I recently had a pretty invasive surgery that has forced me to completely stop my yoga practice. And then I wondered, is my yoga practice dependent upon my body performing physical postures? Richard Freeman taught me all about the inner form of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, and now I’ve got nothing to distract me from focusing on that.
Many have this idea that yoga means sun salutations, trikonasana and headstands. But I have been preaching to the choir for years about how yoga is a way of training the mind through various physical practices. So what is yoga practice when the body is not functioning?
What Is The Inner Form Of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga?
According to the Yoga Sutra, yoga is citta vritti nirodha. Cessation of the fluctuations of the mind.
In other words, settling the mind. I can do that no matter what my body is going through. Or at least I can make that my practice.
So what is all the hype about yoga and all these fancy postures? Ask almost anyone these days “what is yoga?” and you’ll likely hear something that has nothing to do with settling the mind.
It is the nature of students to avoid exposing the silliness of their minds and their egotistical attachments to unimportant frills associated with yoga. So all of us, as students, must continue to inquire again and again.”
– Richard Freeman
The inner form of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga is an excellent preparation for settling the mind in “yoga” or a state of meditation.
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 practice of extending the breath using a slight manipulation to create sound. This technique provides not only a formal way of evening out the breath, but also the sound acts as a reference point for meditation, similar to using a mantra.
You can do this practice forever, as long as you are still breathing. Come back to the breath and let it inform you of what is going on. (Ujayi pranayama is very useful in hospital situations by the way, to relax into intensity.)
Bandhas are often translated from the Sansrkit as “locks”. But I always think of these as the locks on a canal that facilitate the movement of ships on an uneven waterway. Through awareness to various patterns of holding and releasing, energies can be gathered in the body and directed for specific use. The bandhas regulate the flow of breath so that it can be extended using the ujayi pranayama.
BKS Iyengar once wrote that pranayama practice was like playing with pneumatic machinery, and that without engaging bandhas, we could blow the system. Breath is powerful stuff, and we need the bandhas to ground all that energy in the system, much like a house needs electrical grounding to safely hold the current.
Basically, bandhas are just awareness of the form the internal body takes–how we move, our posture. The practice is to maintain awareness throughout the day by letting our inner alignment become the ground from which we initiate movement.
In Ashtanga yoga, we pay attention to maintaining a soft, focused gaze. The point at which we gaze changes in each posture (and changes for each student as the practice advances.) The gazing points help to either encourage or soften the intensity of the various postures.
But the practice of dristi itself is simply to maintain our focus of both inner and outer awareness simultaneously. We seek open awareness, while keeping our focus.
This is a hugely beneficial practice, both practically and metaphorically. Can you maintain awareness of your internal stillness while you watch the news? Can you stay focused on your peaceful surroundings while your body is in pain? I think of it as tuning in to the radio station, WAAATT: All Awareness All The Time.
Inner Form of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga As We Age
Impermanence reigns. When you start really taking this on board, you must look again at your priorities. Why do we do what we do? What motivates us? What purpose do our actions serve–both relative and ultimate?
At a certain point I started realizing that the intense physical postures of advanced series Ashtanga yoga were keeping me stuck in a pattern my body no longer needed. My injury, 8 years old by the time I finally listened, was telling me that it was time to slow down. The stillness, silence and spaciousness of deep meditation feed me infinitely more these days than the release I used to feel during deep back-bends. Don’t get me wrong–those releases were vital to my growth. But that is the point of growth: we move on to new phases of life.
Growth is evolution. And it is rarely linear. After my surgery, I’ve had to completely stop my physical activity and focus instead on the inner form of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga. This long pause has provided space for me to re-evaluate my priorities and re-direct my energy. Let go of meaningless activity and focus on what matters.
I’m noticing the fleeting nature of life recently, how things change in an instant. Yet how easily we forget this in the next second. Relationships change, grow, dissolve. We forget people, places and things that once were the focus or our days. I’m feeling keenly the pang of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s “tender heart of sadness.”
The genuine heart of sadness comes from feeling that your nonexistent heart is full. You would like to spill your heart’s blood, give your heart to others. For the warrior, this experience of sad and tender heart is what gives birth to fearlessness. Conventionally, being fearless means that you are not afraid or that, if someone hits you, you will hit him back. However, we are not talking about that street-fighter level of fearlessness. Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness. It comes from letting the world tickle your heart, your raw and beautiful heart. You are willing to open up, without resistance or shyness, and face the world. You are willing to share your heart with others.”
That is the most powerful yoga practice of all.
To read more in detail about the inner form of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, get my book, Ashtanga Yoga For Beginner’s Mind, where I share in depth all you need to know about these practices. Get it here.