Not long before covid-19 shelter in place began, I discovered that there is, in fact a form of yoga I actually like. I don’t pretend to be any kind of yoga theory expert, so I mainly have my own experiences of classes to go by. And I do know that the one thing in common all the yoga classes I have taken is that I am there, so I can’t discount that as a factor. The wherever you go, there you are factor.
Most yoga I have taken fits into one of two categories. There is pretzel yoga – generally based on Iyengar, in my experience – where you twist yourself into complicated shapes while balancing on one toe and hold each pose for approximately 37 minutes. And then there is competitive yoga, generally referred to in class schedules as hot yoga, or sometimes flow yoga, or power yoga, or at one memorable studio in D.C. “stroga” which sounds more like pasta but I gather is a portmanteau (do we still call them that, or does that go with troglodyte and zaftig on the list of words only my parents used in conversation?) of “strength” and “yoga.” That kind of yoga appears to be an endurance test my shoulders simply are not up to, and for me almost always involves a lot more swearing than I think can be normal for a spiritual or meditative practice.
I have taken a few other kinds of yoga that I don’t actively dislike: some classes labeled “beginner,” restorative, partner, goat. But none of them spoke to me or made me want to keep doing that kind of yoga. When the most positive feeling I have leaving a class is “well, that wasn’t as bad as I expected,” it doesn’t inspire me to keep going back.
For a couple months there last winter I found a yin yoga class that I really liked. The instructor is always thoughtful and well prepared. She mixes a little traditional Chinese medicine theory in with the poses. We hold poses longer than some classes (though not as long as pretzel yoga), but they are manageable poses and usually on the ground. I always come away from her class feeling stretched in a nice way, not in a “I’ve been on a torture rack for the past 50 minutes” way.
In one class this instructor said that ideally a yin yoga class would be in a cool, dark room, or a cave. Her comment got me thinking about yin as a concept, not just a name for a yoga class. For me yin yoga is every way the opposite of a hot yoga class, though I’ve never heard anyone use the term “yang yoga” to refer to hot yoga. I know in the West we often distill yin and yang down to male and female. I also know that is a gross oversimplification. The thing that struck me most in reading about the concept is that yang is the active principle whereas yin is the receptive.
In working with horses, I grew up in a “make him do it” environment, as if little eight year old me, probably 55 pounds soaking wet, was going to physically make even a fairly small pony who was ten times my size do anything. In case I was unclear about this, in my first horse show at the end of a week of summer horse camp, my horse left the show ring in mid class and went back to the barn, totally oblivious to the child on his back, tugging and kicking ineffectually. As I got older and bigger I rode bigger horses, so the horses and I have tended to stay near a ten to one weight differential. Making them do anything is an illusion, but that didn’t stop me from trying.
It wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I first encountered trainers who approached horses in a different way, with the focus on the relationship between horse and human, rather than (as much) on the dominance of human over horse. I’ve learned a different way of approaching my horses, and both they and I like it much better. Even so, much like yoga, when I have taken a lesson from one of these instructors I have often left the lesson feeling more like “Well, that wasn’t so bad” and less like “How can I do more of that?”
One thing that comes up often in the lessons I’ve taken with this newer (to me) approach is the idea of giving to pressure. Whether it’s me riding, or the instructor working my horse, just about the first thing that happens is to see how the horse gives to pressure. I understand it in concept – if your horse is pushing against you or ignoring you or exploding when you apply pressure, even very light pressure, you are in a bit of trouble. But lately I’ve been wondering what would happen if, with another human, I approached them with the intent of applying pressure on them in some way to see how they responded to it. Even if it was an employee, someone I am paying to do a particular job, I can’t think that would go very well. I know it doesn’t go well for me when the main thing I feel – in, say, a yoga class – is pressure. Like many horses I know, my response to it is often to shut down. I may appear to comply with the instructions I’m given, but I don’t enjoy it, I don’t find it relaxing, and I don’t want to do it more often.
I don’t ride much these days, but I have my horses living at home and I handle them daily. Sometimes I just go through the motions, because doing what I need to do with the horses is something I need to check off my task list for the day. If I approach the horses in this frame of mind, if any of the horses has any concerns about anything at all that day, our interaction is not going to be very positive.
Case in point: blanketing Finn. I blanket my horses below certain temperature and/or in certain types of precipitation. Never mind that I have been blanketing all of the horses for years and years, blanketing is always something of an issue for Finn. The worst it ever got was several years ago when I was trying to take his blanket off on a cold, dry day, and after I undid the leg straps and the belly straps, I moved to unhook the chest straps. In doing so I touched him on the neck and we gave each other a little shock of static electricity. Let me clarify: to me, it was little. To Finn, it was huge. He took off running, blanket flapping in the breeze. In not too many seconds the blanket flipped off his back entirely, leaving it hanging around his neck and front legs as he galloped in a blind panic. I figured (and hoped) the blanket would tear off – and it did, in a way. The binding around the neck and the chest straps held, so while he tore most of the blanket away and left it in the dust, he was still wearing a collar of blanket remains around his neck.
It took a long time that day for me to get close enough to him to get that blanket collar off. Just as Finn’s brain went into panic mode, mine went into “make him do it” mode, and instead of just leaving him alone (in retrospect, the “worst” thing that might have happened would possibly have been the best thing – if he put his head down to eat hay and the rest of the blanket fell off over his head of its own accord), I decided to stay out there and keep approaching him until I could get the blanket bits off. Probably because I did that, and in doing so kept his fear and adrenaline spiked, approaching him with a blanket – or a halter, or just at all – did not go smoothly for quite a while afterwards.
Last winter I went out to feed and blanket the horses one evening. As I picked up Finn’s blanket to put it on him, he spooked and jumped sideways away from his feed. I stayed where I was – I didn’t back up, move closer, speak, or raise or lower the blanket. I just stood. He took a hard look at me while facing me, and then he swung around so his left side was in front of me. He took in a big breath, squared up on all four feet, and then let out the breath and I could see and feel him settle his whole body and wait for me to put the blanket on. I did, and buckled all the straps, and then he calmly resumed eating.
As I was walking back to the house, I found I was thinking about yin. I thought about my friend, horsewoman, and writer Anna Blake saying that a huge percentage of riders are women but almost all instructors are men. I thought about the state of our country right now, and the percentage of elected officials (I just can’t call them “leaders”) who are men. But again, it’s not – or not only – a male/female distinction. The terms associated with yang include heat, light, strength, active, and giving form to all things. The terms associated with yin include cool, dark, soft, receptive, and giving spirit to all things. The yin yang symbol shows both parts of equal size. I think the work in front of me is to even those things up in myself, and in order to do that, just as if I were trying to even up an underdeveloped set of muscles with an overdeveloped set of muscles, I have to focus on strengthening the weaker ones and not on further working the strong ones. More dark, more cool, more soft, more receptive, more spirit. I’m pretty sure my horses will be grateful.