The following writing is excerpted from Ashtanga Yoga , The Practice Manual, by David Swenson, 1999. I thought it is always good to be reminded and go back to the basic of our fundamental knowledge for our practice.
Before beginning to practice, it is necessary to discuss some of the fundamental aspects of Ashtanga Yoga. These elements exist within an unseen world. Without them yoga becomes nothing more than an outward expression of physical movement. When performed correctly, these subtle tools allow the practitioner to enter into the mystical realms of prana and experience the subtle wonders of Ashtanga Yoga. These invisible tools are ‘Ujjayi Breath’, ‘Bandhas’, ‘Vinyasa’ and ‘Dhristi’.
Ujjayi is specialized breathing technique which means victorious. This unique form of breathing is performed by creating a soft sound in the back of the throat while inhaling and exhaling through the nose. It is helpful to gently smile while breathing to allow the air to swirl around the back of the throat before continuing its journey to the lungs. This swirling action is what creates the unique sound which has been described as wind in the trees, a distant ocean, a cobra snake or for the less poetic, Darth Vader from the ‘Star Wars’.
The main idea is to create a rhythm in the breath and ride it gracefully throughout the practice. This sound becomes a mantra to set the mind in focus. We must learn to listen to the breath. It is the guide which will tell us the quality of our practice. If we apply too much effort, the breath will become constricted or forced. With too little focus, the ujjayi breath may be drowned out by the sound of our own thoughts. Maintain awareness upon your breath and every moment becomes a meditation.
Bandhas are a series of internal energy gates within the subtle body which assist in the regulations of pranic flow. When the heart beats, the blood surges through arteries and veins. Valves keep the blood from sloshing back toward the heart. In this way, when the heart beats, the blood continues its forward movement. Bandhas regulate the flow of prana (life force) in a similar way within suble energy channels known as nadis. When engaging the locks, energy is forced to spread throughout these pathways. We are then able to assimilate this energy on a cellular level as the prana bathes and feeds our subtle body and balances the gross nervous system.
‘The marriage of breath and movement’. Vinyasa is the unique linking of one asana to the next in a serpentine flow. It is more than a simple set of physical maneuvers. It is a dynamic marriage of our internal and external worlds. Vinyasa is an outward expression of the subtle movement of life force. It is a manifestation of prana. Vinyasa orchestrates balance. A balance of strength and flexibility, lightness and heaviness, movement and stillness. Through vinyasa one may know the vibration of life. This integration manifests when the act of breathing and movement cease to be separate entities. The two actions converge to create a symphony of seamless unity. Each action encourages the other. They exist as one. The mind is then set free and the practice may become a rhythmic dance.
In order to understand vinyasa we must start with the gross aspects and through refinement we may gain knowledge of its subtleties. Vinyasa begins with an understanding of the physical set of movements prescribed as links between asanas. Through repetition this action becomes familiar to the body on a cellular level. Vinyasa assists in creating heat which allows more freedome of explorations within the asanas. It also brings the body back to a neutral position between postures. Vinyasa is like an ‘etch-a-sketch’. After exiting from one asana, the body’s screen is cleared and prepared for entyr into the next. Without linking this movement this breath, the action remains within the physical realm. There is a joy in developing our physical bodies, yet to discover vinyasa’s magic we must explore the breath simultaneously. When this marriage is successfully achieved, the action becomes one of spirit and the physical practice acts as a conduit for a deeper exploration of our core identity.
Weave the tapestry of Vinyasa
From the threads of breath and movement
‘Looking Out/Looking In’. Drishti is a point of gaze or focus, yet it has little to do with our physical sight. The real ‘looking’ is directed internally. We may fix our physical sight upon an external object or a specific point on our body, yet truly the dhrishti is meant to direct our attention to the subtle aspects of our practice which were discussed earlier, the breath and bandhas as well as the mind. The drishti is a device designed to balance our internal and external practice.
Remember the main focus is to look inward. Create an internal checklist which you can scan in a millisecond while practicing. On this list you may have Breath, Bandhas, Flow and Equality of Opposition. Do you feel tension in particular areas of the body? Where is your awareness? Is it spread throughout the body? Are you relaxed? The list may go on but the idea is that the drishti is your microscope to examine that which may not be seen externally.
View your Practice through the eyes of Drishti.