Yoga and Therapy: The importance of what you do off the mat

If you haven’t done so, I invite, encourage and, yes, insist you read the transcript of a talk that Guruji gave in 1977, which Eddie Stern posted this weekend.

I think it is really an invaluable glimpse into Guruji’s thinking 35 or so years ago, not long after he had encountered the first wave of Westerners.

Bobbie offered a few quick thoughts on it already, and I suspect she’ll offer up some more. It deserves it.

After reading through it several times, there are three things I want to highlight.

  1. As Bobbie touched on, I was struck by how remarkably Tim Miller has maintained the focus and intention of yoga practice and teaching as he learned it from Guruji. This talk tracks pretty closely to when Tim first met Guruji. Tim still speaks of yoga as therapy in the way Guruji does; that Ashtanga is a system of health and well-being is fundamental to how I’ve learned the practice from Tim. My knowledge of other senior teachers who encountered Guruji at roughly the same time — David Williams, Nancy Gilgoff, Annie Pace, among others — suggests they, too, heard this message and have been spreading it since. The talk Eddie posted is wonderful, but it wasn’t surprising. I have heard it, both nearly verbatim and more generally, throughout my Ashtanga practice. That strikes me as  a great testament to Guruji’s skills as a teacher; to the great presence and impact he had on people; and to the high quality of the senior teachers.
  2. Given the past year-plus focus on whether yoga (and especially Ashtanga) is religious, thanks to the Encinitas lawsuit, this talk resounds as an argument against the inherent yoga = religion perspective. I think we all are familiar with the Guruji quote that yoga is for “seeing God in all things.” There’s none of that in his yoga and therapy talk; it presents yoga as a health practice, akin to other medical treatments. It presages all the studies and research now happening that are trying to discover yoga’s efficacy on any number of health issues. There also may be more to investigate here, given Guruji’s statements elsewhere. (Maybe those statements depend on the audience.)
  3. Of course, though, Ashtanga isn’t just a health practice, a choice from a menu that might include running, swimming, Pilates, etc. Guruji makes that very clear as he presents a pretty holistic approach to healthy living.

This last point is what I want to explore further. And I want to look in particular at his conclusion:

In conclusion, one practicing yoga with correct knowledge thereof knows no fear of diseases and sickness. But one gets hardly any benefit out of it, if at the same time he fails to have any regulation over food, habits, speech etc. Therefore, it is my experience, which agrees with the opinion of those well versed in the shastras, that the yoga practitioner practicing with regulation of food, habits, speech and contact will find himself freed from all kinds of ailments, physical and mental.

Read another way, that says: Practicing just asana, alone, isn’t going to get you healthy. Asana is an important part, no doubt, but not all you need.

We’ve all heard, I suspect, some version of the Richard Freeman take on these things: Yoga ruins your life. It does so by altering — theoretically for the better — your approach to life. You take better care of yourself; you eat better; you might make your body work less hard by limiting any number of stresses, from physical to mental impurities. Tim Miller talks about the “garbage in, garbage out” phenomena. He’s talking about junk food and mental junk food (TV, movies, etc.). It is true of your interactions with people and with your bad habits.

This is the difference between the yoga-will-get-me-tight-abs people and those who end up down the yoga rabbit hole.

At about the point I fell down that rabbit hole — moving to the six-day-a-week Ashtanga practice, improving my already pretty healthy diet, taking more care of what I put in my body and mind — my doctor was not liking my blood pressure and cholesterol levels. She said, more or less, that we’d give it one more year — knowing about the yoga and the diet change (to mostly raw and no wheat) — and then talk about whether I would need to take some drug to address the problems.

Believe me, a lot of my friends and colleagues at work are on some sort of blood pressure or cholesterol medicine. And I did not want to join them.

When the next year rolled around, the report back was great. Blood pressure down a lot. Cholesterol within proper range. Trimmer, less body fat, etc.

But this didn’t happen just because I was practicing asana. It was because I was practicing Ashtanga Yoga, in the sense Guruji suggests it in his talk:

This is also called “Astanga Yoga” which has eight fold factors: yama: restraints; niyama: observances; asana: posture;  pranayama: breathing practice; pratyahara: sense control;  dharana concentration;  dhyana: meditation;  Samadhi: contemplation.

OK, maybe I wasn’t as great on the internal quartet, but I was at least aware of them, cognizant of their importance, attempting to find some small leaf of all eight limbs. I’m still not that great. But I am trying to practice “with regulation of food, habits, speech and contact,” and as Guruji said, that is essential to health and well-being. You won’t be healthy otherwise, no matter how long you spend on the mat.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

5 thoughts on “Yoga and Therapy: The importance of what you do off the mat”

      1. “Our speech has power. If we are careless in the words we choose – or even deliberately negative – we can set in motion damaging forces that are as threatening as a viral epidemic. Or we can add our voice to the harmony that underlies all life by choosing our words with care, honesty, and – above all – kindness.”

        – From the introduction to chapter five of Easwaran’s “Strength in the Storm”

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