Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga: Philosophy, Practice and Experience
There are different facets of Ashtanga yoga. One is the philosophical aspect. Ashta, means eight, anga, means limbs. There’s a whole philosophical understanding of how this can apply within the realms of our daily life. On a physical level we have sequencing of asanas in a very precise manner. This sequencing has been described as a combination lock. If you have a safe and you spin this combination in a particular manner, the door opens. In this way, Ashtanga has different sequences that are methodically arranged to open the body in a particular manner.
We combine this action with a very specific breathing known as ujjayi breathing. It’s a sound breathing. Without the breath, the practice actually resembles gymnastics. There’s nothing wrong with gymnastics. Yet, weaving in this element of specialized breathing turns the whole thing into a yoga practice.
Making a sound in the breath in Ashtanga, creates a mantra. A point of focus. When the mind wanders, the sound is used as a tool to come back to the practice. If we go too far in a posture, the breath is restricted, and we can’t breathe. If the mind has wandered, the sound of the breath also dissipates and vanishes. By listening to and chanting the mantra of the sound of our breath, we deepen the experience and it allows us to focus.
Another attribute is the drishti points. Drishtis are focal points. We are often distracted by visual and audible things. In meditation, we might be asked to look at a candle flame or a flower. In Ashtanga yoga, one will focus on these gazing points.
Ashtanga also has bandhas. The spine is like an energy tree. If you look even in Western medical terminology, the nerves come from the spine are referred to as nerve branches. There’s this image of a tree or an electrical energy in the body. Yogi’s perceived this thousands of years ago. They wanted to figure out how they could control and manipulate the movement of energy in the body. They came up with these ideas and techniques of activating these energy zones. This stimulated the energy to move, preventing it from falling back.
There’s a definition of asana I like that describes a posture which is comfortably held. Some who practice asana find it really challenging. Yet how could we achieve the concept of comfortably holding a posture? Rather that working at 100%, back out to 85 or 90% of the capacity in an asana. Focus on your breath, and the other elements, and in the big picture, you’ll go deeper and further in your practice.
All these could be considered the five elements of Ashtanga. Asana, bandhas, drishti, ujjayi, and the flow of vinyasa. Anytime we pair movement with breath, it’s a vinyasa. For instance the first movement when we raise our arms over our head, would be the first vinyasa. This is breath and movement aligned in a very precise manner.
If you look at the world around us, it’s comprised of opposing forces. Everything has an opposite. Front, back, up, down, right, left, day, night, male, female, birth, death, inhale, exhale. So vinyasa takes two opposing forces and weaves them together.
What does the word yoga mean? Union. What does the word Hatha Yoga mean? Hatha. Sun and moon union. Sun and moon are opposite things. So in a way you can look at yoga as a unification of opposing actions and forces. That’s what Ashtanga Yoga is for me. If you would like a more succinct answer, try it for yourself and find out!
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