Read an Excerpt
Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy
A Comprehensive Description of the Primary Series of Ashtanga Yoga and an Authentic Explanation of the Yoga Sutra Of Patanjali
By Gregor Maehle, Steve Dance, Adrian Kat
New World LibraryCopyright © 2006 Gregor Maehle
All rights reserved.
FUNDAMENTALS: 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.
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 centers). Sometimes, however, prana is used to refer to the outer or anatomical breath. 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.
Ujjayi pranayama is a process of stretching the breath, and in this way extending the life force. Practicing 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 center 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, labored, 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 practice 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 rib cage. Breathe simultaneously into the sides, the front, the back, and finally into the upper lobes of the lungs. The rib cage needs to have a gentle pulsating movement, which means the internal intercostals (the muscles between the ribs) relax on inhalation, allowing the rib cage 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 rib cage. 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, 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 rib cage. 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 favoring 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 in crease 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. First, by increasing our inhalation we increase the amount of oxygen supplied. Second, by increasing our exhalation we exhale more toxins.
These toxins fall into several categories:
Mental toxins — examples include the thought of conflict toward 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 buildup 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 toward 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 that follows on bandhas) and awakening the whole body (Part 2, Asana).
The main reason for practicing 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 I.2 states, "Yoga is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind." Sutra I.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. 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 criticized 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 realized 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."
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. Practicing this way, we will be moved by the breath like the autumn wind picking up leaves.
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 center 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 tailbone (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 center of the pelvic floor. With the exhalation, visualize 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 upward. Since we keep the breath hooked into the pelvic floor through contracting the PC muscle, we create suction and an energetic lift upward 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 shat karmas or six actions, also called kriyas, of Hatha Yoga. This Uddiyana is a preparation for nauli, the stomach roll. Nauli is practiced 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 practiced 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 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.
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 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 — nonviolence.
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 downward. Again, the more subtle it becomes, the more influence Uddiyana Bandha will have on the subtle body.
Excerpted from Ashtanga Yoga Practice and Philosophy by Gregor Maehle, Steve Dance, Adrian Kat. Copyright © 2006 Gregor Maehle. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.