Wondering why you should care about The Yoga of Strength? If you like fantasy, read this short story or the opening chapters of the book. Prefer mythology? I've got you covered. A yoga aficionado? I've got an explanation of what exactly the "yoga" in The Yoga of Strength means. But if none of those things grab you, this book was tailored to be universal enough that even one who prefers non-fiction would love it (that's what my wife tells me, anyway!)
Thank you for reading on!
Do you ever get that feeling? You know, the kind that sends goosebumps cascading down your back and you sense that you are incredibly small, and yet at the same time totally at peace? Have you ever gazed upon a mountain or the night’s sky and felt not ground under by our seeming insignificance but rather buoyed by it? Something that makes no rational sense, and yet somehow simply is?
For me, it’s definitely the mountains that do it.
My first encounter with a mountain occurred when I was a boy. It was the summertime. I was traveling with my family. My maternal grandparents, people from mainland Canada, were visiting my home island of Newfoundland and we were all on a road trip together. I’m from St. John’s, the capital city of the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador, which is on a little peninsula on the east coast sticking out to be battered about by the frigid waters of the north Atlantic Ocean. We had made the eight hour trip from St. John’s to Gros Morne, which is at the top of the Appalachian mountain range, formed before the island broke off from the continent some millenia ago.
Gros Morne is in a Canadian national park, which meant camping, one of my favourite activities. Just like the awe inspired by looking upon the immense, there is something about the simplicity of a forest that dissolves all of the insecurities and anxieties that crop up from our lives led in the concrete jungle. In addition to campgrounds, the park also maintains a number of hiking trails. Trails that included a long march up the side of the mountain.
When I was a kid, it would be an understatement to say that I did not love exercise. From preferring floating to front crawl when practicing with the swim team, to avoiding the necessary hustle on the basketball court, I always wanted to be somewhere else when I was sweating. Hiking was no different.
Well, before this particular hike.
The Gros Morne hike takes you up one side of the mountain and down the other, starting with a verdant forest, through a very steep and barren stone packed gully, onto a peak that is climatologically similar to the arctic, and back down through scrubland. All in about seven hours.
My well-fed teenage thighs chafed at the mere thought of it.
Through whatever threats and cajolements were necessary, myself and my family set off from the parking lot. I spent the long boring march up to the base of the mountain thinking about how I would rather be home, playing the newest RPG video game that I had for my computer, willing the walk to be over. My body was in the forest, but my mind certainly wasn’t.
When we did actually come to the base of the mountain, I was soaked. I looked up and said to my mother, “we have to do that?” I was close to tears. The whole endeavour, to use the appropriate late ‘90s parlance, sucked. My mother, having long since lost patience with my bellyaching, told me to get my arse in gear and get moving.
The climb was brutal, at least for my flabby and out of shape young body, unused to the rigours of actually moving around. I thought I was going to die at several points, but there was my mother, egging me on, telling me I could do it. My mother and I often butted heads in those days, but I am glad she kept at me, because finally, eventually, we crested the steep lip and were just moments away from the peak. Once I was sufficiently away from the edge, I turned around.
I can still feel it, thinking back on it even today. That feeling of awe, of comfortable insignificance, of how the world was so big and I so small and yet it was perfectly alright. Goosebumps are cascading down my back as I write this, so emotional is the memory.
I suppose that kind of thing is what planted the question. Why? Why do we have this feeling? I was born a rationalist. My father was ever the analytical mind, as was my mother. We never went to church, we never participated in anything that could even be remotely described as spiritual, and yet here is an experience that was completely irrational.
Why do we have this experience of majesty? There is absolutely no reason for it. In evolutionary terms, what could I do with that information? It would not help me find food, it would not help me find a mate, it would not do anything for me except make me feel that all was right with the world. It was a question that my paradigm could not answer. And yet it was without compare in my life. So I sought more of it.
In Grade 10, I went on a band trip to the Rockies. In Grade 12, I participated in an exchange to France that saw me nestled in the French Alps for the better part of six months. I went to Germany in my first year of university and saw the mountains again. I returned to Gros Morne twice with my then girlfriend, now wife. I went to Peru and experienced Machu Picchu.
I chased awe, I chased majesty. And somehow, something shifted in the way I began to see the world. I began to think that maybe things like that don’t need an explanation, maybe by trying to explain them we detract from them in some way. And that was and remains satisfactory to me.
But that’s not the end of the story. When I was a child, I dreamed of becoming a writer. And that’s how it remained - a dream. Like with physical activity, I simply did not want to put the work in. I wanted it all handed to me on a silver platter.
Maturity killed that selfish notion. I started to realize that maybe these are experiences we have to work for, that maybe hard work and sacrifice were good not just because they benefited others, but because they benefited me.
Five years ago, I read two books, On Writing by Stephen King and The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. These men made no bones about it: in order to make it as a writer, you need to actually write. So I did.
It was brutal, agonizing stuff at first. Like that first hike up Gros Morne, my mind would wander and the product was horrendously bad. But I had been told that this was normal and I did not give up. I kept at it.
And then something funny happened. That feeling, the goosebumps and the awe, I started to see it when I read some of the stuff I wrote. Nothing huge, just brief flashes of inspiration that kept me going when I was so close to quitting. And this was accompanied by something unexpected: the pieces started to fit. I started to realize that awe had been happening all throughout my life, and not just with the immensity of nature. When I read books with great meaning, there had been that feeling. When I watched moving movies, ditto.Or listening to music with character.
I started noticing that it had always been happening when I was appreciating art.
There is something about metaphor that allows us to get to the heart of these types of irrational feelings. It allows us to skirt the edges of our own experience and through some kind of alchemy create something that speaks to that part of us, the one that responds with goosebumps and a feeling of calm centredness.
People have described it in a million ways, what the irrational means to them. I do too, in my book, The Yoga of Strength. But that is all irrelevant to your own experience, unless you feel it to be relevant. There is no thought here, only feeling.
If there is one thing I would like my art to communicate it is this: Forget about what people tell you to feel, the dogma and the preconceived notions about what life is. Discover it for yourself. Whatever you are going through, it’s yours. Whether it’s happy, sad, anxious, angry, bored, or a feeling like this. Only you know what is awe-inspiring, what is majestic, what speaks to you.
It is yours, and it always has been yours.