Most people think of yoga as a form of physical exercise. By moving through a combination of poses, yoga creates a stronger, more flexible, and healthier body. While this is absolutely true, it is only a small piece of what a yoga practice includes, and it isn’t even part of the original design of yoga. The practice of yoga extends to how we think, act, feel, and experience life. It includes our relationship to ourselves and all things. If our intention with our horses is to experience a relationship of joy, union, and infinite possibility, incorporating the teachings of yoga provides an ideal roadmap for the journey.
I took my first yoga class over a decade ago on the recommendation of my chiropractor who hosted weekly classes in a garage next to her office. My primary reason for going was to address chronic pain and misalignment in my body, probably due to past injuries, emotional stress, and overworking my body without giving it a chance to restore. The stretching and breathing felt good, and though I struggled with many poses at first I was encouraged by the slow progress I made by attending class. What I didn’t expect was the benefit of yoga to horsemanship and riding. It wasn’t just the practice of moving through poses that was helpful, all eight limbs of yoga contributed to enhancing my relationship with horses.
The first two limbs of yoga are the yamas and niyamas. The yamas guide how we engage with others in a relationship of kindness, non-violence, honesty, and generosity, without taking what is not freely given. The niyamas teach self-discipline and personal responsibility for thoughts and actions, ultimately surrendering the self to a higher power. The yamas and niyamas prepare us to enter into a relationship with the horse from a place of pure intention and self-control, working with the nature of the horse without force or coercion, creating a mutually beneficial and enriching partnership.
The third limb of yoga is asana, or posture. The original intention of this limb is developing a still and steady seat for the purpose of meditation. This isn’t the stillness of a rigidly held form, but rather a fluid and comfortable position that allows energy and breath to move freely through the body. Developing the mind and body to sit quietly and still isn’t easy, and the practice of moving through various postures was created to help release tension and restrictions in the body, improve alignment and balance and gain mastery of the body to sit in ease and comfort. Rather than holding a motionless position, which would be difficult to maintain for very long, this practice encourages moving into stillness. As riders, we strive for a quiet and steady seat, one that can follow and direct the horse with the least amount of effort. The same practices that develop the seat for meditation also develop a rider that is supple, balanced, and controlled.
The fourth limb of yoga is pranayama, or control of the breath. Through the breath we can directly affect the nervous system, creating either a calming or a stimulating response. Stressful situations cause more rapid breathing and sometimes cause us to freeze or hold the breath. Doing this with an anxious horse contributes to their stress and anxiety. Awareness and control of the breath has a powerful effect on helping the horse become more relaxed, soft and connected.
The fifth, sixth and seventh limbs of yoga are pratyahara, dharana and dhyana. These limbs guide the practitioner to go within, focus the mind, and enter a deep state of meditation. These practices lead us to the eighth limb, samadhi, or union with the divine. Quieting the mind, bringing full attention to the present moment, and developing the ability to focus without distraction enables us to notice and respond to the horse and maintain a calm and grounded center.
With pure and positive intention, ease of movement and control of the breath and body, equanimity of mind, and awareness in the present moment, we are prepared to discover the infinite possibilities of union with the horse.