Last time on Yoga Blog: Satya broke down the lies we tell ourselves and truth flowed into our lives. Felling the hidden fortifications, we constructed around our true-self. Satya, truthfulness. Refresh yourself and reread the last post if you wish and then continue your journey towards Yoga. “Atha Yoganusasanam.” Third yama!
What does asteya mean?
Asteya! Don’t Steal. Non-stealing. Nothing too fancy with this one in the translating department. Steya can stand for theft, robbery, or anything that can be stolen. As with ahimsa, the “a” reminds to not do or non, non-stealing. Postpone your pilfering and pause your piracy. One engaged in non-stealing will receive wealth in return. “Asteyapratisthayam sarvaratnopasthanam.”
Examples of asteya
Theft, breaking into a home and stealing jewels and a TV but it is not limited to the action of taking tangible objects from another person. Stealing ideas, time, peace, and opportunity are all things that may get stolen. There are even laws in place to protect such things like copyrights and trademarks. But, beyond logos and characters, if a noisy person or someone who constantly asks questions disrupts a learning experience they steal from those around them. Stealing the opportunity to learn for themselves and others. Stealing the time for contemplation and reflection. Stealing the opportunity to think for themselves. And, still there is more to be stolen.
Asteya in the big picture
The appropriate intention intended for a device, object, person can be neglected and thus their use stricken from them. Looted by caging it a “safe” place. Money has a purpose. It is not to be hoarded and sat on in a dark cave. It wants to keep you well. It wants to help make life better for everyone. If its ability to do so is smothered under the weight of greed, thirteen dwarves and a burglar will liberate it in due time. That art you work on wants to be seen by the world. It wants to lighten someone’s day. It wants to speak with others. The vacant lot wants to be played on. It has no need for the no trespassing sign. It wants use. It wants to welcome. Each and every thing has a proper use and wants an opportunity to serve its purpose. Do not rob that opportunity. Let purpose prosper.
Asteya in review
Review: Opportunity appears everywhere, so give it a chance. Be true to your ideas or give credit where credit is due. Robbing and looting is bad. So, Robin Hood* and Aladdin** are bad people? Much like the burglar with the precious ring they play their part. Like the hero Arjuna they too are truthful to themselves, satya. The prince’s taxes stole from those who had nothing to give. That money kept for greed to help the kingdom. What other choice was there but to give it back to those in need. A stolen loaf of bread to fight back the mornings hunger. To offer to the starving so good will can continue to be passed from human to human. Oxygen must be swiped from the air to stay standing against hate. Fruit must be plucked from their mother to spread and grow anew. Establish yourself in non-stealing and live an anxiety free life. Worries flutter away like a dried leaf in the breeze. Using what you have and sharing when you can. Provide, not take. Establish not prevent. Grow, become, prosper.
*I’m pretty sure the real Prince John got a worse rap than he deserved. He took over a kingdom from a brother that campaigned in a war that cost a heavy sum. Therefor he had no real choice but to tax the people so that King Richard could play in his silly war and become a hero. **Disney’s Aladdin, I have not read the proper One Thousand and One Nights and don’t know if there is a thief character.
About seven years into practice, I injured my right knee in supta vajrasana. I experienced a series of re-injuries after the initial injury. It took over two years of modified practice to heal and to regain full expression of poses involving lotus. This post is about my experience practicing yoga with injury.
Practicing Yoga with Injury is a Balancing Act
Changing ideas about practice
The experience of practicing yoga with injury challenged ideas that I had tacitly formed about practice. Namely, that the next pose in a series should only practiced after performing full expression in the previous pose. That the correct way to practice is always on the vinyasa count. These ideas are useful when able-bodied and learning the series. They are overly rigid for accommodating yoga practice with injury.
Changing the intent of practice
My intent in practice became avoiding re-injury and letting the body heal itself. That required careful listening to sensation, such that the range of motion that I took my body through during practice did not bring about sharp pain or inflammation after practice. It took a long time to figure this out. I often experienced pops in my knee that led to inflammation and reduced range of motion afterwards. I experienced frustration and doubted that I would ever fully heal.
Gradually, I learned to only go so far into a pose that it was possible to relax and breathe into the injured area. I took extra breaths while entering and exiting poses if necessary to avoid pain. I used props to create space in the injured joint so that I could find ground, breath, and relaxation. There was no choice but to be patient and trust in the body’s capacity to heal itself. Slowly it did heal and the poses of primary series and second series evolved all over again.
Some aspects of yoga were enhanced during injury. Moment-by-moment, I learned to be receptive and to respond to the sensations in the body so as to avoid going too far. I explored the threshold between discomfort and pain. I moved through the series slowly with the breath so that I could relax amidst my body’s natural tendency to tense up and protect itself. The fundamentals of yoga asana – the nexus of concentration, breath, and movement – were accessible, if not heightened while practicing yoga with injury.
Practicing yoga with injury is practice for the decline and demise of the body. It is a practice of not simply accepting that decline with resignation. It is a cultivation of the spirit, the grit, and the persistence to explore the edges of what is possible with a heightened sense of awareness.
“Ashtanga is hard.” This is one of the myths about the practice that I enjoy disassembling and dissolving. It’s a often a myth spread by those who don’t actually do the practice or by those who haven’t experienced Ashtanga in the traditional little-by-little way of learning. Actually, Ashtanga is about cultivating ease and equanimity.
Really, Ashtanga doesn’t have to be hard. By “hard”, I mean something specific. By “hard”, I mean unyielding and inflexible. In fact, I would venture to say that if these qualities are present, then practice ceases to be Yoga of any style.
Cultivating a balance of effort and ease is yoga practice.
Patanjali on Ease and Effort in Ashtanga Practice
Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (2:46) say : sthira sukham asanam
I understand Patanjali to mean that practice is only, truly “Yoga” asana when there is a balance of effort and ease. Ease doesn’t mean lazy. And “not hard” doesn’t mean easy. Ashtanga can certainly be challenging and uncomfortable. How would we learn to cultivate ease and equanimity without practice under differing circumstances, that sometimes challenge us?
Mysore Style Practice is Adaptable
The beauty and brilliance of the Mysore style Ashtanga practice method (you might think of the Mysore method as the one-room-schoolhouse-style of learning), is that the amount of challenge that you take on is up to you. This is the difference between practicing “on the mat” and practicing in life. In life we may have limited control over the circumstances that we meet each day, in which we aim to practice steadiness, kindness, and equanimity. Some days life may ask for more than we can pull together. But, on the mat, we can change the circumstances. We can make practice shorter, gentler, or whatever is needed. We are all in a different place mentally, emotionally, and physically everyday, so it makes sense that the practice should be adaptable and fluid, not rigid or unyielding or hard.
Cultivating Ease with the Felt Sense
Each day when I step onto my mat to practice, I reach into a felt sense of my body to see what is there. I don’t dictate from outside of myself what I “will” do. I reach into the inside to ask what I am truly available for on that day. I begin practice and I never stop checking in. A practice of compassion and gentleness should start in my own body. Forcing is not yoga. I don’t practice with the same body everyday. In fact, everyday it is new. Something that felt very doable yesterday may feel like something I’m just not up for today. And that is okay. Part of yoga is cultivating the awareness to actually answer the question: “How do I feel right now in this pose?” When the answer is “I don’t feel right about something in this pose”, then it would be the antithesis of yoga to ignore that niggling feeling that I became aware of with the awareness that I worked so hard to cultivate.
If you’ve been practicing with an idea that Ashtanga practice must be hard, then I challenge you to approach practice for a time with greater softness. Set an intention for cultivating ease and see where that takes you.
Try an experiment.
See how much ease you can bring to the breath. Consciously allow yourself to take a full inhale, then relax as you allow for a full exhale. Don’t hurry. Take a couple of breaths in that way. Now approach the asana movements in the same way.
How does it feel?
What do you notice?
With each breath, ask yourself:
How relaxed and at ease can I be with my breath in this posture?
What muscles am I holding in this posture that I can let go of?
Where am I working harder than necessary?
See how you go as you bring the idea of cultivating ease into your Ashtanga practice.
We learned Ashtanga means “eight limbs” and yoga is not just moving and twisting. The first of those eight limbs is Yama and the first Yama is ahimsa. Which means non-harming. Feel free to reread the ahimsa post or read it for the first time. You could also find a copy of “The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” and start your journey to Yoga now. “Atha Yoganusasanam.”
On to the second Yama. Satya! Truthfulness. The truth, actual, genuine, honesty are all translations of Satya. I love looking up the meanings to Sanskrit words. Many times, one word can be used in so many contexts. Different, but wholly related. I am by no means a learned person of Sanskrit so take what I’m saying with a grain of salt but Satya can also have the meanings of reality, dogma, oath, promise. All words with a need for truth in their meanings. Most of them dealing with a certain truth you have to uphold in yourself. Be true to yourself, to your nature.
What is not Satya
This is about to get a bit personal, just a warning. I thought I was a truthful person. I learned not to tell lies but in doing so taught myself to not speak. Holding back on words and just making sounds that could be an agreement just to get out of having to engage in a conversation and hopefully making the person feel good about what they just said. Definitely not showing my true feelings. I fill myself with these feelings so that I would never allow freedom. Giving so many people a false reading that I agree with them. Making people think I heard or understood them when all I wanted was to not engage and dwell in my dark ball of repression. Lying to them with silence and a head nod. Throwing out the occasional false “Yup.” All lies, mostly to myself.
And where has it gotten me? To a point that I have forgotten myself. I speak no lies but don’t know my truths. Depression arose. Society became frightful. Imagination wavers. I have lost myself trying to please others. Then learn that trying to please everyone but myself does not work and if I am happy most likely the people I care about would be happy as well.
But who am I? Somewhere beneath the stacks of untold truths I must be.
No more lies. They bring ruin and collapse. Lies are weak and full of cracks. Building a life atop such an unstable surface is destined to crumble.
The root system of Satya can grow true life. One of unclouded meaning and happiness. Enough happiness to spread amongst the world. Lying is not just telling work you’re sick when you’re not. Lying is a mask that can be used to hide behind and die behind alone. Not that Satya gives us permission to go forth and ridicule all we see with truth. It is to be a glowing pillar that can be visited when a friend needs some perspective. An employee that can be trusted with the keys. A different opinion that can take time to listen, understand where the other is coming from, and continue the conversation. Reality is actual. An oath should keep you honest. A promise is only taken when you can keep its truths.
Don’t lie and everything you say will be true. We need to be true to ourselves. Even if it means killing loved ones in war, says the Bhagavad Gita. It is a great section of a great tale. Eighteen chapters of Satya. You’ll need Satya. Satya is what you need. Speak truths when it is called for. Think truths to learn. Be your true-self or work on it and try to find it. It’s not always easy. But there are others around to help if you are willing to let some of your truth free. Be well, stay true, see you next time on Yoga blog and the Yamas continue.
In maintaining a consistent Ashtanga asana practice over time, I’ve developed rituals around food, movement,
Movement: One of the Rituals That Support Yoga Practice
relationships, media consumption, and sleep, that support practice. One of the first steps in forming rituals has been observing variation in the quality of breath, bandha, and concentration while practicing and formulating hypotheses about cause and effect. Every day that I practice is an opportunity to test these hypotheses. I’ve discovered rituals that support yoga practice by breaking all of “the rules” and practicing often under less than ideal circumstances.
I’ve noticed that breath + bandha is most accessible with an empty stomach and minimal digestion happening during practice. I’ve noticed that it has been easier to practice on an empty stomach since switching to morning practice after practicing in the evening for years. Digestion tends to be quieter in the morning because it has usually been 10 + hours since the last meal.
Ease in concentration requires adequate sleep. Practicing in the morning brings a whole set of challenges around sleep. I aim to get off the screens before dinner. I limit time spent on social media and the news to 30 minutes or less per day. The light from the screens interferes with sleep. The content contributes to a noisy mind during practice. I prefer to allot at least eight hours of in-bed time before the alarm bell and whenever possible, I allot extra time in the evening to wind down prior to sleep. First thing in the morning, I usually drink one cup of coffee. I find that coffee aids in flexibility and alertness during practice. If I have additional cups later, then the caffeine often interferes with sleep.
Some movement outside of practice seems critical for sleep and digestion. Christine and I have lately taken to evening walks and dance practices in our living room. These low intensity forms of movement are usually not stimulating enough to interfere with sleep. The events of day have less mental and emotional grab after our movement rituals. Even when I stick to these rituals, often I run deficits in sleep over the course of the week of early morning practices. I deliberately do not set an alarm or schedule morning activities at least one day of the week to make up deficits.
Just like on the mat, there is an ever-shifting balance between effort to maintain and let go of rituals that support yoga practice. Some days, it is not possible to follow all of the rituals. This happens for me when I am traveling for work. In these circumstances, I go with the flow while approximating at-home rituals to the degree that the situation allows. I am committed to at least standing on my mat 6 days per week. Beyond that, I practice whatever I have time for or what feels right given the circumstances. I’d rather do a shorter practice, than power through sleep deprived or with a full belly.
There are often situations where it feels worthwhile to deviate from rituals to provide space and time for experiences outside of yoga practice. I will stay out later to attend dance events, go to performances, or spend time with family and friends. These experiences are especially worthwhile when I have time to practice later in the morning. Positive experiences outside of the practice provide energy for the effort required to maintain the rituals that support yoga practice.
The effort of maintaining rituals that support yoga practice is justified by being able to put forth my best effort on the mat; doing what seemed impossible at first with increasing ease; feeling energized and calm after practice; and developing positive associations with asana practice so that I feel motivated to continue. Every person must find their own way with forming rituals that support yoga practice. What rituals work for you?
If you’ve practiced yoga for awhile then you’ve, no doubt, noticed that yoga practice and life cease to be two separate things. Yoga seeps into life and life seeps into yoga. And this is the intended direction. Practice should support both a more “ease-full” and stable life. Yoga practice on the mat is our laboratory. We are provided with different challenging scenarios everyday and we have the opportunity in each practice to notice our reactions and explore different responses. One of our tools in yoga practice is mula bandha. Mula bandha is usually translated as “root lock”. Mula bandha is not just a trick to mastering jumpbacks; it’s a tool for responding with steadiness to ever-changing conditions.
What about mula bandha and the pelvic floor muscles?
Does mula bandha involve engaging muscles of the pelvic floor? Using physical engagement can be a helpful way to begin experiencing the practice of mula bandha. Just as we use the tool of physical asana to explore subtler ideas of exploring consciousness and training concentration, we can apply the physical tool of trying to maintain a gentle engagement the muscles of the pelvic floor, while we move through our postures. The physical effort can help us go in the direction of experiencing what it is like to try to remain steady when the external circumstances keep changing.
Mula bandha is an energetic concept
At its heart, mula bandha is an energetic concept. It’s subtle and kind of hard to grasp onto. I’d be remiss as a student if I suggested either that mula bandha is a “thing”, or that I know exactly what “it” is. My understanding of mula bandha continues to evolve as I practice. My experience is that mula bandha is a idea and a process, not so much a muscular contraction. It’s about growing roots.
Learning how to stay
My experience of the practice of mula bandha, is that some part of it is about learning how to stay: learning how to stay through discomfort (not pain! – that’s different), learning how to stay through boredom, learning how to stay through the plateaus of asana, learning how to stay through distraction, learning to stay through all the thoughts we have about why we think it would be better to be somewhere else other than where we are right now.
Practice of mula bandha doesn’t just show up in jumping back and fancy gymnastics. It shows up in our discipline and our willingness to do a daily practice. Showing up on the mat, no matter which postures you’re doing, when you are tired, bored, distracted, or just don’t feeling like getting up early, is an expression of rooting. It’s an expression of mula bandha as I understand it.
Staying with the practice of a steady, even breath, whether the postures feel easy or hard, is an expression of mula bandha. It’s showing a conscious decision to root, to be steady even as the conditions change.
Taking mula bandha off the mat
In this way, we can take the concept of mula bandha off the mat and into our lives. Where is it in your life that you could use more stability? Where would you like to apply the skill of holding steady despite changing external circumstances? Take the understanding of mula bandha and rooting to your practice on the mat and see where it leads you. Then, take the skill of conscious steadiness off the mat and into your life. See where the practice of mula bandha takes you!
Ashtanga Yoga: one eighth asana (the positions we put the body in) and not necessarily series one through six. What? Clap, get up and dance. Yoga is not just an Indian workout. It’s a special way to live. We’ll get to asana, don’t worry, it’s number three of this eight branched path.
Eight Limbs of Ashtanga
Ashtanga translates to “eight limbs” or “eight components.” Ashta or eight. Anga or limb. Got that? Nice, keep following now. If asana is the third what’s the first? What’s the second? Whoa, slowly, slowly.
Start with the first limb, Yama. Our moral duty to existence, Yama. Yama, a practice achievable by everyone. Status, creed, class, time, physical ability, place does not factor into one’s ability to accomplish the Yamas. Yes, Yamas. There are five of them according to Patanjali. Five restraints. Our ability to rein ourselves in. Control, going back to how nature wants us, good humans. Morals you could call them. Those things we all have and should not be blind to. Law built into existence to keep things from crumbling apart. Ahimsa, satya, asteya, brahmacharya, aparigraha: the five Yamas. Start at the beginning. Smile, these are great.
What is Ahimsa?
Ahimsa! Non-harming, don’t harm. The word ahimsa breaks down into “himsa” which means harm; violence; kill, and “a” which stands for not. Hence not violence, not harm, not kill or non-violence. Still with me? Feel free to go back. It’s okay.
Ahimsa teaches not to harm others, animals, Earth, yourself. No harm through action and thought. Murder harms but this philosophy should be contemplated deeper. Effort must be put forth on contemplation and understanding of what it means.
Non-harming? Don’t kill; got that.
But I live in the cold wilds of the north and sometimes I must hunt to have food. Good, don’t let yourself starve if you can help it. Respect that which helps you survive. No violence, but care. Are your actions truly justified?
Think, don’t lie to yourself, Satya (truth) — we’ll get to that later. Yoga knows you must live, and to live certain actions must be taken. Only through living can the cycle of suffering end. Live and learn. Live and learn. Next life different actions can be taken. Same goes with thought. Those cruel words in your head, did they pop up from unjustified prejudices, or do anger, rajasic and tamasic gunas, need control? Hateful thought burns away at the body just like drinking cola at every meal. A slow steady destruction that can be stopped. Always time to help yourself.
Help? Yeah, help. Helping is not harming. In fact, it is the opposite. Ahimsa: to help, protect, keep safe. Yes, cause no harm and help those in need. The struggle of life is real but with help that weight becomes lighter. Everyone carries this burden. Not one single person, but all existence, has the weight of existing pressing down on them. All help distribute the weight evenly. No criticism for what might have happened. My shoulder is here to bear some of the weight. Their shoulder is here. Its shoulder is here. Her shoulder is here. His shoulder is here. We are all here. Ahimsa, keep us safe.
What is the Ashtanga practice method? How do we practice? …And why?
If you go to Mysore, India and practice with Sharath Jois, the lineage holder of the Ashtanga practice, you will spend most of each month doing Mysore style self-paced practice. One day each week, plus two moon days each month, will be for rest -no practice. Only one or two days each week will be a “led” class. So, you could say just like we have tristana or “three parts” to the internal parts of our practice: breath/bandha, driste, and asana; we also have tristana or “three parts” to the macrocosm or external method in which we practice: Mysore style/self-paced practice, rest days, and counted led primary class.
Mysore class and counted led primary class are both part of Ashtanga vinyasa yoga.
Each of these parts of the Ashtanga practice method has an intention. Mysore class is where we are actually learning new postures. This is where we have time to break down, investigate, and repeat postures or transitions that we find challenging. We have time to work at our own pace in Mysore practice because everyone is working on their own practice in their own time. We don’t have to keep up so we can take the time explore postures deeply.
This is hard work! So, we also set aside days to allow our body to assimilate practice and to recover. These are our rest days.
Why do we do counted led primary class? What are the intentions within that format of class?
Traditional counted led primary class, as I understand it, has several intentions. One big intention is to work with opportunity to refine the steadiness of practice. By counting every inhale and exhale at a steady pace, the teacher provides a rhythm for the practice that gives equal time to each inhale and exhale. More challenging postures are counted at the same pace as more straightforward postures. This gives us the opportunity to check ourselves against this ideal.
What do you notice in a counted led primary class? Are there postures that you don’t “like” as much, that you rush through when practicing at your own pace? In led class we might become aware of these places and get curious about how to work them with more ease. Are there places in practice where you tend to get distracted and find that you’re regularly fussing with your rug/towel/mat/hair, etc.? Led class might show us some places where we are in a habit of letting our attention wander. If we become aware of our practice habits, then we have the opportunity to work with evolving them if we want to.
In a traditional counted led primary class, in the way that it is taught in Mysore, India, you practice only the postures that you are practicing in Mysore class plus closing postures. Led class in not a time to learn new postures. There is not enough time to adequately explore new postures in a led class format, so depth of understanding is lost. Additionally, rushing through new movements can increase the chances of injury.
Vinyasa and the vinyasa count
The “counting” in a counted led primary class comes from counting the vinyasas of each posture. Vinyasa is the practice of working toward a seamless integration of breath and movement. The vinyasa count is the number of counted inhales and exhales in a each posture. Each pose has an ideal number of inhales and exhales for moving into and out of the posture. An ideal means we may never actually reach it. The intention is merely to hold ourselves accountable to working in the direction of the ideal from time to time. When we hold our practice up next to the ideal we have an opportunity to see aspects of our practice where we might want to put more attention.
So who is a counted led primary class for? …And what if you don’t know all the postures in primary series? Which postures should you do in led class?
Traditional counted led primary class is for everyone who has a Mysore practice. It doesn’t matter how long or short your Mysore practice is or how many poses you’re working on. Come to led class and work on refining the poses that you are doing. Enjoy the challenge and beauty of practicing to the vinyasa count.
At Ashtanga Yoga Asheville – The Mysore Room, anyone who has a Mysore practice is encouraged to attend counted led primary on Friday mornings. Please do only the postures that you are practicing in Mysore class. If you are not practicing the full primary series, then you can do closing postures at your own pace when you come to the end of the postures that you are practicing. Questions? Ask us!
We’ll see you in led class!
“Would you tell me please, which way I ought to go from here?” asked Alice.
“That depends a good deal on where you want to get to”, said the Cheshire Cat.
How we go in yoga has, as the Cheshire Cat said, a lot to do with where we want to get to.
We might just say that we want to create the conditions that make it more likely to have the experience of Yoga.
If asana is our tool to create those conditions, then how might we best use it? How will we know when it’s “Yoga” asana and not gymnastics or calisthenics or any other movement practice? What makes it Yoga?
While there certainly isn’t just one answer to that question, Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 2:46 says this: sthira sukham asanam. Literally (as translated by B.K.S. Iyengar): “Asana is perfect firmness of body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit.” I might translate this more loosely to say that asana is Yoga when there is a balance between effort and ease. I think we get closer to the experience of Yoga when our asana practice moves the needle closer to balance between “doing” and “being”.
The culture we live in emphasizes and rewards “doing” or “efforting”. If we’re “doing” without awareness though, where are we going? If we’re “doing” without paying attention to what we’re “feeling”, then we might just be running very fast to stay in the same place.
“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place,” said the Red Queen.
What does this have to do with the idea of yoga alignment? It’s about intention. When a posture is not yet happening fully, it can be easy to get caught up in “doing”. We might try to push, force, or try to think our way through an asana.
A common question that I hear from students is, “What should I be doing here?” The answer may in fact be, “nothing” or more specifically, “breathing and noticing how you feel in space without trying to change anything”.
Certified Ashtanga teacher, John Scott, says the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga practice is a form follows function practice.
What does this mean?
Our emphasis in the Ashtanga practice is on the function first. The form follows as a result of the function. You could say, in the Ashtanga practice, our method is to work from the inside out.
Consistent effort on developing the components we each need as individuals to express the functions of a pose will, in time, also create the form in the way that it is expressed by each individual.
What does this mean in practice?
The form should support the function. What is our function? Healthy movement, increased awareness, and increased concentration are some good places to start.
If we are taking the 8 limbs of yoga as our guide, then our intention is to move in the direction of not be driven around by our senses, increasing our concentration, and setting the context that will increase the likelihood of the experience of meditation – Yoga.
Common questions that I hear from students are about the specific details of yoga alignment, for example, “Should I line this foot up with that foot?”, or “Where should this arm be?”
While form, or yoga alignment can be important for supporting function, what is equally important is asking the question, WHY? What function in your individual practice are you trying to support by changing the form?
In my mind “good” yoga alignment is not arbitrary and it is relevant to each individual. “Good” yoga alignment is in support of increased function. I say this from my own bias where I understand some of the intentions of the Ashtanga practice to be about increased functional movement, increased ease of breathing, and cultivating steady attention.
I’m pretty sure my teacher has two favorite answers to every practice/technique-related question. The first one is: “Why?” and the second one is “What do you think?”
His point, with these questions, is that we can often find the answers to our own questions with a little bit of exploring in our practice.
An interesting place to go in practice is to ask yourself some questions when you have an idea that you should be changing the form in some way.
What function am I supporting with this change?
Am I able to move through a greater range of motion?
Does this change increase the stability of the posture?
Does this change increase the feeling of length or spaciousness in the posture?
Does this change increase my ability to breathe in the posture?
Am I directing the experience of my nervous system in some way?
Does this change alleviate pain or reduce my risk of injury in some way?
Am I just looking for something to “do” in this posture?
What am paying attention to? Am I avoiding holding my attention on sensations in the body and breath by getting up in my head and thinking?
If there is a function you would like to address in a posture, try experimenting by changing the questions you ask. Instead of yoga alignment questions specifically, trying working from a visceral, feeling place.
How could I do this posture with greater ease?
How could I do this posture with greater stability?
How could I do this posture with a smoother, fuller breath?
How could I do this posture with more focused attention?
This shift has been an interesting exploration in my own practice. I notice that it is easy for me to fall into a mental habit of looking for something to “do”, to “fix”, or to “improve” in yoga asana practice. Much more challenging for me is moving into a posture and then just being in the posture with awareness for five breaths.
If you find yourself often in “doing” mode, then have an exploration in a future practice with ‘being mode”. Choose a point of concentration: breath, driste (gazing point), the feeling of contacting the ground, etc. Just choose one thing and gently follow it through practice. See what you notice as you just hold awareness there. See where that takes you.
…and remember the Cheshire Cat. How you go in yoga practice depends on where you want to get to!
Breathing in Ashtanga Unites the Gross and the Subtle
The integration of breath with movement unites the physical and subtler mental dimensions of the Ashtanga practice. Excess tension and the struggle to find balance or ground in postures often lead to difficulties in breathing.
Jared challenges the breathing in Ashtanga in Marichyasana D
These difficulties include periods of holding the breath followed by labored breathing, tremulous breathing, and the feeling of being out of breath. It takes staying power to breathe five full smooth, even breaths in challenging postures. It takes even more staying power to keep the breath even and integrated with the movement in transitions between postures.
Not all movements in the Ashtanga series require equal effort. Yet the instruction I have heard from my teachers is to inhale and exhale with equal duration, smooth out the transitions between inhales and exhales, relax the breath, and make the movements match the duration and quality of the breath. Equal and free breathing is challenging because each Ashtanga series has peaks of energy demands and different sized movements, which challenge the equilibrium of the breath. In primary, I experience the peak energy demand between Marichasana D and Garbha pindasana. In second series, I experience two peaks, one between Laghu vajrasana and Bakasana and one between Karandavasana and Nakrasana.
At the energetic peaks of practice, I tend to run a deficit between the energetic demands of postures and the supply of energy from the breath. I experience these deficits as feeling out of breath. To the best of my ability in those moments, I choose to maintain relaxed smooth full breathing. When I notice the body and breath is shaking, I deliberately and continuously relax tension in the body and use only what is necessary to do the pose. I relax the soft palette. I relax the face. Relaxed body has a feedback into smooth relaxed breath. I notice that deficits may be recovered by relaxing and breathing fully in subsequent poses that are less challenging to the breath. If the energetic demand of postures greatly exceeds the energetic supply of the breath, then this is a good sign to stop adding poses and work for a while in poses where the breath is most challenged.
Consistent, intelligent, practice is the long road towards finding steadiness and ease in the breath. With practice, strength and flexibility increase. Breathing is refined, leading to a greater sensitivity and awareness of bandha. Gradually we learn to move the center of mass efficiently with respect to gravity. With a compact form, center will have the smallest length or angle relative to the vertical line of gravity. Lifting a compact mass requires less muscular effort. In turn, the breath is less challenged.
How will you know whether you are breathing optimally in practice? I’ve noticed in practices where the breath is dialed in, I experience a flow state during practice. My attention is directed toward maintaining full free breathing and in turn I experience a heightened awareness of the momentary sensations to relax the tension in my body. After practice, I often feel clear, calm, grounded. I felt like I’ve awoken from a deep sleep.
There are also telltale signs of when my breathing technique was suboptimal.
If I am breathing too fast, I often feel agitated after practice. If the breathing was labored or I was feeling out of breath during practice, I often feel tired and spacey, with the out of breath feeling persisting for an hour or so after practice. If I am breathing too slowly, I feel sleepy during practice and my concentration often wanders.
The capacity for relaxed concentration on the breath depends on how well I have slept the previous night. The capacity for free breathing in Ashtanga is greatest when my stomach is empty and there is minimal digestion happening. Context matters.
There is infinite room for refinement of breathing in Ashtanga practice. As the breath becomes easy and relaxed, there are more poses to challenge the breath. There is always more refinement in matching the movement with the breath. I’d recommend practicing with a metronome from time to time. The metronome practice has helped me to stretch out the breath in portions of the practice where I am rushing. I typically breathe at a pace of about 3 second inhales and 3 second exhale. Adjust as needed to a pace that feels sustainable for you.
I’d like to believe that refinement of the breath is leading toward greater emotional equanimity off of the mat. This practice has shown me that there is a lot of choice in how I respond to discomfort. Relaxing and staying with the breath seems more adventurous and less avoidant than muscling through and holding my breath. While maintaining full, even breathing throughout the challenging postures of the Ashtanga requires physical relaxation, it also requires a high degree of concentration and grit. Exercise your grit.