I started doing yoga because I pulled a muscle in my back two years ago, and the pain was severe. When I recovered, I wanted to do something that would strengthen my back muscles and help me generally to be more mobile in middle age.
That’s probably a typical North American story for getting involved with yoga — most yoga practitioners here generally get drawn in because of the physical benefits of yoga poses. I’m aware that there is a spiritual basis to yoga, but I’ve never felt that I needed to know much about it in order to do exercises that helped strengthen my back. (And, by the way, my back is great these days and I give all the credit to yoga!!)
Anyway, I’m a little curious about the spiritual side of yoga, partly because I want to know whether there are aspects of it that I, as a Christian, can incorporate into my spiritual practice or whether it’s actually antithetical to what I believe.
This is a highly readable book, and Stephen Cope does a good job of explaining the key ideas of the Yoga Sutras in simple, accessible language. It helps that he explains it partly as a story, creating a group of characters who are friends and fellow yoga practitioners and using each of these characters to explore some of the ideas behind yoga practice. Sometimes this “explain the concept through a story” device can be handled really clumsily, but here, as with the use of the characters Matt and Christine in Will and Lisa Samson’s Justice in the Burbs, it worked well for me.
As is often the case when I read about Eastern philosophy, I felt I could follow what Cope was saying and accept it up to a certain point, but I always stub my philosophical toe against the idea that there isn’t a single, identifiable, separate and unified entity known as “I.” I understand the thought process that Cope takes us through to get there, but I still can’t reach the point of accepting that. I do like the idea, though, of being aware that my thoughts and feelings are not me; that I can stand back and observe the processes going on in my head without needing to be controlled by them.
It was interesting, too, to compare The Wisdom of Yoga with Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen, which I read last year, since both yoga and Zen Buddhism place a great deal of emphasis on sitting meditation as a key to … well, everything, really. As a scatterbrained Western Christian who likes the idea of meditating better that I like the practice of actually sitting still, I’m intrigued by the idea. One difference I found was that in Hardcore Zen, Warner strongly emphasized the fact that sitting still is enlightenment: just the practice of being present in the moment was exactly what you were supposed to get out of it, rather than expecting it to lead to any mind-blowing moments of enlightenment or any overwhelming “spiritual experience.” The Wisdom of Yoga, on the other hand, puts a lot of emphasis on achieving that kind of experience — which makes it seem even more inaccessible and out of reach for me. I love the idea of sitting meditation to quiet the mind and help me be present in the moment, but I’m skeptical about ever getting more than that out of it. And, of course, I’m still mainly here for my back.