Ashtanga yoga has a reputation for its method, the physical practice. We need to remember that the physical practice of asana is only a method and not the goal. The “goal” of yoga is simply to feel better! Do it because it feels good.
Our minds like to wrap around something tangible and it likes to wrap around the physical tangible method and make us think the method of perfecting asana is our goal. IT IS NOT. I know many people with perfect asana and they’re still assholes 😉 (sorry). Yoga is a union, a coming together physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and socially –body, mind, heart, and spirit, for a complete well being on all levels. When we have this unison we understand life’s traumas and challenges and are able to use all these experiences for growth. We understand nothing that happens to us is bad, it is for our learning.
The physical practice has many benefits — and as a beginner we do need to focus our efforts into learning the physical practice. The physical practice heals, detoxifies, and aligns our body. If we are sick or dealing with disease all our energy goes to healing, we are not able to put effort towards the inner practices of yoga. A+er a year or so of learning the physical practice –when you start to get “good” at it, you want to direct your energy into the richer aspects of yoga.
This is one of the reasons ashtanga yoga is a repetitive practice, once you learn the physical practice you don’t have to think ‘right hand here le+ hand there’, you can pull your mind off the physical practice and onto the meditative side, the breathing, and our inner workings — our mind stuff.
This is very liberating in our practice, we are not limited by our bodies, having the yogi body does not mean you’re a good yogi. When we are very wrapped up in our asana we also tend to put a lot of “rules” on it, to make it rigid or put it in a box where it is easy to explain — and to make it linear. The ashtanga practice is not a linear practice — the poses are not in order from easiest to hardest (baddha konasana is much easier than marichyasana D for example). This makes our practice hard to explain and understand! Hence the 99% practice, 1% theory, but the 1% theory is important to understand and to help us use our practice for growth and health — not just physically but on all levels of our being.
So in your practice on your mat, put more effort into what can not be seen than what can be seen. Work your breathing and your bandhas, and mind your mindstuff!
Yoga gives us great tools for the inner practices:
- The breathing effects our minds, bodies, emotions, and nervous system, bringing them together and into balance. Our breath lowers our heart rate and blood pressure, reduces tension, and relieves stress; this allows us to respond in a more relaxed way to what goes on in our lives.
- Mindstuff, more on this below.
- The Sun Salutes have a mantra that goes with them, when you start your practice focusing your mind on this mantra it “sets” your mind for the practice and makes it a bit easier the rest of the practice to focus your mind.
- The bandhas, the bandhas at first seem like a physical practice, and they do involve a subtle physical contraction; but my experience with the bandhas is they are more energetic than physical. Our bandhas help us to move energy and matter in our body. Movement of both energy and matter is important — the word prana, most people associate with our breath or energy, but the literal translation of the sanskrit word prana means moving always. Wherever energy, blood, lymph, bodily fluids don’t move is where stagnation and disease develop in the body. Where energy blocks we have a tendency to develop pain, where fluids and matter are blocked are where cancer and other diseases set in.
Picture yourself as a little power generator (the first time Steve did practice beside me he said he felt like I was this little power generator beside him!): use your breathing and bandhas and get your insides stoking. You can practice that sitting at work or anywhere, start to rev up your breathing and bandhas and feel your body heat increase — along with your energy. Doing this on your mat makes your practice strong, fluid, and light — effortless.
Working with our Mindstuff
Our mind greatly influences our well being. Science has “fun” with this fact as well and is recognizing more and more the importance of our mental attitudes and how they are directly linked to our health.
Just like asana is a method of yoga, not the goal — the same is true with meditation. The goal of meditation is not to be a good meditator . . . its about working with your mindstuff and using it intelligently.
Where your thoughts go your energy follows, so if your mind is brewing on something that happened at your job while you are on your yoga mat (or anywhere else trying to accomplish something), your energy will be going to those thoughts. And remember, your mind — it lies to you –this is another helpful aspect of our breathing and bandhas, they help us pull our mind off our troubles and joys and back to where we are physically. This brings our energy back into our body where we can use it.
Not all mindstuff is junk though, our mind is a tool, we just need to learn how to use it wisely. Our mind conjures up all kinds of stories that will never happen — a problem with this is we sometimes start to believe these stories and they actually cause us stress. What we need to work with is the root of these stories the mind comes up with. Most times the roots of our mind-stories are in our insecurities. If we resist where the mind goes by thinking “I can’t think that! I’m a yogi or a meditator, etc.” we don’t figure out our insecurities and then release them — by resisting the thoughts we hold on firmly to our issues.
And its funny too but it even goes further . . . the people we don’t like are those who touch our insecurities — and most o+en that is not done on purpose. So as we work through our own issues its funny how we seem to like people better 🙂
Here are some of my thoughts and how I have dealt with them in my yoga practice:
- Scattered brain – probably most common for many of us; my mind is flitting around to what i need to do, what i have been avoiding, what I’m going to eat a+er practice, etc. When I’m doing this I usually am just mindlessly going through my practice to just ‘get it done’. I’m missing the rejuvenating effects of the practice by just rushing through it. In this case I put more mental effort into being a power generator and focus my efforts on breathing and bandhas. And this is easier said than done! It can be very hard to do, so I just try and pose a+er pose keep pulling my energy back to my breathing and bandhas and refocusing my efforts — sometimes over and over again in the sae practice.
- I don’t like the person beside me on my mat – I have wasted so much energy trying to block out people who get beside me that I don’t like. And I am so picky about where i put my mat in Nancy’s studio . . . but at some point someone gets beside me who i don’t like . . . and my work here is to look into the mirror! Usually something we see in someone else we don’t like is lurking in us. So I put my mind on exactly what I don’t like in this person beside me and then set my intensions to make sure I don’t have the same behaviors myself.
- Feeling self conscious about my practice, my body, or feeling like someone is ‘competing’ with me in the asanas, or not liking someone because they can do asana better than me. This one I attached to feelings of insecurity, of not being good enough. I was hit full on with this one my first trip to Maui, someone there really touched my insecurities and shook my belief in myself — it was that first time in Maui and I was having such a good experience with Nancy that I decided to change my thought patterns on this. What got me through was realizing that I am who I am, and this is the body I was given for this life and it is perfect for the dharma I was born for. I don’t care if it does not like to put its leg behind its head or can not bind in pasasana–actually these facts help to make my body perfect for my dharma . . . if I had my dream body I would not have the body I need for my dharma! Each of us has our strengths and weaknesses and I decided not to let my weaknesses make me feel inferior. I decided during class to put on my blinders and stop looking around the room, to put all my attention and effort into my own practice and my breathing and bandhas. WOW! what a difference that made. And still to this day I (well mostly) do the same, when I practice in a group I mind my drishti and tune out where anyone else is and what there asana looks like. This has saved me much suffering 😉 To work with this issue and get to the root of it I had to take it a little deeper and follow it to a childhood experience. By doing this I attached the insecurity to a certain situation — so it does not have to come with me and think that every other situation in my life is similar, but that it was an isolated incident 🙂
So much of our practice is not physical 🙂 Ashtanga yoga is an inside out practice and gives us many good tools for both the inner and the outer work, finding a balance with the inner and the outer work will help us to feel good physically, mentally, socially, emotionally, spiritually — well being in all areas of life.