Centered Yoga

The Eight Vital Principles of Practice

In 1981 I wrote ‘Centering Down.’ It was my first attempt to describe – not the practice of yoga itself – but the way to practice. Centering Down became straight away a classic and is still in demand. For many schools and practitioners it has become the basic book for practice. In it I describe the beginning and the evolution of what became the eight principles of practice.
I conceived of these principles originally as eight, then they became five, then seven, and now they are back to being eight. This shows that evolution is ongoing, and that new truths are always explored and found.

Many people are now applying the principles of practice, and thus I thought it opportune to give a short history of them and to explain them in more detail. Further explanation you can find in Dancing the Body of Light, the sequence to Centering Down, and Harmonic Passages, by Dona Holleman and Renato Turla.

There is a sentence in the Bhagavad-Gita that I read many years ago: “Yoga karmasu kausalam”, in English, “Yoga is skill in action.” This means any action we may undertake, in any arena of our lives. Put another way, it is not what we do that becomes yoga, but rather the way we do it. One might perform a complex asana that is wholly devoid of skill or beauty. Conversely, a simple sidewalk stroll may be infused with sublime beauty and masterful skill. What makes the difference is our state of mind; it alone determines whether an action is ‘yoga’ or mere movement.

The principles of practice represent the distillation of fifty years of research, reflection and experience, and they are meant to help students incorporate the “yoga state of mind” in practice and in daily life. As with any worthwhile pursuit, I owe much to the people who have inspired and helped me along the way, especially Jiddu Krishnamurti, Vanda Scaravelli, B.K.S. Iyengar, Mabel Todd, and Carlos Castaneda. I first met Krishnamurti in 1960, and spent the next twenty years attending his talks and conducting private interviews with him. Through him I met both B.K.S. Iyengar (who became my yoga instructor), and Vanda Scaravelli (who became my closest friend and mentor).

While these teachers provided encouragement, insight and instruction in the asanas, it was my task to find a balance between the physical practice of Iyengar, the more feminine aspect that Vanda emphasized, and the meditative state of mind that Krishnamurti espoused and embodied. At about this same time in the mid-1960s, I also began a close examination of the works of Carlos Castaneda. From him I learned about ‘intent’ and (as he calls it) ‘the assemblage point’ or ‘reality tunnel’ in which each of us lives. Castaneda underscored the notion that we are free to change this reality tunnel at any time we wish, and that it is sufficient merely to intend such a change. In 1980, I came across a book written by Mabel Todd in the 1930s. From her I began to understand the importance of alignment in the body and the center of gravity, or ‘hara,’ located in the lower abdomen. Energized by her work and her concepts of rooting, centering, alignment and breathing, I revolutionized my own yoga practice and wrote my first book, Centering Down, in 1981.

Whether they knew it or not, each of these remarkable people has helped me to appreciate and animate the eight principles of practice. As formulated by Krishnamurti, “the meditative state of mind,” or total attention is the first of these. This “alpha state” forms the foundation on which the other principles rest, and is the glue that keeps them together. Total attention is the first step toward achieving that rare and breathtaking quality that is the focus and reward of our yoga practice. Though I describe these principles in a linear fashion, that is, one after the other, they form in reality one whole, and are always done simultaneously. It is thus not a one-two-three sequence, but rather one movement that goes on uninterrupted throughout each posture as well as in our daily life, as these principles are not only meant for use on our yoga mat, but can be applied at all times and everywhere. Each principle contains within it all the others and cannot be applied separately – the first one contains already the last one, and they all come back to centering body and mind in such a way that there is a natural physically and mentally meditative state at all times and everywhere, not at certain times and in certain places or postures. One can compare this to the earth in globe form, or as a flat map. On the flat map there is a beginning (for instance in
L.A.) and an end (Sydney), but this is only illusion, because in reality the earth is a globe and there is no ‘beginning-point’ or ‘end-point’. Or one can compare this to white light going through a prism, which makes all the rainbow colors. Each principle is one color of the rainbow, but part of the totality, which is the white light.

In the application of these principles of practice it is important to understand not only the physical body, how it is put together and how it functions, before adding the asanas to it, but also the workings of the mind and the energy body. The eight principles are meant to give the body the maximum space and ease in the poses by following its natural lines and its relationship with gravity, the air pressure and other stresses imposed on it by the environment that it is subject to. This is only possible if we work from a meditative state of mind or total attention. In this state of mind we can initiate our movements with the energy body, which then in turn pulls and guides the physical body through those movements.

The eight principles of practice are:

  1. The meditative state of mind or the not-doing of the mind
  2. Relaxation or the not-doing of the physical body
  3. Intent or the not-doing of visualization
  4. Rooting
  5. Centering
  6. Bodyscape
  7. Breathing
  8. Elongating