I am a book-lover and a yoga-lover. I am passionately – and probably annoyingly – evangelical about both books and yoga, but I’m completely unrepentant as I cannot shake the fundamental belief that both are basically a Good Thing; that they might both make me happier, healthier and more intelligent, improve my work, encourage me to treat others better, and even, in the tiny insignificant way I could have any impact on it, be good for the world.
I began to think about the similarities and differences between reading books and practising yoga. Both are private, inward looking, personal experiences – yet they can both be hugely social when you connect with others who understand how you feel; loving the same books seals many a romantic deal, and friends who get why you cry in frog, are friends for life.
That’s not to say all readers and all yogis harmoniously get along. There are as many possible types of practice and as many kinds of book as grains of sand on a beach, each with loud advocates and opponents. Hot yoga isn’t yoga! Dan Brown isn’t literature! Why are scores of adults reading children’s books? Gurus are frauds! Modern yoga is a commercial abomination! I think a great thing about the variety of both books and practice is that there is something for you whoever you are and however you are feeling. One day, you need one line of a poem, and just reading it and thinking about it all day changes everything. Another day you might wolf down a pacy thriller, and be completely gripped. Plenty of yogis like both the purest traditional ashtanga practice, and a class with UV lights held in a nightclub.
But I found that with yoga, just as with books, sometimes what I want differs from what I need, and persevering with something which seemed hard or not ‘what I felt like’ can give surprising results, as readers of Infinite Jest or Ulysses or Beowolf may attest. Often the ‘work’ involved is really in essence concentration, really concentrating on the breath and on lengthening the spine, for example, or on slowly reading and considering every word. We are bad at concentrating today, and our lives encourage a much-divided attention and a noisy inner voice, but most people know when they really try to concentrate on one thing, they tend to do it better. Getting into a good book is pretty tricky if you break to read a whatsapp every two paragraphs. Also in our fast-paced busy existence, I think we are preoccupied with ‘liking’ something immediately, when sometimes the best kind of happiness takes time.
As I reflected on the way both books and yoga seem for me to be connected, I began to notice literary characters popping up in my practice. It started with Camatkarasana or ‘wild thing’; every time I moved into this posture I thought of Catherine running across the moors to Heathcliffe. The posture makes you feel so heady and wild and abandoned and feels like it is leading to a dramatic conclusion… as it often is if you flip over into Urdva Dhanurasana or Wheel. Then a yogi friend who is a fan of Moby Dick said he always felt like he was trying to harpoon a whale in Dandayamana Dhanurasana (Standing Bow Pose), and I started to wonder what other literary figures were lurking in the asanas.
I thought I would collect the results of this in a blog. I’d love to hear if other yogis have ever felt like their favourite book characters in particular poses, or can resonate with this! Maybe it’s just me…
And one last point:
I love the Sanskrit names for the poses; I love the sounds of the words, the assonance and consonance, and some have even come to feel onomatopoeic. ‘Savasana‘ to me sounds so much like the return to shallow breath, the stillness and the contentment you feel at that point. In fact, not knowing the exact meaning of the word, just what it means your body should do, for me really adds to the meditation – you are less distracted by the verbal direction. I relate the sounds of the Sanskrit words directly to the movement or breath, rather than translating into English first in my head. The English names – I’m not so fond of. They often sound clumsy, like ‘Extended Side Angle Pose’, although sometimes quite sweet in the way clunky translations often do – ‘Sleeping Big Toe Posture’. Some just don’t translate at all, so Visvamitrasana can only really be ‘pose dedicated to Visvamitra’, since he was a person – an ancient Indian ruler. If you’re a bookish, language-loving yogi, learning the Sanskrit may well be part of the fun, but until you’ve mastered it, you find yourself describing positions as ‘that one with your bum off the ground’ anyway.
So, I don’t feel too guilty about renaming the asanas by the literary figures they might represent or connect to in some way; not to replace the lovely Sanskrit, but, I hope, just to provide an additional way into yoga, for people who love to read books.