Eddie Stern’s One Simple Thing

Driving around Scotland last month, I would’ve been lost many a time without Google Maps. Even after driving the same routes multiple times, I still listened for Siri to tell me what to do.

It was easy. I didn’t have to think. And it took the risk out of driving around in a foreign country. 

It’s also why nearly every yoga book/blog/post you open (especially in Ashtanga) contains their version of a map. Thanks to numbered series, ordered postures, and the wealth of Siris out there to tell us what to do, we no longer have to think for ourselves. All we need to do is follow the directions.

Which makes One Simple Thing unique – because the one simple thing Eddie Stern does not include is a map.

There are no tutorials, no asana illustrations, and absolutely no mention of ‘correct method’ or even a Primary Series to be found.

The absence of such specific tools and labeling in One Simple Thing is notable. Especially when Eddie himself has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga for most of his life. This is language with which he’s intimately familiar. I have to believe his omission is purposeful.

And so as I read on, I decide to pay closer attention to what Eddie doesn’t say as much as what he does, and find there’s meaning in both.

For example, consider the following few sentences on breath:

You can also create the vocalized sound of the breath simply by consciously extending your inhalation and exhalation. The simple act of lengthening the breath closes the glottis slightly, so that you have control over its length.

The word Eddie doesn’t use in his description is ujjayi – though that’s what we would normally label this type of breath, along with descriptors like ‘Darth Vader’ breath or making ‘the sound of the ocean’. All of which puts our focus on the sound itself rather than the source of the sound.

But in how Eddie phrases, he makes clear – the sound is simply an outcome of something much more important: conscious breath.

Because as Eddie clearly states: “Yoga, first and foremost, is a practice for our mind …”

Practice. That commitment we make to our spiritual development is critical. It’s asking ourselves: Who am I? What am I doing here? What should I do next?

And yes, Eddie will tell you, there are lots of ways to practice and he even goes ahead and names a few like practicing yoga or meditation; practicing kindness, gratitude, and forgiveness; living a balanced life; keeping a calm and balanced mind; or serving those in need.

What’s most important is to find and follow a way that feels natural and comfortable for us – one that helps reveal our innate goodness.”

Of course, none of the various forms of practice are mutually exclusive and more likely, beginning and sticking with one will open us to the others. And if you find something isn’t a good fit ?

“Don’t worry about not doing things you don’t really want to do. If you say you want to meditate but you never do it, then you probably don’t want to meditate. Cross it off your list.” 

“All we have to do is make sure that doing a little bit of practice each day becomes a priority in our lives and that we do so until practice becomes a habit, a regular part of our daily routine, or a part of the ritual that makes up the rhythm of our life.”

Eddie Stern

Eddie doesn’t say 6 days a week nor how long it must be. Eddie doesn’t even tell you it must be in the morning.

Herein lies the absolute brilliance of One Simple Thing: it’s practical. It’s user-friendly. And above all, it’s objective.

That’s when it hits me … I look and I look and I realize, there is one word I cannot find anywhere. It’s the word ‘should’. Eddie never seems to use it.

Actually, Chapters 1 – 10 read more like the opening steps of a dialogue than anything else. In fact, if Eddie has any preference at all for specifically what we do or the particular way we go about it, he doesn’t let on.

Perhaps that’s because the real focus of One Simple Thing is not what yoga is (or isn’t) but how and why it works. This is science where the only information that matters is the kind that’s evidence-based, reproducible, and demonstrates significant results.

And now we’ve come to Chapter 11, the last chapter. Which, all by itself, is nearly a third of the entire book. This is where you will discover the root of nearly everything Eddie has offered up until now – in the nervous system.

Turns out, there are some very basic commonalities within yoga and the yoga practice that have been proven to be of significant benefit. Like learning to slow and steady the breath, creating routines that make space for our development, and practicing techniques that help control the mind.

Simple stuff, really. And yet, each come with profound results.

And all the stuff Eddie left out? All those ways we love to break down and categorize our practice? The maps we don’t dare stray from? Turns out, those particulars we cling to are far less relevant and may even get in our way.

One of my favorite stories from the book is when Eddie tells the story of how he got into yoga.

He was a teenager, a punk rocker who wore all black (even died his hair black), and “only ate a vegetable if it was tomato sauce on pizza or the lettuce, pickle, and tomato in a Big Mac.”

But then he became friends with a guy named Ted who worked with him at a record store in Greenwich Village. Ted was totally into vegetarianism and told Eddie about it. Getting healthy sounded kind of cool, so Eddie decided to check it out. Not really knowing how, Eddie picked up a book called The Macrobiotic Way, by Michio Kushi, and followed those recipes as well as the included exercises – which were essentially yoga poses. 

Pretty soon, Eddie started incorporating colors into his wardrobe, died his hair back to its natural red (or as close as he could get it), and his lifestyle radically shifted from rocking the late nights to early morning chanting. 

But this is no yoga-saved-my-life redemption story. It’s a warning:

“The problem with narratives, thought, is that no matter how well intended they are, if you hold too fast to them, they will limit you, no matter how based on freedom they are. Thinking that I was a yogi, or spiritual, became another false identity, one that allowed me to think that I knew better than other people who were not eating a vegetarian diet, doing yoga, or meditating. Any narrative is a bind, any narrative is illusory, any narrative will keep us stuck in avidya.”

And I can’t help but wonder if this is another reason Eddie stays somewhat aloof when it comes down to categories and maps – to leave less confusion. Maybe we’re too dependent on the maps already. Besides, the map is not the territory. It is only a representation of something far more vast and lush and beautiful.

A landscape Eddie encourages us to explore for ourselves.