The Magic of the Tube

An excerpt from Jaimal Yogis' latest book, All Our Waves Are Water

 The author rides a glittering double-overhead wave.

Before NASA was scouring the galaxy for signs of water, Thales—the pre-Socratic Greek astronomer and mathematician whom many call the first philosopher—left us with this single recorded statement: “Everything is water. Water is all.”

The early Japanese didn’t surf. But they too believed water was the origin of things. In the toro nagashi ceremony—one that is still performed for the dead—paper lanterns are floated downriver to ferry spirits home to their source.

The ancient Polynesians, who started surfing more than three thousand years ago, called the sport he’e nalu. He’e translates as transforming from solid form to liquid form. Nalu refers to the motion of a wave, the slide. Polynesians incorporated this return to liquid into a daily ritual for commoners and royalty. And when the surf was too big even for the kings, it was called ’Awili, which meant the gods were surfing.

My dad was a surfer—one of the East Coast maniacs who surfed Jones Beach through the winter in jeans and a wool sweater. He taught us to bodysurf while we were stationed on the US air base in the Azores—volcanic islands with Gulf Stream–heated waters. I still recall squeezing Pa’s calloused hands as my sister and I were obliterated again and again in the spume. Shivering with smiles glued to our faces.

When we were relocated to the mainland, Sacramento, I couldn’t shake the sea bug. Surf legends—Jeff Clark, Tom Curren, Kelly Slater—were plastered to my bedroom wall. I spent after-school time skateboarding through the suburbs, pretending the concrete had transformed from solid to liquid (he’e nalu).

Suburbia and divorce led me to uncreative teenage rebellion (pyromania, gangster rap, drugs, alcohol). And when I ran away to Maui at sixteen, it was ostensibly to get away from all that. But mostly, if I’m honest, I just wanted to surf. Without quite knowing why, I viewed this Polynesian water-walking rite as my personal toro nagashi—surfboard, a lantern boat. And with each paddle, ride, flop, dive, I was heading home.

The Himalayas had shown me I could be away from the ocean and not pine for it. But DC was not the Himalayas and I needed my saltwater therapy. Sitting meditation was good. Yoga was good. But those static environments were so different from the whir and jolt of modern urban life. Surfing demanded both patience and  adaptation, strength and flexibility, all in the ever-changing, ever-dangerous sea. Surfing was zen for the stormy world. And maybe, if I got better at it, I could bring some of that rough-and-tumble zen to the city too. Maybe I could even bring it to a job.

Or maybe this was just a high-minded excuse to go surfing.

Either way, as soon as I sent off my graduate school applications, I fled back to San Francisco, working double time as a barista. The moment I’d saved a thousand bucks, I shipped off to Mexico.

***

I remember that first Mexican surf. Eastern mountains hid the rising sun. Agave, cacti, and beaucarnea trees seemed to sleep in the still air. Horizon clouds, dark and pearly against a jade Pacific, grew plump with desert rain.

It was sunrise on the Oaxacan coast and I was the first surfer in the water on purpose. I’d never surfed Puerto Escondido, one of the most ruthless of Mexican surf breaks, and I was hoping for solo time before the other surfers paddled out.

Puerto’s boorish waves could be dangerous. But with multiple egos—98 percent of them male—flinging sharp fiberglass boards about, the danger could go from predictable to complex.

Today was small for Puerto: wave faces cresting and feathering at about six feet. But halfway through my paddle, I timed a duck dive wrong. A foamy lip pinned me to the sand, and I understood why an Australian friend had emailed a warning: “Small does not equal gentle, mate. Big, and you’re at the mercy of the beast.”

Fortunately, though, the waves broke against sand rather than the sharp reefs I’d gotten used to during college in Hawaii. And once through the impact zone, I sat up on my board and looked around—Mexican flag flapping in the offshore breeze, water so clear you could see your toenails—and had that sense of being home.

***

The peace didn’t last. In my first two wave attempts, rather than finding that perfect moment to pop from belly to feet then angle along the face of the wave, I stood an instant too late and plunged over—toy boat down a cascade.

I suppose this still felt like a homecoming, just more like coming home and getting punched in the face. I stayed positive.

But as the sun finally peeked over the eastern hills, the telltale silhouettes of other groggy surfers began appearing on shore. And this was not good. If I kept this jellyfish flop up once the macho herd thickened, I’d be given about as much respect as a kid who shows up to a Harley ride with training wheels.

My gut tightened even as I reminded myself that the whole point of learning to find zen out here was to encounter circumstances that mimicked the stress of the human world. I thought of Gary, my angry restaurant manager in DC, screaming at me for breaking a wine bottle. If I couldn’t deal with punchy waves surrounded by tropical paradise, doing the thing I loved most, the Garys of the world would always win.

I spent the next few minutes following my breath, reciting positive affirmations as one of my first meditation teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh, had taught me:

Breathing in, I am joyful.

Breathing out, I smile.

In the midst of this, a jade wave—flecked with morning sunbeams—came right to me. And this one had my name on it, even looked the slightest bit friendly. I paddled, the wave lifted me high, I stood, and then—face-planted.

***

The problem was that I’d never learned to tube ride. And just about every wave coming in at Puerto was a stalwart, slurping tube. Waves like these are the ones you see in surf magazines: crystalline gyres that are so round and arching they look as if you could drive a car through them. They look inviting. They make you want to take a shower under that stream of salt water, and standing inside them looks easy too: allow wave to engulf you, pose, exit looking cool. But what you don’t see in those gorgeous photos is that (a) if you stick your head in that beautiful curtain, it will drop you on your face then body slam you, and (b) those peaceful surfers have all had that happen about five thousand times before they looked remotely serene.

Tube riding, I think, should be compared to ballet’s fouetté rotation. In a fouetté, the dancer spins repeatedly on the tiptoes of one foot, the other leg making perfectly timed kicks that whip her ever faster. A master dancer will smile at the audience all the while, but this smile hides years of bloody toes.

***

In Hawaii and California, I’d gotten lucky and happened into a tube or two. But these were cases of the ocean mugging me from behind. I’d been riding along on a gentle, sloping wave when, like a driver who unknowingly rams a sidewalk, the wave hit reef without me noticing. I had no escape. And getting lucky, a sheath of blue fell over me.

“Only a surfer knows the feeling,” goes the old Billabong tagline. And it’s true. There is something about water swirling 360 degrees around you, a light at the end of the tunnel as your only reference point to solidity, that makes you feel as though you’re being birthed by the sea goddess. Sixties surf star Jock Sutherland put the tube-riding experience well: “I do not receive a giant exudence of the senses but rather a totality of their perceptive strivings, or a non-feeling, as it were, of some of the prismatic auras and shimmering spectrums of bright death.”

I’m not sure anyone knows what Jock meant. But that’s exactly how it should be.

***

For now, my prismatic shimmering auras were being viewed from the ocean floor while my face was ground into the sand. That first morning was not an anomaly. During week one in Puerto, I went “over the falls” so often, you’d have thought I was trying to invent a new sport: surfer repeatedly flies off board, each time contorting into a strange shape so sunbathers can look up and say, “That had to hurt.”

“How come you’re not riding the wave part of the wave?” Siri asked me one day after watching me struggle through another bout. Siri was an artist I’d met just weeks before coming to Mexico. We’d fallen harder for each other than either of us had expected, and when I mentioned I wanted to get out of here, Siri said she did too, a reaction that made me like her even more.

Siri was a bit of a drifter as well. Her bohemian parents had fled Madison Avenue in the ’60s, driving a refashioned mail truck to San Francisco where they built their own house in Bernal Heights. While I was in India, Siri was traveling through Thailand after finishing art school in Colorado. None of our fly-by-night planning seemed the least bit strange to either of us, which was precisely why we were here in Mexico for two months together without knowing each other that well.

Another thing I liked a lot about Siri was her dry sense of humor. But this remark—why wasn’t I riding the wave part of the wave—hit a sensitive spot.

“I’m not going to answer that,” I said.

The saving grace, I suppose, was that I wasn’t alone. As I watched more surfers paddle out in their fluorescent patterned shorts and three-day-old scruff—all of us looking suspiciously similar given our supposed counterculture roles—I saw plenty of others doing cartwheels down the face. But then one evening, just before sunset, I witnessed something I had never seen. Like a beam of light breaking through the clouds, I saw the tube-riding master I wanted to follow.

The winds had died completely and the sea had taken on an almost oily black surface. With orange and red sunbeams lasering across the dark undulations, the waves looked like molten lava. Prehistoric, full of life.

There were a dozen or so other surfers out, none of them remarkable. But I soon locked in on a local guy waiting far south and outside the pack. Hoping to get out of the crowd myself, I paddled down to him and got a closer look. He was a leathery beast of a human—sleeve tattoos running all the way up to his neck, exactly the profile of human being I hoped not to get in the way of. But as I watched him take off on his next wave, the man’s riding was surprisingly gentle, delicate. His board—a single-fin gun made to perform in waves much, much larger than today’s—was more buoyant and fast, allowing him to get into the wave a split second earlier than the rest of us. Rather than taking off under the lip, the man seemed to always be on his feet as the wave stood. Most surfers wouldn’t have been able to maneuver such a long board on steep waves, but the man was able to pivot into the pocket as though he were part of the system. He chose a high-line to garner speed. Then, intuiting the wave’s movement, he dropped to the base and drew out a long, relaxed bottom turn before the crest devoured him. In the tube, rather than bracing in a squat or frantically pumping his legs for more speed, he seemed to have found complete surrender to whatever the sea had in store. He let the ocean lead. And somehow, every single time, she breathed him out.

Watching this man was like watching a hawk swooping for a gopher, a cheetah stalking prey, a corporate lobbyist working a political cocktail party. And it crystallized an idea that had been forming latently: tube riding was enlightenment. I mean, not literally. The sheer number of expert surfers who were also expert assholes was a good reminder of that. But the tube was the perfect metaphor.

Waves arise when air molecules, seeking pockets of low density, blow over water. Like goose bumps, wind forms ripples on the water’s skin, and those ripples act as sails, trapping more air. When wind sustains, that energy congeals into hefty mounds of water. Swell.

Energy in motion will stay in motion. So the swells travel, often for thousands of miles, sorting themselves as they move into tribes of similar speed and size, sets. From above, these sets appear as a parade of blue objects. Hard. Defined. But this is an illusion. Little water is moving.

The definition of a wave is a “disturbance moving through a medium,” and the memory of wind is spiraling through the medium of ocean. Atoms, molecules, cells are bouncing air’s message in an endless domino effect—a game of telephone. Each swell is a sort of ghost, an illusion that only looks like a firm set of matter in motion. And people are too. We look firm with our cookie-cutter parameters: head, shoulders, knees, and toes. But the bits of matter that compose our bodies are constantly getting traded out by new water, new food, new air, new chemicals. There is no static amount of stuff that stays with us from birth to death, no lump of clay you could point to and say, “See here I was as a baby, and now I’m stretched to my current size—roughly the same lump I began as.”

As the wave only exists as the memory of wind transferring between particles, we are the memory of some primordial, beginningless exhale (the cause that caused the cause of the Big Bang and every Big Bang before it). And we only exist as separate entities insofar as this breath has evolved us to perceive ourselves that way.

So we too are an illusion, a mirage. And the solar system and galaxy and universe around us, all made of tiny subatomic waves, are spiraling wavelike mirages. Realizing this on an experiential level is, they say, what a Buddha sees. It’s why a Buddha can enjoy bliss and be unbothered by loss. But usually, we are so caught in the force and swirl of the illusion, we don’t have any ability to see through it—to see that it’s hollow at its core.

The magic of the tube, however, is that, well, it is already hollow at its core. And there you are, still and poised in the belly of the swirl, unified with it, but also outside its relentless karma. You are one with its force. But unmoved by its force. Seeing the emptiness of everything while enjoying the everything.

Granted, this is a heady metaphor. Maybe a stretch. But seeing the tattooed tube master reminded me how much I wanted to learn how to do what he was doing.

***

The last rays of light disappeared behind a thin layer of horizon fog. And just as the sky was nearly the same color as the water, a dark, smooth swell appeared on the horizon. I paddled hard, ready for my tube—or at the very least a smooth ride to the beach for sunset tacos with Siri.

I felt myself pick up speed and stood a split second earlier, trying to mimic the tattooed tube master. And I sort of did. I stood right in the pocket of the slurping sea, nailed my stance, angled right, and glided down the line.

In front of me, the tunnel began to form, crest throwing outward, hooking with waning sun in its curl. I ducked, ready.