The Ashtanga Yoga ToolkitAug 05, 2020
It can be hard sometimes not to carry around an idea in your head of what a yoga practice is “supposed” to look like. Between social media, yoga and wellness magazines, and the popular idea of just what yoga is, it can be hard not to get lost in expectations of some kind of impossible perfection we think we’re supposed to achieve. But here’s the thing about yoga: the perfection is in the imperfection. And even more to the point, this idea of a “perfect” yoga practice based on appearance is literally the most flawed and incomplete a representation of yoga as you can get.
As beautiful as photos can make the practice look, I’ll be the first to admit that it’s honestly much more of a beautiful mess. Nobody can tell you about the inside of yoga, because it’s such an internal experience. But, if you’re reading this, I bet you’ve already realized some kind of change from yoga and you’ve noticed that it’s already started to change you. It truly happens right away.
That’s why I want to focus today on the five absolute essentials, the most crucial toolkit for an Ashtanga practice. These are the things that, in my experience, bring us the changes that we come to yoga in search of. Because here’s the thing: there’s no photo, no magazine snapshot, no Instagram post, that can ever capture the essence of a yoga practice, because the essence of a yoga practice is internal. It’s physical, of course, but it’s a moving meditation, and that’s really something that looking at a photo and dreaming of some fake notion of perfection can only take you further away from. Tim Miller, one of my teachers, always says it’s called practice, not perfect. Practice brings you closer, the idea of perfect takes you further away. That’s why I like to focus on this toolkit of these essentials.
These 5 Ashtanga Essentials are:
- Ujayyi Breathing
The first three of five are all components of Tristhana, as we can see above. Tristhana is the path to Pratyahara, which is the drawing in of the senses. The combination of breath, visual focus, and postures - that is, ujayyi, dristhi, and asana - all contribute to this. Pratyahara is the fifth limb of yoga, meaning that it is the fifth step on the yogic path inward.
Breathing is the most habituated thing we do. As a result, we barely notice most of the breaths we take in life. But we do notice our breathing when we’re practicing, and we can use this to wake ourselves up and to bring more life into ourselves. The type of breathing we do in asana practice is called Ujayyi breathing. The purpose of Ujayyi is multifold, but perhaps most essentially Ujayyi breath brings us inward - because we practice Ujayyi breathing with our mouths closed, it makes it so that the entire breath process is self-contained.
Dristhi is the focal point that our eyes hold in our practice, and this has a similar self-containing effect. The eyes help to focus the mind, instigating a more internal and potentially meditative practice. It doesn’t really matter what the focal point is that you’re looking at - what matters is just that you have a singular point of focus and that you hold it.
Dristhi and Ujayyi breathing both help to keep your mind and your senses within the parameters of the physical body. Asana is the posture that we move the body into and transition it out of while the consciousness is focusing on the dristhi and breathing in ujayyi. When practiced all together, a moving, breathing meditation occurs. All of these things, the tristhana as a package, start to bring us toward Pratyahara. When we have these elements, we pull ourselves inside, and when we’re moving and breathing this meditation occurs. This is what brings about the real changes in our lives that yoga can help to facilitate.
This is all part of why I love Ashtanga so much - the focus is on your internal experience. There’s no music, there’s minimal interference from teachers, it’s all about your use of the physical body to journey inward. It’s about feeling whatever you’re feeling without external things influencing your internal experiences.
Next, the bandhas are locks or seals - Jalandhara bandha is the throat lock, sealing air and breath; Udiyana bandha is the upward lifting seal; Mula bandha is the root lock.
Finally, we have Vinyasa. The word vinyasa is so mainstream, but the meaning is different in the context of Ashtanga. Vinyasa, translated from Sanskrit, means to put in a special place, although it often translates to the idea of movement linked with breath. In vinyasa, the asanas are done in a certain sequence, and that sequence is repetitive, and because of that repetition the sequence becomes sacred and special within the practice. This is what we mean when we talk about vinyasa in Ashtanga - each position is accounted for, and it’s all done in a very specific and special way. We’re not just jumping through and focusing on other things and taking the next position - that gets you distracted and takes you out of your pratyahara. Instead, we’re able to take the repetition and the sacred muscle memory and combine this with the processes of our ujayyi breathing, our dristhis, and our bandhas, and more easily find a literal state of moving meditation. We inhale, jump through, exhale, take position. It’s direct, it keeps you focused, and it helps you build heat and strength and achieve pratyahara.
There’s always more to learn from any practice. There's more to learn about alignment, there's more to learn about breath, and focus, and the subtleties - and ultimately there is always more to learn about yourself.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting a beautiful practice,. but what’s important is to remember is that yoga is much more than that. Technical proficiency is a worthwhile goal, but it’s crucial not to think of an asana’s appearance as the be-all and end-all. Yoga is a moving meditation, it’s an internal process, it’s a spiritual path. That’s the thing about achieving a practice that looks beautiful - to get there, you have to go so deep that you completely stop caring about how it looks. To achieve that beauty, you have to stop wanting it; to stop wanting it, you have to achieve something so much greater. The perfection is in the imperfection, and the imperfection is in the perfection. Breathe. Focus. Move. Seal. Flow. The real yoga happens on the inside.
Try capturing that on Instagram.
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