Interview: Pete Blackaby, author of Intelligent Yoga

The second edition of Peter Blackaby’s celebrated book Intelligent Yoga: Listening to the Body’s Innate Wisdom is being published by Casita Press in late March 2018. The fully revised, beautifully designed book is an eloquent summation of Pete’s approach to yoga and to life in general – now with a completely new chapter on pain and how the body heals, and an updated and improved practice section. We had a quick chat with Pete just before we sent the book off to the printer:

Your first edition of Intelligent Yoga was well received. So why did you feel the need to write a second edition?

Because my thinking had moved on. In the first edition I was largely taking issue with perceived structural and biomechanical problems with existing yoga asanas – the way that people often hurt themselves doing postures that aren’t really well suited to them. But people are more onto that these days. More books have been written about it, and people are more savvy about not hurting themselves doing yoga. So I wanted to move on to make the focus of the book the neurological basis for movement, how we determine what are ‘good’ movements, and how we should teach them. So, that’s where my thinking is.

How did you find the process of writing a book?

What it helped me with was to clarify my thoughts. There is something useful about putting an idea down in writing. You develop ideas over time and if you don’t give yourself space to articulate them clearly, they can stay rather fuzzy in your mind. The slight disadvantage of writing a book, on the other hand, is the fact that once you put something in print, it’s there to be thrown back at you if ever you change your mind in the future. But the actual process of trying to become clear about what you’re actually wanting to say I think is a very useful one. So I value it in that way, but I’m nervous in the sense that, once you’ve written a book, people will quote it back at you ten years later – ‘But you said that’ – thinking that you’ll never change your mind. And of course I am likely to change my mind about some things. So, it’s a process, but it’s an important one.

You’re known for your stripped-back approach to yoga. Can you explain why you think it’s still okay to call it yoga, even once it’s been shorn of its cultural references?

Yes, that’s a provocative question these days. If you think about the language we use in yoga, the Sanskrit terms – parsvottanasana, trikonasana, etc. – that to me is just a question of language. If a book was written in German you’d translate it into English. So that seems reasonable, there’s nothing lost there. If you’re talking more about the mysticism and the semi-religious and metaphysical aspects to yoga that exist within its culture, I feel that once an idea has moved into the West then the ideas are going to move with it. I don’t feel comfortable trying to see yoga through the eyes of Hinduism, which is the culture in which it emerged, because we aren’t Hindus. So it doesn’t seem disrespectful or unreasonable to me to reframe it in the culture in which it now stands – i.e. Western culture. To me it’s just a reframing, because I feel it’s a very difficult task, if not an impossible one, to try to see the world through a lens that isn’t yours. I’m not Hindu and I didn’t grow up in India so to try to pretend that I can understand the world through that lens is disingenuous. I should instead do it through the lens that I understand. For the practice itself, which is what is actually helpful – so, what happens to you when you’re on the mat, and when you’re practising the self-reflective, introspective aspect of yoga – it doesn’t matter what culture you’re in, that’s a very human response. Whether you’re a Hindu, a Christian or an atheist, your body responds in a similar way to the invitation to notice, pay attention and self-reflect, that’s beyond culture.

Which particular books and thinkers have influenced you in yoga and beyond?

In terms of yoga, it has to be Vanda Scaravelli. She moved yoga beyond a set of instructions, focusing on how we experience ourselves. Her invitation to notice what we feel when we practise was quite different to anything else I’d come across prior to that. So from a yoga point of view I’d say Scaravelli and people like Mary Stewart, Monica Voss and John Stirk. They’re all people who have informed me and helped me on that transition from a cognitive way of practising yoga by instruction, to a more sensory, self-reflective process.

Outside of yoga, I would say Serge Gracovetsky, who really helped me to understand the mechanics of the spine and function. Antonio Damasio, whose work on understanding the self-regulatory aspect of feelings and emotions, with the view that they are social homeostatic regulators, that they’re embodied and that we need to pay attention to them, is also brilliant. Stanley Keleman’s work has also always been an important influence, with his recognition of how life impacts on the body, how it changes its shape, how it makes us hold ourselves. So they would be the first three people outside of yoga that have been deeply important in helping me understand what’s going on when I practise yoga, and why I should practise in a particular way.

Image: Charlotte Macpherson


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