Somewhere between the extremes of effort and surrender lies the harmonious equilibrium called yoga. Holding both extremes at the same time, we essentially short-circuit conditioned mind with its habitual patterns. If what we mean by yoga is “union”, then the foundations of Ashtanga yoga practice provide a valuable tool to experience this dynamic balance of opposites. So we look for the middle path: not too tight, not too loose.
Practice is like a map: we have to start from where we are. It is difficult to see ourselves clearly without a formal discipline to learn about our tendencies. Transformation occurs not in denying or resisting, but in accepting and allowing. Bringing the body back into alignment with the natural flow of breath, we harmonize the organism with the surrounding environment.
Posture, or asana, when aligned with breath, bandha and dristi 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 the practitioner how to breathe deeply, and then, to sit quietly.
There are many different levels from which we can approach practice; It depends upon the practitioner. At the beginning, for many, yoga practice is simply a question of wanting a healthier body, or a way to work with stress. Yoga practice cleanses, tones and purifies the organism on many levels from the muscular to endocrine to skeletal to respiratory to subtle energies. One starts 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 time, 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.
How Yoga Practice Works
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. We begin to tune in to a deeper level of awareness.
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. Practitioners move through the postures at their own pace, and advance only when ready. So there is no pressure to be anywhere but where you are.
Sitting still for shamatha (tranquil abiding) meditation involves following the breath and observing the contents of our mind. A precise technique will be presented to provide a reference point, enabling practitioners to experience resting the mind.
What distinguishes practice from performance? Curiosity, “Beginner’s Mind”, a childlike attitude of wonder. Asking, “What is this all about?” instead of, “How can I get it right?” Practice has no goal, which frustrates ego. In the absence of ego’s drive to reinforce its existence, there is not much to say. Ego says, “I know.” Beginner’s mind says, “Really? Huh!” Ego says, “Look at me!” Beginner’s mind says nothing, quietly taking it all in. Ego is anything that takes you out of the direct experience of the present moment. Pride and self-congratulations are its ambassadors. Humbleness is ego’s antidote.