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Dona Holleman

What is Centered Yoga?

“Dona can be nearly invisible. She does not seem to create a disturbance in space. One
minute she is not in the room then blink your eyes and there she is. Would you please ask
her to include in our training how she manages her presence and energy/electricity/being in
this way. I would like Dona to teach us how to walk. The foundation must be in awareness
and also in how much energy you leak out or something.“

Observation of Suzanne DeWitt, Seattle , July 2003

What is Centered yoga'. Centered yoga is the search for balance between the two
polarities of the human being, the outgoing, extrovert, active side and the ingoing, introvert,
receptive side, in which there is no ‘leakage' of energy, and no holding back. It is the
understanding and application of the old yin-yang symbol, where the two polarities form
one circle. With most of us we manifest one predominant personality. For instance, one
person is more of an outgoing personality, while another one is quieter. Of course this is
not always 100%, and not at all times, hence the ‘dots' within the yin-yang circle.

The outgoing, yang side of us is the one that acts positively upon the world. It tries to
‘change' the outer world according to a personal inner vision. This includes judging,
classifying and labelling the outer world according to one's personal conditioning. The song
of a bird is ‘nice'; the sound of an airplane is ‘not-nice'. Thus the two sounds are ‘changed'
by being labelled and classified, put into two different categories. In this we forget that a
sound is only a sound, a vibration of the air, and that any adjective we apply to it is a purely
human and, in addition a purely personal one. For another bird the bird song may not be
‘nice' at all, but may mean an aggressive assertion of ‘this-is-my-tree-stay-away', and for an
airplane lover the sound of the plane may be ‘music-to- the-ears'. The yang side
corresponds to our thinking and acting side.

The ingoing, yin side is the one that receives, that allows the world to act upon us, instead
of us acting upon the world and trying to change it. It allows the world to act upon up us
and – in doing so – to change us in ways that more often than not are not subject to
verbalization. Thus, instead of labelling the birdsong as ‘nice', if we take time to just listen
to it without throwing anything back in the form of judgement of labelling, we may find that
something happens inside us as a result, something that cannot be defined, but is there
nevertheless. This listening corresponds to the capacity – present in each human being but
with most people not as developed as the thinking side – to pay ‘total attention'. Total
attention is opening the channel from the outer world toward the inner world, allowing the
outer world to ‘come in' and ‘do' to us whatever it has to do.

Our daily life is for the majority spent in the outgoing mode, the ‘changing the world' mode.
This can make us aggressive and very much ‘visible'. In total attention the person who
‘pays total attention' is not there, as the two are mutually exclusive. To ‘think', there has to
be a person who thinks. To' pay attention', there cannot be a person behind it; there is only
the act of observation, of attention. This absence of an outgoing personality can come over
to an ‘onlooker' as ‘being invisible', though, of course, in reality, one is not.

Obviously we cannot spend too much time in this mode, as most of us have to earn a living
and act, but we should at least be aware that there is that other mode of being, that is it
available to everyone, and that it is of vital health to the mind and heart to be able to revert
to it at will, whenever needed. This is the meaning of Centered yoga: the capacity to be in
either mode at will, depending on the circumstances; to be able to balance easily between
the two.

In the application of yoga I have developed a series of ‘principles', which will help you to
understand this other mode of being while practicing yoga and other activities, the one in
which total attention is the rule, not just acting. Attention to the body, to the mind itself, to
other people. In this I am greatly indebted to my superb masters, my horses, who taught
me, and continue to teach me, their masterful skill in being attentive to everything around
them. Being the prey animals they are, that is their only survival tool. As human beings we
have forgotten that we too are ‘prey' animals, and that we too need to pay attention in order
to survive in a world where aggression has become the rule.

Wu-Wei or Not-Doing as Philosophy

In forty years of studying, practicing and teaching yoga I have developed a way of working
with the body, the breath and the mind, which is at once simple and sophisticated. After
having been exposed to so many religions and philosophies, with their myriad rules and
regulations, I finally condensed both the technique of yoga as well as my personal
philosophy down to the simple Taoist practice of wei-wu-wei, or doing-without-doing. This is
the technique where, according to Taoist practices, one acts like water, flowing with the
stream instead of fighting it, to obtain results. In Greek philosophy pantha rhei means
everything is in flux. As human beings the art is to go with the flow, not to offer resistance
but to move with the forces that move us. Fighting the forces, the body, and the mind to
obtain results is called doing. This is the way most people spend their lives, and in this
there is a lot of friction and loss of energy.

Not-doing or wu-wei is to move fluently with the forces, the body, and the mind, not
fighting our way through things. For this, the mind and body have to be in a state of
quiescence in order to reflect without distortion the here and now. Patanjali states that the
mind should be colorless like a crystal which reflects whatever object it is put on. The
Greeks said: gnoti seauton, or know yourself. This self-knowledge is the self-reflection of
the mind and the body, emptied of all thought and actions. Then the mind and body are in
direct contact with the here and now in which the observer, the observed and the act of
observation are one (the core of both Patanjali's and Krishnamurti's teaching). Once the
body and mind are made quiet through self-reflection, one can stay in this state for a while,
or one can move back into acting. Projecting an act, a wish or intent in this state of mental
and physical quiescence has extraordinary power to self-fulfill, as there are no thoughts,
actions and emotions to interfere with it. This is called jan-zu, or the act-that-does-itself,
and has been amply described in such classics as “Zen or the art of Archery” by Herrigel.

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 how 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 vital
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 vital principles, 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 represent the distillation of more than forty 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 vital principles. 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 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. Aligning

7. Breathing

8. Elongating

To know more about them and integrate them in your practice you can consult the books
Centering Down, Dancing the Body of Light, Harmonic Passages and Eyes of Innocence,
all available through Pandion Enterprises VOF.

Wu-Wei or Not-Doing in the Art of Yoga

As far as yoga is concerned, most students practice the asanas from the point of view of
the physical body, as a purely physical exercise. This is called doing. Wu-wei or not-
doing applied to the practice of yoga means that the attention is focused on the inner
energy body more than on the outer physical body. Though the classical Hatha yoga
asanas are performed with great mental and physical precision, they are at the same time
integrated with a specific kind of breathing which forms the bridge between the outer
physical body and the inner energy body. Aligning each posture on the force of gravity with
its inherent rebound effect, which renders the body light and fluid, this breathing is guided
to fill the inner energy body and to make it strong, resilient and vital. Thus, there is an
enhanced capacity for recuperation from the negative influences of daily life. At the same
time, the daily wear and tear on the body is minimized, as the body does not move from a
mere muscular point of view, but rather from the vitality of the inner energy body. Moving
the body from the inner energy body is called doing-without-doing, in which the postures
flow like water (the-act-that-does-itself). This technique is well known in the Far East, and
the years spent in Indonesia, where dancing in this way is natural, have undoubtedly
contributed to developing this concept in the art of yoga.

"The body is my temple and asanas are my prayers. " - BKS Iyengar