Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy Excerpt
Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy Excerpt
During a study trip to the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Mysore in 1996,1 asked the Ashtanga master K. Pattabhi Jois about the relevance of different scriptures for the Ashtanga Vinyasa method. With the words ‘This is Patanjali Yoga’, he pointed out that the text of prime importance for this school was the Yoga Sutra compiled by the ancient seer Patanjali. He said it was a difficult text, and only sincere study could lead to an understanding. He urged me to undertake daily study of the Yoga Sutra for a long time. The combination of these studies with daily Ashtanga Vinyasa practice led me eventually to realise that the Yoga Sutra and the vinyasa method are really only two sides of the same coin.
That is the central theme of this book. For yoga practice to be successful, there can be no separation of practice and philosophy. Indeed, new approaches to practice have always come out of philosophy, while practice prepares the intellect for philosophy. In fact the Yoga Sutra suggests that philosophical enquiry – svadhyaya, or vichara as Shankara calls it -is itself a form of practice, and an essential ingredient of the path to freedom.
This book is dedicated to bringing the two aspects back together and to restoring what historically was one system, lost through the lapse of time.
The rediscovery or the Ashtanga Vinyasa system
The notion that the Yoga Sutra and the vinyasa system are two sides of one coin has been strongly present from the beginning of the modern-day Ashtanga Yoga lineage. K.P. Jois received the vinyasa method from his master, T. Krishnamacharya; Krishnamacharya’s own master, Ramamohan Brahmachary, instructed him to seek out what was understood to be the last remaining copy of an elusive scripture, the Yoga Korunta, thought to have been compiled by the ancient seer Vamana.
According to Krishnamacharya’s biography,’ the Yoga Korunta contained not only the vinyasa system but also the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali and its commentary, Yoga Bhasya, compiled by the Rishi Vyasa. These were bound together in one volume. We can see from this that, in ancient times, what are today regarded as two systems that only share the same name – namely the Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali and the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga of the Rishi Vamana -were in fact one.
We see here also the idea that yogic philosophy is taught together with the practice. The practice of asana (posture) alone poses a danger. According to K.P. Jois, ‘Partial yoga methods out of line with their internal purpose can build up the “six enemies” (desire, anger, greed, illusion, infatuation and envy) around the heart. The full Ashtanga system practised with devotion leads to freedom within one’s heart.’2
Today, however, we are in the situation where on the one hand there are scholars who try to understand the Yoga Sutra without knowing its practices, while on the other hand there are many Ashtanga Vinyasa practitioners who are established in practice but do not know the philosophy of their system. Both aspects practised together will make practice easy, because we know where it leads and how we get there. Without dedicated practice, philosophy can turn into mere theory. Once established in practice, we will swiftly internalise the philosophy and attain higher yoga.
1. Krishnamacharya the Purnacharya, Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Chennai.
2. The Yoga Journal, San Francisco, November/December 1995.
The relevance or Ashtanga Yoga today
I do not claim here that Vinyasa Yoga is the only form of Patanjali Yoga. That would be absurd. It is, however, one of the authentic representations of Patanjali’s surra that is still alive.
This system is precious – and relevant – today because it was conceived by the ancient seer Vamana, the author of the Yoga Korunta, especially for householders (grihasta). A householder is somebody who has a job and family, and lives and works in society, as opposed to a monk, hermit or ascetic (sannyasi). Some forms of yoga are designed for hermits who have no social responsibility and therefore can be engaged with meditation techniques all day long.
Being a hermit or ascetic, however, was never a requirement for yoga. As the Bhagavad Gita explains, ‘One who outwardly performs his social duties but inwardly stays free is a yogi’.3 If everybody ceased performing their social responsibilities, the text continues,4 this world would be ruined, for obvious reasons. So we need not be disturbed if responsibility for others keeps us from devoting more time to our practice, since fulfilling one’s duty is practice. But what is important is how we practise. How do we spend the precious rime we can allocate to practising?
When T. Krishnamacharya had completed his training, his master, R. Brahmachary, proposed to him that he should get married, have a family and teach yoga to city-dwellers. This came as a surprise to the younger man: being so highly trained, he could have become a great scholar or the abbot of a monastery. But as a teacher of yoga to city-dwellers he would have very low social status.
Brahmachary told Krishnamacharya to study the Yoga Korunta, as he knew this would equip him best for teaching householders. The Vinyasa Yoga described in that text was the ideal form of Patanjali Yoga for householders, since it required only around two hours of practice per day.
3. Bhagavad Gita III.7.
4. Bhagavad Gita 111.24.
The eight limbs or yoga, and how they work together
According to Patanjali there are eight ‘limbs’ of yoga. How they work together can be understood from the following story:
Once upon a time a couple lived happily together in a country that had an unjust king. The king became jealous of their happiness and threw the man into a prison tower. When his wife came to the tower at night to comfort him, the man called down to her that she should return the next night with a long silken thread, a strong thread, a cord, a rope, a beetle and some honey. Although puzzled by the request, the wife returned the next evening with all the items. Her husband then asked her to tie the silken thread to the beetle and smear honey onto its antennae. She should then place the beetle on the tower wall with its head facing upwards. Smelling the honey, the beetle started to climb up the tower in expectation of finding more of it, dragging the silken thread as it did so. When it reached the top of the tower the man took hold of the silken thread and called down to his wife that she should tie the strong thread to the other end. Pulling the strong thread up, he secured it also and instructed her further to tie the cord to the other end. Once he had the cord the rest happened quickly. With the rope attached to the cord he pulled it up, secured one end of it and, climbing down, escaped to freedom.
The couple are, of course, yogis. The prison tower represents conditioned existence. The silken thread symbolises the purifying of the body through asana. The strong thread represents pranayama, breath extension, the cord symbolises meditation and the rope stands for samadhi, the state of pure being. Once this rope is held, freedom from conditioned existence is possible.
Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga relate to Ashtanga Vinyasa practice thus:
The first limb consists of a set of ethics, which ensures that the yogi interacts in a harmonious way with the surrounding community. The ethical precepts are: not to harm others, to be truthful, not to steal, to engage in intercourse only with one’s partner and to abstain from greed.
The second limb consists of observances, which ensure that body and mind are not polluted once they have been purified. Purification in yoga has nothing to do with puritanism. Rather it refers to the ‘stainability’ of body and mind. ‘Stainability’ is the propensity of the body/mind to take on a conditioning or imprint from the environment. The observances are physical and mental cleanliness, contentment, simplicity, study of sacred texts and acceptance of the existence of the Supreme Being. The first two limbs are initially implemented from the outside, and they form a platform from which practice is undertaken. Once we are established in yoga they become our second nature: they will arise naturally.
The third limb is asana. Many obstacles to knowing one’s true nature are manifested in the body, for example disease, sluggishness and dullness. The body profoundly influences and, if in bad condition, impinges on the functioning of mind and intellect. Through the practice of yoga asanas the body is made ‘strong and light like the body of a lion’, to quote Shri K. Pattabhi Jois. Only then will it provide the ideal vehicle on the path of yoga.
As the Yoga Sutra explains,5 every thought, emotion and experience leaves a subconscious imprint (samskara) in the mind. These imprints determine who we will be in the future. According to the Brhad Aranyaka Upanishad, as long as liberation is not achieved, the soul, like a caterpillar that draws itself from one blade of grass over to the next, will, by the force of its impressions in this life, reach out and draw itself over to a new body in a new life.
This means that the body we have today is nothing but the accumulation of our past thoughts, emotions and actions. In fact our body is the crystallised history of our past thoughts. This needs to be deeply understood and contemplated. It means that asana is the method that releases us from past conditioning, stored in the body, to arrive in the present moment. It is to be noted that practising forcefully will only superimpose a new layer of subconscious imprints based on suffering and pain. It will also increase identification with the body. In yoga, identification with anything that is impermanent is called ignorance (avidya).
This may sound rather abstract at first, but all of us who have seen a loved one die will remember the profound insight that, once death has set in, the body looks just like an empty shell left behind. Since the body is our vehicle and the storehouse of our past, we want to practise asana to the point where it serves us well, while releasing and letting go of the past that is stored in it.
Yoga is the middle path between two extremes. On the one hand, we can go to the extreme of practising fanatically and striving for an ideal while denying the reality of this present moment. The problem with this is that we are only ever relating to ourselves as what we want to become in the future and not as what we are right now. The other extreme is advocated by some schools of psychotherapy, which focus on highlighting past traumas. If we do this, these traumas can increase their grip on us, and we relate to ourselves as we have in the past, defining ourselves by the ‘stuff that’s coming up’ and the ‘process that we are going through’. Asana is an invitation to say goodbye to these extremes and arrive at the truth of the present moment.
How do past emotions, thoughts and impressions manifest in the body? Some students of yoga experience a lot of anger on commencing forward bending. This is due to past anger having been stored in the hamstrings. If we consciously let go of the anger, the emotion will disappear. If not, it will surface in some other form, possibly as an act of aggression or as a chronic disease. Other students feel like crying after intense backbending. Emotional pain is stored in the chest, where it functions like armour, hardening around the heart. This armour may be dissolved in backbending. If we let go of the armour, a feeling of tremendous relief will result, sometimes accompanied by crying.
Extreme stiffness can be related to mental rigidity or the inability to let oneself be transported into unknown situations. Extreme flexibility, on the other hand, can be related to the inability to take a position in life and to set boundaries. In this case, asana practice needs to be more strength-based, to create a balance and to learn to resist being stretched to inappropriate places. Asana invites us to acknowledge the past and let it go. This will in turn bring us into the present moment and allow us to let go of limiting concepts such as who we think we are.
The fourth limb is pranayama. Prana is the life force, also referred to as the inner breath; pranayama means extension of prana. The yogis discovered that the pulsating or oscillating of prana happens simultaneously with the movements of the mind (chitta vrtti). The practice of pranayama is the study and exercise of one’s breath to a point where it is appeased and does not agitate the mind.
In the vinyasa system, pranayama is practised through applying the ujjayi breath. By slightly constricting the glottis, the breath is stretched long. We learn to let the movement follow the breath, which eventually leads to the body effortlessly riding the waves of the breath. At this point it is not we who move the body, but rather the power of prana. We become able to breathe into all parts of the body, which is equivalent to spreading the prana evenly throughout. This is ayama – the extension of the breath.
The fifth limb is pratyahara – sense withdrawal. The Maitri Upanishad says that, if one becomes preoccupied with sense objects, the mind is fuelled, which will lead to delusion and suffering.6 If, however, the fuel of the senses is withheld, then, like a fire that dies down without fuel, the mind becomes reabsorbed into its source, the heart. ‘Heart’ in yoga is a metaphor not for emotions but for our centre, which is consciousness or the self.
In Vinyasa Yoga, sense withdrawal is practised through drishti – focal point. Instead of looking around while practising asana, which leads to the senses reaching out, we stay internal by turning our gaze towards prescribed locations. The sense of hearing is drawn in by listening to the sound of the breath, which at the same time gives us feedback about the quality of the asana. By keeping our attention from reaching out, we develop what tantric philosophy calls the centre (madhya). By developing the centre, the mind is eventually suspended and the prana, which is a manifestation of the female aspect of creation, the Goddess or Shakti, ceases to oscillate. Then the state of divine consciousness (bhairava) is recognised.7
The sixth limb is dharana – concentration. If you have tried to meditate on the empty space between two thoughts, you will know that the mind has the tendency to attach itself to the next thought arising. Since all objects have form, and the witnessing subject – the consciousness – is formless, it tends to be overlooked by the mind. It takes a great deal of focus to keep watching consciousness when distractions are available.
The practice of concentration, then, is a prerequisite and preparation for meditation proper. The training of concentration enables us to stay focused on whatever object is chosen. First, simple objects are selected, which in turn prepare us for the penultimate ‘object’, formless consciousness, which is nothing but pure awareness.
Concentration in Vinyasa Yoga is practised by focusing on the bandhas. On an external level the focus is on Mula and Uddiyana Bandha (pelvic and lower abdominal locks), but on an internal level it is on the bonding together of movement, breath and awareness (bandha = bonding). To achieve this bonding, we have to let go of the beta brain-wave pattern, which normally accompanies concentration. Instead we need to shift to an alpha pattern, which enables multiple focus and leads into simultaneous awareness of everything, or being in this moment, which is meditation.
The seventh limb is dhyana – meditation. Meditation means to rest, uninfluenced, between the extremes of the mind and suddenly just ‘be’ instead of ‘becoming’. The difference between this and the previous limb is that, in concentration, there is a conscious effort to exclude all thoughts that are not relevant to our chosen object. In meditation there is a constant flow of impressions from the object and of awareness towards the object, without any effort of the will. Typical objects chosen are the heart lotus, the inner sound, the breath, the sense-of-I, the process of perception and intellect, one’s meditation deity (ishtadevata) or the Supreme Being.
In Vinyasa Yoga, meditation starts when, rather than doing the practice, we are being done or moved. At this point we realise that, since we can watch the body, we are not the body but a deeper-lying witnessing entity. The vinyasa practice is the constant coming and going of postures, the constant change of form, which we never hold onto. It is itself a meditation on impermanence. When we come to the point of realising that everything we have known so far – the world, the body, the mind and the practice – are all subject to constant change, we have arrived at meditation on intelligence (buddhi).
Meditation does not, however, occur only in dhyana, but in all stages of the practice. In fact the Ashtanga Vinyasa system is a movement meditation. First we meditate on the position of the body in space, which is asana. Then we meditate on the life force moving the body, which is pranayama. The next stage is to meditate on the senses through drishti and listening to the breath, which is pratya-hara. Meditating on the binding together of all aspects of the practice is concentration (dharana).
The eighth limb, samadhi, is of two kinds -objective and objectless. Objective samadhi is when the mind for the first time, like a clear jewel, reflects faithfully what it is directed at and does not just produce another simulation of reality.8 In other words the mind is clarified to an extent that it does not modify sensory input at all. To experience this, we have to ‘de-condition’ ourselves to the extent that we let go of all limiting and negative programs of the past. Patanjali says, ‘Memory is purified, as if emptied of its own form’. 9 Then all that can be known about an object is known.
Objectless samadhi is the highest form of yoga. It does not depend on an object for its arising but, rather, the witnessing subject or awareness, which is our true nature, is revealed. In this samadhi the thought waves are suspended, which leads to knowing of that which was always there: consciousness or the divine self. This final state is beyond achieving, beyond doing, beyond practising. It is a state of pure ecstatic being described by the term kaivalya – a state in which there is total freedom and independence from any external stimulation whatsoever.
In the physical disciplines of yoga, samadhi is reached by suspending the extremes of solar (pingala) and lunar (ida) mind. This state arises when the inner breath (prana) enters the central channel (sushumna). Then truth or deep reality suddenly flashes forth.
5. Yoga Sutra 11.12.
6. Maitri Upanishad VI.35.
7. Vijnanabhairava, trans. and annot. Jaideva Singh, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1979, p. 23.
8. Yoga Sutra 1.41.
9. Yoga Sutra 1.43, quoted from The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, trans. C. Chappie, Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, 1990, p. 53.
Why a traditional practice is still applicable
A peasant once spoke to the sage Ramakrishna thus: ‘I am a simple villager. Please give me in one sentence a method by which I can obtain happiness.’
Ramakrishna’s answer was: Totally accept the fact that you are a machine operated upon by God.’ This needs to be deeply understood. It is through the belief that individuals exercise free will that ego is produced; and, in turn, ego produces suffering. In the Bhagavad Gita Lord Krishna states, ‘All actions are done in all cases by the gunas (qualities) of prakrti (nature). He whose mind is deluded through egoism thinks I am the doer.’ 10
This means that the entire cosmos, including our body-mind complex, is an unconscious machine operated upon by God. Our self, who is pure consciousness, is forever inactive. It merely witnesses. The giving up of the idea that it is we who act is echoed in the Yoga Sutra by Patanjali’s use of the term kaivalya. This final state of yoga is the realisation of the complete independence of consciousness. Since it is completely independent, it has no way of influencing the world. Like a mirror, which simply reflects, consciousness can neither reject nor hold on to objects of its choice. Give up the sense of agency,11 says Krishna: ‘Only a fool believes I am the doer.’
The surrender of the illusion of free will is reflected in the vinyasa system by acceptance of the original system as expounded by the Rishi Vamana. Of course it is easy to make up our own sequences of asanas, and possibly commercial success and fame will result. But then we run the risk of falling for the ego, which says I am the doer and the creator. We are only pure consciousness – the seer, the witness, the self – which, as the Samkhya Karika 12 says, plays no active part in this world.
That does not mean we cannot adapt the practice for some time if difficulties are to be met or yoga therapy needs to be practised. We need to return to the original system whenever possible, though. Rishi Vamana’s system leads through outer structure and limitation to inner freedom. If we constantly practise self-made sequences, we create inner limitation through outer freedom.
The rishis of old did not conceive the ancient arts and sciences by trial and error. The method they employed was samyama, which combines concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana) and absorption (samadhi). In that way, deep knowledge of how things really are can be gained. Patanjali himself explains in the Yoga Sutra how he gained his knowledge. Knowledge of the mind, he says, is gained by doing samyama on the heart.13
He also explains how the body can be understood. Medical knowledge, he says,” is gained by practising samyama on the navel chakra. This is how the science of Ayurveda came into being. It should be noted that Patanjali compiled the Charaka Samhita, an ayurvedic text. When we study and practise the ancient sciences today, we need to do this with a feeling of respect and devotion. The teachings of the ancient masters have never been declared invalid. They have only ever been added to.
10. Srimad Bhagavad Gita, trans. Sw. Vireswarananda, Sri Ramakrishna Math, Madras, p. 79.
11. Frequently used in Indian texts, this word means ‘the condition of being in action or exercising power’.
12. A text describing Samkhya, the ancient prototype of all Indian philosophies.
13. Yoga Sutra 111.34.
14. Yoga Sutra 111.29.
BREATH, BANDHAS, DRISHTI, VINYASA
The most visible aspect of the Ashtanga Yoga system is the different yoga asanas (postures). More important, though, is the invisible content, which consists of three fundamental techniques. These techniques bind the postures together on a string so that they become a yoga mala or garland.1
In the Vinyasa Yoga system the body is used as a mantra, the postures represent beads and the three fundamental techniques form the string that holds the beads together to create a garland of yoga postures. The system is designed to work as a movement meditation, where the transitions from each posture to the next are as important as the postures themselves.
For the beginner it is essential to learn these three fundamental techniques at the outset. Once they are mastered, the practice will happen almost effortlessly. Without them it can become hard work. The three techniques are Ujjayi pranayama, Mula Bandha and Uddiyana Bandha. We now focus on the first of these.
Ujjayi pranayama means ‘victorious breath’ or the victorious stretching of the breath. The term pranayama is a combination of two words, prana and ayama. Ayama means extending or stretching, while prana can have several meanings. It is usually taken to mean inner breath or life force, and as such it makes up part of the subtle anatomy of the body. Other elements of the subtle anatomy are nadis (energy channels) and chakras (energy centres). Sometimes, however, prana is used to refer to the outer or anatomical breath.2 In this context pranayama means extension of breath: the adoption of a calm, peaceful and steady breathing pattern. When the breath is calm, the mind is also calm.
1. The expression ‘yoga mala’ was coined by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and he is the author of a book with that title.
2. Prana has another meaning in the context of the principle of the ten individual currents within the life force, where it has reference to inhaling only.
Ujjayi pranayama is a process of stretching the breath, and in this way extending the life force. Practising it requires a slight constriction of the glottis – the upper opening of the larynx – by partially closing it with the epiglottis. The epiglottis is a lid on the throat that is closed when we drink water and open when we breathe. By half closing the epiglottis we stretch the breath and create a gentle hissing sound, which we listen to throughout the entire practice. The sound produced seemingly comes from the centre of the chest and not from the throat. The vocal cords are not engaged, as that would lead to strain: any humming that accompanies a sound like wind in the trees or waves on the shore should be eradicated.
Listening to the sound of your own breath has several implications. First and foremost it is a pratyahara technique. Pratyahara, the fifth limb of yoga, means ‘withdrawing the senses from the outer world’ or, more simply, ‘going inside’. This will be considered in detail later. For now it will suffice to say that listening to your own breath draws your attention inward and takes it away from external sounds. This is a meditation aid.
Furthermore the sound of the breath can teach us almost everything we need to learn about our attitude in the posture. At times the breath may sound strained, laboured, short, aggressive, flat, shallow or fast. By bringing it back to the ideal of a smooth, pleasant sound we begin to correct any negative or unhelpful attitudes.
To practise Ujjayi, sit in an upright but comfortable position. Start producing the Ujjayi sound steadily, with no breaks between breaths. Give the sound an even quality throughout the entire length of the breath, both inhaling and exhaling. Lengthen each breath and deepen it. Breathe evenly into the ribcage. Breathe simultaneously into the sides, the front, the back and finally into the upper lobes of the lungs. The ribcage needs to have a gentle pulsating movement, which means the internal intercostals (the muscles between the ribs) relax on inhalation, allowing the ribcage to expand freely as we breathe.
Our culture tends to focus only on abdominal breathing, which leads not only to a slouching posture but also to rigidity of the ribcage. This is due to the intercostal muscles lacking exercise, which in turn blocks the flow of blood and life force in the thorax and opens the way to coronary disease and cardiopulmonary weakness. The slouching appearance in this area is due to a relaxation of the rectus abdominis muscle, commonly known as ‘the abs’. This slouching makes the belly soft and promotes abdominal breathing.
Furthermore this relaxation of the rectus abdominis allows the pubic bone to drop, leading to an anterior (forward) tilt of the pelvis, which produces a hyperlordotic low back, commonly referred to as a sway back. This in turn lifts the origin of the erector spinae,3 the main back extensor muscle. Thus shortened, the erector spinae loses its effectiveness in lifting the chest. The chest collapses, leading not only to a slouching appearance but also to a rigid, hard ribcage. This prevents the thoracic organs from getting massaged during breathing. The lack of massage and movement of heart and lungs lowers their resistance to disease. The compensatory pattern, leading to a sway back, an anteriorly tilted pelvis and a collapsed chest, is one of the worst postural imbalances, and its main cause is favouring abdominal breathing and the resulting weakness of the abdominals.
In yoga we use both the abdomen and the thorax to breathe. The intercostals are exercised through actively breathing. The air is literally pumped out of the lungs until all that remains is the respiratory rest volume, the amount of air left after a full exhalation. The aim is to breathe more deeply so as to increase vitality. The way to achieve this is not by inhaling as much as possible but by first exhaling completely in order to create space for the new inhalation.
There are two vital reasons for wanting to increase breath volume. Firstly, by increasing our inhalation we increase the amount of oxygen supplied.
Secondly, by increasing our exhalation we exhale more toxins.
These toxins fall into several categories:
• Mental toxins – examples include the thought of conflict towards another being or collective conflict like the wish to go to war with another nation for whatever reason.
• Emotional toxins – fear, anger, hatred, jealousy, attachment to suffering and the like.
• Physical toxins – metabolic waste products that are not being excreted.
• Environmental toxins – lead, nicotine, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, recreational drugs and the like.
All of these toxins have a tendency to be held and stored in the body in ‘stale’, ‘dead’ areas where there is only a small amount of oxygen, often around the joints or in adipose tissue (fat). The build-up of these toxins – a literal energetic dying of certain body areas long before the death of the entire organism – can eventually lead to chronic disease. In fact the buildup of toxins and the simultaneous depletion of oxygen in certain tissues is the number-one cause of chronic disease.
By breathing deeply, exhaling accumulated toxins and inhaling oxygen, we take the first steps towards returning the body to its original state of health. More steps are required, and these will be covered later. Briefly they are storing energy (in the section below on bandhas) and awakening the whole body (Part 2, Asana).
The main reason for practising Ujjayi pranayama is not, however, for its physical benefits, but rather in order to still the mind. Why should the mind be stilled? Yoga Sutra 1.2 states, ‘Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind’. Sutra 1.3 says, ‘Only then when the mind is still abides the seer in its true nature’.
The mind can be likened to a lake. If thought waves (vrtti) appear, the surface of the lake is disturbed and ripples appear. Looking into the water you can see only a distorted representation of your appearance. This distortion is what we constantly see, and it is the reason we don’t know our true selves. This leads to suffering (duhkha) and ignorance (avidya).
When the thought waves have subsided and the surface of the lake of the mind becomes still for the first time, we can see who we really are. The mind is completely clear and, as a result, we can achieve identity with the object it is directed at.4 The notion of stilling the fluctuations of the mind is often referred to as the arresting of the mind or mind control in yogic literature. The term ‘mind control’ is misleading and unfortunate, however. It was rigorously criticised by sages like Ramana Maharshi, who said that if you want to control the mind you need a second mind to control the first one, and a third to control the second. Aside from this infinite regression, having separate parts of your mind struggle for control over each other can lead to schizophrenia. In less extreme cases it can lead to becoming a ‘control freak’, which makes for being a thoroughly unhappy person.
Ancient yogis found a solution to this problem when they realised that thinking (vrtti) and movement of life force (prana) happen together. According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, ‘Both the mind and the breath are united together like milk and water and both of them are equal in their activities. The mind begins its activities where there is the breath, and the prana begins its activities where there is the mind.’ 5
We know now that mind and breath move together. Influencing the mind directly is regarded as difficult, but through directing the breath it can be achieved much more easily. The extension of the breath through the practice of Ujjayi pranayama smooths the flow of prana.
It is important always to breathe through the nose only. If we breathe through the mouth, heat and energy will be lost. It will also dry us out too much. According to Indian tradition, if the mouth is kept open demons will enter. Apparently demons become very jealous of the merit that a yogi accumulates. I will leave this view to individual evaluation.
Remember the connection between breath and movement: every movement comes out of breath. Rather than moving with and following the breath, the breath should initiate the movement. Practising this way, we will be moved by the breath like the autumn wind picking up leaves.
3. The origin of a muscle is the end that is closer to the centre of the body, called the proximal end; its insertion is the end more distant from the centre of the body, called the distal end.
4. Yoga Sutra 1.41.
5. Hatha Yoga Pradipika FV.24, trans. Pancham Sinh, Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, 1915, p. 50.
We have learned in the previous section about the importance of deep breathing. What is it exactly that makes yogic breathing so effective?
To answer this we have to look again at the idea of prana. As we already know, prana can refer to the anatomical breath, but it most often denotes life force, located in the subtle body. It is important to understand that the two are not identical. However, the movements of the life force that occur in the subtle or energetic body have some correlation to the movement of breath in the gross body. The flow of prana can be influenced by directing one’s breath. It can even be accumulated and stored. Most of us have heard accounts of yogis who managed to survive without oxygen for extended periods of time. Although it is not the purpose of yoga to perform such feats, it is nevertheless possible using a set of exercises called mudras, mudra meaning ‘seal’. They are a combination of posture, breath and bandha, and they produce the sealing of prana. It is this process of gaining control of the life force that differentiates yogic exercise from mere gymnastics. Gymnastics and sport can make one fit, but they don’t have the energy-preserving effect of yoga, because they do not use mudra and bandha. It is the combination of posture with pranayama and bandha that makes yoga so effective.
The term bandha is related to the English word ‘bonding’. We bond breath, movement and awareness together. The first bandha is called Mula Bandha, which translates as ‘root lock’. The root referred to here is the root of the spine, the pelvic floor or, more precisely, the centre of the pelvic floor, the perineum. The perineum is the muscular body between the anus and the genitals. By slightly contracting the pubo-coccygeal (PC) muscle, which goes from the pubic bone to the tail bone (coccyx), we create an energetic seal that locks prana into the body and so prevents it from leaking out at the base of the spine. Mula Bandha is said to move prana into the central channel, called sushumna, which is the subtle equivalent of the spine.
Locating the PC muscle might be difficult at first. It has been suggested that one should tighten the anus, or alternatively contract the muscle that one would use to stop urination, but these indications are not entirely accurate: Mula Bandha is neither of these two muscles but located right between them. These suggestions have their value, however, offering some guidance until we become more sensitive and are able to isolate the PC muscle more precisely. For females it is essential not to mistake Mula Bandha for a contraction of the cervix. This contraction tends to occur especially during strenuous activity. Should a woman do this on a daily basis when engaged in two hours of yoga practice, she could experience difficulty in giving birth.
In the beginning we employ mainly a gross muscular lock, which works mainly on the gross body. Through practice we shift to an energetic lock, which works more on the subtle or pranic body. When mastered, Mula Bandha becomes exclusively mental, and works on the causal body.
To become familiar with Mula Bandha, sit tall and upright in a comfortable position and focus on slightly contracting the perineum, which is the centre of the pelvic floor. With the exhalation, visualise the breath beginning at the nostrils and slowly reaching down through the throat, the chest and the abdomen until it eventually hooks into the pelvic floor, which contracts slightly. As the inhalation starts, there will be an automatic reaching upwards. Since we keep the breath hooked into the pelvic floor through contracting the PC muscle, we create suction and an energetic lift upwards through the entire core of the body. This is Mula Bandha. With this movement the first step is taken to arrest the downward flow of life force, which increases with age and invites death, disease and decay like the withering of a plant, and convert it into an upward flow that promotes growth and further blossoming.
Mula Bandha is held throughout the entire breathing cycle and during the whole practice. Every posture needs to grow out of its root. This is only finally released during deep relaxation in complete surrender. The second bandha is Uddiyana Bandha. It is sometimes confused with Uddiyana, one of the shot karmas or six actions, also called kriyas, of Hatha Yoga. This Uddiyana is a preparation for nauli, the stomach roll. Nauli is practised by sucking the entire abdominal content up into the thoracic cavity. It is done only during breath retention (kumbhaka) and it is very different from the technique practised in Vinyasa Yoga. The Uddiyana Bandha of Vinyasa Yoga is a much gentler exercise. It consists of lightly contracting the transverse abdominis muscle, which runs horizontally across the abdomen and is used to draw the abdominal contents in against the spine.
To successfully switch on Uddiyana Bandha, it is important to isolate the upper transverse abdominis muscle from the lower part and use only the part below the navel. Doing otherwise impinges on the free movement of the diaphragm. If the movement of the diaphragm is restricted for a long time, aggressive, boastful, egotistical and macho-like tendencies can develop in the psyche. This is not endorsed by traditional teaching, however. Shankara and Patanjali provide us with the following explanations. True posture, according to Shankara, is that which leads effortlessly to meditation on Brahman and not to pain and self-torture. Patanjali says that asana is perfected when meditation on the infinite (ananta) is achieved through the releasing of excess effort. 6
Some have claimed that Ashtanga Yoga is warrior yoga, and that warriors used it to psych themselves up for battle. This is a very sad misunderstanding. Those who have had a true experience of the practice will have come away feeling tired and happy -and definitely not psyched up for battle. Rather, one feels more like hugging one’s enemy and, in complete surrender, handing them whatever they demand – perhaps even imparting genuine advice as to how to enjoy their life and not waste it with such stupidities as aggression and warfare. There is no warrior yoga. War and yoga exclude each other because the first yogic commandment is ahimsa -non-violence.
Richard Freeman says that Uddiyana Bandha is in fact only a slight suction inward just above the pubic bone. The more subtle Uddiyana Bandha becomes, the more blissful, peaceful, childlike and innocent becomes the character of the practitioner. I suggest starting by firming the abdominal wall below the navel and then, as awareness increases with years of practice, allow Uddiyana Bandha to slide downwards. Again, the more subtle it becomes, the more influence Uddiyana Bandha will have on the subtle body.
As I have mentioned in the previous section, a lot of emphasis has been placed on abdominal breathing in our culture in the last forty years. This has its place in the performing arts – especially dance and theatre – and for therapy. It is certainly helpful for singers and actors, and for someone undergoing psychotherapy. Abdominal breathing, with complete relaxation of the abdominal wall, is recommended as useful whenever we want to connect to our emotions and bring them to the fore. In the New Age movement in particular, emotions are seen as something sacred that one needs to follow and live out. Abdominal breathing is a good idea whenever one wants to intensify one’s emotions.
In many other situations, though, it is not helpful to heighten one’s emotions. After all, emotions are only a form of the mind. To be emotional means to react to a present situation according to a past conditioning. For example, if I am rejected in a certain situation that is new to me, I will feel hurt. If I find myself in a similar situation again, I will become emotional even before any new hurt has been inflicted. I will emote ‘hurt’ before I actually feel it. An emotion is a conserved feeling that arises because the original feeling has left a subconscious imprint in the mind. Patanjali calls this imprint samskara. The theory that being emotional is being more authentic is flawed, since an emotional person is as much in the past as a person who is constantly ‘in their head’.
Besides the fact that it makes one emotional, constant abdominal breathing also has negative physical repercussions. It leads to sagging, collapsing abdominal organs with enlarged, weak blood vessels and stagnant blood. Then follow a lack of oxygen supply, a decrease in vitality and eventually the development of chronic disease.
If the lower abdominal wall is kept firm and the upper wall is relaxed, the diaphragm moves up and down freely and the whole abdomen functions like the combustion chamber of an engine, with the diaphragm as the piston. This produces a strong oscillation of infra-abdominal blood pressure, and it is exactly this mechanism that produces healthy abdominal organs. When the diaphragm moves down and the abdominal wall is held, the pressure in the combustion chamber will rise. When the diaphragm moves up, all the blood is sucked out of the abdomen and blood pressure drops. This strong oscillation of abdominal blood pressure constantly massages the internal organs and leads to strong, healthy tissue. 7
We look now at the subtle mechanics of Uddiyana Bandha. Uddiyana means flying up. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika states that, because of Uddiyana Bandha, the great bird of prana flies up incessantly through the sushumna. 8 Sushumna is the central energy channel, which lies, albeit in the subtle body, roughly in front of the spine and originates at the perineum. It terminates within the head – some sources say at the highest point of the head, but more often it is described as ending where the head is joined to the spine. The sushumna is usually dormant. It is accompanied by two other nadis (energy channels), which wind around it like the snakes of the caduceus. These are the lunar (ida) and solar (pingala) channels. There are certain parallels between solar and lunar energy channels on the one hand and the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems on the other, but we cannot say that the one is the other.
The Hatha Yoga Pradipika explains that prana should be directed into sushumna by closing the ida and pin-gala. 9 The same text states that, by practising Mula Bandha, prana will enter sushumna. In a later stanza of the text a great truth is revealed: time (which we perceive as the fluctuation of night and day) is produced by the sun and moon. 10 In other words, it is the illusion of time that prevents us from recognising deep reality (Brahman), which is timeless and is fabricated by the moment of inner breath (prana) in the pingala (solar) and ida (lunar) energy channels.
The stanza goes on to reveal the key to all physical yoga, which is that the sushumna devours time. In other words, if prana is made to enter the central channel it will devour time, which is itself a creation of the fluctuating mind and which keeps us from abiding in deep reality, the timeless consciousness (Brahman). Time is the operating system of the human mind; to go beyond time is to go beyond mind. This is possible when the great bird of prana flies up in sushumna, and sushumna devours time. For this the use of Mula and Uddiyana Bandha is prescribed.
Even the great Shankara says that Mula Bandha should always be practised, since it is fit for raja yogins. In other words, even raja yogins – those who practise mind suspension and who are sometimes disparaging about Hatha yogins and their preoccupation with their bodies – should take up the practice of Mula Bandha, since it leads to going beyond mind. If we remember now Patanjali’s definition of yoga being the suspension of mind,” we begin to understand the importance of Mula and Uddiyana Bandha.
6. Yoga Sutra 11.47.
7. This process is described by Andre Van Lysbeth in his book Die gross? Kraft des Atems, which he wrote after he studied with K. Pattabhi Jois in the 1960s.
8. Hatha Yoga Pradipika 111.56.
9. Hatha Yoga Pradipika 111.73.
10. Hatha Yoga Pradipika IV.17.
We move on now to drishti or focal point. As we have seen, the fifth limb of yoga is sense withdrawal (pratyahara). The Upanishads explain that the senses deliver the fuel for the mind in the form of sense objects. The mind then develops desires, which are the source of suffering. The mind’s basic concept is that we are lacking. This lack, according to the mind, can only be alleviated through a constant supply of stimulation from outside.
The concept of yoga, on the other hand, holds that we are always in the original and pristine state of bliss, which is consciousness. This original state is formless, however; and, since the mind has the tendency to attach itself to whatever comes along next, we forget our true nature. Sense withdrawal means to accept the fact that external stimuli can never truly fulfil us. Once that is accepted, we are free to realise that what we were desperately looking for on the outside was present inside all along. The Upanishads explain further that, as a fire dies down when the fuel is withheld, so the mind will return to its source when the fuel of the senses is withheld. The method – or rather the collection of methods -by which this can be brought about is sense withdrawal (pratyahara).
As has been explained, the withdrawal of the audio sense is brought about by listening to one’s own breath rather than to external sounds. The
11. Yoga Sutra 1.2.
withdrawal or turning in of the visual sense is practised through drishti, the attachment of one’s gaze to various focal points. These are:
• towards the nose
• towards the centre of the forehead (third eye)
• towards the navel
• towards the hand
• towards the toes
• towards the side
• towards the thumb
By doing this, one prevents oneself from looking around, which would let the mind reach out. Following drishti, the practice becomes deeply internal and meditative.
Drishti is also a practice of concentration (dharana), the sixth of Patanjali’s limbs of yoga. If we practise in a distracted way, we may find ourselves listening to the birds outside and gazing around the room. To perform all of the prescribed actions – bandha, ujjayi, drishti and finding proper alignment – the mind needs to be fully concentrated; otherwise one of the elements will miss out. In this way the practice provides us with constant feedback about whether we are in dharana. In time dharana will lead to meditation (dhyana).
Drishti has also a significant energetic aspect. According to the Yoga Yajnavalkya, which contains the yoga teachings of the sage Yajnavalkya, ‘One must endeavour to retain all the prana through the mind, in the navel, the tip of the nose and the big toes. Focussing at the tip of the nose is the means to mastery over prana. By focussing on the navel all diseases are removed. The body attains lightness by focussing on the big toes.’ 12 According to A.G. Mohan, a student of T. Krishnamacharya and translator of the Yoga Yajnavalkya, the aim of yoga is to concentrate the prana in the body, whereas it is usually scattered. A scattered prana will correspond to a scattered state of mind.
The scattered state of mind is called vikshipta in the Yoga Sutra. Prana that is drawn inwards and concentrated in the body corresponds to the single-pointed (ekagra) and suspended (nirodha) states of mind, which lead to objective (samprajnata) and objectless (asamprajnata) samadhi. In the Ashtanga Vinyasa method, drishti is one of the vital techniques to draw the prana inwards. Anyone who has practised in front of a mirror may have noticed how looking into it draws awareness away from the core towards the surface. Exactly this happens to the flow of prana, which follows awareness. Practising in front of a mirror might be helpful from time to time to check one’s alignment if no teacher is present, but it is preferable to develop proprioceptive awareness – awareness that does not depend on visual clues. This type of awareness draws prana inwards, which corresponds to what the Upanishads call dissolving the mind into the heart. The permanent establishing of prana in the core of the body leads to samadhi or liberation.
As enthusiastic as some scriptures are about techniques like drishti, we have to remember we are still just operating within conditioned existence. The master Shankara reminds us: ‘Converting the ordinary vision into one of knowledge one should view the world as brahman (consciousness) itself. That is the noblest vision and not that which is directed to the tip of the nose.” 13
12. Yoga-Yajnavalkya, trans. A.G. Mohan, Ganesh & Co, Madras, pp. 81-82.
13. Aparokshanubhuti of Sri Shankaracharya, trans. Sw. Vimuktananda, Advaita Ashrama, Kolkata, 1938, p. 63.
Vinyasa Yoga is a system of yoga specifically designed for householders. The difference between a householder (grihasta) and a renunciate (sannyasi) is that the latter has no social duties and can therefore devote ten or more hours per day to practice. In fact, if individual techniques pertaining to all the eight limbs were practised daily, one would easily spend more than ten hours practising. For example a wonderful day could be had by practising asana for two hours, pranayama for two hours, mudra and japa (repetition of mantra) each for one hour, reading of scripture one hour, chanting of scripture one hour, reflection and contemplation one hour, meditation one hour.
A householder – meaning someone who has a family and a job or a business to attend to – can never spend so much time on the practice. The idea of completely turning your back on society is actually fairly recent, relatively speaking. It was introduced by Gautama Buddha and elaborated on by Shankara. The ancient Vedic and upanishadic rishis, although they spent considerable time in the forest, were not dropouts. Rishis like Yajnavalkya, Vasishta and Vishvamitra had wives and children, and held positions such as priest or royal counsellor.
For a yoga practice to work for householders, it would be necessary to compress it into two hours and yet retain its benefits, and so the eight limbs would have to be practised simultaneously and not sequentially. With this in mind Rishi Vamana created the Vinyasa Yoga. The rishi arranged the practice in sequences, such that the postures were potentiating their effects, and combined them with mudra, pranayama and meditation so that a ten-hour practice could be effectively compressed into two hours.
One of Vinyasa Yoga’s outstanding features is that postures are not held for a long time. One of the greatest traps in physical yoga is to get identified with postures and preoccupied with the body. One thinks, ‘Now I am sitting in Padmasana. This is yoga!’ One couldn’t be more wrong. To perceive the awareness that witnesses sitting in Padmasana -that is yoga.
The core idea of Vinyasa Yoga is to shift emphasis from posture to breath and therefore to realise that postures, like all forms, are impermanent. The formed – asanas, bodies of life-forms, structures, nations, planets etc. – come and go. The quest of yoga is for the formless (consciousness) – for what was here before form arose and what will be here after form has subsided. For this reason it was necessary to organise the practice in such a way that nothing impermanent is held on to. Vinyasa Yoga is a meditation on impermanence.
The only thing permanent in the practice is the constant focus on the breath. According to the Brahma Sutra, 14 ‘ata eva pranah’ – the breath verily is Brahman. The breath is here identified as a metaphor for Brahman (= deep reality, ultimate reality, infinite consciousness). This assertion is based on the authority of the Chandogya Upanishad, where the question is asked: Which is that divinity?15 Answer:
‘Breath … Verily, indeed all beings enter (into life) with breath and depart (from life) with breath’ 16 Through vinyasa the postures are linked to form a mala. A mala is commonly used to count mantras during mantra meditation, whereas in Vinyasa Yoga every asana becomes a bead on this mala of yoga postures. In this way the practice becomes a movement meditation.
The practice produces heat, which is needed to burn toxins. Not only physical toxins are meant here, but also the poison of ignorance and delusion. The full-vinyasa practice, which entails coming back to standing between postures, has a flushing effect through the constant forward bending. It can be recommended in cases of strong, persistent toxicity and for recuperation after disease. The half-vinyasa practice, in which one jumps back between performance of the right and left sides of sitting postures, is designed to create a balance between strength and flexibility and to increase heat.
If asana only is practised, this might lead to excess flexibility, which can destabilise the body. The proper position of the bones in the body, and especially of the spine, is remembered by sustaining a certain core tension in the muscles. If the tension is insufficient, frequent visits to a chiropractor or osteopath may become necessary.
In the vinyasa method, this possibility is avoided by jumping back between sides, which gives us the strength to support the amount of flexibility that is gained. This concept is important to understand. Flexibility that cannot be supported by strength should not be aimed for.
The underlying principle here is that of simultaneous expansion into opposing directions. Whenever we expand into one direction, we at the same time need to counteract that by expanding into the opposite direction. In this way we are not caught into extremes of body and mind. Patanjali says, “Thus one is unassailed by the pair of opposites’. 17 For this reason one needs to place the same importance on vinyasa as on asana. As Rishi Vamana put it, ‘Yogi don’t practise asana without vinyasa’.
14. Brahma Sutra I.I.23.
15. Chandogya Upanishad 1:11:5.
16. G.C. Adams, Jr, trans. and comment., Badarayana’s Brahma Sutras, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1993, p. 60.
17. Yoga Sutra 11.48.
In colloquial language today, the term vinyasa is taken to refer to the jumping back and jumping through between the sides of postures (half vinyasa) and the movement that brings us to standing between postures (full vinyasa).
In the ancient treatise Yoga Korunta, vinyasa refers to every counted movement, accompanied by breath and focal point. The vinyasa count is a format in which the Rishi Vamana recorded the Ashtanga practice in the Yoga Korunta.
Each movement that is needed to enter and exit a pose in the traditional way is counted. Since the postures differ not only greatly from each other but also as to the way in which they are entered and exited, they also differ very much in regard to the number of sequential movements that are needed to perform them (their vinyasa counts). So Padangush-tasana has only three vinyasas (counted movements) whereas Supta Padangushtasana has twenty-eight. All vinyasas are flowing movements. The only one that is held is the vinyasa where we are in the state of the asana. To be in the state of the asana means to be in and to hold a posture. For Padangushtasana, for example, this is vinyasa three. This vinyasa is held usually for five breaths, though for therapeutic purposes it may be held for twenty-five breaths or more. The fact that one vinyasa may consist of up to twenty-five breaths leads us to the understanding that vinyasa count and the number of breaths, the breath count, are not identical.
In the following section I describe the postures following the half-vinyasa count. That is the way I learned it in Mysore and it is the normal mode of practice today.
To make this text more accessible to beginners I have counted the vinyasas in English. The original vinyasa count is, however, in Sanskrit, and it is important to preserve this precious tradition. Accordingly, I use the Sanskrit count when I conduct a vinyasa-count class. For those who want to study the vinyasa count more closely I recommend K. Pattabhi Jois’s Yoga Malaand Lino Mieles’s Ashtanga Yoga.