wanderlust oahu: a moment with yogi & surfing legend gerry lopez
posted: March 1, 2014
If you surf, then Gerry Lopez is a man who needs no introduction. The iconic image of him (below) tucked peacefully in the barrel of the world-famous Banzai Pipeline wave is one that transcends generations of surfers. But Gerry told me that though he found surfing first, yoga is predominantly where it’s at for him these days. After taking his 90-minute ‘Aloha Yin’ class, I sat on a grassy noll with the legend for a chat, the North Shore’s epic sets rolling in behind us
Gerry, barely blinking, inside Pipeline, one of the world’s most dangerous surf breaks
So surfing came first. How did you discover yoga?
“I was a hippie. No [laughs]. Everybody was. I was in college and I saw a bunch of girls looking at a bulletin board and I went over to look at the girls. They said they were going to a yoga class and I thought, that sounds good. So I went to a yoga class to see the girls and really found something that changed my life. That was 1968.”
Did you know right away yoga would be a mainstay in your life?
“I did. It’s really interesting because I see how it works with other people. Yoga sometimes circles around a lot in their lives before the right time comes for them. My wife [Toni] and I have been together thirty-plus years, and in her twenties she wasn’t interested, you know. It wasn’t until we left Maui and moved to Bend [Oregon] that she actually got interested in yoga and really was instrumental in stepping my practice up to a much fuller level. She—because I always practice alone—started going to Bikram’s with friends and said to me, ‘I think you’d like this.’ I went, and did like it. Then she kind of branched out from that and found some other studios that were really great, and I followed her. Her judgement is much better than mine.”
Gerry’s got decent flexibility for a 65-year-old…or a 25-year-old, for that matter
How did or does yoga change your surfing?
“It helps in every facet of surfing, besides building strength. Obviously, especially today, the modern surfboard is so loose and easy to turn that flexibility plays a tremendous part in surfing. I guess it really made an impression on me. I mean, that was why I really got into yoga was because that first class I saw the way that, well, the instructor moved. And I went, ‘Wow, if you could move like that on a surfboard and be like that on a wave… [laughs] …that’d be great!’ Then I got into it and embraced it completely. But I think it was a couple of really bad wipeouts where you’re being held under water and you can’t breathe and you have to hold your breath—more than just holding your breath, you have to be able to relax your mind so you were able to hold your breath longer—that I really felt that yoga not only helped me, but made it possible for me to survive.”
Take a deep breath and imagine that wave landing on you; Lance Trout photograph
Would you say that yoga has saved your life?
“I think so, literally and figuratively in a few ways. But definitely surfing’s where it really made a distinct impression on me and really was working for me. I mean surfing, like yoga, is an ongoing, evolutionary process, so you do it for one reason. Then as time goes on you begin to understand there’s a lot of other reasons and a lot of other benefits that you never thought of in the first place; near your heart, the whole package. And yoga and the surfing, you know, it takes a lot of years for them to fill out to completeness. It takes a long time to understand how little you knew when early on you thought, wow, I really know a lot about this now.”
Have you reached that completeness? Will you ever?
No. Not at all. But I understand that it’s there and, you know, that’s what I’m striving for.
Let’s switch gears. Have you been to Vancouver?
“Yeah, yeah. Snowboarded up in Whistler a few times…gone through Vancouver quite a bit going to the interior to snowboard.”
Nelson is a beautiful place. Do you believe yoga is inextricably linked to nature?
“I mean, yoga is all about that, teaching you to live a life that’s in harmony. You don’t realize that until you begin to understand what yoga’s all about. I’ve still got many lifetimes to go, but I think I’m on the right path.”
So can yoga can help the environment?
“People need to help themselves first, before they can help anyone else. And if you don’t have peace in your life then you’re not going to find it outside of yourself, you’re not going to find it in the world around you. And you need to have some kind of peace to really do some real good, to help the planet, to help others, to help yourself, obviously.”
Gerry frequently makes trips back to Hawaii; image via Honolulu Magazine
People have described Wanderlust as the meeting of a tribe. Do you agree with that based on your experience here so far?
“I do. I mean, the yoga community has always been like that. It’s a family. Like surfing, there’s a tremendous transformation in yoga in my time, and it’s been interesting and enlightening and I see a lot of things that I never thought I’d see when I began surfing and yoga. But you know, this is America. Yoga today, here, is American yoga. It’s got its own thing, just like surfing’s got its own thing now. And it’s different. I still—I guess because I’m old school—lean towards the old stuff. But at the same time it’s exciting and wonderful and new. And it’s a lot more accessible now than it ever has been, information-wise, experience wise. I got to take a class with Dharma Mittra at the Squaw Valley Wanderlust and I never thought that I’d actually get to take a class with him. That was a wonderful experience you know. I’m a west coast guy, he’s a New York guy, I kind of admired his platform from a distance and suddenly there he was and I got to be right there with him. That’s something that Wanderlust created and made available to all of us. It’s kind of cool.”
So regardless any negative sentiment around the commercialization of yoga, you think at the end of the day the practice of yoga has been positively affected by its modernization?
“I think so. Why dwell on the negative? There’s always going to be the naysayers going commercial this and commercial that, but it’s terrific stuff. Not only the products but the whole attitude towards the whole thing. It’s great. There’s all these people here that are so interested in yoga and they need yoga clothes, they need yoga mats. I come from a time when you did yoga on the ground, wore whatever shorts you had. Now it’s nice to be a little more specialized. So I say go for it. [laughs] Why not?”
Last question. It’s your final day on earth. Are you surfing or doing yoga?
[Pauses significantly before answering.] “I’d probably go into a lotus pose and try to find that center and be there when I made that transition.”
Want more Gerry? Hells yeah you do. Check out this wicked video tribute video, or see what he told Surfer magazine about how to save your surfing with yoga.