What I learned surfing in Hawaii with the first Hindu congresswoman

Yahoo News hits the island waves with Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard

HONOLULU, Hawaii – The sun has yet to rise when Tulsi Gabbard pulls her car into a near-empty parking lot here on Oahu’s windy eastern shore, walks toward the water and unfurls a yoga mat on the beach.

As gently crashing waves break the morning stillness, the congresswoman stands straight and salutes the tip of the glowing sun as it rises into the clouds and flashes a light upon the water.

For 30 minutes, she mediates in silence, shifting yoga positions while the sun rises higher in the sky.

Washington is—and certainly feels—4,000 miles away.

An hour later, Gabbard is geared up in a wet suit and rashguard, a surfboard under her arm, looking out over the surf near Waikiki. She paddles out to the breakers several hundred yards from shore, where she sits on her board and waits for the blue waters of the South Pacific to rise in a swell.

When the first waves roll in, she turns back toward the beach and paddles for the wave. The waist-high wall of water rises behind her, and she leaps up from her stomach—Gabbard is goofy-footed, which means she puts her right foot forward—and carves her way toward the beach on a strong but steady left.

This is how, after a grueling legislative session in Washington, the congresswoman from Hawaii starts her day back home. In a few hours she’ll be back on land, ready for a round of meetings with constituents. Then it’s back on a plane to stateside fundraisers as part of her duties with the Democratic National Committee.

But these early morning hours are a moment she has for herself.

“Literally every time I come home, my first stop is the ocean,” Gabbard tells me as we sit on our boards in the water. “Every time I come out of the water I feel refreshed. I feel inspired, I feel motivated.”

U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard surfs on the Hawaii waters.
U.S. Representative Tulsi Gabbard surfs on the Hawaii waters.

Elected to Congress in 2012, Gabbard is a newcomer to Congress. At 33-years-old, she’s one of just a handful of Millennials in the House. She’s the first member of the Hindu faith to be elected to the chamber and one of just two female combat veterans ever to hold a seat. As a member of the Hawaii Army National Guard after college, Gabbard was deployed to Iraq in 2004 and was deployed again to Kuwait in 2009.

As one of just a few veterans in Congress, she has closely following the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and how the U.S. responds. In making the case for action, Obama welcomed input from Congress, but declared that he had the authority to act without them.

“I saw in Congress we had fewer veterans serving than had ever served before in our nation’s history and you have people making very important decisions about where and when our troops go into battle,” Gabbard tells me. “I think that Congress over the last decade, if not longer, has given up more and more of its authority and its great responsibility of making that decision of when and where our troops should serve our country and what battles they should be fighting in.”

Gabbard flexed those muscles a few weeks after our interview when she joined 156 House lawmakers to vote against Obama’s plan to arm Syrian rebels in the fight against the IS. The measure ultimately passed—but at least Congress had a say.

I went out to visit Gabbard during summer recess as part of a new Yahoo News series called Extreme Recess to document how some of Congress’ more colorful characters spend their time at home. The House and Senate chambers are filled with more than just boring suits. Hidden behind the veneer of Beltway stuffiness is a body thriving with surfers, white-water kayakers, rock climbers, stunt pilots and more.

Even the most devoted C-SPAN junkies might be surprised at what they find.