I know lots of people are reading and sharing Nancy Gilgoff’s quick set of thoughts we linked to this weekend. One thing, as I’ve been reflecting on it, particularly strikes me:
The perfect pose is without bad pain and without stress… only breath. The correct method is finding that in our own practice, and our role as “teacher” is to help others to find it. Once one finds it then how quickly or slowly we learn primary and intermediate will have little relevance. Keep practising, always coming back to the breath… and enjoy. This is Guruji’s system of yoga, I think.
Sound familiar? One of the revolving pieces on the Yoga Workshop home page says this:
INHALE, EXHALE, (REPEAT).
If you’re new to yoga, that’s all you need to know how to do.
In both cases, it is breath that is fundamental. Everything else, as the saying goes, is just circus tricks.
This looks to be one of quite a few yoga- and Ashtanga-related videos at this YouTube channel: love yoga anatomy. “These videos are part of a loveyogaanatomy initiative to connect with teachers and professionals from around the world,” the description reads.
I can’t get the second of these videos to upload, but you can click on the “Playlist” bar and jump to Manju Jois talking about the breath.
We seem to be riding a little glut of new videos lately.
A couple weeks back I was wondering how one gets — and I suppose keeps — motivated day after day with an Ashtanga practice. (Thanks to those who provided some feedback; I hope there was something helpful to you if you are/were feeling a bit lethargic on the mat.)
I’ve since been thinking about it more and practicing, as well. In one talk with Bobbie, she pointed out — these are my words summing her eloquent ones up — my drishti sucked.
True enough, I discovered the next morning.
We’ve written about breath and bandhas and drishti plenty here — as you’d expect. You can check out Bobbie’s thoughts on drishti here, for instance. And I know somewhere I suggested that as long as I was focused on breathing, I more or less would say I’m “doing Ashtanga.”
As with any previously uttered/written statement, I reserve the right to refute my earlier thinking. I think breath is important — probably the most important aspect of Ashtanga. And bandhas are critical — your asanas are essentially flappy — maybe even broken — in the middle without them.
But then there’s drishti. It may be the “least important” piece to the puzzle, but at the same time it may pack more bang for the buck than anything else.
All three, of course, make up Ashtanga’s Tristana. Check out this wonderful summary of Tristana from ashtangayoga.info:
Tristana is the key to this spiritual side of yoga. Tristana is the name for the union of vinyasa, bandha and drishti. Only when this state is achieved, does the lotus blossom of ashtanga yoga unfold its petals. Ujjayi breathing is the foundation of vinyasa. The alignment of the body in asana is achieved through bandha. Drishti completes the trio and builds the bridge, to carry the essence of your practise from the yoga mat into your daily life
That substitutes vinyasa in for breath, sort of — breathing is the “foundation of vinyasa” in this version. But to my point: check out how drishti “builds the bridge” to a practice that is more than just what’s happening on the mat.
That’s been my experience (albeit over a small set of practices). Getting my drishti down a little better — focusing my gaze and, by default, my concentration — feels like a minor adjustment or correction to the practice, but one that then produces massive changes and, almost, aftershocks.
“Completes the trio” undersells things, I think. “Locks you in and rockets you forward” might be closer to the experience.
And that’s weird. All from a narrowing of the gaze.
There are two different descriptions. From the Yoga Workshop page (linked to above):
We are always practicing asana, whether we realize it or not. In this recording Richard talks about how the movement of breath corresponds with our thoughts as well as our physical form. Various verses of the Yoga Sutra Sadhanapadah are discussed.
And from the Soundcloud page where the talk is at: “Richard Freeman speaks about asana as contemplative form.”
This is one of those posts done from atop my high horse.
Of course, my high horse in this area is pretty darn short — but in this rare instance, that’s precisely what (I think) gives me the authority to wax all high and mighty.
I see a lot of Ashtangis (and there’s another problem, I realize, I shouldn’t see anybody during practice) who motor their way through many of the standing poses in First. There’s a casualness to these poses or, even, a seeming rush to get on to … something. Later poses, I guess. Yes, I’m probably looking at you, Second Series practitioners.
What I figure they’re missing is all the benefits from First.
Now, I’ll take a quick step back and openly admit that my practice is far from perfect — it may be farther from perfect than any of the people I’m critiquing. But the result of that is this: I get something out of every pose in the First Series and the Finishing Poses. It might be the stretch (and strain) to reach my toes; it might be that extra bit of twist; it might be a little more openness in my shoulders from Urdva Dhanurasana. It’s certainly — these days — the strength of trying to pull back without brushing the floor.
I can imagine if you’re really flexible, Utthita Trikonasana maybe just seems like a bother. After all, down the road a piece is Kapotasana and more. I understand the desire to get there.
The reason I react is pretty simple: I doubt I’m ever going to get there. And I see people who can really reach the full expression of some of these “simpler” poses — but they don’t. They move into it, take a few breaths and move on.
I’d kill to be able to do that. (Kill in the sense of Arjuna’s doing his duty, you understand.)
But, believe it or not, this isn’t meant to be just about me and my Ashtanga frustrations. (That could be a whole other blog.) It’s a reminder that all of the poses have value. And that value isn’t just the burning of bad fat that seems to be the benefit from most of First Series.
There’s that breath thing. If you’re zipping through poses or not being — I hate to use the word — mindful, you’re missing what’s the real point of the practice. Don’t take my word for it.
Somehow we each have a deep inherent knowledge that if we control our breath we may control our mind. There is a yogic saying that states: “The mind is more difficult to control than the wind but if we are able to control our breath we may control our mind.” Yoga is built upon this simple concept. When controlling the breath the yoga practitioner feels a deep state of calm and an evenness of the mind. This is due to the regulated focus upon the breath during practice. This information that I have provided may not be scientific but I believe it to be true and I also believe that if you were to approach other practitioners of yoga they would also agree.
Linking movements done on the breath set up a distinct sensation pattern in the nervous system which allows the following movement and breath to go to their full extension.
We’ve all heard an admonition to “breathe deep” in the Mysore room, right? We all know that the fundamental purpose of Ashtanga is that pesky Ujjayi breath (with even peskier mula bandha a close second).
It’s an easy thing to forget, though. So think of this as just a long-winded way to say, “Ujjayi!”
(I am curious if my sense that people are trying to get to the poses that “matter” is right. Is it?)
As I noted last night, I snuck in a short practice after work.
I wasn’t sure what, or if, I wanted to practice. And then I happened upon Richard Freeman’s suggestions for just my quandary. So I got to the mat, did a few Suryanamaskaras, a handful of standing and seated poses, and then the closing sequence.
Guess what? It proved extremely enlightening, especially when it came to my breath.
I don’t think I’ve made it any secret that the practice is tough for me, mainly due to flexibility issues. I think I have the strength and stamina, but not the hamstrings!
I also know that I’m a long way from the long, slow, steady breaths that should be animating my practice. But when working through all of First, well, it’s hard to stay focused on the breath, and the bandhas and the dristis and — here’s the kicker — be pulling yourself deeper and deeper into poses. At least, it’s hard for me.
Last night, though, I knew I had fewer poses to conquer (if you will), and that enabled me to get that much more out of each one. (This may be an argument for my stopping after navasana — the only trouble is, that doesn’t on an every day basis challenge my strength and stamina enough. At least, given my less-than-perfect practice. But I digress.)
For whatever reason, I seemed to focus more on the breath than bandhas or dristi, and it showed me where I could — and should — be.
So that’s something for me to think about. Should a short practice, when I can heighten my focus, be something I add in? How can I bring those longer breaths to the longer practice? I know, from experience, I’m capable.
Quite a few lessons, in other words.
Of course, those lessons went straight in the toilet during this morning’s Led class, especially when my teacher was sitting on me in Kurmasana and — and! — Supta Kurmasana.