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Yoga – The Reliable Raft

Gary Kraftsow has long been a hero of mine but I did not know of his own personal health “opportunity” until I read this piece, Radical Healing, in the current issue of Yoga & Joyful Living (formerly Yoga International). Kraftsow won’t allow his brain tumor and surgery to be called an ordeal.

I’ve admired him because of the medical studies on yoga he conducted which got wide coverage:

Kraftsow may be best known as the architect of rigorous studies of yoga’s efficacy. He showed that yoga can alleviate chronic back pain in a study funded by the National Institutes of Health, the results of which were published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

That’s the sort of credibility yoga needs and won’t garner with gym rats taking a weekend yoga teaching course and hanging out a shingle.

In the three hour teaching seminar I took with him, Gary Kraftsow also impressed me greatly with his knowledge base, intuition and approach. So I own both his books. Perhaps he simply resonated with me because of my own health opportunities. He articulated my experience. I feel I have a sense now of how and why.

Of his health crisis, he says, “I would never wish it on my worst enemy. But if it happens to you, it’s an extraordinary opportunity to grow.” In the hospital, when the haze lifted, Kraftsow discovered new depths of stillness. “The stillness of meditation is one thing, but this stillness—I hadn’t had any experience of it before,” he says.

I’ve said, and never lightly, that yoga saved my life. Not simply the poses, but all of it. This article on Kraftsow explains what yoga teaches beyond the asanas.

Kraftsow stresses two aspects of yoga – the individuality (which is the primary difficulty in conducting medical studies) and that yoga is more than the physical poses (asanas). He properly notes that asana is mentioned only twice in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras.

“My desire for all those who have only been exposed to the asana part of yoga is that they have an opportunity to appreciate the depth and breadth of this great tradition,” he says. “When you have a life-threatening or serious condition, you can’t rely on what you could rely on before. Yoga is like a raft that can help you go through these things. But in my case it wasn’t asana. It wasn’t even breathing. It was attitude, prayer. These are going to help you when you can’t do anything else.”

Just as illuminating, the piece fleshes out the Kraftsow’s principles by following Ellen Fein’s pilgrimage after she became ill. She came to study with Gary Kraftsow and he helped her. Regarding his teaching method –

“It’s so individual,” says Kraftsow. “You never know what it’s going to be, what gives somebody a sense of pleasure, fulfillment. What we as teachers are trained to do is read body language. When someone makes a connection to something that’s meaningful, they’ll light up. That’s like a clue, and then you’re like a treasure hunter. You follow it, try to bring it out, and help them make a connection to something that can give them some sense of joy.”

Here’s just a clue to one part of his teaching which touches on the layers of the body (some translations call the layers sheaths).

The cornerstone of Kraftsow’s practice is pancha maya, a model of the human system referenced in ancient Indian texts. According to this model, also known as the kosha model, we are comprised of five dimensions or layers: the physical body (annamaya), the breath or life force (pranamaya), the intellect (manomaya), the personality (vijnanamaya), and the heart, which is the seat of bliss (anandamaya). In the days leading up to surgery, Kraftsow plumbed every dimension of his being.

Yoga teaches so much, so much that is valuable and helpful.