5:33pm

Mon May 20, 2013
Arts & Culture

Confronting life's fears on a surfboard

Jaimal Yogis was 29 years old when he went through his first big heartbreak. At the time, he was living in a dark studio to save money and Jaimal was feeling pretty sorry for himself.

His girlfriend Sara was his first real love. When they met in their early 20s, Jaimal was instantly drawn to her silly sense of humor and green-blue eyes. After a short time, they fell for eachother. Hard.

But then they abruptly broke up when Jaimal moved away for grad school, and that kicked off a sort of flip flopping that would last for years – they’d break up, then get back together, then break up again.

“My game was always, well if I hurt you and lose you then I appreciate you, because you’re gone and I can’t have you,” says Jaimal.

After an impressive two-year-long stretch together, Jaimal and his girlfriend were living out near Ocean Beach and contemplating serious things like marriage and kids...when they separated again. And, against Jaimal’s wishes, this time it was for good.

“I remember just feeling, like I had really really messed up and was always going to mess up. And it was like a domino effect. I couldn’t write. Didn’t go do the things that usually make me feel good,” Jaimal says.

We all eventually figure out a way to bounce back from a first heartbreak – whether it’s through listening to cheesy music, or eating pints of ice cream, or regrettable rebound dating. But Jaimal’s was different.

“You know, break ups trigger so many of our fears. Our fear of rejection, our fear of not being good enough, fear of failing, fears we watched our parents deal with when they were arguing or divorcing” he says.

And those fears inspired Jaimal to turn his heartbreak into a personal quest. He would get to the bottom of why he was so afraid – why all of us are – and find strategies for changing that. Maybe if he could learn to keep his fears in check, he could avoid heartbreak number two.

So he interviewed neuroscientists, sports psychologists, extreme athletes. It turns out: “the number one way to deal with fear, as most neuroscientists told me, is exposure therapy,” says Jaimal.

In other words, just do what you’re afraid of. So he tried it. First, with his fear of public speaking. He was actually on a tour for his first book, and the last thing he wanted to do was get in front of people and talk about it. But sure enough,  after five or so times, he kind of started enjoying it.

So he tested himself further – he had always been afraid of the murky shark-infested waters of the Bay, so he swam to Alcatraz and back. Then he dove near the Farallon Islands, and through a cage, came face to face with a shark the length of an Airstream trailer. Believe it or not, he got over his fear of the bay and of sharks. And after he forced himself to go out on a few dates. before long, he started feeling better about himself. He even met someone new.

But among all of his fears, there was one big one – four stories-tall big – that would really put Jaimal’s fear project to the test. Mavericks.

If you surf in Northern California, or pretty much anywhere in the world, this is the wave that separates big wave surfers from the rest. It only appears under just the right conditions, down near Half Moon Bay, and when it breaks it can create waves up to 80 feet tall.

“If you grew up surfing in the 90s when Mavericks was discovered, I mean, Mavericks was a huge deal. It was like Mount Everest had been hiding and all of a sudden people found it,” Jaimal explains.

Jaimal grew up with posters of Mavericks on his walls and reading about it in Surfer magazine.

He says, “My one dream was to surf, and live a surfers lifestyle. But Mavericks was this thing that I would never personally do”.

Fast forward 20 or so years, and Jaimal is a pretty competent surfer. And for the first time ever, the thought enters Jaimal’s brain that maybe, with the techniques he’s learned to combat fear, he can actually take on Mavericks.

“So I started training very hard, breath holding techniques, running and surfing every chance i got,” says Jaimal.

Big wave surfing physique? Check. Big-wave surfing mindset? That was a little more complicated. It meant doing some seemingly counterproductive work, like “watching the scariest movies I could about Mavericks,” says Jaimal.

After months of this, the day came when conditions were just right for Mavericks to break – something that doesn’t happen that often – and Jaimal had a decision to make: do it now, or let the fear build indefinitely. So he got in his car and drove to Half Moon Bay.

“I don’t know if I had ever been so physically sacred,” he says. “I was really scared. Like couldn’t eat scared.”

He told himself all he had to do was get in the water. And he did. Wetsuit on, big surfboard beneath him. He paddled right up to the lineup and then....sat there...for a really long time.

“The way that mavericks moves is different than a normal wave,” Jaimal explains. “It really feels like the whole ocean is tipping, and somehow you are descending down the face of the ocean, and you sense that power. And if you fall it’s going to not let you go until it wants to and you have no control in the matter.”

After two hours of sitting, a huge set of waves came in. They were just beyond his ability to paddle over. He quickly realized that he was going to have to dive under and get pummeled by this mountain of water being hurled right at him. “People die [at Mavericks],” Jaimal says. “Professional surfers die here.”

So that’s why it is so hard to do what surfers are supposed to do in this situation, which is to relax. But Jaimal trained for months to be ready for this very moment.

“I absolutely did not relax,” says Jaimal. “I just scrambled!”

The important thing is, after all the scrambling – he did eventually make it up to the surface.

“And it was really that, making it up and back and thinking ok, it happened. There. That’s what it’s like,” he says.

So he paddled back out. But that renewed sense of confidence didn’t last long – another couple of hours went by.

“I had been sitting there in the pack probably just annoying people with my ‘I’m going to paddle!’ and not going, and being really frustrated with myself. I was waiting for this moment where it suddenly felt good to paddle down one of these waves, and it never was,” says Jaimal.

Of course, our brains are hardwired to make us very afraid of doing things like this. But then, something changed.

“There's this saying, you know, in zen,” Jaimal says, “when sort of negative emotions reach an extreme they can flip. And that’s really what happened out there, I became so angry and frustrated that I had to surrender. I remember that turning point, and saying, ‘Okay, I’m going to leave today having ridden a wave, and thats going to happen, by me taking all this anger and frustration and fear and using it to power me through this.’”

And as if the ocean were responding, within minutes of making this decision, a wave came right to him. This time, he went for it.

PHOTO: Ion Banner drops into a huge wave at the 2010 Mavericks Surf Contest; By Rick Bucich, http://www.flickr.com/photos/rbucich/4360784494/

“I stood up, and from there everything goes white, you know, in terms of you're not thinking but actually I got into the wave and then it hit the reef. Thats the feeling of the whole ocean going, and you see where you're going, and woah, ‘I’m going way down there!’” Jaimal remembers.

In a matter of minutes, Jaimal covers the distance of about a football field. After he skims off the surface of that wave, “It took about ten seconds to realize, oh my gosh, that thing that I had just been wondering and dreaming about since the age of 12, it just happened.”

When you succeed at something like this, something you truly never thought you could do – Jaimal says you’re filled with this euphoric feeling of triumph that spreads to every doubt, every fear you could be holding inside you.

“And for that period, you just feel like there’s nothing in the world that could ever hurt you,” says Jaimal.

And that brings us back to that new someone Jaimal met after his marathon of online dating, Amy. When Jaimal was driving home from Half Moon Bay, after riding the wave of his life: “I remember thinking to myself, I had been grappling with this anxiety about commitment and being in love with my girlfriend but not knowing if I wanted to propose or could.”

Sound familiar?

When Jaimal met Amy he instantly realized that she wasn’t like Sara or any of the other women he had dated. Amy was from a different tribe than Jaimal. She was from the East Coast. This was a challenge for Jaimal, and he liked it.

Slowly but surely, Amy and Jaimal grew closer, fell in love, and moved in together. Everything was going great, but Jaimal got that feeling again. That familiar fear – could he make this work? Would he end up getting hurt again? Well, after surfing Mavericks that day, “I just knew, it was like that feeling in me, I think before the knowing was I can do it, and that was intellectual, but not it was coming from inside me. I can do this. And I will do it,” Jaimal says.

It turns out – and this is another thing Jaimal learned through his research – if fear is what paralyzes us, love is what moves us.

“Anytime you’re in love you have a lot of oxytocin in your system. Oxytocin is this neurochemical that has shown in studies counteracts the freezing response of fear. So rats who are being shocked again, if they have a little oxytocin in their system, instead of freezing, they will still feel fear, but they’ll be able to move through it.” Jaimal says. “The amazing thing is you or I can close our eyes and think of someone we love, or being loved by someone like our moms and we get a little hit of oxytocin if we really take the time to feel it. And so thats accessible at any time.”

Jaimal’s fear project led him to conquer some pretty extraordinary fears: surfing a 40-foot wave, swimming with sharks... But they were just training for facing down some of life’s most ordinary fears – like of commitment and abandonment...or simply the unknown. 

Jaimal and Amy are now married, with their first child. He still has fears, but now he treats them kind of like waves: “I have to catch them before I mess it all up.”

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