YOGA: The Spirit and Practice of Moving into Stillness by Erich Schiffmann was one of the first yoga books I purchased. It was on the suggested reading list for my teacher training, and I was immediately intrigued by its description. It has been a reference I frequently reach to ever since. It outlines a process for finding a more meditative state in an asana practice. Though the techniques culminate in what we usually think of as traditional meditation, Schiffmann spends most of his time describing how find a stillness of mind in all situations that can lead to self-exploration and self-discovery. Schiffmann’s metaphorical language describes energetic sensations and mental processes that are usually vague in a way that is easy to understand. In part one, he says, “Stillness is dynamic. It is unconflicted movement, life in harmony with itself, skill in action.” This quote is an example of another thing I like about Schiffmann’s writing. The term “skill in action” is a definition of yoga that arises from ancient yogic literature. Without being heavy-handed, he honors the deep traditions of yoga while describing his methods.
The first two parts of the book focus on finding motivation for movement deep within the body. Schiffmann describes how to use the breath to inform movement, how to create lines of energy within poses, and how to find the best challenge for your body - something he calls “playing the edge.” He offers introductions to address everything involved in practice - body, breath, and mind. He breaks things down in a very approachable way, and carries concepts throughout the book, exemplifying how the practitioner should always be checking in with the intentions of the practice.
In the third part, the longest in the book, Schiffman describes many asana in detail. He breaks them into logical categories and has multiple options with pictures for each pose. There are excellent step-by-step instructions with encouragement along the way to remain present and patient. In more advanced poses, he repeatedly mentions muscles that must be strong or flexible in order to come into the pose. This makes the book useful as a manual, allowing the practitioner to gauge inherent ability and learn safe ways to improve. Because he often refers to concepts introduced earlier in the book, the reader is encouraged to find the best version of each pose for them, adjusting so that energy can move freely and they can find more ease.
In the fourth part of the book, Schiffman describes his take on meditation. He says, “Meditation means listening...the practice of yoga is a way of learning to be in this meditative listening state all the time.” Meditation is the culmination of the process he’s been outlining throughout the book. Though he has been describing how to listen to the mind and experience stillness in action, meditation is the true stillness. He emphasizes two key benefits of this kind of meditation - “1) experiencing the truth of who you are, and 2) mentally listening inwardly for the wisdom and guidance of Infinite Mind, God…” This form of meditation is a true self-exploration that emphasizes the wisdom you already have within you, and the practice allows you to find stillness and quiet so you can listen to this wisdom.
Schiffman’s writing in this book has informed my practice on many levels. The practices that he describes are a perfect example of “sthira sukham asanam” - yoga sutra 2.46. There are many translations of this short sutra, but the essence of it is that asana practice is the most fulfilling when strength, stability, and effort are accompanied by sweetness, comfort, and peace. It is only when we find a balance in the energetic body and the physical body that we can find the stillness of mind that Schiffman describes. I highly recommend this read for anyone who is looking to take a more internal exploration of their practice.