At last! An accessible read for anyone interested in yoga philosophy. As those who’ve explored it know, the subject is vast, sprawling and complicated, full of concepts that can be challenging for the western mind to grasp – never mind convey to others. And while every Yoga Teacher Training student will have the Bhagavad Gita and The Yoga Sutras on their prescribed reading lists, how many actually really get to grips with the concepts therein (or even get through the books in the first place?).
In this book, yoga philosophy teacher and academic Daniel Simpson has done a fantastic job of taking the sometimes complex ideas in these texts (and others) and making them accessible to the reader who might be new to them. It’s divided into digestible, blog-sized pieces that take us from yoga’s ancient roots to where it is today, covering practice and philosophy in a refreshingly readable style. In a former life (no pun intended), Daniel was a journalist who wrote for Reuters and The New York Times, and it shows. That’s not to say the book is too light for the academic student. As a stand-alone text, it’s an intelligent, entertaining read, and anyone who wants to go deeper is directed to more reading with a comprehensive bibliography and notes section.
Under the heading” Karma, Rebirth and Liberation”, for example, he writes about the extraordinary practices the early yoga ascetics got up to “in an attempt to reduce attachment to the body, making it easier to focus within, and on the infinite”. (And in so doing, awaken the consciousness to the point of transcendence, avoiding rebirth and suffering – or so they hoped). This still goes on today. We read about the ascetic Amar Bharti: “By the end of his life in 2019, his right arm had been outstretched since the 1970s, and seemed to be stuck above his head. Gnarled and gaunt, it looked locked into place by a twisted shoulder, with cork-screwing nails sprouting out of its fist like blackened wood shavings.” Yikes.
Simpson describes the Jains, a group of ascetics, as being “even more hard-core”. There are Jains who subscribe to the notion of “casting off the body”. after a lifetime of reducing their impact on other beings – even sweeping the ground ahead of them before they walk to avoid killing insects, they stop eating until they starve to death. They believe that by ignoring the requirements of the body, they might be set free.
This all sounds pretty crazy to us. It’s not just the bizarre, self-flagellatory practices of the ascetics, but the very idea that we’d spend what the poet Mary Oliver* beautifully described as “this one wild and precious life” renouncing the world in order not to have to make a return trip. Not really top of the list when we roll out the mat, is it? Most of us are quite happy to be here and not in any hurry to achieve such a level of detachment that we’d want to leave life as we know it behind. I like how Daniel Simpson acknowledges this and keeps linking back to why we practise yoga today.
“In the twenty-first century, some of their assumptions might sound strange”, he says of the early yogis. “Most of us look at life differently, and avoiding rebirthing is not a priority. Regardless, there is much we can learn. Some actions cause suffering to others as well as ourselves. This tends to recur until patterns are changed. To free ourselves of unhelpful habits, we need to see where they came from and root out their source. Yogic methods can change our perception to make this more likely – despite not renouncing the world in the hope of transcending it.”
The “yoga methods” most of us use today tend to involve stepping or sitting on the mat (for optimum results, a combination of both). Whether we first come to a yoga class for exercise, because of a sore back or because a friend or partner dragged us there, one thing is certain: if we keep doing it, yoga starts to work on the mind as well as the body. All we have to do is get on the mat, wash, rinse and repeat. After a while, we begin to notice how taking a bit of time every day to go inward helps us see things more clearly. That extra dose of clarity helps us find the space to pause and react in more appropriate, healthy ways to everything life throws at us. So reducing “suffering to others as well as ourselves”. Life becomes easier, maybe even happier. And thankfully, it’s a whole lot more enjoyable than holding an arm outstretched for a few decades.
*From her poem, “The Summer Day”.