I wrote this Yoga manual in 1979. While it still holds up well, I decided it’s worth updating. As part of this, I am attempting to sum up the Principles (the “spirit of yoga”) as I see it today.
Yoga is a process, not a destination. So many folks think of yoga as something you need flexibility for. Just the opposite. If anything, the more flexible you are, the harder yoga becomes. Again, unlike most secular things in life, yoga isn’t about the destination. It is about the journey…the way.
(from an older and perhaps wiser point of view)
I wrote this Yoga manual in 1979. Now, 30 years later, it still holds up well. I’ve decided to leave the original introductory pages mostly as is, especially PRINCIPLES (from a younger point of view). These reflect my youthful belief in free will … that anything is possible if I set my mind to it. Naturally, it reads a bit strident, naively so from my point of view today. Yet, its message may offer a useful perspective.
Ideal Free Will
Soon after I finished the manual, I began to question my faith in free will, and I began earnestly searching for evidence of it. So far, I’ve found nothing in human behavior that can not be explained by a simpler motivation—the biological push-pull force of need/fear. In the end, free will appears to be a case of wishful thinking more than fact. It seems that I just needed to believe in free will. Why?
Conflicting needs (or fears) was the problem, and free will promised a solution. If, as it now appears, free will is no more than a promise, what can I do? Ironically, I’ve found hope lies in knowing that the strongest need (or fear) I feel at the moment determines what I do (or don’t do). Paradoxically, this makes ‘free will’ and need/fear almost synonymous, i.e., need and fear determine what I want, and what I worry about. Need and fear, wanting and worrying are as interdependent as muscle and bone.
Actual Free Will
Happily, the resolution of conflicting needs (or fears) depends largely upon me being mindful of what I truly want of life. And what is that? Honestly, I’ve always known what I want deep down. We all have (and do), intuitively anyway. It is just that short term desires and worries keep distracting us. We forget again and again, turning over one new leaf after another as we wander and stumble down life’s very short road.
Prioritizing desires counteracts this distraction by diminishing desire’s (and worry’s) impact on us. In doing this, we are effectively desiring not to desire. As the Tao Te Ching puts it: “Therefore the sage desires not to desire, and does not value goods which are hard to come by”… (64).
Watch Your Self
If I had to sum up the secret of yoga, I’d say it all comes down to watchfulness—or as Buddha said, Right Mindfulness, Right Attentiveness, Right Concentration. In a yoga posture, this means watching your body, mind and emotion moment to moment. Are you pushing too hard, (too ‘Ha’), or taking it too easy (too ‘Tha’)? All you need do is watch for these lapses from the ‘middle path’, and go the other way… towards balance.
Watching oneself honestly couldn’t be easier or more straightforward. This is a level playing field, perhaps the only one in life—no knowledge, skill, teaching, or innate talent is required. And yet, as the Tao Te Ching says, “Our words are very easy to understand and very easy to put into practice, yet no one in the world can understand them or put them into practice”… (70). Okay, that may be an over-statement, but not by much. Living in watchful self-honesty is most difficult.
Why? Because every innate advantage we have has its downside. I can’t emphasize this enough; every plus we enjoy has a minus we suffer. Worse yet, what we think is so gets in the way of seeing what is actually so. We fool ourselves. As the Tao Te Ching puts it, “To know yet to think that one does not know is best; Not to know yet to think that one knows will lead to difficulty.“…(71).
Individually, we are on both sides of balance’s happy medium—over-doing some areas, under-doing other areas. Clearly, balance lies in under-doing the former and over-doing the later. And fortunately, despite fears to the contrary, there’s little chance of overcompensating in either direction. Why?
The areas where we innately under-do or over-do are actually symptomatic of our primal ‘inner’ nature. That means, unlike the tip of an iceberg, it changes little. Sure, we may think we can change, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg talking. Like free will, the ideal of true change is more likely a case of wishful thinking.
Is it Karma?
Our primal nature is like an iceberg below the water line, massive and unseen. As it bobs and tilts one direction, we react by ‘over-doing’ or ‘under-doing’ in the opposite direction to counterbalance. Deeper down our primal nature may itself be counterbalancing still deeper currents. Who knows—it’s a little murky down there.
This whole balancing process may represent a kernel of truth in the myth of Karma—not a cause and effect chain of Karmic past and future, but of ‘karmic’ layers of cause and effect… moment to moment. This is where balance lives, without memory, past or future. Only now!
One practical consequence of seeing life this way is that you soon realize all your perceptions and actions are merely reflections of yourself. In other words, what you perceive or do ‘out there’ is really symptomatic of your own needs/fears (a.k.a. loves/hates) deep down ‘in here’ right now.
Self-honesty floods awareness; the judge becomes the judged. Judging books by their covers becomes increasingly difficult when you realize that you are just perceiving symptoms of a deep, less definable other side. Such a blurring of distinction, (“mysterious sameness” as the Tao Te Ching puts it) can really help you avoid being knocked off balance by self-serving judgments and biases.
Thinking beats the drum
Of human emotions, desire is the one with which all religions take issue. As the Tao Te Ching puts it, “There is no crime greater than having too many desires; There is no disaster greater than not being content”… (46)
However, I say desire is not the real problem, per se. Viewed more closely, desire seems to be a amalgamation of instinctive emotion (‘gut’ need) and thinking. Without that thinking side, we’d be moved by spontaneous need just like all other animals. Need (and its source spring, fear) is the driving force behind all action. Without it we’re dead—literally. It is the thinking side of desire we could (and should) have misgivings about. Thinking beats the drum of emotion, easily making mountains out of molehills (of need and fear).
Just look at the world: From political and religious extremists at one end, down to the little neurotic quirks, opinions and bias that are common to everyone at the other end. All illustrate the consequences of overly trusting that what we think is true. However, when we take thought with a grain of salt, it becomes easier to calm down and preserve emotional equilibrium.
But, who am I kidding? This is a tough nut to crack. Those primal emotions (need and fear) drive thinking. To make matters worse, thinking feeds back into and reinforces emotion. It is a vicious cycle. Still, contemporaneously knowing this is going on as I think helps me distrust thinking, even as I’m thinking. This lack of faith in thought weakens its ability to feed into and re-enforce emotion.
Civilization’s price tag
One of the primary functions of civilization is providing the means to achieve our goals and satisfy our desires. To meet this end, civilization must side-step nature’s wild ruthless side—a side which happens to help keep life balanced. It’s not surprising that our nearly obsessive avoidance of nature’s uncomfortable side increases our difficulty maintaining balance. No wonder we easily swing from one extreme to the other. Civilization’s endless blind pursuit of safety and comfort comes with unforeseen, unwanted, and unpleasant consequences. We only think we’ve conquered nature; the negative consequences prove otherwise.
I have a motto to help me counteract civilization’s safety and comfort bias and keep me more grounded: “Short term pain; [leads to] long term pleasure. Short term pleasure; [leads to] long term pain”. Civilization is biased towards the later. Balance lies in accepting the former. That is the principle essence of yoga for me—balance.
The Spirit of Yoga
Through these Principles I’ve tried to convey the spirit of yoga. Now the ball is in your court. When you do yoga postures deep amid this spirit, you will be truly doing yoga no matter how stiff, weak, or far from the ideal form you are.
Conversely, yoga done without this spirit, is not yoga… no matter how much it looks like yoga. It is merely exercise, which isn’t bad—it’s just not yoga. Naturally, no one else will know. Only you can know when you are too ‘Ha’, or too ‘Tha’. Only you can fear your imbalance and feel the need to tilt yourself in the other direction…towards balance and what you truly want.
 If you are doing or would like to do yoga, download these two PDF’s for instructions on the first few dozen beginning yoga postures.