Ashtanga Yoga translates as ‘Eight Limbs’. The physical practice of ‘asana’ is the third limb. When I wrote before about ‘How often should I practice’ I was aware that it was very much focused within the realms of the third limb of asana. And that’s fine. It’s a good place to start from. We are physical and sensual beings. More than likely it is the physical practice that lures us into yoga. We are taught the asana first as we have to ‘cleanse’ the body before we can work on the other stuff. We practice the sequence of postures to access the spine via the hips and the shoulders so that ultimately we can sit still for meditation.
“Yogas Chitta Vritti Nirodah” Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mindstuff (Patanjali Yoga Sutras I.II). The Ashtanga Vinyasa system is amazing at giving us a flowing physical practice that does not stop. ‘Vinyasa’ meaning breath synchronized movement, every transition is dictated by a breath. We still seem to be in the physical, but this can be where we start to learn about focus, awareness and being in the present. The vinyasa gives us opportunity to be with each and every inhale and exhale. Some of the ‘mindstuff’ loses its intensity as we focus on our continual breath (Pranayama the 4th Limb). We reduce the chance of external distraction through the use of Dristi, or gaze points (the 5th Limb of Pratyahara). Through the above limbs it’s pretty safe to say we are concentrating, resulting in the sixth Limb of Dharana. Going deeper into this state and we may have a glimmer of the 7th Limb of Dhyana – meditation. So how do we ‘do’ yoga that is not in the physical asana, how can we do this yoga when we are not on our mats.
The first two Limbs; Yamas and Niyamas (think moral codes) can also start on our mats. Ahimsa, non violence is the first Yama. Obviously we don’t want to hurt ourselves in our practice. Satya, truth, again vital whilst on our mats practising, and hopefully an element that stays with us throughout the day. The wonderful thing is that all this that we learn on our mats day in and day out, can actually be transferred into our everyday lives. The focus and concentration we learn through the vinyasa and asana can give us the skills to really be present in our interactions with others. We watch the breath as we move and we learn great proprioception. If we have this awareness of our own bodies and breath then this skill can also be taken off the mat and applied whilst we have relationship with those around us. Again it is very easy to remain in the physical. Let’s think about Ahimsa, how can we be non violent in a non physical sense. Through our thought and through our communication. I’ve found myself being a bit of a shouting mummy lately. To a tiny three year old my unnecessary loud words must seem violent, I know afterwards I felt like they were. I slipped out of my awareness and slipped out of my yoga space. What can we do though when faced with these situations...exhale. It’s like being back on the mat again, allowing ourselves a breath to regain our awareness and to find our balance. My teacher; John Scott, puts this all beautifully succinctly in his book 'Ashtanga Yoga' "Students of yoga address the concepts of Yama and Niyama gradually, certainly over a period of years. Guruji suggests that through the practice of the third limb, Asana, yoga students will begin to regulate their breath and, in so doing, begin to find some clarity of thought. This clarity allows students to relate with kindness, honesty and respect both to themselves and to others".
It is seven years ago since Guruji ( Sri K Pattabhi Jois) left his body and his words “Do your practice and all is coming” are good reminders of the power of the physical practice and how it’s learnings can transcend into our lives making them happier for all.