Jaimal Yogis – The Man Hunting “Life’s Most Primal Emotion”

Photo by Amy DuRoss

by Andrew O’Riordan

Jaimal Yogis is not who you think he is. He’s not easily synthesized into a 100-word bio. Searcher, castaway, lover, spiritualist, movie maker, fear scientist, guest lecturer, student of life, a damned talented writer: Hurl whatever euphemism you like at this path-breaking human, and it will fail. He is more than the sum of his parts, and his second book, The Fear Project, proves it. Blending personal narrative with razor-edge modern science that explores “life’s most primal emotion,” Jaimal achieves a tone that’s congenial, learned and stoked. Yogis has been crisscrossing the Mainland, supporting Surfrider Foundation Maui, sharing his discoveries about fear and connecting with the special breed of ocean-loving Fear-Masters who reside on our island. And on Friday, Mar. 8, you can meet him yourself.

In the meantime, here he is in his own words…

My first book… Saltwater Buddha tells the story of running away from landlocked suburbia to Hawaii when I was 16. Long story short, I’d bought a one way ticket to Oahu and had no clue which island I would end up on. I remember being on the plane and reading through a Hawaii guide book. It said Maui is the “Island of Love.” That sounded good. That didn’t happen, but Maui has a special place in my heart because it beat me up just enough to humble my wild 16-year-old self while at the same time showing me its magic.

Prime example: I ran out of money within a week and was surviving on avocados when I finally told my parents where I’d run away to. My dad came over to try to convince me to come home, but before playing the stern military dad he could be, he made the very skillful move of trying to understand where I was coming from–why I needed to make such a drastic move. Over the course of a week on Maui, we re-bonded after a long time of feeling estranged. On our last day on Maui–after I’d agreed to come home–my dad watched me catch my first real wave at Ho’okipa. I’ll never forget that.

I didn’t go back to Maui until I was 25 and getting out of graduate school in journalism. It was on that trip that a publisher randomly contacted me and asked me if I wanted to tell my story. That’s how Saltwater Buddha was born, and I still feel like I owe it, in part, to Maui. Coming back to Maui for the tour of my second book, The Fear Projectnow with my wife and son–is sort of surreal. I guess that’s a long way of saying I love Maui.

Surfing a big wave… is basically the same as surfing a small wave. Once you’ve trained hard, what can make you choke on a big wave is over-thinking — psyching yourself out so you don’t rely on what your body already knows how to do. So the question becomes how do you get out  of your own way? As just one example of how the neuro-research helped, Sian Beilock, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, has done studies showing that  when athletes are under pressure and performing something they do repeatedly (say, a golf swing) humming a tune, whistling, or counting backward by threes while performing the action can help distract the “thinking brain” from getting in the way of a process that’s already logged in muscle memory.  During my first session at Mavericks, I hummed to myself for like five hours.

Right now… I’m reading a book called Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters. I’m obsessed with science these days.

San Francisco… pushes me intellectually and Ocean Beach pushes me physically. You can’t beat that.

I revere… Michael Ondaatje, JM Coetzee, Salinger.

The ancient fear system… the so-called “lizard brain”–doesn’t process numbers well, so to really reach deep down in the ancient brain, we need to include [statistical risk] numbers in compelling, emotional narratives–preferably films–about sharks. Films that show sharks as they actually are. Just like Jaws made us all terrified of sharks, people need an emotional experience to overcome fear. Of course, diving with sharks is also good, but not everyone has the access or desire to do that. The stories we tell will be crucial.

People ask me… “Why am I afraid of strawberry ice cream?” and “Can you help me with my fear of anything that stretches?”

I was surprised to learn that…  Memories get farther from the “truth” the more times you remember them. The reasons are complicated but it’s true.

Today… I’m psyched because I’m about to do a TV interview in Santa Cruz with Bluemind Founder Wallace J. Nichols about the effects of the ocean on our brains. The “this is your brain on ocean” science over the next decade is going to blow our minds.

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Surfrider Maui’s General Membership Winter Wave Party

Friday, Mar. 8,


Paia Community Center

Surfrider Maui will host a free gathering for all those who love Maui’s coastlines and want to join the forces of good in protecting them. There will be acoustic guitar jams, light pupus, choice surf cinematography, a talk story session and book signing with Jaimal Yogis and a a presentation of the leaders, projects and missions for Surfrider Maui in 2013. Donations supporting the evening and Surfrider’s work will be gratefully accepted.  For more details join Surfrider Maui’s facebook page or check Surfrider Maui’s website.

Photo: Amy DuRoss