The Tibetan Book of Yoga
Ancient Buddhist Teachings on the Philosophy and Practice of Yoga
Geshe Michael Roach
Doubleday, New York (USA), 2003
114 pages

Presented as an introduction to a Tibetan style of yoga, this book reads more to me like a simple (although quite good) introduction to the world of yoga in general, regardless of labels. Even most of the asanas showed on the book look quite basic to me. I am definitely no expert on the subject, but poses like the sun salutation are part and parcel of pretty much any form of yoga (and not specifically Tibetan yoga), as far as I can see. It actually is the very first asana I ever learned. Even more to the point, perhaps, I have not been able to find much information on what the author of the book calls Tibetan Heart Yoga. It is quite difficult to tell whether that truly exists, or perhaps it is just a label used by someone to better commercialize a given practice (pardon my skepticism, but yoga, like so many other things in the US, is highly commercialized, making it quite difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff).

In any case, we learn what this Tibetan Heart Yoga may mean pretty soon on the book:

Tibetan Heart Yoga works on your heart in two ways: It makes your physical heart and body healthy and strong, and it opens your heart to love others. And of course really the first always comes from the second.

(Geshe Michael Roach: The Tibetan Book of Yoga, p. 2)

In other words, the author discusses not only the physical aspects of yoga as an exercise, but also its more spiritual side. Nevertheless, this latter aspect is basically reduced to a concern for compassion and love (which is certainly an intrinsic part of Tibetan Buddhism), but there is no discussion of any other philosophical or dietetic aspects, which is to some extent limiting, I think.

There are sections of the book that could definitely sound a bit too "newageish" or "touchy-feely":

Think of your body like an onion. On the outside are all the parts we can see: arms, legs, tummy, and such. When we do yoga, this outer layer is what we think about the most. Where am I supposed to put any food? Where does my arm go? Am I finally looking better?

And then there's a second layer right below the first. This level is made of all the things that give our outer body energy to be healthy and strong. One example of course if what we eat, but the ancient books of the East say that other things sustain our physical body as well —things like hope, and sleep, and even quiet times when we can sit down and think about something without being interrupted.

The most important source of food, raw energy for our bodies, is not what you might expect; it is our very breath. We can go for days without eating, or even drinking, but a good gulp of breath is something we need every couple of seconds. Our bodies contain billions of cells, and each one is fed consistent meals of fresh oxygen through the wondrous network of our lungs and bloodstream. If our breathing is deep and steady, it nourishes us automatically; we glow with health. And so of course all systems of yoga emphasize staying aware of our breath as we move through the exercises.

But now when you peel off this second layer, the breath, you come to a third level: one that makes the breath itself move. And this is the inner winds. Think of pictures you've seen of how the nerves spread throughout our body, branching off from the spinal cord like limbs of a tree, reaching out to the ends of our hands and feet.

Our nervous system really counts as part of the first level: the outside body. Now imagine a ghostlike network of tiny pipes and channels made of stuff so fine that you could no more touch it than you could grab a ray of sunlight peeking in through your window. This is what we call the inner channels —they lie inside the whole framework of nerves and blood vessels and even bones within our body. In fact, you could say that the very patterns of our nervous system and veins and skeleton all grow within us, in the first place, by following the outline of the lightray channels that are already there, even in the womb.

The whole shape of our body then, inside and out, is simply a reflection of the shape of these subtle inner channels. Have you ever gone outside in the sun in the morning after an ice storm and seen the branches and twigs of every tree in your yard coated in beautiful glistening ice? The shape that the layer of ice on each twig takes all depends on the shape of the twig beneath it: If the twig has a bump, then the ice forms a bump over it.

(Geshe Michael Roach: The Tibetan Book of Yoga, pp. 6-7)

It is a beautiful image, without a doubt. Now, whether or not that truly proves the existence of these "inner winds" is a completely different issue. So far, we still do not have a clear idea what they might be. We are told a little bit more in the next chapter:

Blood flows within the network of our veins, and tiny electrical impulses pass through the branches of our nervous system. What is it that moves within the inner channels?

It's the inner winds. They're called "winds" because, like the wind that propels a sailboat, they are invisible to the eye but very powerful nonetheless. They also have a strong connection to another kind of "wind," and that's our own breath as it blows in and out of us.

Think of the inner winds and your breath like a pair of strings on a guitar. If you tune two strings to exactly the same note, then you can pluck one and the other one vibrates all on its own. Your breath follows your inner winds like that. If the inner winds are flowing calm and easy, then the breath also flows the same.

(Geshe Michael Roach: The Tibetan Book of Yoga, pp. 9-10)

Are we talking about the traditional Chinese concept of qi? That's what it sounds like.

But the author goes a bit deeper "peeling the onion":

But what makes the inner winds flow? For the answer to that, we need to peel off another layer of the onion and go down to the fourth level.

The fourth level is, quite simply, your own thoughts. Thoughts and the inner winds are always connected; they run in tandem, the thoughts riding on the winds like a rider on a horse. This connection between our thoughts and the winds within the channels is the amazing border where our body meets our mind. And this too is where Tibetan Heart Yoga does its work.

You can trace this connetion yourself simply by thinking about the last time you got really excited or upset. When we have a strong emotion like this, then our thoughts stop flowing smoothly; they literally get jumbled up. And because the thoughts ride on the horse of the inner winds, then the winds also start to struggle inside the channels. It's as if a rider suddenly starts kicking and digging spurs into a horse's side. The horse takes off in any direction it wants.

And because of that connection between the inner winds and our breath, like two guitar strings, then the breath goes out of control too. We start breathing faster and faster, in fits and starts. Suddenly the cells in our body aren't getting their meals on time. Keep this up long enough, and it causes an ulcer or a heart attack, or maybe just wrinkles: The body is telling you that you haven't treated it right.

And so really a moment of strong negative emotion at the fourth level, the thoughts, disturbs the inner winds that are linked to our thoughts. This problem a the third level reverberates on the second one: our breath. And that creates trouble at level number one, which is the health of our bodies. Trouble at level four works its way up to level one.

(Geshe Michael Roach: The Tibetan Book of Yoga, pp. 10-11)

Finally, it all concludes with the "fifth level":

It's all very well and good to tell people that if they think calmer thoughts they'll feel better physically; we knew that already. The problem is that we usually don't have any choice about it. Problems come up in our lives, with situations or the people around us, and make it difficult to be calm or peaceful all the time.

One solution we spoke about already: When you feel tired, upset, or unhappy, you can always get on your yoga mat and go through the exercises. You sweat, and the effect works its way down to the inner winds and your thoughts. You feel better for a good while afterward, and that in turn is good for your body's health.

The real question though is all about the fifth level. If the inner winds drive our breath, and our thoughts drive the inner winds, well then what is it that drives the thoughts themselves? Why is it that certain things can make us upset in the first place? And where did all these things come from anyway? To understand this, we need to understand what the ancient books call "world-seeds."

(Geshe Michael Roach: The Tibetan Book of Yoga, pp. 13-14)

Hmm, here we are dealing with yet another "touchy-feely" concept that sounds quite confusing. What does it mean?

What's a world-seed? It's a little seed in our mind that ripens when we look at something, and colors how we see it —like putting on a pair o f red-tainted sunglasses and looking at a piece of white paper. Then the paper is pink.

(Geshe Michael Roach: The Tibetan Book of Yoga, p. 14)

In other words, the attitude! The author is talking about our attitude here! Let's just say that, on the one hand, I do have a problem with using strange terminology (perhaps with the intention of making it all sound more "mysterious") that ultimately ends up obscuring the message. However, on the other hand, I must admit that there are different types of personality out there. Some, like me, prefer the simple, direct, objective terminology, while others are touched by a different type of vocabulary that pays more attention to aesthetics, feelings or something else altogether. I suppose that, in the end, what truly matters is the content (i.e., the message). In that sense, what the author is talking about here is hardly earth-shattering. On the contrary, it is commonly accepted wisdom, I think (of course, whether or not it is something that we truly apply to our everyday life is a different issue, since that's where the rubber meets the road). In the end, it sounds quite plausible that our overall attitude shapes our thoughts which, in turn, affect how we conduct ourselves in life and, of course, our very health. For that is precisely what the author is trying to explain, I think. Let's call it the wisdom of Tibetan Heart Yoga, common sense, or whatever else we may want to call it. Let's express it in simple, plain, objective terms, or in quasi-religious, mystic terms. It doesn't make a difference. The message is still the same and, for the most part, it is correct, I think.

The rest of the book (i.e., most of it) is dedicated to a series of yoga exercises that are supposed to take us down this path to a more serene, aware existence. As far as I can see, the asanas or poses that are shown are simply regular yoga asanas. The only thing that is different about the yoga exercises on this book is the author's emphasis on the spiritual side of yoga, which is, I think, quite welcome, especially in an atmosphere where yoga is approached as a mere form of trendy exercise to practice in the long and snowy winters. Overall, The Tibetan Book of Yoga is a good manual to learn yoga, especially if you are interested on the spiritual side of this ancient practice.

Entertaiment: 6/10
Content: 6/10