Yoga is a tool for increasing self-awareness — of the body, the mind, the breath, the emotions, and for some, even the more subtle waves of the spirit. For competitive athletes, self-awareness is the linchpin for competition. Pro surfer Hank Gaskell has been competing since he was six years old, and practicing yoga since he was twelve. As a hard-driving contender for most of his life, Hank is now backing off from contests, and learning to take his time in his life, and in his yoga practice. Hank spoke at length with _PRACTICE about his evolution from surfer to yogi, finding the middle ground between the wave and the breath, the effort and the release.
I GREW UP IN HANA, on Maui, and had tons of beach time from Day One. There are photos of me, with water wings on, riding a boogie board at Hamoa beach. Some of my very first memories are on that beach –body surfing, sand sliding, digging holes in the sand, sand ball fights.When I was around five years old, I got my first surfboard. It was a thrashed 5’8 Maui Tropics with a broken-off nose, but it rode much better than standing up on my boogie board! It was such a thrill to just be skimming across the water. You’d feel so free and that’s all you really cared about.
We had a really good crew of friends that lived right next door and we’d surf together every day after school and all day long on the weekends. We were given the freedom to explore Waioka, a freshwater pool at the end of our back yard that flows into the ocean. We’d catch fish with rickety old poles and then spend hours in the water, surfing.When you’re a kid, you’re so pure, with the best intentions, and so stoked to see your friend catching a wave. Then as you get older, you want to be better, and one up each other. We were competitive with each other in pretty much everything we did. It was all for fun though, and was a healthy competitiveness that we shared, and then, when I started competing in menehune contests, and won, that just fueled me even more.
Our other neighbor was a yoga teacher. His name was Ramaia, and he is a devoted yogi, trained by a student of Pattabhi Jois. I remember when he taught class on his 60th birthday and he could still push up into a handstand from a seated position. He’s still incredibly fit. I was 12 when my dad told me that doing yoga would make me surf better. I don’t know what made him believe that but that made me get into it cause at that time the only thing I really cared about was getting better at surfing.I’ve always wanted to be better.
When I think of my yoga beginnings, I see myself as raised on Ashtanga yoga from Ramaia. Ramaia had a two-hour class every Sunday that my dad and I would go to together. And then, I got really into it and just started doing it everyday I’d get up before school to do yoga, and I’d do some more before going bed. I’d often fall asleep in class, exhausted from early morning yoga sessions and dawn patrol surfs.When my dad travelled with me to the National ScholasticSurfing Association (NSSA)competitions, he’d make me do yoga on the beach. In my head, I was constantly envisioning it fueling my abilities. My friends would watch and tease me and think I was crazy but I never stopped to care what others were thinking about me. But it must have seemed a little weird because, unlike now, no one else was doing that back then. I was way ahead of time (laughs) but I wanted to be a world champion surfer and yoga was a tool.
Even with yoga, I was pretty competitive, though you’re not supposed to be. When you’re a kid, you just go hard and this applied to yoga too. Ashtanga was intense,but it made me more flexible, more focused and stronger. I began to attribute winning events partially to yoga, so I stuck with it.
Yoga and the mindset it cultivates have carried me through some rough periodsof my life and my career. One of the more difficult times in my life was when I was 17. I went through my first bad breakup. My mom and dad were fighting a lot, which ended in a divorce and him moving to Washington. My relationship with my dad was pretty bad and once came to blows. On top of that, my dad had developed prostate cancer. A lot of things in my life were falling apart. My love for surfing and yoga was what kept me together. I continued my daily practice of yoga and surfed as much as possible. Looking back, I think I handled everything in as mature a way as a 17-year old could ever be expected to, and I attribute a lot of that to yoga.
SURFING IS TOUGH ON YOUR BODY. The level guys are pushing it to – we’re getting hurt, pretty often. During an event in California in small waves, I was doing a turn, hit a chop, my knee twisted and popped. I tore my MCL and with a simple injury like that, I was out for months. It was just on one wave and resulted in losing my main sponsor at the time.I’ve had a ton of overuse injuries too -- shoulder, neck and rhomboids. In surfing, when you’re paddling, you’re constantlyarching your back and your shoulders are roundingforward. I’ve had to relearn how to hold my head when paddling. I didn’t realize I had been pulling my shoulders way too far forward and keeping my elbows bent and pulling water under the board – but through yoga, I figured out that if I keep my shoulders down and my back long and my arms straighter, I get a better paddle and with far less stress on my body.
Once I travelled all the way to Sri Lanka, which is almost as far as you can get from Hawaii, two days or so of flights and layovers. After landing, it was a 12-hour drive through a country experiencing a civil war with locals carrying AK-47s across their shoulders. I had an injured knee and surfed poor-to-average waves at a sub-par level for three days before flying back home. I spent almost three times longer getting to and from Sri Lanka than being there. This was a common scenario at that time. As a competitive surfer, you’reobligated, by sponsors, magazines or production companies to perform – even when it is dangerous or seems to make little sense to be there.
Most of my life I have been training and surfing and preparing for the next contest. I used to see yoga as a steppingstone to get my surfing better. As my drive for competition eventually became less of a priority, yoga has helped me to transition into another realm of professional surfing. I am now able to pour my energy into projects and trips to places to fully explore with great surf. Often these adventures are associated with sustainability or preservation efforts, which makes them that much more meaningful.
THE OCEAN HAS HUMLBED ME MANY TIMES OVER. It’s taught me to meditate. It permeates my mind not only while surfing, but also, when I am free diving. When I’m down there, relaxed on the ocean floor, that’s my best avenue of getting back to that little kid feeling, where you’re just curious and excited and everything’s new. The ego disappears, the voice in your head silences. There’s nothing more peaceful to me.
I’ll dive the same spots I’ve dove for years and look at things at a microscopic level, and notice fish I’ve never seen or little creatures or corals and I’m lost in that moment, discovering new things all the time. It can be rare to find those new things in your daily life. But that’s the task – to slow down and notice and appreciate the little things every day. I think we can still go back to that little kid excitement by staying curious.
I dive as much as I can. I’ve been up to 90 feet down on one breath. With years of practice training the mind to control the body, I’ve learned to hold my breath for longer underwater. Before diving, I’ll take deeper slower breaths and relax as much as I can – don’t even move and wait for twenty seconds before exhaling everything and then inhale and dive down.
People talk about yoga and the patterns of our breath being like the waves in the ocean. I think that’s right. I remember the first contest I ever did on Oahu was in Haleiwa, my dad and I camped on the beach. I was seven years old. My dad wanted me to listen to the rhythm of the ocean so that I’d be in rhythm with the waves for the following day of competition. I was at the bottom of my age group that year and made the final, placing 6th. The following year I returned and won my division. I attribute the success there at least partially to the time my dad and I took to slowing down and tuning my body in with the ocean.
If I’m feeling anxious and stressed out, I can take some deep breaths and do some long slow stretches. For some people, it may be much easier to grab a beer or smoke a joint or eat some cake, and you might feel better for a second, but eventually you need to buckle down and be responsible and do things that have a lasting effect, that bring you back to center, to keep your trajectory in life good. The quick fix won’t make your issues go away.
Have you ever read the book, “Meditations,” by Marcus Aurelius? He talks a lot about how we should discover our own nature and match our life to it. To me, to understand my own nature has a large part to do with being in the outdoors and feeling like a wild, raw being. My upbringing in Hana definitely taught me that I could tap into my greatest mental clarity when I am in the wild. It is natural for me to be outside, to be very active, to appreciate beautiful places less tainted my humans, and to love plants and animals. So that’s what I strive for. I surf as much as I can. I camp as much as I can. I dive as much as I can. This is how I feel connected. Thishas brought the most happiness. My favorite quote from Meditations sums it up nicely – “The happiest people discover their own nature and match their life to it.”