Alignment and Injuries,  Ashtanga Adaptability,  Teaching Ashtanga,  Yoga Philosophy,  Yoga Sutras

What is the Ashtanga Practice For?

There is an amazing article making its rounds, written by a teacher that I really respect, about making Ashtanga holistic. It talks about how there is not any yoga, including Ashtanga that is physically balanced and that after a year of practice, students should start adding practices to make it more balanced.

If your practice is just about your body, I get why you would want it to be balanced. If you have injuries, disease or ailments, I also understand why balancing out the dysfunction is critical. But for me, everything that I need to do in my life, I can do with this body and a traditional Ashtanga practice. This body is balanced enough for my life.

From what I know, that is how it has worked throughout human history. You conditioned your body to be able to do what you needed in your everyday life. If you were a warrior, you did exercises to help you fight. If you were a farmer, you needed stamina and strength for long hours and heavy lifting. If you were a housewife, you needed stamina and a strong back, arms and legs for the long hours cleaning house and taking care of the kids. In the jungle, you had to have open hips for climbing trees and hunting low in the bush. You developed what needed to be developed for your life.

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It is totally cool to want to develop everything. That is awesome. My point is, is that really necessary for everyone?  Is it imbalanced in general or just for certain people’s life? I know people who travel more often then they are at home and they love it. They feel completely balanced. I am a home body and I would feel insane. If they lived my life, they would go insane. Balance is different for everyone.

It is also important to ask, what is the purpose of the practice? I have never seen it written that Ashtanga Yoga or Patanjali Yoga was specifically for creating a balanced physical body. It does not say that in the Yoga Sutras by Patanjali. It does not say that in the Yoga Mala by Pattabhi Jois. It does not say that in the Ashtanga Yoga Anusthana by Sharath Jois. It does not say that on the KPJAYI website.

This is what it says on the KPJAYI website, which is the official Ashtanga Yoga website. Now, I am not saying that I can attest to any “blood boiling” or anything. The point is, it does not say that the practice is about balancing out all the physical muscles in the body.

 

Vinyasa: Vinyasa means breathing and movement system. For each movement, there is one breath. For example, in Surya Namskar there are nine vinyasas. The first vinyasa is inhaling while raising your arms over your head, and putting your hands together; the second is exhaling while bending forward, placing your hands next to your feet, etc. In this way all asanas are assigned a certain number of vinyasas.

The purpose of vinyasa is for internal cleansing. Breathing and moving together while performing asanasmakes the blood hot, or as Pattabhi Jois says, boils the blood. Thick blood is dirty and causes disease in the body. The heat created from yoga cleans the blood and makes it thin, so that it may circulate freely. The combination of the asanas with movement and breath make the blood circulate freely around all the joints, taking away body pains. When there is a lack of circulation, pain occurs. The heated blood also moves through all the internal organs removing impurities and disease, which are brought out of the body by the sweat that occurs during practice.

Sweat is an important by product of vinyasa, because it is only through sweat that disease leaves the body and purification occurs. In the same way that gold is melted in a pot to remove its impurities, by the virtue of the dirt rising to the surface as the gold boils, and the dirt then being removed, yoga boils the blood and brings all our toxins to the surface, which are removed through sweat. If the method of vinyasa is followed, the body becomes healthy and strong, and pure like gold.

After the body is purified, it is possible to purify the nervous system, and then the sense organs. These first steps are very difficult and require many years of practice. The sense organs are always looking outside, and the body is always giving into laziness. However, through determination and diligent practice, these can be controlled. After this is accomplished, mind control comes automatically. Vinyasa creates the foundation for this to occur.

Tristhana: This means the three places of attention or action: posture, breathing system and looking place. These three are very important for yoga practice, and cover three levels of purification: the body, nervous system and mind. They are always performed in conjunction with each other.

Asanas purify, strengthen and give flexibility to the body. Breathing is rechaka and puraka, that means inhale and exhale. Both the inhale and exhale should be steady and even, the length of the inhale should be the same length as the exhale. Breathing in this manner purifies the nervous system. Dristhi is the place where you look while in the asana. There are nine dristhis: the nose, between the eyebrows, navel, thumb, hands, feet, up, right side and left side. Dristhi purifies and stabilizes the functioning of the mind.

For cleaning the body internally two factors are necessary, air and fire. The place of fire in our bodies is four inches below the navel. This is the standing place of our life force. In order for fire to burn, air is necessary, hence the necessity of the breath. If you stoke a fire with a blower, evenness is required so that the flame is not smothered out, or blown out of control.

The same method stands for the breath. Long even breaths will strengthen our internal fire, increasing heat in the body which in turn heats the blood for physical purification, and burns away impurities in the nervous system as well. Long even breathing increases the internal fire and strengthens the nervous system in a controlled manner and at an even pace. When this fire is strengthened, our digestion, health and life span all increase. Uneven inhalation and exhalation, or breathing too rapidly, will imbalance the beating of the heart, throwing off both the physical body and autonomic nervous system.

An important component of the breathing system is mula and uddiyana bandha. These are the anal and lower abdominal locks which seal in energy, give lightness, strength and health to the body, and help to build a strong internal fire. Without bandhas, breathing will not be correct, and the asanas will give no benefit. When mula bandha is perfect, mind control is automatic.

The six poisons: A vital aspect of internal purification that Pattabhi Jois teaches relates to the six poisons that surround the spiritual heart. In the yoga shastra it is said that God dwells in our heart in the form of light, but this light is covered by six poisons: kama, krodha, moha, lobha, matsarya, and mada. These are desire, anger, delusion, greed, envy and sloth. When yoga practice is sustained with great diligence and dedication over a long period of time, the heat generated from it burns away these poisons, and the light of our inner nature shines forth.

This forms the practical and philosophic basis of Ashtanga Yoga as taught by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois.

 

When we look at the Yoga Sutas of Patanjali it says,

1:2 Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind

When we look at the Yoga Mala by Pattabhi Jois,

The way of establishing the mind in the Self, should be known as Yoga. Pg 4

Let me reiterate, I do not think there is anything wrong with wanting to have a balanced physical body. You go for it. Right on! Get it! Is that the purpose of Yoga, No.  Do I feel balanced when I do Ashtanga? Yes. Is it balanced enough for my life. Yes.  Is it balanced enough for yours? I have no clue. Try it and see.  If it is not balanced enough for yours, by all means, start your own form of Yoga or find the Yoga that is. Go do some other physical exercises. If used properly, Ashtanga Yoga does what it is supposed to do which is purify the body and mind so you can focus on connecting back to the Self or God, depending on what words you want to use. It is a great practice for uncovering, negative samskaras, or deep rooted beliefs that keep you from self realization. So, in that respect, it is balanced.

Shanna Small has been practicing Ashtanga Yoga and studying the Yoga Sutras since 2001. She has studied in Mysore with Sharath Jois and is the Director of AYS Charlotte, a school for traditional Ashtanga in Charlotte NC. She has written for Yoga International and the Ashtanga Dispatch. Go here for more information on AYS Charlotte. For information on workshops, please e-mail shanna@ashtangayogaproject.com.

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