Yoga Wisdom And Horse Sense
Yoga Wisdom And Horse Sense
A Tale About New Beginnings, and Beginning Again
(Originally Published November 10, 2003 for “Yogi Times,” Los Angeles)
By Olivia Morgaine
Yoga is a practice which extends into all spheres of activity. It has the potential not only to
positively affect one’s relationship to one’s self and others, but also to the natural world, including animals. Yogic literature, which frequently alludes to animals, ostensibly recognizes the connection between the individual and all creation. “There is only one Self in all creatures. The One appears many,just as the moon/Appears many, reflected in the water,” says the Amritabindu Upanishad (1987, p. 244). Yoga aims to bring about a sense of an inner harmony, a union of mind, body, and senses, which may then be extended into a harmonious sense of union with one’s external environment. From this perspective, horseback riding may come to be viewed not so much as a “sport,” but as another expression of, and opportunity for the experience of yoga.
In the broadest sense, the Sanskrit word yoga is taken to mean “union” From the perspective of
the Upanisads, which arose out of the Vedas, union, or yoga, comes through the realization of non-duality that the self and the Self are one. In Patanjali’s “Yoga Sutras,” which are the foundation for Classical Yoga, another definition of yoga is offered. According to Patanjali, yoga is: “Citti-vritti-nirodha,” which translates as “restraining the modifications of mind-stuff.” As a result of my equestrian “trails” and tribulations, I am coming to discover that both the Vedic and the Classical perspectives of yoga offer a way out of limited thinking and conditioned responses.
I began horseback riding around the same time I began walking, and I am still uncertain whether I have two legs, or four. Over the years, I have explored at least as many riding styles, from Dressage to Endurance, as I have forms of Hatha yoga. I rode with confidence and élan, until one late summer day in 1995. Riding bareback along the ridge of a mesa in Northern New Mexico, my horse bolted. Thanks to a combination of years of riding and yoga practice, I had enough of a sense of center, both mentally and physically to maintain my seat, as the horse flew along a razor’s edge between the earth and a yawning 500 hundred foot drop off. After several jumps over rocks and fissures, I was aware of the fatigue in my legs, but also of a pinion bush coming up around the next bend. I figured better to make a conscious leap, than court the likely chance of falling. Far from a romantic Western film figure, I limped out of that bush,
bleeding and bruised, my tights tangled like an upset Christmas ornament in one of the branches.
After this accident, I lost my zest for horseback riding. Although I sustained some physical
injuries, it was fear and the sense that I had done something to cause the accident that fractured my spirit and blocked me from trying again. Although I might gaze longingly at horses in a distant field, the closest I got was the occasional passing of an apple across the fence.
Then just about a year ago, after returning from a vacation in Montana horse country, I confided
in a long time spiritual friend and mentor that I was feeling a profound sense of confusion. I shared with her how I once loved horseback riding, but since my accident in 1995 I had not ridden. I went on to convey that I felt that my Hatha yoga practice filled the gap left by horseback riding, and was certainly safer. In addition, I shared the belief that through meditation I had come to see that wanting to ride was just another form of clinging and attachment. Yet, I asked my friend, “Why is it that in spite of all my yoga and meditation, every time someone asks me to go riding, I feel loss; every time I see someone else riding I feel jealous; and when I am around horses I start to feel frustrated. My friend began to laugh. “Dear, meditation is not intended to take you away from love, but closer to it. If you have love for horses,
then recognize that the same love that is in you is in them, and that you and the horse are made of the same material – you are one. Recognize that love is guiding you to ride. And as for fear, well, we know what that is don’t we? In this case, it’s just mental conditioning.”
Although my mentor has, as far as I know, never sat in Lotus position, and hasn’t the foggiest
idea who Patanjali is, she helped me, in that instant, to know yoga.
Her simple words woke me up to the fact that I had been using meditation to reinforce my fears. Rather than using yoga to draw me into a conscious relationship with life, I had been using it as a means of distancing myself from life. One week after our conversation, I pulled my jodhpurs out of the closet and signed up for my first riding lesson in eight years.
I asked my instructor for a gentle horse, to be more exact, I requested a horse that was “one hoof away from the glue factory.” She seemed to understand, since I had to wake my gray haired friend before I could get him out of the stall. After I tied him to the rings to begin tacking, I could feel my anxiety rise. The thought that I would have to hold the hoof of this 1500 pound critter and dig around in it with a pick was enough to make me queasy. I got it over with as quickly as possible, all the while my heart pounding, and then moved on to brushing him. As I brushed, he dozed. And I felt a warmth rising in me, my heart growing calm, as if it were suspended in a jar of honey. “Could this be love?” I wondered. Brushing the animal’s coat, wrapping his legs, and saddling him, I realized that the love was a fact, it was based in something that was happening in the present moment as I connected with this animal. The fear, just as my mentor had suggested, was a reaction to the thought that something bad could happen, to the memory of pain. As Patanjali cites in the second yoga sutra of the first pada, what one experiences on the outside world really is a function of one’s internal patterning.
As I proceeded with my lesson, there were moments of trepidation punctuated by elation.
Towards the end, another rider cantered by on an obsidian colored mare, and I felt ashamed to be on my greying, plodding steed. I thought, “I used to ride well and fast, I can do what she’s doing! Why aren’t I on a better horse?” Pride and dissatisfaction chased the warm feelings and sense of connection to the moment, and to my horse away. I no longer felt the yoga, the oneness, of the Vedas, but a sense of dissonant separation. Then, I recalled the meaning of practice, which years of yoga have taught me.
Although Angelenos tend to use the colloquial, “I am doing yoga,” the truth for me is that I practice yoga. To practice anything is to come to it as a beginner, to enter the moment unknowing, ready to be filled with its mystery. When I had my horseback riding accident in 1995, I thought that I was invincible. Clearly, I am not. I fall down, I make errors in judgment, I bleed, I feel hurt, and I feel fear. However, I have come to realize that yoga is here regardless if I feel union or not; and regardless if I feel assured or insecure. The point is to bring the willingness to continue practicing yoga whether on the mat or on the meditation cushion; whether mucking the stall, or riding in the saddle. In The Bhagavad Gita,
Krishna counsels Arjuna on the meaning of yoga (in a horse drawn chariot no less!): “Be not motivated by the fruits of acts, but also do not purposely seek to avoid acting . . . . Remain equable in success and failure.” And so, I am riding again, using yoga, not on the side lines to protect me from my fears, but to guide me through them and towards the love that lives beneath the appearances of all things.
List of Sources:
Easwaran, E. The Upanishads. Berkeley, CA: Nilgiri Press, 1996.
Feuerstein, G. The yoga tradition. Prescott, AZ: Hohm Press, 1998.
Satchidananda, S.S. The yoga sutras of Patanjali. Yogaville, VA: Integral Yoga, 1999.
Van Buitenen, J.A.B. The Bhagavad Gita in the Mahabharata. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1981.