What do Shakespeare and yoga have in common?
Both are very old. Shakespeare is 500 years old; yoga is five thousand years old. Both are very popular. Shakespeare more so than yoga as the latter has only come to the fore in the last few decades. Both are sources of comfort and provide wisdom and entertainment for all occasions – from the plays and sonnets of Shakespeare and from the ancient Vedic texts of yoga.
Both teach us. A lot. About love, families and relationships: every type of relationship, not just the ones between lovers. They help us understand modern life: Shakespeare because he seeks to explain Man’s nature, and yoga because it helps us understand Man’s nature– that is, our own true natures.
Union with nature is a core fundamental to the yogic way of life. And Shakespeare’s scenes are overgrown with Nature in both figurative and literal ways. The four elements – Fire, Water, Earth, Air – are always present and in a constant battle of dualities with each other. Fire vs water: Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke. We do yoga to achieve balance between dualities: the masculine (fire) and feminine (water); the Rajsic (activity) and Tamsic (lethargy) to achieve a Sattvic (pure) state. Yoga also teaches us that we have several bodies: physical, mental, spiritual. The idea of multiple bodies is also seen in Richard II. Richard’s earthly body and kingly body are referred to and seen as distinct from each other. After being usurped by Bolingbroke, Richard accepts this fate and endures it, encouraging his Queen Isabel to forget him and resign herself to a nunnery. There couldn’t be a more yogic approach: ‘always let go’ (vairagya) and contentment (santosha) with one’s lot are two qualities which yoga seeks to cultivate.
Courtly versus country existence, as explored in As You Like It among many other plays, is as topical an issue now as it was in Arden. The yogi, more than the average city dweller, must contend with the clash between trying to lead a life in harmony with their surroundings (nature and people – although the two were never separate to begin with, despite our current thinking) and the urban lifestyle that is so unnatural. Unsurprisingly, it is always country living that triumphs in Shakespeare.
Modern medicine mocks the medieval view on how the body works and how to treat it. Shakespeare and his contemporaries held the view that the body is comprised of four humours – yellow bile (fire), black bile (earth), phlegm (water) and blood (air) – and the fine balance of these govern everything from physicality to personality. As You Like It’s melancholic Jacques with his excess of the black bilious humour is a prime example.
Delve into Ayurvedic medicine – which is a heavy influence on yoga – and it is obvious that the olden ways of the olden days were spot on. According to ayurveda, each person’s body has its unique combination of the four elements which make up our physical and mental constitutions: vata, pita, kapha or combinations thereof. Different names, but the same concepts.
Yoga means union, being at one with. Watching Shakespeare performed well it is impossible not to become one with and lose yourself in the actors, the acting and Shakespeare’s words. All else fades away. Only the present matters. And that is yoga happening, that is meditation happening.
As my friend and constant source of inspiration Gemma Weekes has said “the truer the truth, the more places you see it rearing its head”. The fact that Shakespeare and Yoga – so disparate in appearances – are still with us is a testament to their truth. Both are timeless and will be around for a long, long, long time. And what a glorious notion that is.