Introduction to EquiYoga
Very few people realize that our world is entirely based on the presence of the horse next to us. Until six thousand years ago human beings were confined to their villages, and to the ones within walking distance. Horses were hunted for meat. Then something amazing happened that changed the world forever. Archaeology teaches us that one man in Dereivka, the Ukraine, who owned a stallion (archaeologists have found the skeleton of this stallion) one day decided to jump on his back and ride him. The result of this single act brought a wave of change that is still rippling on. Travelling, commerce, discovery, exploring, and war were the gifts that this man and his stallion brought to the human race. Even now we measure the power of our cars in ‘horse power’. In EquiYoga we are made aware of this, and that even now the horse can open the world for us.
The following questions were posed to me by Yoga Institute ‘Surya’ in Santiago de Chile. As many people ask the same questions, I have put them on the Internet for clarification on the practice of EquiYoga.
Question: When and how did EquiYoga start?
Answer: I rode horses from the age of four to twenty. Then I left riding to pursue a career in yoga. This I did for forty years. When I turned sixty, a friend of mine introduced me to a family who owned a stable full of Spanish horses, mainly stallions. They persuaded me to ride one of them. The moment I was in the saddle, it was as if I had never been out of it. In that moment I made a couple of discoveries. In the first place that the body never forgets. My body knew exactly how to ride, even after all those years. The second discovery was that yoga had addressed many issues in my life, but not all of them. There were things inside me, physically, mentally and emotionally, that had never been touched by yoga, things that on horseback came flaring in my face. In that moment the idea was born that neither of these disciplines is complete in itself, but that each one can fill in the gaps left by the other. Yoga and riding have this in common: both are powerful means for personal transformation, but the combination of the two is far more powerful than the sum of both. This is how the idea EquiYoga was born. In a way, EquiYoga is carrying both yoga and riding a step further.
Question: What is the aim of EquiYoga?
Answer: In the Bhagavad Gita we read: ‘Yoga is skill in action’. This really means that any action done skillfully is Yoga.
In classical yoga we practice asanas. Asana means ‘posture’. This posture is done in imitation of an ‘ideal’ posture. Take trikonasana. There is an ‘ideal’ trikonasana, and there is our physical interpretation of it, which differs from body to body. The body is held in this position for a determined time, in which the aim is to achieve stillness both in body and mind. In riding there is also an ‘ideal’ way of sitting on a horse, but this can never be static, as the horse is moving and we have to move with him in order not to obstruct his movement. The way most people hold their bodies is to keep the pelvis still, even rigid, and have the chest ‘swinging’. This not only renders the body unstable, as it puts the emphasis on the chest, but it also creates certain rigidity in the lower lumbar spine and in the hip joints. We can see this rigidity of the lower back for instance in dog pose, or in paschimottanasana, where the lower back remains rigidly straight, while the upper back bends. This is turn can give rise to upper body problems, like stiff or painful shoulders and neck. Anatomically speaking, this attitude does not make sense. When we walk, the legs ‘swing’, and this movement is carried upward into the pelvis on the gravity rebounding force. In the pelvis this movement is then ‘organized’ and carried further upward into the upper body through the spinal column, into a quiet and receiving chest. In fact, the chest, anatomically speaking, is the stable or ‘still’ part of our bodies, and the pelvis the ‘swinging’ part, like a pendulum at the end of a string (the spinal column). In EquiYoga we liberate the pelvic joints as well as the lower lumbar vertebrae through various exercises, first in the stable, and then on the horse. Thus we bring the body back into its natural balance: controlled but supple legs, swinging pelvis that follows in a relaxed and supple way the swinging gait of our own walking or that of the horse, and a still, relaxed and quiet chest, with the shoulders, shoulder blades and arms hanging relaxed from the spine, the neck free and long and the head light and in balance on the atlas. This posture is the natural posture of the upright body, and we should be aware of this and practice this all day long, not only when we are riding or doing yoga. In this posture the body is free, upright, relaxed and balanced at all times, and yoga, riding and just walking take on a new quality.
Question: What is the reaction of the horses and the students? What happens in this relationship horse-human?
Answer: A famous Arabic saying goes: ‘Wherever you find the foot prints of the human being in the sand, you will find the foot prints of the horse walking next to him.’
If dealing with horses we have to learn – or rather, relearn – a different language. Human beings are heavily leaning on the linguistic side, on the linguistic brain, even though it is only a small part of us, and very young, only a couple of million years old. The monkey inside thinks it ‘knows’ everything. We live through our rationality. The horse does not have a strong rational brain. In compensation, his motoric brain is extremely well developed. The horse lives through his old brain, the body intelligence that was there before the era of the dinosaurs. It is called the reptilian brain. A horse at play can aim a mock kick at another horse, and come within centimetres of the other one without actually touching him, in spite of the extreme speed with which he kicks.
In our evolution we have sacrificed for a large part our old or reptilian brain in favour of the young, intellectual brain; our motoric brain is poorly functioning at this point. If a horse would kick at me, there is no way I could avoid the impact: I could never match his speed or precision. Thus, in dealing with horses, we have to change. We have to learn again to rely more on our own body intelligence and language, to learn to place more emphasis on our old, motoric brain, and to learn again to ‘read’ the body language of those that surround us, animals and people alike. This brain, in our society, is never specifically stimulated, unless we do a lot of sports or other physical activities, and even then it will never match the precision of the horse’s motoric brain. In daily life it is neglected.
But it is not only us who benefit from the symbiosis. Why did certain animals, like the dog and the horse, associate from a very early time on with humans? When we watch dogs and horses interact with humans, we can see that they too are stimulated in the area where they are weak, that is, the rational brain. In dressage, show jumping, team penning, cutting, unless the horse participates fully, using the maximum of his intellect as well as his motoric brain, there can be no success. We can daily see that horses too take pride in their ‘work’ and that this association with humans for them also carries moments of interest and excitement. The Arabic proverb makes sense: horses and people complement each other in ways that no other animal does, enriching the lives of both: the symbiosis is more that the sum of the two. In EquiYoga the horse has to learn to deal with humans doing different things than usual on his back (yoga exercises), and humans have to learn to do yoga on a ‘moving’ and unpredictable yoga mat (the saddle or the bare back of the horse)
Question: Can one arrive at the meditative state on the horse?
Answer: In the ancient Greek culture poets were held in high esteem. When the poet was in the ecstatic state of mind in which he wrote his poetry, it was said of him that he was ‘riding Pegasus’. Pegasus was the winged horse that transported people from earth to the abode of the gods to receive the favours of the gods. There the poet received his poetry to bring it back to the realm of the human beings. The word ‘meditation’ is not a happy term, as it means in Latin ‘to think about’. I think a better term is ‘contemplation’. Contemplation, in Latin, means ‘to sit in the temple’. It is in the temple that we communicate with the gods, that we have the ‘meditative state of mind’. When we ride the horse, we are ‘in the temple’. There is no room for thinking, there is no awareness of time; there is only room for the immediate ‘here-and-now’, without any distraction. This is what the horse teaches us. The horse just is, from moment to moment, and when we are in his company, we learn this from him – to just be; as they say: go with the flow. In EquiYoga we turn to this bringer of freedom and let him show us the things in us that hinder or obstruct freedom, all the unnecessary things in our heads or hearts, and show us what flying really is as we trot or canter on. Pegasus is still alive and at our service.
Question: What is the most important thing that comes out of the fusion yoga-riding?
Answer: I think it is balanced character building.
Nuno Oliveiro, one of the greatest équyers of the twentieth century, once said: “In front of the horse the human being is naked”.
In EquiYoga students who have never in their lives dealt with horses now come face to face with this huge animal that emanates power, speed and unpredictability. Many people feel already intimidated in their presence, let alone come close to them. As the students learn to touch them (for many people a scary thing), brush them, and eventually ride them, they come face to face with deeply imbedded fears: the fear of the unknown, the fear of power, the fear of the ‘wild’, the fear of fear, the fear of death. The human predator, in front of the prey horse, discovers his own prey nature, his own weakness, vulnerability and smallness, his fears and uncertainties, and his lack of control in the face of unforeseen events. It is our prey nature that has turned sour that has turned us into predators. The horse, with all his power, teaches us that the prey nature does not need to go sour, but can find its own strength in gentleness and patience, in forbearance and trust. If we accept the horse as a mirror, we can see in the reflection what we too can be. Trusting ourselves to the horse, we have to learn to make the horse trust us. We need to be calm, precise, in control, strong, and at the same time gentle and supple in mind and body. We need to transform ourselves to suit the horse. The horse does not tolerate weakness, neither does he tolerate violence. It is we who have to find the middle way. We have to lead with strength coupled with gentleness, unwavering attention and at the same time peripheral vision to anticipate any unforeseen movement or mood of the horse. At the same time, the horse, which in nature possesses prefect balance, needs to find a new balance under the weight of the rider, and has to learn to put his trust in the rider to show him what is required of him. The horse too has to accept responsibility on his side, and the two of them, horse and rider, have to come to a relaxed and respectful collaboration.
On the other hand, people who ride but have never learned yoga, will find that they will develop a new body awareness, in which violent movements are eradicated, which in turn will aid the horse to have a better balance and a more receptive and happy spirit of collaboration. Thus we see that both horse and rider benefit by the practice of EquiYoga.