For most of his life, Jaimal Yogis has been on one hell of a self-discovery journey.
From leaving his suburban Sacramento home at 16 to surf the waves in Hawaii, to stints at Zen Buddhist monasteries in Berkeley, France and India, to a graduate degree in journalism at Columbia University, to years spent hopscotching the globe in search of enlightenment, the lifelong surfer and yoga enthusiast’s existence has been anything but stationary.
Yet despite all that movement, Yogis’ productivity hasn’t suffered. His first book, a coming-of-age memoir about his time in Maui called “Saltwater Buddha,” was published in 2009 and made into a documentary film that’s free to watch during shelter-in-place.
His second, “The Fear Project,” published in 2013, is a deep dive into what causes anxiety and how we can counteract fear’s negative effects by pushing through our limitations. Yogis wrote the book following a breakup and interviewed renowned neuroscientists, psychologists and religious leaders to complement his firsthand research on the subject (which included doing things like swimming across the San Francisco Bay in an attempt to reach Alcatraz Island, and a mile-long paddle out into the sea to take on Northern California’s infamous 60-foot-plus Mavericks waves).
“All Our Waves Are Water” was released in 2017. Yogis’ third travelogue-memoir mashup, it covers his time in grad school, a pit stop at a Franciscan friary in New York City, and various jaunts through the Himalayas and Indonesia, Jerusalem and Mexico. By the end of the book, he’s settled in Ocean Beach with, yes, his trusty surfboard — but also a wife, a burgeoning family and some semblance of peace.
But unlike some folks for whom “peace” equals “stasis,” for Yogis it’s quite the opposite. Now with three young boys under his wing, he hopes to pass on what he has learned to the new generation. His latest project — a darling picture book titled “Mop Rides the Waves of Life” — is no less earnest and inquisitive than Yogis’ previous projects. It’s just that its curly-haired protagonist is 30-plus years younger.
“Mop,” which was released Tuesday, June 30, is the first book in a planned series, and it’s an easily relatable story about a boy who has trouble controlling his anger. Thanks to his mother’s help and some time on the board, he eventually learns how to “surf the waves of life” by “(noticing) the emotional waves inside” and “(letting) the bad ones cruise by.”
While this lesson might sound hokey coming from most authors, from Yogis it’s pure gold — especially now. During a time when even the most angelic kids are prone to temper tantrums because of quarantine or a whole host of other reasons, “Mop” is an invaluable teaching tool, not to mention an all-around heartwarming read.
Yogis was scheduled to talk about the book in a Litquake-hosted virtual event 4 p.m. Thursday, July 2. He shared his inspiration for the picture book in a recent chat with The Chronicle, as well as a glimpse into what’s next on his horizon, including a fantasy graphic novel series called “City of Dragons” and a potential major motion picture adapted from his memoirs.
Q: You’ve spent most of your life exploring both the world and your inner self. Where do you see yourself at this exact point in your life?
A: Truthfully, the guy who used to be able to go on two-week silent zazen retreats or zip over to Bali for a few months every year and sleep in a hammock feels like he died eight years ago when we had our first child. And for the first, oh, four years of being a parent, even though I was head over heels in love with our children, I really mourned the loss of that guy who could just live in his van and surf.
But I think after eight years, I’m finally learning to surrender to the new dad, me — or I’ve been beaten into submission. (Laughs.) Living on Ocean Beach, I still get to surf more than most dads, so I have no room to complain.
Being a parent has been one of the greatest joys and greatest challenges of my life. Now I’m lucky to get an hour per day to myself. So, finding any semblance of flow and mental freedom means learning to find a bigger mind that can embrace and flow with chaos, both inside and out.
That’s the beauty of parenting. You feel pushed to your limit. You haven’t slept and you’re trying to figure out how to make ends meet and, meanwhile, you find your boys biting each other on the kitchen floor while they fight over a Popsicle. (But) you love them so much that the love overrides all the challenges. … So, on some meta level, I think that’s the place parenting has landed me: really reverent of the power of love and trying to open more to love every day.
Of course, I have days when I’m locked in some wave of frustration. And on those days, I’m grateful for the mindfulness training. I have to stop, breathe and realize I have a choice in that split second to absolutely lose it in anger or self-pity, or realize this is yet another growth opportunity to let that wave pass and stay calm, or transmute that energy into a positive action. I won’t say I always choose the latter but, like Mop, I’m trying.
Q: Tell me about your family and their influence on why you decided to write a book for kids.
A: Well, my lovely wife, Amy DuRoss, is an absolutely amazing woman who somehow finds time to go on school field trips and do cooking projects with our boys while she runs a health care burgeoning startup she founded called Vineti. Our boys are Kaifas (8 years old), Eben (6) and Hanafin, or Finnie (4), and they are each super unique boys with one thing in common: tons of energy. They love basketball, cooking, nature, travel, making movies about their stuffed animals and storytelling. And they love “Mop.”
The picture book really came organically. One of the things I love to do is doodle. I see it as another kind of mindfulness practice, just letting my hand wander with a pen over paper. Anyway, I found myself drawing this stick figure surfer with big curly hair. I really liked drawing his hair and drawing him on the waves, and before I knew it, I’d doodled a narrative about him. Maybe, in an unconscious way, I was resurrecting that relaxed surfer me who died. Mop is his reincarnation into our family.
Q: “Mop” is really about teaching kids the importance of learning how to handle their thoughts and emotions. Why is this important at such a young age?
A: It’s so important at every age! I mean, to get a little philosophical: Our entire life experience is a series of thoughts and emotions. We know from all kinds of studies that people experience the same external circumstances as completely different, based on their thoughts, their emotional frame, their past experiences, their sense of self. Taking that further, every one of our actions begins as a thought or emotion. So, in my view, learning how to navigate our thoughts and emotions is the most important life skill you can build.
How to create positive and peaceful and compassionate states of mind — and how not to panic or lash out when you experience negative or scary emotions — should be the No. 1 thing we learn in school, in my view. It’s central to everything, and it’s the mismanagement of our emotions that leads to our world’s biggest problems. If kids can get the knack of navigating their emotional waves so that their emotions aren’t controlling them, they are set up for success at work, in relationships and in society.
Q: The world is a bit bonkers right now. How can “Mop” help parents and their kids have meaningful conversations in order to get through these scary times?
A: Yeah, 2020 has basically been one difficult wave after the next. I hope that “Mop” helps families start talking about emotions more easily, and I hope it gives families an opportunity to say (that) feeling stormy, or less than perfect, is OK. Because, it’s not often that the sadness or frustration is the main problem. It’s how we react to those emotional waves. It’s the piling (on of) more stormy waves — and, of course, the taking it out on others — that becomes the big (issue).
I hope “Mop” also gives parents and kids some self-compassion that they’re not going to be perfect emotional surfers. As Mop’s mom says, ‘Falling is the best way to learn.’” I believe that. We let kids make mistakes, but we have to let ourselves make mistakes, too. For parents, I think learning from falling means acknowledging when you’ve messed up and forgiving yourself, then asking what you can learn from it.
But I (also) hope “Mop” doesn’t make families feel like they all need to be meditating. Just talking about emotions is a kind of mindfulness in itself. It’s great if you can make time to meditate, but you don’t have to necessarily sit in lotus (position) and be silent to learn how to deal with emotions. That’s just another tool that can also be helpful.
Q: “Mop” is dedicated to your mom. What’s the inspiration here?
A: My mom is like Mop’s mom in that she took me to my first meditation class when I was about 17. She took me right after I came home from Maui and before I went to study abroad in France my senior year of high school. Meditation became a super important tool for me when I was 17 and 18 and thrown into a totally new culture and language.
Apart from that, my mom was the one who really demonstrated yoga and meditation and emotional processing. Before she became a high school French teacher, then a college career counselor, she ran a 12-kid day care out of our home while she was finishing her undergrad degree, and there were a lot of crazy kids in our day care. She was amazing about helping kids solve their own conflicts, about making sure things were fair, but she always did it without getting angry.
Also, she has always been good about getting us to talk about our emotions, talking about our dreams, getting us to open up. In high school, we used to do these family weekend events called “heart shares.” Basically, we passed around a speaking rock, and when you had the rock, you had to speak your heart. We rolled our eyes at them growing up, but I see (now) how what an invaluable tool that was. I’ve had lots of meditation teachers over the years, but more than anyone else, it was my mom who has taught me to ride the waves of life.
Q: I noticed on your website that you’ve posted some meditation videos for kids. They are great! Will there be more?
A: I’ve always meant to make some mindfulness videos, and something about doing them for kids finally got me off my rear and actually shooting them. Maybe because I could be a bit silly, and I like to be silly. Sometimes meditation feels a little too serious.
The funny thing about the videos is that it has been hard to get my boys to try meditation when I’ve asked. I think they look at meditating like the clothes Dad wears; it’s not something they need to do.
But the most successful experience has been when I asked them to check out my YouTube videos to see if they liked them. When they saw Dad doing meditation on YouTube, they finally actually tried the breathing exercises. And then — and this shocked me — they actually asked if they could do that again. Yes, it may have just been an excuse to sneak a little extra screen time, but there they were sitting cross-legged and breathing — actually still — in the living room. How ironic!
Q: “Mop” is the first in a series. Tell me more about the other books.
A: The second “Mop” book is called “Mop Rides the Waves of Change” — at least that’s the working title. It takes this surfing emotions metaphor to the next level. I don’t want to give too much away, but in this version, Mop, Izzy and Sammy are all doing some surfing together. They’re angry that there’s too much plastic on the beach and it’s harming sea life. Mop is confused about the anger. He wants to use mindfulness to let it pass, but he also wants to do something to clean the beach. So, in a nutshell, he has to learn how to transform anger into positive action.
I wanted to get a little more nuanced with emotion in this one. After all, having a choice whether to react to an emotion is one thing, but sometimes emotions are telling us things that are really important. And sometimes acting on them is the right thing to do.
Q: Are you also working on a graphic novel series?
A: Yes! “City of Dragons” is one of those projects that I almost can’t believe is really happening. Writing a fantasy novel series has been one of my lifelong dreams, but it was one of those things I was really nervous to pursue seriously, since it’s a big departure from my other writing to date. I had to battle tsunamis of self-doubt to finally write and pitch this series with the absolutely amazing comic artist Vivian Truong.
The first book comes out in summer or fall 2021. After that we’ll be releasing a book per year for at least three books. It’s so fun! A dream come true.
Q: Here’s everyone’s favorite job interview question: Where do you see yourself in the future?
A: I’m really loving doing children’s and middle-grade books. I have some more of those cooking, and I hope also to be able to continue doing some film and TV projects. So, I guess the future is looking pretty, well, visual.
There’s a group of Hollywood producers working on a fictionalized version of my memoirs and, of course, that would be amazing if it really comes to fruition. But, meanwhile, there’s a documentary I’ve been producing and writing, “The Most Fearless,” about the first female surfer in Bangladesh. That is finally done and will be available to view soon.
I love the solitary nature of writing, but I’m also really loving balancing that with creative collaborations with illustrators and producers and directors. So, I just feel really grateful to be experimenting with stories in different media and hope I can continue creating.
“Mop Rides the Waves of Life”
By Jaimal Yogis
Illustrated by Matthew Allen
(40 pages; $16.95)
“Jaimal Yogis and ‘Mop Rides the Waves of Life’” live stream: 4 p.m. Thursday, July 2. Free, $5 suggested donation. For event updates and registration info, visit at bit.ly/moplivestream.