My experiments with Ashtanga Yoga by Matt Ryan
Part 1: Steady breath, steady body, steady gaze, steadier mind.
The year 2014 marks my 15th year of practising and experimenting with Ashtanga Yoga. This practice has had such a profound impact on me that I can honestly say it saved my life.
Teaching Ashtanga Yoga to other people has become a true passion for me, it is like an extension of my own practice proclaiming ‘Here’s what I’ve been doing for the last 15 years, and I can try to demonstrate how it can help transform you into a better you’. Every time I teach it is like I am practising too. I sense each student’s movement, each bead of sweat, each stumble in leg lift – I feel it, I know it, I’ve been there countless times; I know the feelings, the frustrations, the elations, the emotions .
There’s a beautiful saying, I think it’s from the Thai Massage discipline: ‘On the floor we are all the same’, this is the same in a Yoga shala. There may be people doing Primary, Intermediate, or Advanced series, but there are truly NO advanced students and there are NO beginners. We are all the same – that’s all. When you first start a physical Yoga practice, you can’t touch your toes in the sun salutation so you just grab your shins or ankles, then after some time you are able to place your hands on the floor but has your life improved as a result? Are you a better person? Of course not, you are just the same.
The more you practise, the more your flexibility and strength increases. You do Primary Series, then maybe Intermediate, ultimately though it’s just the same; As Sharath Jois says, ‘You are not practising to have a good practice but to ground yourself.’ You don’t become a better, more grounded person because you can get your leg behind your head or because you’ve got a very deep back bend – what does it actually mean that you can do these things anyway? Who really cares besides you and your Facebook and Instagram friends?
Practising yoga postures can transform you, but the physical transformations are merely a side effect – don’t get attached to what you can do on a yoga mat. The transformation that occurs through a steady breath, steady body and steady gaze is a steadier mind, and this is why we practise. We use this transformation to do things that are far more worthwhile and ultimately more challenging than fancy smancy yoga postures.
My list of worthwhile ‘things’ include making my wife breakfast, telling my kids I love them as often as possible, calling my mum every other day, picking up the litter in front of my house even though it’s not mine (yes it does sometimes annoy me!) – it’s quite a long list. And this isn’t about ‘my list is more worthy than your list’ as if you start doing that you are back on the ‘check my fat asana out’ road to nowhere.
The starting point of Ashtanga Yoga is the breath although it seems we are not to call it Ujjayi breathing anymore (I don’t want to get involved with that particular storm in a chai cup) so now we call it breathing with sound. Whatever. You lift your arms up in Surya Namaskar A, if your shoulders are tight keep your hands apart, if it hurts your neck to look up then keep your gaze forwards. Any sense of physical stiffness and tension you may feel is reflected in the breath. If you can’t breathe deeply you need to change the way you are doing your posture to accommodate a full smooth deep breath. Let the breath be your guide to the whole practice, quite simply the breath activates the asana: if you overstretch, your body tightens and as a result your breath becomes tight and short and the posture won’t work. If we add into the mix that the mind is a mirror of the body then your mind becomes tight too.
This kind of practice becomes mindless-ness and not mindfulness. In the words of Zen master Jakusho Kwong, ‘The posture of the body is the posture of the mind’ – how’s about that for your starting point of Ashtanga Yoga? When I first read that line it really floored me as it contains (for me) the whole essence of the practice. There’s no steadiness of mind if there’s no steadiness of breath.
Slowly we begin to learn how to do the postures, how to apply the correct breathing and gaze points to make the posture steady. We start to detect that the quality of the posture is determined by the quality of the breath. This is the practice. Slowly we learn the sequence, beginning with the sun salutations then moving into the standing postures. Body and mind being grounded by a deep, resonant and steady breath. Each posture is a microcosm of the macrocosm of the whole practice, ultimately we do one posture wrong, or perhaps in an inappropriate way, then this is reflected in the whole practice. Fixing the gaze helps the whole process along.
One of the first pitfalls we may encounter when practising with a group is allowing the gaze to become unsteady as we begin to observe the person practising alongside us, perhaps doing a slightly different variation to what we’re doing. So rather than checking in with our breath as a reference point to whether or not we are doing the posture the right way, the tiger is let out of the cage and the ego takes over – quite simply we get ‘asana envy’.
A great example of asana envy is when the sequence gets to Trikonasana A. Now for some people reaching across and grabbing the toe (see fig A) might be the appropriate variation, for others it might be the grabbing of the ankle or the even shin (see fig B) – remember folks no beginners no advanced, just variations. But always, some people see others grabbing the toe and that then becomes their reference point for the posture and not their own breath, and the tiger is loose (see fig c). We get enticed with the external aesthetic of the posture and forget all about the internal form. Look at the form of the posture in fig c in comparison with fig a & b, see how the shoulders tighten up and close down the space in the chest – how are we to find a deep breath if there isn’t the space to expand the lungs? And if there isn’t deep breathing, it simply ain’t working it really is as simple as that.
When I say it’s not working what I mean by that is that each posture has a physiological function i.e. it serves a purpose, so if you don’t do the posture in such a way that is suitable for your body then it won’t work, or certainly won’t have the desired effect it’s meant to.
Another posture which highlights the asana envy in students is the revolved Parshvakonasana B – boy oh boy, is this posture a particular bugbear of mine. See fig d & fig e above: in both cases the shoulder (fig d) and elbow (fig e) act as levers to press against the bent knee to support a deep twist of the spine. Cue asana envy, or maybe we can call it asana seduction, students think that getting the hand down to the floor like fig d is the be all and end all of yoga – forgetting all about the function of the elbow/shoulder and the purpose of the posture (twist of the spine) and end up in the variation in fig f which quite frankly isn’t doing much at all. Daft eh? But we’ve all done it.
I remember reading somewhere that Guruji Sri K Pattbhi Jois had said that there are thousands of variations of all the postures. When I read this it was with a wry smile as I have my own variation on Guruji’s quote which is there are as many variations of Trikonasana as there are people. Part of the whole journey of the practice is for us to choose the right variation of each posture for our own bodies, it’s our responsibility to ourselves to do this. If we aren’t sure we can check in with the breath and body: are we comfortable, can we breathe deeply ? If we can’t tick the mental boxes that say ‘I am comfortable and I am breathing deeply’ then we need to do something about that. We don’t rush, we don’t hurry and succumb to asana envy/seduction.
My ever lasting memory of my first trip to Mysore was Guruji’s voice booming around the shala castigating all our Western egos with ‘Why you hurry?!’
As a teacher, it is easy to spot different personality types in a group. People who are impatient and head-strong are usually in down dog an age before the rest of group are moving into up dog. Absent minded people stand Charlie Chaplin-style with feet ten-to-two in samastitihi instead of having the feet together and parallel. But Yoga is not about completing the jigsaw, rather it’s the opposite as we start to unpick at our physical and mental imbalances. The combination of posture and counter posture, lengthening and loosening the muscles is the way we help to readdress the imbalances in our skeletal system. These physical imbalances could start the moment we learn to crawl as babies, as we favour one hand first over the other.
These preferences to right and left are then taken into childhood then adulthood, from the way we brush our teeth to the way we get in and out of the car, always in a particular way that we don’t even think about. We normally associate tension in our shoulders as the physical manifestation of stress, but this tension goes much further than the shoulders. It gets everywhere and tightens the body, shortens the muscles rounds the spine. Much harder to address are the mental imbalances, our deep rooted attitudes and opinions that we’ve spent a lifetime cultivating and change just doesn’t happen overnight.
But the chance to change physically and mentally is available in every yoga practice you do. Every posture with a deep steady breath marks the the opportunity to deepen the process of taming the tiger to create a strong, flexible body and mind.
There’s a lovely story from the actor Jeff Bridges. During the filming of The Big Lebowski there was a bowling master on set who was hired to teach him and his colleagues how to bowl. Jeff Bridges was asking for advice on how the bowling master thought his character, ‘The Dude’, might bowl. ‘Does he prepare for a long time? Does he have to get his mind set?’, he asked. The bowling master laughed and told them all a short story.
A few years back the bowling master had read the book Zen in the Art of Archery which teaches the student to completely let go of the ego in order to hit the bulls-eye, and so the master started to have this routine before bowling of (what he thought was) ego-releasing tics and jerks and little stress relieving dances which went on for 5 -10 minutes – all in the middle of a tournament. But rather than help the bowling, this routine started to hinder it and things got so bad he couldn’t throw the ball at all before finally seeing a psychiatrist. At the end of the story Jeff Bridges asked what the master does now.
‘I just throw the f**king ball, I don’t think!’ came the master’s reply.
Maybe there’s something in that answer for us all. Let’s not think about whether we are beginners or advanced, or if we can get our hand down to the floor in Parshvakonasana B. And let’s not get carried away with our little routines which can be disguised in all kinds of methods from yoga procrastination (not tonight Josephine it’s raining, I’m just going to have another cup of tea/piece of cake/make a phone call before I do my practice) to self-elevation ‘I’m doing second series now baby, check me out’. Our routines can also include getting the latest trendiest Lululemon shorts to look fabulous in class, or getting that Shiva tattoo coz ‘that’s like gonna make me well spiritual init’. Let’s try not to think, let’s just try to do our f*%$£king practice.