Anatomy of Hatha Yoga: A Manual for Students, Teachers, and Practitioners

The Anatomy of Hatha Yoga, by David H. Coulter (Body and Breath,

While not for everyone, this ranks as one of the most impressive books to come our way in the last several years. Coulter earned a doctorate in anatomy in 1968 and spent the next two decades teaching anatomy (and doing some NIH- and NSF-funded neuroscience research), mainly at the University of Minnesota and Columbia University. He also has been practicing yoga since 1974, studied at the Himalayan Institute, and contributed to their magazine, Yoga International. He really knows whereof he speaks, and his mastery of human physiology is evident throughout the 600-plus pages of his book. So is his engaging intellect, which brings a vigorously philosophical attitude, by turns whimsical and thought-provoking, to the proceedings.

Coulter sets out to explicate the different, interrelating systems of the body, organizing his work by different classes of asanas: Chapter One, “Movement and Posture,” focuses on “The Neuro-Musculoskeletal System” and takes the reader through several stretches and prone poses; Chapter Three, “Abdominopelvic Exercises,” focuses on poses such as “Supine Leg Lifts,” “Yoga Sit-ups,” “Sitting Boat Postures,” et al.; Chapter Eight, “The Headstand,” primarily focuses on the cardiovascular system, the upper extremities, “Breathing Issues,” and related topics; and so on. Coulter’s discussions of the structures of the body are illustrated by highly detailed line drawings taken from classic anatomy texts of centuries ago, and his text is populated with sophisticated anatomical nomenclature that might seem off-putting at first but in time seems more familiar, like a once-strange landscape where one has finally learned to identify the native flora. There are also scores of black-and-white photographs of adroitly modeled asanas. This is properly understood as an anatomy text, not an instructional yoga book, and it is definitely not a good introductory text for yoga beginners. But, as his title suggests, Coulter illuminates the anatomy of asana more fully than just about any other yoga-related book you can find. (Indeed, the only comparable book that comes to mind is Mukunda Stiles’ Structural Yoga Therapy: Adapting to the Individual, published earlier this year by Samuel Weiser, Inc.; it is arguably more accessible as a yoga manual than Coulter’s book but not as authoritative or exhaustive on anatomy.) Advanced students and yoga teachers will want Anatomy of Hatha Yoga as a desk reference and will find themselves consulting it repeatedly in the years ahead.