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by Anne Kent Rush
Little, Brown, 2005
Review by Christian Perring, Ph.D. on Sep 6th 2005

The Way of Stretching

As someone who is interested in the health benefits of yoga, but who at the same time is rather skeptical about some of the assumptions of Eastern medicines, I was hoping to like The Way of Stretching.  The back cover explains that it is aimed at those who seek the benefits of increased flexibility but are put off by yoga's esoteric terminology and unnatural-seeming positions.  However, it turned out to be a disappointment, avoiding some of the foreign words not the basic ideas, and substituting other funny positions for the more familiar ones, describing them rather vaguely, and using crudely drawn pictures to illustrate them. 

The book is introduced by three chapters on body stretching, mind stretching, and mind-body basics.  It combines ideas of Western science with Eastern belief, setting out the idea of the connection between mind and body, and the energy that keeps us living and moving (chi or prana).  ("Prana waves move in different patterns to permeate life at all levels, from rocks and plants to people and ideas.")  It aims to prepare the reader for exercises, with a theory of how stretching can be helpful.  The language is mostly simple and the ideas are easy to understand, even if they are not always plausible.

The second part of the book sets out the different exercises (charkas), in seven chapters corresponding to different parts of the body.  Each of these chapter explains the importance of that part of the body, and how it connects to the mind.  For example, it claims that all nerves in the body culminate in the feet, and thus that foot flexibility can relax nerves and send renewed energy all over the body.  There's no evidence made for these claims, and they are not confirmed by Western knowledge of biology, but such concerns are not addressed in the text. 

Each exercise is set out in simple steps, normally with one drawing to accompany it.  The explanations are not always clear.  For example, in the Squat Rest, a person squats with heels flat on the floor, and elbows or forearms on the insides of the knees.  Step 3 says "Gradually relax so that the position, rather than the muscle tension, is holding you in place."  Most people, especially most men, will find it very difficult to get their bottoms close to the floor as in the illustration, and relaxing will only result in falling over.  The book does not say how to avoid this.  Other exercises seem particularly strange.  For example, in Flapper Knees, the person stands with legs apart and moves the knees first away from each other and then toward each other until they touch, and then repeating.  I found that the exercise was mainly good for inducing laughter in others.  Similarly, with Inchworm, the person is meant to form an arch with feet on hands on the floor and mid section high in the air, and then walk the hands forward a few inches, and then the feet, repeating until having covered several yards.  This may be good exercise, but it scared my cat. 

It is hard to follow yoga instructions at the best of times, and reading steps from a book is particularly hard when you are in the middle of a pose.  This book often leaves some important details unclear, such as where you are supposed to put your feet or how the whole motion works.  Books with series of photographs showing a pose are easier to follow than having a verbal description and a crude drawing.  Ideally, one would use the book in conjunction with classes from a yoga teacher, but even then, it isn't clear how much additional help the book would provide. 

Some people may prefer the little drawn sketches to photographs, because they might be less distracting than seeing a real person.  Furthermore, there are probably some poses here that some novices may find useful for getting started.  However, for those who are really intent on doing a whole program of stretching to improve their health, I would suggest finding a different book that provides more guidance about how to do the poses.

 

 

© 2005 Christian Perring. All rights reserved.

 

Christian Perring, Ph.D., is Chair of the Philosophy Department at Dowling College, Long Island, and editor of Metapsychology Online Review.  His main research is on philosophical issues in medicine, psychiatry and psychology.