For the past few months I have been basing the philosophy for class on a book called “The Journey Home” by Simon Parke (originally published as “The Beautiful Life”). Now, this is not a book typically associated with the yoga tradition having first been published in the UK in 2007 by a man who to my knowledge has never studied yoga. In fact Simon Parke spent twenty years as a priest in the Church of England, followed by three years working in a supermarket, stacking shelves and contemplating the meaning of life. He has also written scripts for TV and radio, several novels and a column for the Daily Mail. He now runs retreats and a blog based on the principles in this book to help people live a soulful life. Just on the basis of that biography you may well be questioning why on earth I would choose one of his books to illuminate yoga philosophy (especially if you have strong opinions about certain newspapers) when there are all the big heavyweight texts out there that are recognised and revered as integral to the yoga tradition. So this is my rationale…bear with me it’s a long one…..
I read this book many years ago. It was given to me by a close friend at a time in my life when I was in crisis. As I read it I started scribbling notes in the margins, highlighting passages, and then buying copies for everyone I loved for Christmas, a sure sign that a book has had a profound impact on me! I recognised that many of the concepts in this book also appear in books from other spiritual traditions and I found this very comforting, the idea that humanity HAS recognised there are key elements to living a soulful life, and that these themes crop up across continents and through the ages. Reading Simon’s book for the first time I saw many parallels with yoga philosophy and Western psychology.
In my early 40’s I opted to go into long term psychotherapy as I was quite literally sick of my life and the way my thoughts were making me so unhappy. This lead me to read quite widely and I found psychology texts much more palatable than the kind of books I had been expected to read at yoga school, though many of the key principles were the SAME! Most yoga schools will have on their reading list: Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, the Hathapradipika,The Upanishads and The Bhagavad Gita, to name but a few. And do you know what? If all us yoga teachers were subjected to an unscheduled exam I think it would come to light that few have actually read them, or understood them. I know what kind of score I would get and it would NOT be one I would be sharing on my Facebook page…..I did slog through sections of all of these books, but can only profess to have read Patanjali’s all the way through. (And I am a massive fan of this book, but, it was the commentary that I found most illuminating. My version has the commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda, and the picture on the front is him sitting on a rock by a river in his robes with a long white beard. I must confess to having looked at that picture and made some judgement calls about this chap and how much we might have in common, only to find on the second page he is talking about how the smell of a grilled cheese sandwich could distract you from your thoughts, and using this analogy to illuminate one of the key ideas in the book. Man! This is my kind of guy! ) While I was attempting to read these lofty tomes, I was often confused, and I will confess, a little bored. Why? Because I found the language and the themes difficult to relate to. I often found myself wondering if there was not an easier way to get the key principles across. I felt like there was an ‘elite’ group who professed to have read and understood all of the revered yoga texts, could quote from them at length AND name all of the yoga poses in perfectly prounounced Sanskrit. This to me seemed to raise yoga onto a platform that would only be accessible to those people who were more academically inclined and good at foreign languages. Now I love reading and I love a good story, but while I slogged through The Bhagavhad Gita what sprung to mind was a time in my childhood when I was excited by stories.
As a small child I attended Sunday School every week (my parents are not Christians, but they got every sunday morning to themselves while someone else watched their three young kids…clever). Each week we were told stories from the Bible and I LOVED those stories, Noah and the ark, Joseph and his dreamcoat, Daniel in the lions den, David and Goliath, oh those stories were so exciting! Then we did colouring and cutting and sticking, and best of all got the most delicious home-made chelsea buns baked by the lovely Swedish lady who ran the group, I think her name was Bridget. I was not aware that I was being exposed to a religion, but it did give me a love of reading and to this day I love nothing more than getting lost in a book. I was also a big fan of Aesops Fables, so though I grew up in a secular household, I was being taught about morality through stories. Last year I found my old Bible Picture Story Book while sorting my bookshelves, and it had a little plaque in the front cover:
“Presented to Michelle as First Prize by Calvary Temple Sunday School 1973.”
I would have been five years old. As I flicked through that book, remembering how much I had loved those stories, I found myself pondering….
….if my intention was to make the key concepts of yoga relatable and thus easier to understand, why did I feel that I must delve into the ancient yogic texts to try to explain yoga philosophy when most of my students are not well versed in Hinduism nor the Sanskrit language? Since I started practicing in 1992 I have watched yoga transform from a fringe activity to a mainstream one, and I am very happy about this. All sorts of styles and fusions have cropped up, Yogalates, Goat Yoga, AcroYoga and the other day I was told about BeerYoga, a trend to watch I think. My feeling is, if it gets people into yoga then does it matter which doorway they come through? But as yoga gained in popularity there seemed to be teachers and practitioners raising their voices above the hullabaloo, proclaiming that their yoga was authentic because the postures were ‘classical’ and named only in Sanskrit, and that their teachings were based on the ancient texts. Now, I have never had an issue with the evolution of the physical postures, as most of them only came into being in the early 1900’s and have benefitted hugely from being analysed by physiotherapists, anatomists and other experts on the workings of the human body. If by ‘classical’ we mean unscrutinised and unevolved then that is not necessarily something to be proud of. Often the rationale for naming the poses only in Sanskrit is that you could ostensibly go to a class in any country and still be able to understand what was being said. Well firstly, sanskrit pronounciation varies wildly from person to person never mind country to country, and it also presupposes that everyone understands the same thing by the name of a posture, for example “Trikonasana” (Triangle pose). In reality, there are many different versions of every pose, and I think it is the teachers duty to explain the pose, help students find their own way into a version of the pose that FITS THEIR BODY rather than naming a pose and expecting everyone to interpret it in the same way. If we teach our students to listen to their body then that innate body wisdom should override everything else, including the teachers instructions at times. My use of sanskrit in class was challenged when I had a Deaf student in attendance, and would have had to fingerspell unfamiliar terms. Trust me, that puts a stop to “Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana.” I have always worried about language being used to keep people out rather than let people in, and if the philosophy of yoga can be so transformative then is it not our responsibility to make sure that it is as accessible as possible? Does everyone need to be able to read absorb and understand the ancient texts to get to grips with the basic principle of yoga? Is talking knowledgeably about “the symbolism of the battlefield of Kurukshetra” going to help the student who is looking out of the window, disengaged, struggling with their own demons and wishing they could pop out for a fag? If a student has a learning difficulty of some kind, how can we get across the key principles across without making assumptions about what they can understand or using language that makes the process of gaining understanding unnecessarily complicated?
Now I am not against the use of sanskrit, not at all. I am fascinated by the language, though I cannot read it, I enjoy looking at the flow of the script and hearing the sound of the syllables. Sometimes when chanting the few sanskrit chants that I know by heart and know the meaning of I have felt a profound peace. But I have felt that same peace listening to music or poetry. In moments of insecurity when teaching I have leaned into the use of sanskrit to prop up my ego on the days it is deflating faster than a punctured balloon. And when I designed my website I created a banner that was the Gayatri Mantra written in sanskrit over a background of a close up photo of an underwater scene. I think it is pleasing to the eye, but the subtext? Was I hinting that I knew my sanskrit and therefore becoming one of those voices raised above the hullabaloo claiming that their yoga was somehow “authentic”. Absolutely. And why? Because I felt insecure. There. Busted. It remains on my website as I actually don’t know how to change it, and I do think it looks pretty, and maybe I am just not quite ready to let go of it…yet. One thing I know with absolute certainty: I NEVER want to make another human being feel like they don’t measure up, and that yoga is this high-brow mystical discipline that only the select few will every really understand. What I want is to bring Yoga Philosophy to life in ways that the people in my classes can relate to. I have always used words that I find inspiring in my lesson plans, whatever the source: novels, poems, articles from the newspaper, books from different religions, quotes from films. In my experience you have ‘lightbulb’ moments when the material engages you, and that might be a novel, a TED talk, or sitting in the cinema enjoying a Hollywood Blockbuster! But if you are bored, or mystified, or being made to feel that you are not clever enough to understand a concept then that moment of realisation rarely happens.
One of my favourite (and highly irreverant) novels is John Niven’s book “The Second Coming” in which he tells the story from God’s perspective of the decision to send Jesus back to Earth a second time to sort the planet out once and for all. In the story God talks about the commandment he really gave to Moses which was “Be Nice”. Moses freaked at the idea of going back to the angry masses with something so simple after they had waited so long, so he got his chisel out and got inventive. Be Nice. It works for me, but then I like things kept as simple as possible. I was half listening to a programme on Radio 4 a few weeks ago where a very clever panel of experts on different religions were debating something or another, and one of the speakers suggested that they replace the word ‘religion’ with the word ‘love’. And something settled in my heart. Love is all you need as the song says. If we love ourselves then we take good care of ourselves, mind, body and soul, if we love others then we are careful with them in the same way. If we extend that love beyond our own species then the unnecessary suffering would stop. If we let that love extend beyond what we consider to be sentient creatures then we start to love our environment, our planet, and everything on it.
When you distill all the philosophy down from any spiritual tradition what are you left with?
That’s all I really understand the power of, that’s all I can try to learn about in this short lifetime, and I am no better at it than anyone else. I am a recovering perfectionist with OCD and a history of depression. Learning to love myself is a lesson I will be learning for the rest of my days.
So back to the book that started this long ramble….
Simon Parke has come up with ten key principles which, when understood and acted upon lead you back to your true self, he calls this the journey home. Here are the ten principles:
1. Be Present
3. Be Nothing
4. Flee Attachment
5. Transcend Suffering
6. Drop Your Illusions
7. Prepare for Truth
8. Cease Separation
9. Know Your Soul
10. Fear Nothing
Check it out, its worth a read. I would also recommend “The Road Less Travelled” by M.Scott Peck and “I Thought It Was Just Me” by Brene Brown.
And now my ramble is complete, thanks for listening
PS as part of my perfectionism recovery programme I only proof read this article about 700 times. If you find any typos or spelling mistakes, do me a MASSIVE favour, and don’t tell me:-)
PPS here is a beautiful track https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CBvsPW0uT4Q