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"Doing" Ashtanga Yoga

MUSINGS

"Doing" Ashtanga Yoga

Richard Freeman

Using the sword of discriminating awareness is part of the practice.

Using the sword of discriminating awareness is part of the practice.

 

This Musing is an excerpt from a talk by Richard:


Within the Ashtanga Vinyasa system, we sequence the movements of yoga postures into almost logical patterns, which tend to complement each other. The end result of the practice is that you are left alone, released, almost suspended free in the present moment. A nice metaphor for vinyasa is that of a wave because waves are patterned in crests and troughs, and within a vinyasa practice there is constant change with a feeling of stillness; movements, thoughts, sensations, feelings strung together on the wave or the coming and going of the breath.


The term Ashtanga refers to the eight limbs of the classical yoga system as taught by the sage Patanjali. When people say they do Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, it does not mean that they are muscular and gnarly, though they might be. What it actually means is that they are practicing whatever yoga techniques they use within the context of the eight limbs that were taught by Patanjali. In his Yoga Sutra he points out that the basic technique of yoga is samadhi, or the ability to observe any phenomenon so closely that the mental structure that has created a subject and an object folds in on itself and collapses. One can then start to experience whatever the object of experience is as being empty of self-form or svarupa shunyam. 

 

. . . the basic technique of yoga is samadhi, or the ability to observe any phenomenon so closely that the mental structure that has created a subject and an object folds in on itself and collapses.

 

In the Yoga Sutra, a number of specific techniques are described, but potentially there are endless techniques. In all of those techniques, you end up balancing a bunch of things, whether gross or subtle, real or imaginary, and then in that balance the mind is able to focus almost like a laser. In the different layers of samadhi that start to occur, one gains insight into the fact that whatever it is that is being observed is in essence empty of any separateness from everything else; it has no separate-self existence. In realizing that, the practitioner realizes that he too is empty of any separate self; that he is also svarupa shunyam and that it is all interconnected. So it is the vision of the emptiness of self-form that is actually what is being taught in the Yoga Sutra. When someone says, “I do Ashtanga Yoga,” its true meaning is that whatever form their practice takes, it is done in the context of cultivating and living in that particular insight. 


And it’s that insight that awakens what’s called viveka khyatih, which means discriminating awareness. Discriminating awareness is the immediate cause of liberation or freedom and great happiness. So when people say they do Ashtanga yoga, it’s a big statement. It takes time and practice to actually “do” Ashtanga yoga. More likely, as beginners, we find ourselves doing a bunch of techniques without the completion of the techniques, through samadhi, which is the culmination of all the different techniques and tools we may use in our practice. Gradually, over time, one develops the ability to really focus the mind, to focus the intelligence so that it cuts through everything and we have glimpses of clear thinking.


There are thousands of ways of leading up to that, and where you start of course depends on where you are.