The Five Elements of Ashtanga Yoga by Clayton Horton
When a beginner is drawn to the practice of Ashtanga Yoga, they might think yoga is just making shapes with the body. They are inspired to do asanas. – fancy, graceful, beautiful, vital and dynamic shapes with the body. With all kinds of Inspiration, goals and expectations abound, the student sets out on a yoga journey, determined to learn how to do the postures and reap the rewards.
Eventually, the dedicated student discovers that yoga is much more than making shapes with the body. Like an onion, the practice has many layers. After scratching the surface, one can see that there is much more than meets the eye. Here are five such layers, all equally important, yet some are not so obvious to the naked eye. These five elements present an evolution and development of a practitioner as their practice deepens, internalises and matures. The elements are presented here in an order from the crude to the subtle, the obvious towards the invisible and mystical. This article is intended to introduce aspiring yoga students the dimensions beyond the physical asana.
External Shape –
The first layer is the external shape, the skin of the onion. This is the obvious dimension of the practice. We draw lines with the body, we twist, bend, extend, close, open, go upside down and much more. The beginner may actually think that this external shape IS the practice. Yoga is much more than making shapes and taking a photo. Don’t stop here, there’s much more, let’s go deeper.
Internal Action –
Underneath the skin, we have a matrix of not so visible activity. Muscles are contracting, relaxing, connective tissue is expanding, softening and extending. Our centre of gravity, weight distribution and balance are being calculated. Multiple muscles are being called upon to share the task of activating, while other connective tissue softens and relaxes.
Mysterious and elusive internal energy locks, mula bundha and uddiyana bandha, are a foundational aspect of the internal practice. Mula bandha is the activation and awakening of the anal and pelvic floor region. It helps to stabilise and unite the energies of the right and left sides of our being. Mulabundha directs prana (fluid awareness) up the central channel towards the heart, throat and higher enters of the brain. Uddiyana bandha is the muscular control of the abdominal area; specifically between the navel and pubic bone. Uddiyana bandha places slight pressure on the navel area and helps guide prana up the spinal axis as well. Working with these bandhas creates an internal physical and psychic heat for purification. Another unseen attribute is the placing of the tongue to the roof of the mouth (kechari mudra). This helps our body’s subtle energy circulate efficiently above the throat.
As we breathe, our subtle energy circulates throughout the body. This internal movement of prana (vayu or internal wind) has five distinct directions or classifications. The most important vayus to recognise are apana vayu and prana vayu. Apana vayu is the downward directional flow of our bodies subtle energy. Apana vayu is governed by the exhale. Prana vayu is the inwards and upward flow of energy, which is governed or created with the inhale. We are grounding and rooting our energy and awareness with the downward movement of our apanic energy of the exhale. Energy and awareness expands inwards and upwards with our with pranic energy of the inhale.
In the Ashtanga Yoga tradition of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, we breath through the nose. Deep free breathing with sound means full breathing without restrictions from the body and mind. We listen to the breath. We feel, count, watch, stretch and deepen the breath. When we breathe fully and correctly, we feel better, we can go deeper into our postures without excessive straining. Attention to the breath helps keep us grounded in the present moment.
Breath is the carrier of prana, our bodies subtle, vital energy. Correct breathing gives us energy. We harness the power of the breath to help us do strong and dynamic movements. We draw in panic energy from the Sun and Nature on the inhale. We release toxins and tension on the exhale.
Timing of the breath, (when to inhale and when to exhale) is of major importance. During the practice, our upward movements are done with inhales. Downward movements are done on the exhale. Our slow, deep even breathing creates a calm, stable mind and body. Breath is the magic ingredient that brings forth a union of all of the different aspects of yoga. Without a strong commitment to experiencing this deep full breathing with the integration of the bandhas, most beginning students will never penetrate the deeper and subtle layers of the practice.
Proper attitude is crucial to our progress, happiness and longevity.
Why are you practicing? How are you practicing? What are your expectations?
As beginners, we often find ourselves to be competitive; full of desire, attachment, self judgment and lacking in humility. We are all drawn to yoga for so many different reasons; physical, spiritual, and social. Some of us are lazy. Some of us are uncomfortable being still and looking inwards. Some students are simply grateful to be able to practise in a healthy body. Oftentimes, practitioners are obsessive and try too hard to achieve the next new posture as if they were competing in sporting event or competing for a job promotion. Over training without proper rest and relaxation leads to injury and burn out.
Could you imagine practicing regularly with an attitude of underachievement? One famous Patanjalim yoga sutra says that progress arises from consistent practice and non attachment. After practicing consistently for a long time the ‘six poisons’ of anger, jealousy, delusion, greed, lust and laziness begin to dissolve and greater self awareness arises. These six poisons are like dirt that is washed away from the diamond of our inner most heart. What remains is space for greater empathy, compassion, friendliness, real love and higher minded thought forms.
Proper attitude is also cultivated by observing the yamas and niyamas, the first and second limbs of the eight limbs of Ashtanga yoga. These are suggestions for proper relationship with yourself, others and nature. They are guidelines to keep us on the correct path. They help us to not create negative karma. Simply listed, they are: non violence, truthfulness, non stealing, sexual / energetic moderation, not being greedy, cleanliness, contentment, sacrifice / discipline, self observation and surrender. It has been said that sadhana (spiritual practice or effort) without the yamas and niyamas is an impossibility.
The Sanskrit root dr means to see. While dristhi is the object of awareness or ‘the seen’. Drushtah is ‘the seer’, or witness consciousness. You are there seer,=, the one witnessing creation and the dance of life. The Dristhi is the looking place during our asana practice. It is the object of our mental focus. Cultivating this still point of awareness is important in developing concentration, meditation and deeper states of Self realisation. The union and merging of the seer and the seen is a mystical occurrence that is the topic of countless works by poets, rishis, yogis, visionaries and philosophers.
As the practice deepens, internal and external awareness begins to blossom like a flower. The senses are heightened and hopefully a practitioner becomes more aware of the results of their thoughts and actions. The mature practitioner begins to have more control over their mind and senses; as opposed to being controlled by them. Regular and long term practitioners eventually begin to see aspects of themselves in others. As this continues, it creates a sense of respect, reverence and humility among other human beings and all of creation.
Continued introspection creates the conditions for the yoga student to see that there is a deeper part of themselves other than the ever-changing body, mind, and emotions. Beyond the mind and body, what remains to be identified with is consciousness itself. This consciousness is awareness that is unchanging and eternal. It is at the core of every human personality. Recognising and identifying with this eternal consciousness is perhaps the most noble of efforts of a yoga practitioner.
Weaving all of these five elements together into your practice is not an easy task but the fruit (reward) is sweet. Do your practice regularly with a sense of beauty, kindness and gratitude and soon, love and wellness will begin to flow like water.