Dear Friend

David Rush


Dear Friend,

You know who you are, and you wrote me a lovely note on the occasion of my 50th birthday which really blessed me. And in that note was this brief aside:

I have yoga envy. I have yet to commit to yoga, and I NEED to get more flexible. So, please keep posting about your yoga and help me get motivated!

You know, for most people, I would just let that slide by, but as you can see in another post, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we mean when we talk about yoga in western culture. Your comment got me thinking again, because I still remember how yoga looks different from the outside.

You see yoga really is a religion. Or it isn’t. Whatever, maybe it has a lot to do with the attitude you take to it. In fact, it defies the categories that we would use in Judeo-Christian cultures to try and understand it. The core yoga teachings fundamentally don’t view the body as separate from the spirit, so working with your body, is also working towards spiritual growth, especially when you have the intention to do so.

I hope this doesn’t scare you off. Between the fact that the Yoga Sutras don’t talk about any religion in particular, and the fact that many (maybe most, but certainly not all) yoga teachers tend to keep quiet about their own beliefs, I find that most classes have no explicitly religious content. The most I see is some general moral encouragement about things like:

to yourself w/rt your own body and skill in the practice, but also towards others in your life (also known as ahimsa)
as you try to work at the level that is right for your own body. The Sanskrit term for this, aparigraha (roughly: not-grasping), is a little different, but that is how it tends to manifest in asana practice
as you find your mind wandering away from the sensation of the practice to things like how you compare to your neighbor, or even your shopping list. This actually comes from multiple sources within the yoga teachings; the terms would be svadhyaya, tapas, and dharana
especially at the end during “relaxation” (or savasana). The real point is after having brought all your attention to the action of your body, to then withdraw fully from the concerns of your body into a place where your mind is quiet (called pratyahara)

There’s a few more that come up (called yamas and niyamas, which you can read about here and many other places), but I don’t want to turn this into an essay on how yoga goes beyond just training the body. My goal is mostly to let you know that yoga is more than that – the body is just where it starts.

There are community aspects to yoga as well, but they mostly don’t kick in during drop-in asana classes. Sure, some people will seem quite clubby about it, but often they either know each other outside of the yoga studio, or have bonded during seminars, intensives, or some kind of teacher training. For most people coming to class, the experience is all about having their own little private space on the mat. In some sense, its a perfect spiritual practice for introverts where you get left alone to take what you want away. I actually found it slightly alienating after all my years in the church, but fortunately I had good teachers early on, and connected with a fabulous one not long after that. And, yes, the teacher makes a huge difference, don’t give up over a couple of ones that you don’t feel good with. There are enough classes now that I’m sure you can find someone who teaches in a way that fits with what you need to hear.

Now having got all of that out of the way, I should also point out that strength and flexibility go hand in hand. We all know how strong and stiff can lead to injury, but mostly miss how flexible but weak also does. I’ve been finding this out for myself over the years. As I have become more flexible, many of the asanas that came easily to me at first have become harder because my no-longer-stiff muscles don’t hold my weight automatically anymore: I have to properly support myself with muscles I didn’t even know I had.

The key to this kind of development in the body is to not use external weight. The body, in itself can provide more than enough challenge to develop all the fitness (both strength and flexibility) you might desire. Believe it or not, one of my first yoga teachers - the one who actually told me about body weight being sufficient - actually ended up winning a body-building contest out of a relatively large field while never having lifted a weight!

So I am also going to suggest that, if you feel that yoga practice might be crossing boundaries that maybe it shouldn’t, you might want to look into Pilates. When he designed his system, Joseph Pilates supposedly drew inspiration from yoga practice (or so says the lore in the yoga world), as well as bring in his own knowledge of anatomy and bio-mechanics. Certainly there is a lot of cross-pollination between the communities, and a lot of the Pilates “physical vocabulary” seems to be lifted directly from yoga asana practice. The main thing is that Pilates, as I understand it, is a purely physical practice and makes no connections beyond being good for the body. It is also a pure body-weight practice with quite a focus on what is called “core strength”, but you will also develop flexibility with it as well.

So here’s hoping that I didn’t go on too long about it all, and that you don’t mind my using your note as an excuse to blog in some detail about all of this.


This document was translated from LATEX by HEVEA.