For those of us who do not have the majority of the day to devote to various yogic practices, Ashtanga Yoga, as taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, can combine all eight limbs into one practice.
The Breath, the Bandhas, and Drishti – Key Aspects of the Practice
The breath is the most central aspect of this practice. During the practice we use a loud breath; “Breathe with sound,” Pattabhi Jois (Guruji) instructed. The sound is created in the back of the throat and can sound like an ocean in the distance, or like water running through a faucet. While the breath should be loud and strong, it should not be forced but instead should follow the rhythm of your natural breath – “free breathing,” Guruji would say. Within one breath, the inhalation and exhalation should be the same length. (That length may change, though, depending on the posture.) One should never hold the breath during this particular asana practice. The breath should keep moving, and it is in fact what moves us through the practice.
While the postures we practice help us to cleanse our bodies and to shape them in a way that is most beneficial for prana or energy to run through them, the fundamental work being done during our practice is on a subtle level. While one purpose of breathing with sound is to help create an internal heat in the body, which leads to a general detox as impurities are “burned away,” or sweated out of the body, the bigger purpose of the loud breath is to fill the mind, drowning out one’s internal dialogue and leaving no room for thoughts. What is our main purpose in practicing yoga? Self-realization. How do we realize the Self – our true, Divine inner nature? Shut off that mind, which is not the true self but rather a tool of the ego. Who are we when the thoughts stop? As we are taught in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, yoga is the cessation of thought waves in the mind. When this is experienced, we stop separating ourselves from the Universal; through stilling the mind, we achieve union (yoga) with our divine Source.
The breath, which serves as a doorway into the energy body, can work in various ways as a tool to stabilize the mind. This can be seen even in the simple example of someone who is upset or angry taking a few deep breaths in order to calm down. Steadying the breath steadies the mind, as the mind naturally follows the breath; so when the breath is calm, the mind becomes calm. In Ashtanga Yoga, the audible breath mainly serves to still the mind by pushing one’s thoughts from it, by drowning them out. But it also draws our attention inward and away from external sounds. This is a technique of pratyahara– withdrawal of the mind from the senses – the fifth of the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga. Senses deliver fuel for the mind in the form of sense objects (and in turn the mind tends to develop desires, which leads to suffering). But without the distraction of the fuel of the senses, the mind can become reabsorbed into its Source.
Furthermore, putting our emphasis or attention on the breath instead of on the postures we practice also helps us to realize the impermanence of all forms. As nothing impermanent is held onto as we move through the series of postures, the practice can become a meditation on impermanence.
Another tool used to stabilize the mind is the drishti, or gaze. One’s eyes should not wander around the room during practice, but should stay focused on one point. Depending on the pose, the drishti varies – one looks towards either the nose, the third eye (between the eyebrows at ajna chakra), the navel, the hand, the toes, the thumbs, to the left, to the right, or upward. While each pose has a particular drishti that goes along with it, the most important thing is not where to look, but that the practitioner is holding a steady gaze. When the eyes wander, the mind wanders with them, and thus drishti, another method of pratyahara (withdrawal of the mind from the senses), helps us stabilize the mind. With the use of drishti, the practice can more easily become internal and meditative.
Bandhas are internal energy locks – energetic seals that lock prana into the body. Tricky to explain, they are something to be felt, or experienced, and they naturally develop with the practice. There are three bandhas: jalandhara bandha, the throat lock; uddiyanabandha, the lower abdominal lock; and mula bandha, the root lock. Mula bandha, generally the most mystifying of the three, can be felt as an internal lifting above the center of the pelvic floor, at the perineum. Uddiyana bandha can be engaged by drawing in the abdomen about four fingers’ width below the navel. Jalandhara bandha is engaged by bringing the chin to the sternum, but it is only fully engaged during pranayama, when holding an inhale - never during asana practice.
The bandhas work like a seal to keep energy within the body, and to direct it into the energy channels of the subtle body. Uddiyana can be translated as “flying up,” and, without going into too much detail on the workings of the subtle body, when both mula and uddiyana bandhas are engaged, they basically work together to create an upward lift in the body’s energy. Ideally, mula bandha and uddiyana bandha are engaged not just during your practice but throughout the day.
In the traditional, “old-school” Ashtanga practice (as taught to me, Aharona, by my teacher, Nancy Gilgoff – and as taught to her by Pattabhi Jois, beginning when she met him in the early 1970’s), there are four set series of postures: Primary, Intermediate, Advanced A, and Advanced B (First, Second, Third, and Fourth series). A fifth series of sorts (which is not in fact a set series) is known as the “Rishi series” and is a sort of “graduation.” (In the more recent evolution of Ashtanga, the Third and Fourth series have been spread out into three series – Third, Fourth, and Fifth, with the Rishi series as a sixth.)
The Primary Series, or Yoga Chikitsa, detoxifies and realigns the body, giving it a general cleanse. Intermediate Series, or Nadi Shodhana, awakens the energy body, or subtle body, through opening and cleansing the body’s subtle energy channels (nadis, or “little rivers”). (Both series meanwhile work to increase one’s strength and flexibility, and to calm the mind.) Primary, which contains a great deal of forward-bending, and Intermediate, which contains a great deal of back-bending, work together as a system, balancing one another, and too much of one, over a very long period of time, without an incorporation of the other, can lead to imbalances in the body. The Advanced Series move one further into building strength and flexibility, and, of course, we hope, that ultimate aim of Self-realization – to experience our true nature. While all practitioners begin with the Primary Series and then progress through the series at their own pace (generally practicing one series per day and alternating between them), one never stops returning to the practice of the Primary Series, at least once a week, even if they progress into the Advanced Series. Ashtanga Yoga also includes a particular series of pranayama, which one can be taught after learning the Intermediate Series.
Guruji was known to say, “Practice, and someday you teach, and all is coming.” Your best teacher is your own practice. “99% practice, 1% theory.” Ashtanga Yoga is meant to be a daily practice. We take one day per week off for rest, traditionally Saturdays. Other than that, and other than missing practice due to illness (this practice is contra-indicated if one has fever, but can be beneficial in the case of a cold), we take off for New Moons and Full Moons, and women take off for the entire length of their “women’s holiday” (see “Holidays” below). Daily practice is crucial for this system to work to heal and develop the body(ies – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual…). (The minimum amount that is traditionally considered enough to be a practice – to get the breath and the bandhas going – is “3-3-3” – 3 Surya Namaskara A’s, 3 Surya Namaskara B’s, and the 3 finishing postures with which we always close – Yoga Mudrasana, Padmasana, and Tolasana.) Practicing at the same time every day can be very important in helping one establish a daily practice. The hardest part is just getting to the mat!
A note on injuries… While some major injuries do necessitate the cessation of practice, traditionally we are taught to keep practicing as much as we are able even when we have an injury. (And if the injury arose during practice, the posture that led to it, when done properly, carefully, and preferably with guidance from a teacher, can often be most beneficial in its healing.) Practicing while injured, if one is able, generally provides an excellent opportunity to focus on the bandhas, as when they are very much engaged, the body can feel more “held together” and thus more protected; this can sometimes even result in relief from the pain or discomfort associated with the injury.
The first priority in any posture is to get out of pain – you should never be in pain, hurt yourself, or push yourself beyond your “edge.” Ahimsa (non-violence) starts with the self. We should also keep in mind that the achievement mentality of wanting to get into a tricky pose is pure ego – the ego is what has desires and feels that it is lacking, while the true Self is absolutely perfect just as it is. To realize the true Self, which is the aim of all yogic practice, we must accept ourselves just as we are, in the present moment.
Observing the full and new moons as days to rest from practice helps us to be more in tune with the cycles of nature, of which we are a part. The phase of the moon has an effect on us, just as it (and its relative gravitational pull) has an effect on the ocean, or plant-life, or any other Earthly organism composed primarily of water. During the full moon, we can often feel energetic, stimulated, and/or emotional, but not necessarily well grounded. During the new moon, we can often feel internal and less active. With our safety in mind, both of these states of being provide good reason to refrain from practice.
Women are not to practice Ashtanga Yoga while menstruating – we call this “women’s holiday.” One reason for this is that menstruation involves a downward flow of energy, and this practice entails the engagement of the bandhas, which creates an upward-moving energy. Also, women should not do inversions while menstruating (as this again is a major reversal of the menstrual flow), and in this practice, we are repeatedly doing inversions during the vinyasas – each downward dog is an inversion.
Many women have disregarded this rule about women’s holiday and have practiced while menstruating only to discover detrimental side effects. While some have only experienced a change in their cycle, others have had serious problems develop in their reproductive organs. So please, ladies, during your moon, take a break from your Ashtanga practice and enjoy the extra time in your day for some of your other practices and pursuits. This is a great opportunity to develop non-attachment to our practice.
Mysore is the name of the city in India where Ashtanga Yoga developed, and a Mysore-style class is taught in the traditional manner in which Pattabhi Jois originally taught. Each student practices the appropriate series at the pace of his or her own breath, receiving individualized instruction and adjustments from the teacher, and advancing through the asanas and through the series as his or her practice develops. A Mysore class is open to all levels; those new to Ashtanga will be led through the Primary Series step by step until they begin to memorize the poses on their own. The Mysore class is actually an ideal setting for beginners, as they can progress at their own pace.
While Mysore classes are generally quiet, oftentimes filled only with the sound of the breath, asking the teacher questions pertaining to your practice is entirely okay. If you wish to be adjusted in a certain posture, get into the posture as well as you can and hold it while you wait for the teacher to reach you, or feel free to call her over. In a crowded Mysore room, if the posture involves a vinyasa between sides, Mysore etiquette calls for skipping that vinyasa between sides when receiving an adjustment.
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