The Inner Form Of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga: Ujayi Pranayama, Bandha + Dristi
I learned the inner form of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga from Richard Freeman during my first yoga class in 1992. We learned about ujayi pranayama, bandas and dristi from day one. I recently had the opportunity to study with him again in Thailand, where he and his wife, Mary Taylor, lead a yearly two-week retreat. If you listen to current opinion, you might have preconceived ideas about Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. You would be forgiven for thinking that Ashtanga is a series of difficult postures designed to get you fit and slim. According to the Yoga Sutra, yoga is citta vritti nirodha; cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. In other words, yoga is a practice of settling the mind.
So what about all these fancy postures that we practice in Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga? What is the point of jumping around on a rubber mat wearing lycra? And how will that help you settle the mind?
I'm glad you asked.
The foundation of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga comes down to 3 essential components--ujayi pranayama, bandha + dristi. The series of postures are just an excuse, if you will, to practice these key techniques. The postures provide the context within which the actual practice takes place. The intense practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga helps create the inner environment that enables the mind to settle into a state of relaxed alertness. The inner forms train the practitioner to tolerate increasingly complicated situations (postures) while maintaining this relaxed state of mind.
The Inner Form Of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga: 3 Essential Components
Ujayi Pranayama: The Victorious Breath
Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is the only form of yoga I know that incorporates pranayama into the asana practice. This is why I fell in love with this method. Ujayi pranayama is a powerful technique of extending the breath while slightly squeezing the vocal chords to create a soft whispering sound. Those with more poetic tendencies compare the sound to wind rustling through the trees. Film buffs might remember Darth Vader's deep breathing.
Ujayi pranayama slows down and evens out the breath so that inhale and exhale begin to smooth out in to one long cycle of breathing. The transitions between each breath are just as important as each inhale and exhale. Paying such close attention to the details of breathing, the mind naturally settles into an even rhythm that induces a state of deep relaxation.
You can do this practice as long as you are still breathing. You might not be able to touch your knees or even get up off the couch. But if you can breathe, you can practice ujayi pranayama.
Bandha: Grounding The Energies
Bandhas are often translated from the Sansrkit as “locks.” This is a horrible translation. I think of this translation as the locks on a canal that facilitate the movement of ships on an uneven waterway.
Bandhas are inner mudras - ways of toning the inner musculature in such a way that the energies of the body have a reference point. The bandhas help regulate the flow of breath so that it can be extended using the ujayi pranayama.
There are 3 bandhas that we work with in the inner form of Ashtanga vinyasa yoga: mula bandha, uddiyana bandha, and jalandhara bandha, though this last one is less commonly practiced, as it is difficult to get right at the beginning.
The 3 Bhandhas:
Mula bandha is the quintessential inner form of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. This elusive feature of the practice provides an incredibly strong foundation from which the intense postures of the more advanced series develop. The technique is this: from a relaxed pelvis, the center point between genitals and anus recedes into the core of the body through a combination of relaxation and gentle lifting. It's a mysterious event, corresponding with a deep relaxation of the muscles in the face and an energetic connection with the entire structure of the body. Mula bandha is what enables such difficult postures to be done with apparent ease.
Uddiyana bandha is achieved by a firm scooping back of the lower abdominal muscles--about 4 finger-widths below the navel-- toward the back of the body. The trick is to tone this area of the lowest belly without engaging the actual belly muscles, which stay soft. This tone has the effect of encouraging mula bandha-- the 2 are often difficult to separate. If you find one, there's a good chance you'll discover the other.
Jalandhara bandha helps create openness in the chest and lungs in order to go deeper into the pranayama practice. The technique is to rest the chin in the notch between the 2 clavicle bones while keeping the shoulders wide and the heart open. A trick to help while learning this difficult mudra is to place a rolled up towel between chin and chest to help alleviate strain in the neck. The chin will not go down as far, but you'll start to get a sense of the correct position of the head. You can tell you have it if the breath flows without strain.
Bandhas encourage us to maintain awareness throughout the day. Our inner alignment becomes the ground from which we initiate movement.
Dristi: Gazing Within
In Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, we pay attention to maintaining a soft, focused gaze. Each posture has a suggested gazing point, that may change according to the ability of the student. The eyes are connected to the spine so the quality of the posture shifts slightly according to the direction of the gaze. Dristi can help to either deepen or soften the intensity of the various postures, depending on what is needed for your particular situation.
The practice of dristi is simply to maintain our focus of both inner and outer awareness simultaneously. We seek open awareness, while keeping our inner focus. Dristi allows us to settle into a state of meditation by helping us release distractions.
I think of this practice both practically and metaphorically--as a practical application of the correct view of yoga.
How The Inner Form Of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga Can Help
Last year an invasive surgery forced me to completely stop my yoga practice while I learned to walk again. So I wondered, is my yoga practice dependent upon my body performing physical postures?
I was forced to return to a renewed inquiry into these internal practices. I have been learning to heal and rediscover my practice using these inner forms as the basis of my inquiry. By focusing on the inner form of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, I've started the healing process. I've rediscovered the thread of practice, even if I still can't do the fancy postures I used to. At 52, that's just fine with me.