It is always so interesting what we bring to our horse lives in terms of experience. Our pursuits or interactions with the world outside the barn are destined to impact those inside it. Consider what an argument with a colleague can mean to your lesson later that day, or how traffic can add tension to an already tight schedule between work, horse, and home. Yoga teacher and horsewoman Cathy Woods says that making yoga a part of your horse life offers wonderful benefits, in and out of the saddle. We caught up with Cathy to talk about why she feels yoga and horsemanship aren’t so different from each other and her new book YOGA FOR RIDERS.
TSB: Your book YOGA FOR RIDERS provides a number of parallels you have designated as illustrative of the similarities between yoga and horsemanship. How do these parallels provide horse lovers a new or different path to better horsemanship and/or improved riding?
CW: Many people seem to view yoga as a form of stretches done on a mat, but when true yoga is examined deeper, it becomes clear that it’s really a way of life – a way to live with greater awareness. There are 8-limbs/aspects to yoga which teach us how to better interact with our inner and outer world. This enhanced way of living can apply to horsemanship as well as other areas of life. In essence, the parallels are things we should be doing in our yoga practice but also principles we’d want to apply to good horsemanship. Some parallels include: slowing down; mindfulness; and becoming body, breath, and energy aware, to name a few. These can deepen our experience with horses, expand our learning on the ground and in the saddle, and enrich our relationship with our horses and other sentient beings, which enhances personal growth and adds richness to life. It’s a win/win!
TSB: Were you a yogini or a horsewoman first? What made you first connect the two pursuits?
CW: As odd as it may sound, I was born a yogini (a female drawn to and dedicated to yogic tradition). I had an inner pull toward yoga and had yogic awareness from a very young age and long before I was formally introduced to the practice. I quickly realized that being a yogini was not separate from anything thing else, such as my dance and fitness interests and my horsemanship. Being a yogini is a way of life – “How you do anything is how you do everything.” It has put me in touch with subtle energies, and equestrians know how important that can be in horsemanship, from energy shifts to intuition. I clearly saw that applying a yogic attitude to my horsemanship made a positive difference. Things like being “present,” or what head and energy space I was in when I went to the barn, factored in to what my experience with my horse was on a given day. I organically came to realize that yoga and horsemanship were not so different from each other and instead, actually, a likely pairing.
TSB: You teach people a combination of postures, breathing, and meditative exercises, on the mat and in the saddle. Is there a balance to strike between yoga practice off the horse and yoga practice on the horse? Which do you prefer?
CW: I personally find it quite enjoyable and beneficial to do some gentle yoga poses, breathing techniques, and meditation in motion on horseback. However, I would say the mat practice is more important. I like to think of the mat and meditation cushion as a training ground for life – a place for personal groundwork and collection. Once skills are honed or mastered there, we naturally begin applying them to our horsemanship and other life situations – things like, breathing through challenges, heightened focus, body awareness, and the ability to self-correct when out of alignment or tense. We learn these skills best when practiced regularly on the mat. Then they become second nature off the mat as well.
TSB: If you had to name one, most important benefit of exploring yoga in order to improve your horsemanship, what would it be?
CW: The heightened self-awareness that comes from practicing yoga, along with becoming more mindful and present. “Yoga is an awareness practice” – we become more keenly aware of ourselves on all levels, including our inner workings. This also translates to tapping in to inner wisdom, making decisions and choices from a clear, centered place. We also gain the ability for improved situational awareness, which is paramount in horsemanship.
TSB: What is one lesson you hope readers will take away from your book?
CW: That true yoga is SO much more than just twisted, contorted poses on a mat! It is really a practice for living well and a path for self-realization. It’s a means to spend integrated, quality time with all aspects of ourselves — body, mind, and spirit – and then carry that integrated awareness into all that we do.
TSB: You are based in the Smoky Mountains. What is the best part about where you live and where you ride?
CW: There is so much I love about this region, but one of the best parts is the sacredness of these ancient mountains (they are the oldest in the world). They feel deep-rooted, comforting, and safe. We have no crowds, and we get to live very close to nature. As far as riding, the Smokies have endless and diverse trails – everything from vistas, beautiful creeks and rivers, lovely lakes, and amazing vegetation, to abundant wildlife and rich Appalachian history. I’ve traveled and ridden in many parts of the United States, yet I’m always amazed at what the Great Smoky Mountains have to offer in comparison. Though rugged, it’s truly some of the best riding ever!
TSB: If you were trapped on a desert island with a horse and a book, what breed of horse would it be and which book would you choose?
CW: The horse breed is easy: I’d go with a Quarter Horse. In my opinion, they are the best, all-around breed. A Quarter Horse could be a good companion, a leisure horse, or a working horse. As far as a book, a survival book would likely be a smart choice, but I’d probably go with The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. In a nutshell, the Yoga Sutras are a collection of 196 short verses that serve as a guide to attain wisdom and self-realization through yoga. What better to do if trapped on a desert island than to become self-realized and extrapolate Universal Truth!
TSB: If you could do one thing on horseback that you haven’t yet done, what would it be?
CW: A European or Icelandic village to village, several-day ride/tour with my good friend and program assistant Amanda – we travel well together and have had many great adventures.
TSB: What is the quality you most like in a friend?
TSB: What is the quality you most like in a horse?
CW: Good sense.
TSB: What is your greatest fear?
CW: Loss and dying. Clearly if these are issues to me, I’m not yet an Enlightened Yoga Master (nor do I claim to be). I’m also a bit of a germaphobe – getting sick or injured scares me a bit, so I try to use these concerns to make good choices.
TSB: What is your greatest extravagance?
CW: I love owning and residing on 30+ acres in the Smoky Mountains. Though it may sound extravagant, it’s actually pretty rustic, and it really allows me to live simply.
TSB: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
CW: I’d love to be calmer and more patient. I’m not naturally wired that way, and it’s a constant practice for me. One might think being a yogini I’d be super chill, but that’s one of the reasons I practice yoga – it’s a tool that helps bring balance to the imbalances.
TSB: What’s in your refrigerator at all times?
CW: Cheese! I like to think I have no addictions, but I might be slightly addicted to cheese 😊
TSB: What is your idea of perfect happiness?
CW: Being soul-content in all life’s situations.
TSB: If you could have a conversation with one famous person, alive or dead, who would it be?
CW: That’s a tough question, because I miss my parents greatly, and they were full of good, practical wisdom – I’d love to converse with them again. But a bit more outside the box, probably Paramahansa Yogananda, an Indian monk and guru who died in 1952. There was something special about him (some deemed him a saint), not to mention his profound understandings and teachings about life, death, and beyond. I am drawn to adept individuals with this kind of life-knowledge and wisdom.
TSB: If you could go back to December 2019 and go one place anywhere in the world with as many or as few people as you would like, where would you go, who would you bring, and what would you do?
CW: My husband Robert and I enjoy taking extended RV trips. Though I’ve traveled to many places in the US and abroad, I’ve still not made it to the Red Rock Parks of Utah (Bryce, Zion, etc.). This was on our 2020 travel list, which was of course postponed. We’d sightsee, spend time in nature, hike, and make more good memories! The trips we enjoy most are to natural destinations and just the two of us (and our cats)!
TSB: What is your motto?
CW: Live well, live creatively, live deliberately, and live in a balanced way. Be present and take journeys (inward and outward)!
Cathy’s book YOGA FOR RIDERS is available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.
CLICK HERE for more information or to order.
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