Embarking on the path of yoga and meditation is a simple way to maintain physical, emotional and mental health. But beyond that, it is the foundation of a spiritual path that people have been following for centuries. These tools provide a way to reframe your experience so that your suffering eventually becomes the seed of compassion, which then shifts how you approach your world. That is something from which we can all benefit.
Posture, or asana, when aligned with breath, bandha (internal awarness practices) and dristi (focused gaze) helps to release stagnant energy in the body and mind. The slightest misalignment in posture can inhibit the free flow of breath, preventing the mind from resting completely. Learning to breathe deeply not only relaxes the body, but also helps focus the mind. Ashtanga practice shows you how to breathe deeply in a stable posture, and then, to sit quietly.
There are many different levels from which you can approach practice; It depends on you. You may begin yoga simply because you want a healthier body, or a way to work with stress. That’s fine. Yoga practice cleanses, tones and purifies the organism on many levels: muscular, endocrine, skeletal, respiratory, eventually learning to work with subtle energies connected with more refined states of awareness. So there is much, much more.
You start by working with the grossest levels in order to affect (over time) the more subtle levels. So on your first day you may notice changes such as sore muscles and a sense of relaxation. With practice, you may notice yourself standing and sitting up straighter, with a heightened awareness of your breathing and mental patterns. Eventually the body’s systems begin to shift into balance, allowing deep breathing that clears away obstacles in the subtle channels. This allows the mind to settle deeply so that meditation becomes a real possibility.
But you don’t need to know any of this. It happens naturally with practice. Once the breathing slows down and deepens the mind follows suit and you begin to notice subtleties of awareness that were previously unrecognized below the surface consciousness. You begin to tune in to a deeper level of awareness. This is when things get interesting, because you can begin to see how your habitual patterns may or may not support your intentions in life. Once you can see the pattern, then you can do something about it. But not before.
The asana (posture) practice of Ashtanga follows a set series of positions, flowing together with vinyasa (linking) movements, in combination with a deep breathing technique. You move through the postures at your own pace, and advance only when you are ready. So there is no pressure to be anywhere but where you are.Eventually, the physical body becomes pliable enough to sit still and settle in meditation.
The breath and the mind are like two sides of the same coin. When you learn to settle the breath into a deep rhythm, the mind naturally follows.
This is what primes the system for meditation. Sitting still for shamatha (tranquil abiding) meditation involves following the breath and observing the contents of your mind. There are precise techniques that provide a reference point, enabling you to experience resting the mind through following the flow of breath. Eventually, you become tuned in enough to observe the contents of the mind as the object of meditation, so that thoughts no longer become distractions or emotionally charged events, but simply displays of your inner wisdom.
Practice is like a map: you have to start from where you are.
It is difficult to see yourself clearly without a formal discipline to observe your tendencies. Transformation occurs not in denying or resisting, but in accepting and allowing your particular style to manifest. Once you can clearly identify your ways of manifesting in the world, you no longer act out unconscious patterns. Then you can make intelligent choices in your life. You learn to avoid the pitfalls of destructive habits and instead listen to the guidance of your heart that will always lead you to what makes you happy.
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