Jaimal Yogis ran away from Rio and became a noted author

Once a troubled kid, Yogis found surfing and Buddhism and has published memoirs and children’s books


Ava Diedrich, Contributing Writer

Jaimal Yogis; A Profile by Ava Diedrich

When he was 16, Jaimal Yogis ran away from his suburban Sacramento home to Hawaii in an effort to get away from his parole officer and catch his Dad’s attention-and maybe catch a wave or two. 

Under scrutiny for an arrest for drunken driving and feeling too confined as a junior at Rio Americano High School, Yogis bought a one-way ticket to the island, bringing just enough money (taken from his mom’s purse) to buy a surfboard and that other necessity of life, a skateboard. 

Though it seemed like he was running away from our often-rescheduled phone interview as well, I finally caught hold of him one day at his home in San Francisco, and he was able to share some perspective about his writing and his life. And then, all too soon, he had to run to take one of his sons to basketball practice. 

An Army brat and child of divorced parents, Yogis moved around a lot growing up, which didn’t stop once he started living on his own. From Sacramento, to Hawaii, to the Himalayas, to New York, he was constantly on the move, trying to find himself in the process. 

In high school, he ran away in hopes of rekindling a relationship with his Dad, on top of being frustrated by the constraints of parole due to a DUI, and a feeling that he needed to be with the water. He ultimately succeeded when his Dad came to find him in Hawaii, and they spent some time there, reconnecting and learning to surf. Convincing him that running away from your problems doesn’t solve them and that he had to finish high school, Jaimal’s Dad took him to come live with him. 

These events and the feeling of longing for a connection with his Dad seemed like they might be relatable, so Yogis made them a starting point for his first book, the 2009 memoir “Saltwater Buddha.”  “I eventually decided that releasing the story might help other people who had been through similar struggles like divorce, and I’m glad I did,” Yogis said. “But I had to break through some layers of anxiety.” 

Indeed, before he could write the book he took a long, exploratory journey through cities, schools, careers, monasteries and surfboards. Slowing down to work on the memoir let him get back to what he really loved, surfing and writing.

“My favorite part of writing it was that I quit my magazine writing job for six months and went to live on a sailboat for cheap rent. After hustling for journalism jobs, to take six months and just write and surf was really wonderful.” 

The coming of age story covers struggles, journeys, awakenings, and, of course, the Zen experience of surfing. He writes: “Surfing is kind of a good metaphor for the rest of life. The extremely good stuff – chocolate and great sex and weddings and hilarious jokes – fills a minute portion of an adult lifespan. The rest of life is the paddling: work, paying bills, flossing, getting sick, dying.”

After “Saltwater Buddha, he went on to write six more books- biographies, fantasies, memoirs and children books, including his most recent work, “Mop Rides the Waves of Change,” which was published last fall.

When talking about our connection, Rio Americano, Jaimal had mostly positive things to say, despite it being the place he ran away from. “I think on a superficial level, running away didn’t have as much to do with Rio as it did my own existential angst and wanting to see something other than Sacramento. I think because Rio had all the trappings that most high schools do, you’re forming your identity in high school, so you’re naturally really caught up in what people are wearing, and what parties they’re going to, who’s dating who and who’s not, and I think I was frustrated with myself for getting caught up in that.” He spoke about these learnings reflectively and evaluatively- though fragmented as he had to take a pause to tell his boys to stay on the playground and not to fight. 

He was excited to discuss some of his favorite teachers, who he said had an (accidental on their part) impact on his decision to run away. “Mr. [Alec] Hodgins was an influence to some degree. Although he never suggested that I run away, he was so adventurous before he became a teacher. He worked on fishing boats and lived in Alaska, and just traveled a lot, and in the midst of the popularity contest of high school, which I felt like I was in and out of being consumed by, he stood outside of that.

“Also, Mr. [Richard] Thorn, who was a long-time economics and honors history professor. … He just made history really fascinating and applicable to our lives. Things that you’d hear in the news that I didn’t even know how they worked, he’d tie them into history and it made me hungry to get out into the world.” 

Yogis had been desperate to break free and try to find himself, it was just unfortunate for his mom and the money he stole from her wallet before heading to the airport that he thought a one-way ticket to Hawaii was the only way to do so. 

While shopping in San Diego last week, I wandered into a surf shop that was selling copies of “Mop Rides the Waves of Change,” the second in the Yogis’ “Mop Rides” series, a children’s book about surfing, ocean conservation, and the anxieties of childhood. I was glad to see this book as I remembered something Jaimal had said about the genres he wrote in. “The hardest part about writing “Saltwater Buddha” was probably coming out with a memoir at such a young age – and about such a vulnerable topic – and worrying about how it would be received. I had big aspirations to try fiction writing and I worried that it would pigeon hole me.” So, I was glad to see that fiction writing is working out pretty well for him. 

Jaimal Yogis now lives in San Francisco with his wife and three boys, and has come a long way since his troubled days at Rio Americano, with a wildly interesting path that has led him to become an extremely happy and successful journalist, author, mentor, and father. 

Read more: Jaimail Yogis isn’t the only notable author to graduate from Rio Americano, nor is he the only one who desperately wanted to escape Sacramento.

Adrian Tomin, a critically acclaimed and best-selling graphic novelist, graduated in the early ‘90s, a few years ahead of Yogis. Tomine’s most recent book, the graphic memoir, “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Cartoonist” (2020) is crafted in the same way he created Optic Nerve, a comic book series he began while a student at Rio.  Read Jessica Sheppard’s full profile of Tomine.