My favorite book on yoga is still Anatomy of Hatha Yoga, by H. David Coulter. He conveys this great love of his subject without ever taking himself too seriously. He manages to write authoritatively about the nuances of human anatomy as applied to yoga practice, while always maintaining a good-humored humility. Today I’ll excerpt from the short section of the book preceeding Chapter 1. When you get confused or overwhelmed, uninspired or frustrated in your practice, I recommend coming back to these eight basics. Print, cut and hang it up!
8 Basic Premises, with H. David Coulter
There are many schools of hatha yoga approach, and unlimited human differences. That’s ok, because the most important issue in hatha yoga is not strength or flexibility, but awareness. From awareness comes control, and from control comes grace and beauty. “Even postures approximated by beginning students can carry the germ of poise and grace.”
- Focus Your Attention — “Practicing with total attention within the body is advanced yoga, no matter how easy the posture; practicing with your attention scattered is the practice of a beginner, no matter how difficult the posture.” You can focus on your breathing, your tissues and joints being stretched and stressed, your smoothness in transition. But keep it inside.
- Be Aware of Your Breath — Whether inhaling or exhaling to carry you further into a posture, “you get two benefits: diaphragmatic breathing assists the work of stretching the tissues, and your awareness of those effects directs you to make subtle adjustments in the posture.”
- Build Foundations — “Unless you are already a weightlifter or body builder, stretching and becoming flexible should be a secondary concern.” You must first toughen up joint capsules, ligaments and muscles. Build this strength from the inside out (core to extremities). First build the strength, then deepen the stretch. And always, focus your attention in each asana on the “pertinent regional anatomy, both to prevent injury and to refine your understanding of the posture.”
- Moving Into and Out of Postures — Move slowly into and out of postures. As you do, survey your whole body. As you develop awareness, you will smooth out quirks, jerks, and discontinuities.
- Honor the Suggestions of Pain – “Begin your hatha yoga practice with a resolution to avoid pain.” Pain is a gift — don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.
- Cultivate Regularity, Enthusiasm, and Caution — Practice at the same time every day. “Cultivate a frolicsome enthusiasm.” Be careful.
- Take Personal Responsibility — “Study with knowledgeable teachers, but at the same time take responsibility for your own decisions and actions. Your instructor may be strong and vigorous and may urge you on, but you are the final arbiter of what you are capable of doing.” You are the boss of you. Not us. If you get hurt we’ll feel bad, but your health is your responsibility.
- Cultivate Patience — “For any kind of beneficial result, you have to be patient. The main culprit is thinking you should be able to accomplish something without first making consistent effort. That attitude has two unfortunate side effects: first, it diverts your attention from the work before you to what you believe you’re entitled to; and second, it makes it impossible to learn and appreciate what is taking place this minute. So resolve to practice being with your experience in the present moment, enjoy yourself no matter what, and let go of expectations.”
I return again and again to these basics. Be present, joyful and patient. Move with deliberation. Remember always that the benefits of yoga practice go beyond becoming stronger and more flexible. Get on your mat and have fun!