The Yoga of Shakespeare
by Heidi E. Spear
Why has William Shakespeare’s work remained popular throughout centuries and across continents? It’s because his plays reflect the human condition. Passionate dialogue, poetic soliloquies, and silence unabashedly portray emotions, questions, and drama that are still relevant more than four centuries after they were written. Shakespeare’s Hamlet tells actors, “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with this special observance, that you o’erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end both at the first and now was and is to hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature.” In other words, the purpose of theater is to hold a mirror up to humanity, and the actor’s job is to make the dialogue believable. Shakespeare’s plays portray what we still need and want to hear.
So, where’s the connection to yoga?
Many of us come to yoga because of a nagging restlessness within. Whether it’s the restlessness of wanting to lose weight, find balance, reach enlightenment, experience joy, or release tension, we come to yoga with the desire to find peace of mind and well-being. How does yoga make us healthier, happier, and able to live more skillfully? The answer is laid out in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Written thousands of years ago, the Sutras are philosophical threads explaining how to practice yoga, and how it works. The Sutras teach ways to practice seeing life as it is, not identifying with the mind’s judgments, projections, dramas, and fabrications. The physical practice of yoga helps cultivate equilibrium in the face of life’s unpredictable twists and turns, what Hamlet calls “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” When practicing the postures, the goal is to feel stable and comfortable. The Sutras say, “Make the posture steady and sweet, and then the dualities disappear.” This golden thread of the Sutras—the disappearance of duality—is what Shakespeare illustrates on the stage.
Dualism means believing that things in life exist in opposition to something else. It’s the belief that “there are two sides to every story.” However, the truth is that there are more than two sides to every story. Anytime you think there is just this or just that, you are creating dualistic terms. Anytime you begin to think “me” versus “her,” you see only two options rather than the great expanse of what is.
Take the example of hot and cold. We call them opposites, but they are not opposites—they are different experiences. There are varying degrees of hot and cold, and what feels hot to one person might feel scalding to someone else. Instead of two options, there are myriad possibilities. When we forget those possibilities and focus on dualism, our belief limits our life, our happiness, and our ability to see what’s real.
The idea of opposites creates opposition where there is connection. Hot and cold aren’t opposing, they are connected. One doesn’t exist without the other. The same goes for light and dark. And it’s the same for who you are. You may think of yourself as a physical being, and eternity as something else: this mortal life as opposed to that eternal consciousness. That is dualism and, according to yoga philosophy, it isn’t real. Yoga comes from the Sankskrit word for “union,” referring to the unity of who you are with all that is eternal. Yoga is experiencing this unity, not separation.
Hamlet says, “There’s nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” When you think in dualistic terms of “good” and “bad,” it can lead you to think “me” versus “him.” You may worry that if he gets something, then you won’t get what you need. Dualistic thinking creates opposition rather than harmony. It’s how a culture creates an “other,” and how prejudice emerges: you are different than me. Shakespeare explores dualism in his portrayal of the Jew-versus-Christian divide in 16th-century Italy. In The Merchant of Venice, Shylock says:
I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?
Much of this play turns on the way society and religion separate the Jew and the Christian, creating deadly opposition. This excerpt attempts to break down the dualistic barrier, an advanced concept for Shakespeare’s time, and of course still relevant today. At the core, it points out, Christian and Jew are united in their humanity. People are not opposite to other people.
Once you begin to notice how often you see two options instead of many, you can practice coming up with a third option, and even open to the possibility that there are options you can’t yet imagine. Experiment with avoiding dualistic thinking when you approach a conversation, a potentially stressful event, or a new experience. Try not to think it could go either “well”or “terribly.” See what happens when you don’t have expectations. That’s where the magic begins, when you don’t have to know all the answers or control the outcomes. Wait and see what might surprise you.
As you learn to see life not as dualistic and the options as numerous, you begin to live a fuller life. Your compassion for yourself and others grows. Opening your mind beyond dualism, you will be able to treat obstacles as opportunities for new direction, and create solutions that dualistic limits don’t allow. After Hamlet and his friend Horatio witness Hamlet’s father’s ghost, Horatio has trouble believing in what seems “wondrous strange.” Hamlet replies, “And therefore, as a stranger, give it welcome. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Heidi E. Spear, MA, ABD, is a Kripalu Yoga teacher who holds graduate degrees in comparative literature and performing arts from New York University and Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. She studied and worked at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London, and has presented her work throughout the United States and England.
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