Monday, February 6, 2012

Original Yoga by Richard Rosen

Original Yoga:  Rediscovering Traditional Practices of Hatha Yoga  by Richard Rosen looks at hatha yoga as a physical and spiritual practice, drawing on traditional primary texts to bring the teachings and practices to a western practicality.  Recognizing that some of the traditional advice for how some things should be practiced.  For instance, when saying that one yogi says to do a headstand for three hours, Rosen interjects that ten minutes will suffice.  Or when a sequence should be practiced for 2 hours each and the entire sequence would take 10 hours, he suggests trying a more realistic 3-5 minutes. 

Traditional yoga teachers, after all, were men who could devote every waking moment to their practice.  Western yoga practitioners typically are trying to enjoy their practice while also balancing the responsibilities of a job, family, and more.  And if it is unrealistic to expect most western yogis to immerse themselves so fully in hours of asana and meditation, the author knows how to make the unrealistic ideals more realistic. 

Rosen doesn’t limit his advice to the length of each practice, however.  He repeatedly cautions the reader that some things should not be tried without a living teacher.  In other words, kids, don’t try this at home.  Even something as seemingly inane as a pranayama (breathing) practice includes some methods that should be approached with reverential caution.

When I did the practice outlined in chapter 2, Rosen writes “repeat several times” and I chose six repetitions as my starting guideline.  This may be an appropriate number for some people and the author may even think six is too low a number but I ended up feeling shaky and a little nauseous afterwards.  This is not unusual for me, when a practice is focused on energy.  I have even experienced this when following along with a yoga dvd.  And given that the purpose of the practice in chapter 2 is to focus on the energy channels, the nadis, and so I was bound to experience some intense energy.

Having loved Richard Rosen’s book on pranayama, I was bound to love this book but my expectations were also high and Rosen fulfilled and exceeded my expectations.  He suggests the reader refer to Iyengr’s Light on Yoga throughout and someone who does not own this book will probably be frustrated by some of the explanations.  On the other hand, I was heartened to read how he doesn’t recommend a lotus pose for most western yogis because, although Iyengar says it is merely a 4 on a scale of 1-60 in difficulty, for those of us raised in homes where we use chairs, the flexibility in the hips and openness in the groins may simply be impossible.  At no point does Rosen disparage any of the traditional yogic practices; rather he reframes them for a different audience:  a western audience and, let’s be honest, most likely a feminine one as well.

On page 131, Rosen writes, “The more common ‘to-the-knee’ interpretation does suggest at least an ultimate though not ultimately important goal” and I feel this summarizes things wonderful.  While being able to move into a particular asana as photographed in The Light on Yoga may be the ultimate goal, it is not ultimately important.  Albeit, one could argue that I would naturally feel this way since I have never been able to do a full-lotus.  But very few of us can do scorpion pose and even fewer of us are aware that many yoga teachers consider corpse pose is the most difficult.  (Ponder that one for a while.)

There are other things I appreciate about how Rosen teaches yoga throughout this book, including a seemingly minor point when he says he thinks of “pairs of complements” rather than “pairs of opposites” (6, 32).  Semantics aside, his point is an interesting one and is suggestive of how traditional teaching may need to be modified to accommodate a western way of thinking.  When a teacher suggests holding a pose in a balance of “opposites” with one part of the body moving down while another moves up, it is natural to think about the disparate parts as being in opposition to one another.  However, if a teacher were to say that one part of the body moves downward while the other body moves upward in a complementary fashion, the internal experience of that pose is subtly shifted.

Rosen’s intention, to remove unrealistic expectations, is the greatest strength of this book.  Some teachers may find it frustrating to read about a practice that shouldn’t be done without the guidance of a teacher but the author is very aware of his audience.  Even with a seemingly harmless meditation practice, Rosen recommends a conservative approach.  
All of these exercises ask you to concentrate and hold your awareness at a specific point, and until you have some practice under your belt (or unless you’re already an experienced meditator), it’ll take you some time to maintain a steady connection.  When you feel comfortably established at a minute, add 15 seconds and practice for 75 seconds until you again feel comfortable.  Continue in this way until you reach 5 minutes, which may take several weeks or months. (242)
How many people would consider progressing so slowly without someone saying to do so?  And what if the individual were to approach a yoga practice slowly, focusing on a single pose or a single sequence and staying with it for weeks or months?  Which is why, if you fall in love with this book as much as I did, then you will probably want to already own a copy or rush out to buy one.  As for me, I’m adding it to my wish list and the next time I do the practice explained in chapter 2, I’ll definitely move through it a little more quickly, just to ensure I don’t feel sick afterwards.  In the meantime, I highly recommend this book to anyone who is ready to take their physical practice to a level where they no longer "do yoga" but begin to live yoga in every area of their lives, both on and off the mat.  

This book is due to be released in May 2012.  I was fortunate enough to read an electronic ARC.  It is available for pre-order on or through your local independent bookstore owner.  

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