I have to admit, compiling my list of year end books was humbling. The truth is, I read a lot of fiction. While some of it I will enthusiastically list here, other titles I choose not to admit! For me, 2021 wasn't a huge year for non-fiction but I did read some mind-scrambling books which I most certainly recommend. This list is a mix of both, each book bringing forth a subject or character(s) rich in complexity. There's also a bit of poetry to add into the mix of prose. These books took my mind to new and interesting places. For that, I'm especially grateful.
THE HIDDEN FACE OF EVE By Nawal El Saadawi
Nawal El Saadawi passed away recently, and it was by reading her obituary that I first heard of her. I quickly realized that her reach was far and wide, and I was just new to her writing. The Hidden Face of Eve claims to deal with the treatment of women in the Arab world, but it goes far beyond that to deal with power and gender at large. It's not easy to digest but that's because she examines extremely difficult topics.
THE SECRET LIFE OF GROCERIES By Benjamin Lorr
I would guess that many of you reading this know of Benjamin Lorr. He wrote Hell-Bent which looked into competitive yoga. In this follow-up, he takes the same "all in" approach. He gets to know many in the grocery world, including a trucker and product developer. Brace yourself. It's at times brutal and disgusting, but it's well worth a look into the large and somewhat dysfunctional system that exists to feed us each and everyday.
THE BODY PROJECT by Joan Jacobs Brumberg
This is a fascinating, and at times heartbreaking book that deals with the history of the female body in areas like media and medicine. While it is geared toward girls in America, it goes far beyond that. It illuminates how policy and promotion shape the understanding of our physical appearance. Furthermore, it illuminates our ways of thinking that have nothing to do with our actual body and much to do with cultural trends.
MARY MAGDALENE: MYTH AND METAPHOR By Susan Haskins
This is an absolutely fascinating read about Mary Magdalene. It is slow and dense but packed with interesting history. Haskins background is in art history and she uses depictions of Mary Magdalene throughout time, along with early writings and devotional works to explore this historic (and perhaps quite misunderstood) character.
THE SPOILS OF PARTITION By Joya Chatterji
This book is an academic history of the partition of India following the end of British colonialism. It's not for everyone, but I recommend it to anyone interested in this subject. Chatterji writes in a very approachable way. She dissects the way in which the new land borders were drawn and what that meant for the immense amount of people who suddenly found themselves in a new country. She explains what is considered to be the largest human migration of all time in a clear and incredibly researched way.
THE FIRST FREE WOMEN By Matty Weingast
This is a lovely book to have around. It does not need to be read page by page, but rather enjoyed poem by poem. This is a translation of Therigatha (Verses of the Elder Nuns).
WHEREABOUTS By Jhumpa Lahiri
Now for the fiction! I heard an interview with Lahiri on the radio which piqued my interest about this book. The interviewer said something like your book has no plot, nothing happens. She responded saying I wouldn't say it has no plot, a plot is just a series of of things that happen. This made me so curious! Now having read it, I understand both sides. Does it have a plot? I'm not sure. But it was funny, charming and some of the best writing I've read.
FIRE KEEPER'S DAUGHTER By Angeline Boulley
Both this book and the next one were decades in the making from what I've read. Each author let the story simmer and took the time to shape the characters with such craft that you feel you know them personally.
Fire Keeper's Daughter is just so good. The story is set not too far from where I grew up, which is what first drew me to it. However, the book gives you an immediate sense of place both in struggle and community regardless of where you are when reading it. It is labeled as a young adult read, but is definitely for all ages.
WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING By Delia Owens
I was so late to the Crawdads craze. All I can say now is better late than never! There is an endless amount that can be said about this book. The writing is amazing and evolves throughout the book as the characters grow. Owens has total mastery over the place, the people and the world she creates. The main character Kya is heartbreakingly lovable. Boss them pirates!
Gosh I love to read! Every book is an opportunity to see the world from a new perspective, to learn something from an expert, or to peer through a window to a different time and place. Here is a short list of books I read this year that had a profound impact on me. They are not new books. In fact, some of them are quite old. But they are all valid, and they meant a lot to me this year.
WHEN PROPHECY FAILS by Festinger, Riecken and Schachter
This work of social psychology from the 1950s dives into the mentality, actions and beliefs of a UFO cult. But it is so much more than that: an exploration of how our minds react when we may be wrong about something we really believe in. The authors build the case that, even when we are confronted with evidence that we are wrong, we essentially double-down in our beliefs. It is a chilling conclusion — that humans are sometimes immune to changing our minds. As the authors write, "when people are committed to a belief and a course of action, clear disconfirming evidence may simply result in deepened conviction". After reading this book, it is hard not to see this phenomenon all around us in the world today.
ETHICS IN THE REAL WORLD by Peter Singer
Ethics and morality have become especially important to me this year. Perhaps it is due to the ongoing pandemic and the acute awareness of how my actions can impact others. I stumbled upon this book, which contains 82 short essays about various ethical conundrums — from geopolitics to religious freedom, eating meat to climate change — and thought it would be a good overarching introduction. It is. Singer writes with remarkable clarity about ethical issues of all sorts. And the brevity of the essays means that nothing is belabored.
SELFLESS PERSONS by Steven Collins
This scholarly dive into the Buddhist concept of non-self is deep, complex and absolutely stunning. The idea that there is no eternal Self can be confounding and frustrating, especially when compared to other systems that insist upon its existence. The importance of non-self is summarized best in Collins's introduction: "this belief in a permanent and a divine soul is the most dangerous and pernicious of all errors, the most deceitful of illusions, that it will inevitably mislead its victim into the deepest pit of sorrow and suffering".
SEVEN TYPES OF ATHEISM by John Gray
I'm a sucker for an analysis of human spirituality in all its subtlety, diversity and contradiction. Gray's book does not disappoint. He begins by defining an atheist: "anyone with no use for the idea of a divine mind that has fashioned the world...It is simply the absence of the idea of a creator-god". This leaves a lot of room for variation in beliefs about the nature of the universe, creation and human spirituality. Gray systematically explains seven distinct forms of atheism that have been embraced throughout history. A book of remarkable clarity and exposition that illuminates the ways we see ourselves and the world.
THE YOGASUTRA OF PATANJALI: A NEW INTRODUCTION TO THE BUDDHIST ROOTS OF THE YOGA SYSTEM by Pradeep P. Gokhale
I don't know how many different translations and explanations of the Yoga Sutras I have read. Dozens. Many are confused or confusing, and scholars are increasingly aware of the compiled nature of the text, and how it shows influence from a handful of other systems of thought. Buddhism is among these influences, but deep dives into the Buddhist roots of the Yoga Sutras require a rare combination of expertise. With this new research, Gokhale has provided a huge step forward in our understanding of the philosophical and linguistic roots of the Yoga Sutras. He analyzes works of Abhidharma Buddhism and shows how they explain many aspects of the Yoga Sutras better than traditionally accepted narratives. This is a scholarly work, full of difficult history and terminology, but worth it for anyone with a serious interest in yoga history or the Yoga Sutras in particular.
WHY WE SLEEP by Matthew Walker
This book was recommended to us by several people over the past few years until it became impossible to ignore. And it was worth it! We even wrote a blog about it. The book begins with the obvious-in-hindsight revelation that sleep is vital. It is not a passive state of nothingness that can be shortened or neglected. Rather, it is a very active state for many systems of the body, especially the brain. Walker explains the structure of sleep and its impact on things like our memory, physical health and even physical coordination. This is a book with practical, everyday implications that can make anyone's life better.
THE CHAKRAS by C.W. Leadbeater
Earlier this year, as we were doing research for a workshop series on the Yogic Body, we read a handful of books about the chakras from the early 20th century, including this one. Leadbeater was a prominent Theosophist, a highly influential group that shaped modern conceptions of yoga and spirituality. This book from 1927 is remarkable as a vivid capsule of the time. Leadbeater claimed that he could see the chakras, and he painted them beautifully. I find these paintings to be among the most remarkable elements of 20th century yogic history because, aside from being lovely, they show the break-neck speed of change in conceptions of the yogic body. Here, in the 1920s, there were seven chakras associated with parts of anatomy. But they were not yet rainbow in color nor linked with psychological traits as they came to be in the 1970s.
HOW JESUS BECAME GOD by Bart D. Ehrman
Along with our study of yoga history and the history of religion in general, both Ida and I have been increasingly reading about the history of Christianity. It is fascinating for the same reason as all history — our ideas change rapidly along with the cultural needs of the time. This book by Ehrman explores the early centuries after the death of Jesus, and how the story of Jesus changed, turning him from a preacher or even a prophet into the only son of God himself who rose from the dead. It is full of scriptural quotations and explanations alongside historical analysis. And it is quite readable, which is not something one can often say about a work of scholarship like this.
BREATH by James Nestor
I never thought someone could write a compelling story about breathing, something we all do thousands of times each day. But Nestor has crafted a surprisingly interesting narrative around his own research into breathing anatomy, physiology and history. Where it falls short of a scholarly history or a medical anatomy text, it more than makes up with its humor and readability. This is a book that anyone can and should read to have more understanding and appreciation of the most fundamental function of life — breathing.
It can be challenging to navigate day-to-day activities such as conversation. We inevitably talk with friends, family, acquaintances, students or teachers. Some conversations are easy, some are difficult. Some can be comforting and others unsettling.
As we attempt to practice yoga while also being a human being in the world, it can be helpful know what texts say about something so common as talking with others. If nothing else, it is interesting to consider that the act of conversation brought about challenges even ~2,000 years ago, and that guidelines were presented in order to help us navigate this in a skillful way.
In this blog we'll look at a verse from the Sammanaphala-Sutta (D I 64) an early text of Buddhism whose title means "Fruits of the Ascetic Life" which describes moral behavior. Other verses from this sutta (Skr. sutra) deal with different topics, but here we'll look at the four types of harmful speech.
Four Types of Harmful Speech
The first type of speech to be avoided is untrue speech. For this, one should give up speech that is not reliable or trustworthy. One should not deceive another.
Next we are told to avoid malicious speech. This is explained as refraining from gossip. One should not pass along something that one heard if the goal is to create conflict. Furthermore, one's speech should be intended to bring together those that are divided and encourage those that are united.
Third, the practitioner should avoid unkind speech. One should not speak words that are hurtful, but rather words that are courteous and touch the heart.
Finally, one should avoid idle chatter. One should "speak at the right time, in accordance with the facts, with words that are helpful...." (pg. 20). These words should be concise and appropriate for the occasion.
The next time we find ourselves in conversation, we can consider whether our words are: true, encouraging unity, kind and necessary.
Gethin, Rupert. 2008. Sayings of the Buddha: New Translations by Rupert Gethin from the Pali Nikāyas. Oxford University Press: New York
Navigating the yoga world can be frustrating. There are so many different styles and so much history underpinning the practices. Not everyone thinks that yoga's history is important, but many find value in the traditions. If you are someone who cares about — or wants to care about — yoga's history and traditions, here are four important concepts, explained as simply as we can.
The word Veda (pronounced vay-duh) means 'knowledge'. This is the name given to the sacred scriptures of Brahmanism/Hinduism. Sometimes these traditions (like Hinduism) are even called Vedic religions because they are largely defined by their reverence for these holy books. The Veda is considered to be revealed knowledge, meaning that it was not written or composed by a human. It was simply written down by humans, sages with special abilities of sight. The knowledge within is thought to be universal, eternal wisdom, something akin to 'the word of God'.
The Upanishads are the last group of books in the Veda. It can help to think of them like the New Testament of the Christian Bible. They are grouped with the rest of the Veda as revealed knowledge, but they present a somewhat different view of the world and spiritual effort. The Upanishads introduce an internal spiritual path, where rituals are carried out in one's own heart rather than externally. This is also where the concept of 'yoga' is introduced, an inward linking of one's awareness to the infinite consciousness within.
Yoga means 'linking' or 'harnessing'. In the Upanishads, where the concept of a spiritual practice named 'yoga' first arises, it refers to linking our awareness within rather than to the world outside. At other times, in more God focused traditions, yoga can refer to linking one's awareness or being with God.
In medieval systems of hathayoga, abstract concepts of non-duality became common. Much like the concept of yin and yang, where two opposing forces combine to create balance, yoga could mean the balance of male-female, sun-moon, hot-cold, etc. In this way, many people now define yoga as 'union', which usually refers to some sort of balance or non-duality. In the modern West, most will relate yoga to a physical routine of stretching and relaxation. This type of yoga is pretty new, about a hundred years old.
Hathayoga developed about a thousand years ago. It was a method of using the body to force an effect on consciousness. This is probably why it was called hatha, which means 'force'. A more poetic explanation of hatha developed a little later: it is the union of masculine (ha) and feminine (tha). Much like 'yoga', above, this understanding appeals to balance and unity.
In the last couple hundred years, hathayoga has taken on the meaning of 'any physical practices, like postures or breathing'. As such, a lot of modern yoga refers to itself as hathayoga. But modern yoga is a pretty new phenomenon, quite different in practice and belief from the hathayoga of 500 years ago. So most scholars hesitate to call modern yoga hathayoga, instead adopting other labels, like neo-hathayoga or modern postural yoga.
Scott blogs about his experience researching and writing a dissertation on Yoga Studies at SOAS. You can read all about the challenges he faced, how he'll choose topics in the future, and how he feels about the process. Read the blog here.
You can download his dissertation entitled Early Samādhi: Evolution & Meaning in the Nikāyas, Upaniṣads & Mahābhārata on Academia.edu here.
Do I exercise to be healthy or to look a certain way? If being healthy meant looking unattractive, which would I choose? Or consider the question the other way around: if looking attractive meant being unhealthy, which would I choose?
Let's start with something simple: health. It is a big reason why I personally do physical exercises and make nutritional choices. Based on scientific as well as cultural knowledge, I believe that moving my body around — getting my heart rate up, maintaining the strength and mobility of my joints — will cause my life to be freer from pain, and perhaps even cause me to live longer and stay physically capable longer.
This leads us to two further inquiries: why do I want to be free of pain, and why do I want to live longer? The pain aspect is pretty straightforward, as every living being can feel pain and strives to avoid it. The question of longer life is more interesting, especially to a yogi. Do we want to live longer because of the important work we are doing? Or because we want to travel as much as possible? Or because we are afraid of not being alive anymore? These questions are worth considering in your own life.
Let's move on to a further implication of exercise and health: it generally causes the body to burn fat, build muscle, and be what is culturally accepted as attractive. Indeed, some conceptions of beauty consider that it is connected to health — that we are subconsciously attracted to healthy people because they will make more robust mates. It is probably a bit more complicated than that, as different eras and cultures find different qualities physically attractive. At the moment in the West, thin and athletic bodies are all the rage.
In my own physical practice, my purposes are health and function. Regardless of how my body ends up looking, I try to do the practices that will make me healthy. If it is healthy for me to have big shoulders and a big butt, I am fine with that. If the opposite is true — small shoulders and a small butt — I am fine with that too. I try not to focus on the aesthetic outcome of the practices, but rather the functional outcome.
It's easy to find things that pique our interest. We see or hear about something new—a new posture, sport, skill, craft or hobby. We think, "That would be good for me!" Or, "I might like that."
Soon, that initial excitement starts to fade. But, committed to the idea of our new passion, we still gather equipment, books, videos and anything else that we think might help us develop our new curiosity.
Then those things sit there.
The how-to books are in a pile, the equipment in a corner. Now we are left with a different type of wanting. This is not the desire to actually do or learn, but the want to want to do it.
Now we have a choice: use discipline or move on. We can either double down and do the activity anyway, despite our lack of enthusiasm, or we can give it up and move on to something else. Either can be the right answer. It just depends on the goal.
To determine which answer is the best one, we should consider the why. When it comes to a yoga practice, the why is very important.
It is not a good reason to take up a yoga practice if we just want to see ourselves as a yogi, or have others see us this way. It's easy to get caught up in the idea of appearing spiritual without having the desire to actually walk the path.
This is one reason for wanting to want to practice: we like the idea of what it would mean, but don't want to actually do the work.
There may be other simpler reasons for wanting to want to practice. It could be that we simply feel tired and need to rest. But the desire to appear as though we practice yoga is important to be aware of. In this case, it may be better to give up the practice entirely.
If our desire to practice yoga comes from the desire to strengthen our egoic self, it may be a more yogic action to give up yoga.
Nowadays, ujjayi is a term that is often used in yoga classes. It is said that ujjayi creates a snoring sound, focuses the mind, slows the breath, heats the body, or is a constriction in the throat. Let's examine ujjayi from a historical lens and see if these ideas can be supported.
HATHA YOGA'S UJJAYI
In the 15th-century text the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (HYP), the instructions for ujjayi are as follows:
Close the mouth. Slowly draw the breath through both nadis so it resonates from the throat to the heart. Form the kumbhaka as before. Exhale the prana through the Ida. This kumbhaka called Ujjayi can be done walking or standing. It removes phlegm diseases in the throat, increases digestive power in the body, and destroys dropsy and diseases of the nadir and of all bodily constituents. (2.51-53)
There are quite a few terms that may be confusing, but essentially this instructs the practitioner to inhale through both nostrils and exhale out of the left side. This is not what we have come to know as ujjayi today, in which we exhale through both nostrils or even out the mouth. However, as we will see, ujjayi with the exhalation out the left nostril is a consistent instruction up until very recently.
The exact same passage from the HYP is found in the Hatharatnavali from the 17th-century. This translation states that we should breathe "with a frictional sound" rather than using the word "resonates" as found in the HYP translation. Either of these instructions could support the idea that ujjayi is practiced with a snoring or whisper sound.
Another text of hathayoga, the Gheranda Samhita states:
Draw in air through both nostrils and hold it in the mouth. After drawing it through the chest and throat, hold it in the mouth again. After rinsing the air around in the mouth, bow the head, perform Jalandhara, and hold the breath for as long as is comfortable. After performing the Ujjayi kumbhaka, the yogi can succeed in everything he does. (5.64-66)
Here we have instructions to breathe in through both nostrils and move the air around in the mouth. However, the next passage is potentially where the mix-up happens. The instructions then say to "perform Jalandhara". The instructions for Jalandhara mudra are to "contract the throat and put the chin on the chest."
We would argue this does not mean "constrict" the inside of the throat, but rather contract the muscles on the front of the throat to put the chin on the chest. (This is in line with the common understanding of jalandhara.)
Ujjayi requires Abhyanatara Kumbhaka, that is Kumbhaka practised after deep inhalation. The first thing that demands our attention is the complete closure of the glottis. This thoroughly shuts off the passage to and from the lungs. The second thing is the practice of Jalandhara-Bandha and the third is shutting of the nostrils.....When Kumbhaka is to end, first relieve the pressure from the left nostril, then unlock Jalandhara-Bandha and afterwards partially open the glottis. Rechaka is done through the left nostril.
Here again we have the instruction to hold the breath after the inhale. The throat lock is applied to keep the air in, and here the nostrils are also closed. Again, exhalation is done through the left nostril. We see the move toward teaching the throat constriction with anatomical language. Kuvalayanada clearly states to close the glottis.
In 1931, Swami Shivananda instructs:
Inhale through both nostrils in a smooth uniform manner till the breath fills the space from the throat to the heart with a noise. Retain the breath as long as you can comfortably do it and then exhale slowly through the left nostril by closing the right nostril with your right thumb.
Shivananda writes that ujjayi "removes the heat in the head" yet he also says that it increases the gastric fire. Whether this supports removing heat or building heat is up for debate. Either way, this is the only mention of heat in all of the sources examined here.
It is no surprise that Shivananda's disciple Swami Vishnudevananda in his popular book The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga instructs the practice in the same way. Vishnudevananda quotes the HYP. The benefits he lists for ujjayi suggest it removes "phlegm from the throat" and prevents a handful of diseases. He says nothing about internal heat.
In 1962, Patthabi Jois mentions ujjayi only in a list of pranayamas that pregnant women can do in Yoga Mala. There is no description given.
In Light On Yoga from 1966, Iyengar teaches ujjayi as follows:
Take a slow, deep steady breath through both nostrils. The passage of the incoming air is felt on the roof of the palate and makes a sibilant sound (sa). This sound should be heard. Fill the lungs to the brim....Hold the breath for a second or two....Exhale slowly, steady and deeply, until the lungs are completely empty. As you begin to exhale, relax your grip on the abdomen.
Iyengar instructs that mula bandha is to be used and states that "ujjayi pranayama may be done without the Jalandhara Bandha even while walking or lying down".
Iyengar removes the instruction to exhale out the left side only, but he maintains the use of jalandhara bandha and emphasizes the sound of the breath. Though Iyengar shortened the retention to just a few seconds, there is still a retention. It is not a smooth or even breath cycle.
Ujjayi is rarely referred to in the Ghosh lineage. In Gouri Shankar Mukerji's 84 Yoga Asanas from 1963, it appears only in mention of additional pranayama practices and is one in which "longer pauses are inserted between the inhale and exhale".
RECENT DESCRIPTIONS OF UJJAYI IN YOGA
Very recent passages such as David Swenson's in his 1999 book Ashtanga Yoga explain:
This unique form of breathing is performed by creating a soft sound in the back of the throat while inhaling and exhaling through the nose....The main idea is to create a rhythm in the breath and ride it gracefully throughout the practice. This sound creates a mantra to set the mind in focus.
In 2006, Gregor Maehle writes:
Ujjayi pranayama is a process of stretching the breath, and in this way extending the life force. Practicing it requires a slight constriction of the glottis....Start producing the ujjayi sound steadily, with no breaks between breaths.
These passages don't refer to creating internal heat, but the sound created is given deep importance. It is surprising to see ujjayi become an even breathing technique. However this makes more sense if we look at descriptions of breathing techniques in systems outside of yoga.
BREATHING IN PHYSICAL CULTURE & GYMNASTICS
JP Mueller was a Danish instructor of gymnastics and physical culture in the early twentieth century. Mueller's "System" manuals deeply informed the practices of modern physical culture, and in turn, modern yoga. (For more on this see Mark Singleton's Yoga Body.)
Instructions in Mueller's My Breathing System are more in line with today's descriptions of ujjayi which emphasize rhythmic breathing. Mueller writes:
I do not advocate any breath-holding exercise. It must also be remembered that it is not only the action of the lungs and heart which is disturbed by holding the breath. What stimulates the stomach, liver, bowels and intestines is just the internal massage produced by the movements of the lower ribs and the diaphragm, when full, deep, correct breathing is performed.
Furthermore, there is emphasis on the importance of rhythmic breath for vitality as early as 1892. Genevieve Stebbin's writes in her book Dynamic Breathing and Harmonic Gymnastics:
...the truth that deep, rhythmic breathing combined with a clearly formulated image or idea in the mind produces a sensitive, magnetic condition of the brain and lungs, which attracts the finer ethereal essence from the atmosphere with every breath, and stores up this essence in the lung-cells and brain-convolutions in almost the same way that a storage battery stores up the electricity from the dynamo or other source of supply, and is held in suspension amid the molecules forming the cellular tissue as a dynamic energy, possessing both mental and magnetic powers, always ready for use whenever required.
It is here that we see the distinct link of breath to cultivation of life force in the body. Where hathayoga texts suggested ujjayi removes phlegm, in sources outside of yoga we see the focus on building vitality. This is still common in yoga classes today and is another display of the outside influence on modern yoga.
Early- to mid-20th-century conceptions of ujjayi in yoga instruct retention of the breath. Most instruct the exhalation out of the left nostril, with the exception of Iyengar. While there is a sound and constriction of the throat associated with the practice, that constriction often means jalandhara bandha, or tucking the chin to the chest. There is no mention to creating internal heat except when Swami Shivananda mentions gastric fire and removing heat from the head. With the exception of Iyengar, all of these descriptions follow the hathayoga instructions quite closely.
Ujjayi has undergone quite a transformation in the centuries it's been taught. If we look to instruction on breathing practices from systems outside of yoga such as physical culture and gymnastics, we get a glimpse at how ujjayi evolved into what it is today.
Sources: Akers, Brian. 2002. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika. (p. 45-46)
Gharote, Devnath & Jha. 2014. Hatharatnavali (p. 46)
Iyengar, BKS. 1966. Light On Yoga. (p. 442)
Jois, P. 1962 (in Kanada, 1999 in English ) Yoga Mala. (p. 67)
Kuvalayananda, S. 1931. Pranayama, (p. 76-78)
Maehle, G. 2006. Ashtanga Yoga. (p. 9)
Mallinson, J. 2004. The Gheranda Samhita. (p. 62, 105)
Mukerji, GS. 2017. 84 Yoga Asanas. (p. 3)
Mueller, JP. 1914. My Breathing System. (p. 17)
Shivananda, S. 1931. Yoga Asanas. (p. 85)
Singleton, M. 2010. Yoga Body
Stebbins, G. 1892. Dynamic Breathing and Harmonic Gymnastics. (p. 53)
Swenson, D. 1999. Ashtanga Yoga. (p. 9)
Vishnudevananda, S. 1960. The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga. (p. 249)
We expect to get better at what we practice. When we don't, it becomes difficult to carry on. We can easily get frustrated, disheartened or fed up all together.
When it comes to posture practice, there are three main reasons why our postures may not be improving despite our best efforts. Let's explore them one by one.
A posture is not simply a shape. It is a set of muscular engagements and relaxations. When done correctly, certain parts of the body are exerting effort while other parts relax.
The problem is that we can make shapes that resemble the posture, without building the skills to do the posture correctly. What we do may look like the posture, but in fact we are teaching the body to do the wrong thing. To make matters worse, the more we practice incorrectly, the further from the posture we get. More effort takes us in the wrong direction.
A good example of this is a standing backbend. If we lean backward, we may resemble the shape of a backbend. But what is engaging and what is relaxing makes all the difference. If our abdomen has engaged, we are not in a backbend. In this case, we are actually using the muscles of forward bending! If our back is engaging, we are moving in the right direction. If we practice in the right direction progress is inevitable.
STRETCHING NOT STRENGTHENING
The body relaxes when it has the stability to do so. Tension, or tightness, is a result of weakness. If a joint is weak it will be unstable. If it is unstable, the areas around it cannot stretch or relax without making the joint susceptible to injury. The body does not want to risk injury, so it would prefer to maintain tension in order to keep itself safe.
If we want to gain flexibility or remove tension, we have to strengthen our muscles. Once we have strength in the body, it will be safe for the joints to move in a greater range of motion. This greater range of motion is what we call flexibility.
We must know what we are trying to accomplish. If we are practicing in the wrong direction - even if that direction is good for someone else - we will never get where we are trying to go. If a baseball player works on dribbling a basketball it will not help them.
In the same way, we have to practice the things we want to get better at. If we are trying to get better at a certain posture, we have to practice that posture. The more we understand the purpose of each posture, the better we can tailor our effort toward accomplishing that purpose.
Modern yoga practitioners often embrace the idea of equality and relate it to the ancient spiritual teachings of yoga. This can lead to positive developments like the cultivation of compassion and humility. But it can also lead to more troublesome developments like the belief that any suffering is in our own minds and therefore our own fault, which can cause us to be apathetic, overlooking ingrained prejudice and inequality.
Let's take a look at where the concept of 'equality' in yoga comes from, and what it means when someone says 'we are all one'.
In many ancient yogic texts, there is the belief that all of reality is underpinned by a single universal consciousness, called brahman. This means that a computer is nothing but brahman, a dog is nothing but brahman, you are nothing but brahman, and I am nothing but brahman. It is not unlike the recognition that all the objects in the universe are made of energy, whether that energy manifests as light, a hydrogen atom, a drop of water or a human being. When you look underneath the differences in external appearance, the same essence underlies everything.
So when a yogi says 'we are all one', this really means that the essence which underlies all existence, including yours and mine, is the same.
NAMES AND FORMS...AND HUMAN IMBALANCE
But what this does not mean is that you and I are the same, nor that our experiences are the same. In the very same ancient texts is the recognition that when we are born as humans, we take on a distinct physical form that is separate from other forms. For example, I am separate from the computer, and I am separate from you. We take on a name and a form. Our essence is still brahman, but our names and forms are different.
The goal of spiritual practice in this vein is to recognize our true essence as brahman rather than this body and mind. But it does not mean that our bodies, minds, histories, goals and identities are the same. The physical world is quite different from the spiritual world.
We must recognize that we, as humans, create imbalance in the world. We take objects from one place and move them to another. We cut down trees to build houses, and we protect our own families by destroying others. While these things are all, by definition, brahman, that does not mean that our 'names and forms' are all inseparable. If it did, we would be just as happy to be eaten by a fish as to eat the fish ourselves.
SPIRITUAL EQUALITY vs PHYSICAL EQUALITY
While we may believe that we are the same on an essential, spiritual level, this certainly does not manifest into the physical realm of human bodies and minds. The way that the yogic concept of spiritual equality — that 'we are all one' — manifests in the world is infinitely complex and frustrating.
Our human minds and bodies are designed to be selfish, even if our spirits are 'one'. We are born with the need to feed and protect our bodies at the expense of pretty much everything around us. This is what the yogis call 'ignorance' (avidya) and 'ego' (asmita), two foundational problems of every human.
So next time someone says 'we are all one', recognize that it is a spiritual statement but not a physical, human one.
If we seek to make the physical world more like the spiritual one, we must make the effort to subordinate our own desires to the good of others, and to make the human world more equal through our own action.
Scott & Ida are Yoga Acharyas (Masters of Yoga). They are scholars as well as practitioners of yogic postures, breath control and meditation. They are the head teachers of Ghosh Yoga.
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