Beyond the physical

Beyond the PhysicalSince I have devoted fully into my Ashtanga practice, I notice a number of chances within me. Ever since I began the asana practice, the focus was primarily musculoskeletal in order to perform every pose to perfection.  Being always physically active in my young age from running, tennis playing, swimming, hiking to recent wall climbing, I  never really lack the physical strength to try and perhaps be reasonably good at the activity.  It is the empowering quality that allows myself to feel good about life.  The idea of using muscular power to push the physical body to its limit  is not strange to me as if I were born with it.

With time my body becomes auto-pilot when it comes to using muscles to build up resistance, tension and endurance. Sounds like typical ‘athletic’ syndromes? On the contrary, I am grateful to be flexible while being bodily strong, unlike general athletes who tend to have tight or shortened muscles due to the intense sports.  Here comes the tricky part. All these years I have been practising yoga for its physical benefits and particularly the spiritual guidance, I am still struggling to find the sweet point, as we yogi call it, between strength and flexibility. There seems to be a missing link: the external strength and internal peace which complement to each other in a strong Ashtanga practice. 

Physical power, precise techniques  and all how-to tricks became the be-all and end-all.  Deliberate Ujjayi breaths, fiery intensions, and almost forceful movements used to take charge of my mind, giving me no space to grasp the internal power.   The new phrase of my practice in the Ashtanga Intermediate Series has given me a whole new perspective on the asana practice and brought me to the realization of one of the ‘Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, ‘sthira sukham asanam’ (yoga meditation postures should be steady, stable and with ease).   To what extend does sthira contribute towards meditation? Where can we find sukha? How can we find ease in space around us when such a powerful practice is performed?

We sometimes hear teachers in workshops describing challenging poses like jumping into handstands or floating forward to Uttanasana in straight legs with comments like ‘move with your breaths, flow with control and grace, locate your tantian centre before movements take place’  The key point of the practice is HOW to incorporate Ujjayi pranayama (breathing), Bandhas (energy locks) and Dristi (focus) (Tristana in traditional Ashtanga approach) to reach effortlessness, gracefulness and steadniess in the body and mind. The Ashtanga yoga itself is perhaps one of the most demanding, intense and challenging style of yoga in the respect of creating physical and mental strength during the full fast-flowing vinyasa sequence.  The attainment of the poses ultimately grows from the internal peace of this learning process.

My teacher likes to use ‘Qi’ (Air) to describe this subtle life force that maintains the flowing and serpentine movements.  John Scott, one of the most respectful certified Ashtanga teachers, talks about free breathing as the gateway to allow the body to control the senses that run through oneself as the practice continues.  In my daily practice, I sometimes have to catch my breath a few times before I can continue with the flow of the sequence.  Those few breaths may deter me from following the strict counts of the full vinyasa, but they help create the moment of solitude whereby I find the inner strength which is even more powerful than my burning muscles.

The sense of deeper awareness of the state of mind and body is recaptured. Pinchamayurasana is a great posture to train our mind to contain the physical strength and structural integrity which we have already been taught when we first started learning the pose.  When we enter deepr into the more advanced variations of the pose, Pincha also teaches us further to retrieve that space of steadiness we often lose when we are too carried away by the overpowerness of our ego.  As the devotion to the practice grows, every pose in the Ashtanga vinyasa system represents more than just the beauty of physical presentation.  They bring us back to the basic understanding of our emotions, sensations, cognition, relationships with other beings and responses to the reality.

Let’s try using affirmations when you are in poses that are ridiculously difficult.  Simple phrases like ‘i’m relaxing my back’, ‘my breath is flowing freely, ‘I am as light as feather’, etc. may do the trick! You will be surprised how your body actually listens to your voice and work around wisely with the energy you create.  To me, the asana practice is more than just the physical manipulation of the body. It is the pathway to feel the universal energy and use it to endeavour the utmost in our devotion to the practice and Divinity.

Author:  Dorothy Watts. (can be contacted at: )

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