest, even if you miss a few along the way, you’re doing good.

I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to all the people that I stole waves from because you know, I know that my surfing has been a subject of admiration and the way my surfing got to that level is stealing a lot of waves from other surfers. You see taking waves from other people is really the same thing as stealing and if you do it enough, and I did a lot, you can become pretty good at it. You also stop thinking about what a low thing it is .You know everything that I read in my Yoga studies talked about full acceptance. No resistance. Yielding, allowing nourishing understanding love. And I guess my disharmonious behavior with a lot of other surfers I felt was balanced out by my trying to be in total harmony with the waves.

I’ve come to realize that Yoga and surfing have been perhaps the most significant yin-yang relationship, yin-yang balancing act of my entire life. As I grow older, I find that sharing what I’ve learned has become more and more important to me. And so I’ve traveled quite a bit to different parts of the world to do Yoga retreats. I hadn’t been back to Bali in about 30 years, and I went back to teach some Yoga and to help raise some money for the community there at Uluatu. I feel what my role is now is I’m just a conduit for all this information that’s been there for a long, long time.

I’m a little nervous about teaching, you know, because I don’t feel as though I’m completely qualified to do it. I’ve been practicing Yoga for over 50 years and when I teach Yoga, I’m not making anything up. Everything I teach comes from a source that I believe to be completely unimpeachable.