The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Ten Secrets of Hatha Yoga

If I had to choose a single discipline to have the most positive effect in every arena of my life, it would be Yoga.  Now, the sneaky thing of course is that the term “yoga” covers a variety of linked disciplines, from the meditative to the physical to the social, so I’ve got most of what I need to be an awake, aware human being handled.  If I had to choose one major division, it would be Hatha yoga, the science of posture…because while you can enter here and tie all the other aspects together, if you enter at the more esoteric aspects, it is quite possible to remain ignorant of, and neglectful toward, your body. 

Seen it many times.

The number of different aspects that can all link here include health, fitness, ethics, psychology, stress management, social theory, epistemology, and philosophy. Good stuff! 

But of course, it is possible to fall into traps with yoga, as with anything else. Injury, obsession, imbalance, rigidly dualistic thought, “dreaming that you are awake” and more area all possible negative side effects.  Here are some thoughts based on my own fifty years of experience.  (BTW—that experience was not all high quality.  I first practiced yoga from watching “Yoga For Health” with Richard Hittleman on television, at the age of about eight.   Other books and videos followed. I didn’t start taking actual classes until my twenties, became more serious in my 30’s, and  finally attended a yoga teacher’s training in my 40’s.)

So.  Ten thoughts on Hatha Yoga.

1) The quality of yoga is the quality of your attention, NOT the depth or amplitude of your postures, which are mere gymnastics. 

2) You must learn the difference between intensity and pain.  It is GOOD to take a yoga pose to the point of intensity, where you are challenged.  But never let pain go above a “3” on a scale of 1-10.

3) Don’t compare yourself to other people in the class.  That mega-flexible teenager next to you might be a cheerleader thinking about her boyfriend as she ties herself in a knot.   If your total focus and relaxation takes your head one inch closer to your knees…you’re doing fine.

4) Hatha yoga is a breathing exercise more than anything else.  Imagine the thread of your breath as a smooth and constant thing.  Now…tie that thread in a knot, but maintain the smooth breath.  If the breath gets “hitchy” or you start holding or forcing your breath, YOU ARE TOO DEEP.  I don’t care what the teacher says.  The teacher is not inside your body.  You are an adult, responsible for your own experience.  Never, ever, break the thread of a smooth (if intense) breath.  If you do that, you will never hurt yourself.

5) Stress is not the problem in life.   STRAIN is the problem.  And “strain” is basically the result of a stress load beyond the body/mind’s capacity for compensation and integration.  Luckily, before you slip into strain,  yourself, your breathing will get shallow, fast, and interrupted.  Which means that you can use it as the “canary in the coal mine”—learn to pay attention to your breathing, and you can always tell if you are losing your internal balance.    Learn to shift your breathing back to the low, slow, smooth breath taught in yoga, and you can take ANY life situation and “roll” with it.

6) There are three aspects to any physical performance: breath, motion, and structure (posture).    Each is created by the interaction of the other two.    Let your attention rotate between these three as you move within and between postures.

7) Hatha Yoga is a perfect way to compensate for athletic activity.  Unlike athletic activities, Yoga is primarily about focus and relaxation, not performance.  Performance is a secondary side effect, not the essential point.   On the other hand, the term “yoga” merely means “to unite”, so any activity done with body-mind awareness can be a “yoga”.  However…many activities, (say, running) require compensatory motion after you finish, or they will distort your body.   Yoga is self-compensatory.

8) If a student doesn’t have a physical practice, and doesn’t have access to a teacher, I suggest that they investigate the Five Tibetans, which is probably the best movement system that can be learned from a book.  It is not complete.  To make it more complete, I’d say add the “Joint Mobility” drills Scott Sonnon has on YouTube.  Together…not at all a bad substitute for a yoga practice.

9) If you focus, you will find that over time your body releases more power, grace, flexibility and so forth.  This means you’ll have to go “deeper” to find the same “edge”.  This is where progression originates.  Yoga is not “for flexible people.”   Flexibility…and strength, and balance, are side-effects of practicing yoga.  You’re mistaking the bending grass for the wind.

10)  Here’s the best part.  Combine the breathing you learn that produces relaxed focus and power with the “Five Minute Miracle” technique.  In other words, every 3-4 hours stop and practice sixty seconds of yoga breathing.   The greatest stress-buster in the world, and a major route to taking what you learn in yoga OUT of the classroom and into your life.



Curt said...


I cannot agree with you more.

I feel so much better since I started yoga just a few years ago.

I also feel very indebted to you as a teacher because I, as a student, have been following your advise since I started yoga, even before you wrote it. (If feel like a have a Steve riding on my shoulder!)

Parents, do your kids a favor and start them in yoga. Do yourself a favor and go with them!

Steven Barnes said...