3BY Note: Gretchen will be doing a monthly review of books about and related to Yoga. We hope you find it useful and pick up some of these great books to read. It’s fitting that she chose How Yoga Works for the first one. This is one of the best yoga books out there, and is truly how yoga really works, told in an easy and fun way. Don’t miss this one.
Before I even thought about becoming a yoga teacher, when I first started practicing at 3 Bridges, I began to realize there was more to yoga than just the postures. I already recognized it was helping to still my mind, that using my breath could help me stay steady and focused regardless of what went on around me. I knew there was something to all those quotes that teachers read at the end of class. I just didn’t understand how it worked together.
I wanted to know where Yoga came from. That stereotypical image of a yogi sitting alone in Lotus pose in a cave meditating was all I had to go on and I knew the practice I did was very different from that. So how did it all relate?
Googling “the history of yoga” seemed somehow wrong and I’m a book person anyway. So I asked Bjorn what book I should read to learn more about yoga. He had two recommendations, The Yoga Sutras, written by Patanjali in the 2nd century BCE, is one of the oldest written about yoga. It is written in sanskrit and has little to do with the physical poses we do today. There are many current translations of the Yoga Sutras and is quite philosophical. Important, but, Bjorn said, if I wanted something more accessible (ie not written thousands of years ago) I should read How Yoga Works by Michael Roach and Christie Mcnally. He let me borrow one of the studio’s copies of the book, but within 20 pages I knew this was a book I wanted to own, so I bought one.
How Yoga Works is written as a novel following a young girl, named Friday, in the year 1101 who is arrested crossing a border with a very old copy of The Yoga Sutras. No one believes it is her copy, but because none of them can read it, she must prove it is hers by teaching the book, and yoga, to the Captain of the local jail.
Friday begins by teaching him the poses. The Captain complains about his back hurting and in his first lesson she “spent an hour just getting him to stand in his body the way he was meant to stand in his body…and then [she] took him through what we call Bowing to the Sun, which left him puffing within a few minutes” (p15). Every week they meet and every week Friday gives the Captain a few more poses to work on. It is clear that the postures are important but she also keeps hinting that there is so much more. After a few weeks she starts to teach him more about how yoga starts to work on the mind.
The book is an easy introduction to Patanjali’s The Yoga Sutras. Friday refers to the book as “The Master’s Short Book of Yoga” and is constantly quoting it from memory. Sometimes they’re just little tidbits that relate to the physical aspects of yoga such as: “you must cultivate your practice over an extended period of time. I.14A” Other times these quotes are more complex: “The mind flies off, and with that come pain in the body; unhappy thoughts; shaking in the hands and other parts of your body; the breath falling out of rhythm as it passes in and out I.31”. Friday embodies what it menas to be a great yoga teacher. She is knowledgeable, firm and compassionate. The Captain is a good student, and does all the things a normal yoga student does. From taking poses too far, to rushing the practice, but also trusting and listening to his teacher.
My favorite section of the book focused on Sutra II.5D “We misunderstand our world: things that are not themselves seem to us as if they were.” Friday explains this with a bamboo pen and asks the Captain whether it is a pen ‘itself, by itself’ and the Captain maintains that of course it’s a pen, everybody knows it’s a pen. So Friday proceeds to feed the pen to a cow outside the jail, who, she points out, has no idea it’s a pen but rather food. From that she proceeds to ask how we know anything is anything? A person I might think is annoying and rude, can be perceived by someone else to be honest and open. So it is my own perception, making it seem to me they are annoying. It is this misunderstanding of the world that Patanjali claims is the cause of suffering. He says “Yoga is learning to stop how the mind turns things around I.2”.
I really enjoyed the book. I’ve gone back and read it at least two other times and I catch something new each time. It explores the deeper part of our yoga practice. Without downplaying the importance of the physical practice it makes the others parts, the breath and the mind, just as important, if not more. There are so many good yoga books out there, some more complex and technical, some older with more history but for someone interested in knowing how yoga really works this book is a great introduction.