I have been rereading B.K.S. Iyengar’s Light on Yoga (1966), which is the seminal book that introduced Iyengar yoga and generally helped to introduce America to yoga. Iyengar yoga is the primary school that I use in my yoga practice, and I cannot say enough about its health benefits. It is believed to be particularly impacting for physical and psychological health. I have largely focused on its physical benefits, but I have been thumbing through Light on Yoga to obtain a better sense of the philosophy behind Iyengar practice. Reading the foreword, which was written by Yehudi Menuhin, I was surprised to find myself being enlightened about Iyengar yoga in a way that spoke directly to my approach to Shinto.
In explaining how “most of our fundamental attitudes to life have their physical counterparts in the body,” Menuhin writes, “Continuity and a sense of the universal come with the knowledge of the inevitable alternation of tension and relaxation in eternal rhythms of which each inhalation and exhalation constitutes one cycle, wave or vibration among the countless myriads which are the universe.” Tension and release—does this not capture the core of yoga practice?
Menuhin gestures toward a sense of the universal within the practice, which interestingly echoes Freud’s idea of the oceanic feeling. Freud posited this concept for explaining the root of the religious experience in his book Civilization and its Discontents. I am not sure what to make of Menuhin on this point, but his use of the word vibration pops out at me as it allows for thinking about energy, which is a key part of my fascination with Shinto. Within Menuhin’s description of “the inevitable alternation of tension and relaxation in eternal rhythms,” I find a significant overlap between the philosophy of Iyengar and my approach to Shinto. This is perhaps why the Iyengar practice felt so comfortable to me from my first days practicing it.
Menuhin then locates a balanced practice as being parallel to what he terms “universal laws.” He explains: “By its very nature [Iyengar yoga practice] is inextricably associated with universal laws: for respect for life, truth, and patience are all indispensable factors in the drawing of a quiet breath, in calmness of mind and firmness of will.” What Menuhin calls universal laws is perhaps beyond my understanding, but I find value in Menuhin’s assertion when I consider what he calls universal laws as simply being co-existence. And, I find within this formation the basis for a moral practice. This is what I understand as Menuhin’s ultimate point. I find evidence for this reading when Menuhin summarily writes: “In this lie the moral virtues inherent in yoga.”
While reading Menuhin’s foreword, I was struck by how this understanding of yoga pairs with my preference for moral pragmatism as such tracks with a practical approach to ethics. At heart, this is the powerful pragmatic potential I find within Shinto as I have already noted in my first post on Shinto, so it was quite amazing to find a similar practical thread of understanding within Iyengar yoga.