Ashtanga Vinyasa is an inquiry into the nature of embodiment. It allows us to look into the depths of the body, and see what we are experiencing, beneath the projections of the mind. There are many things in the depths of the body from which we would rather hide, things that quietly shape our thoughts and feelings. Through the practice of uncovering these things, and accepting them precisely as they are, we learn the art of compassion, or complete openness to reality.
The practice of Ashtanga begins with listening, with giving space to what is, not only in our surroundings, but in the inner recesses of our own bodies. This kind of listening requires the suspension of ordinary thought, which is to say, the suspension of our tendency to impose ideas upon our experiences. When we suspend this tendency, we allow things to stand forth as they are, so that we can relate to them with simplicity.
In the practice of Ashtanga, the body becomes a templum, an open space for the contemplation of experience. In this space, we can observe the visceral traces of our thoughts and feelings. They streak across our sensory fields, leaving sensations that do not fit within the conceptual structures that make the body familiar to us. Rather than estrange us from the body, these sensations allow us to settle deeper into the body than ever before. They attune us to what we are experiencing on a visceral level.
As we give space to experience what is inside our bodies, we give space for psychical release. That is, we give space for the psychical forces that underlie our thoughts and feelings to come welling to the surface, without taking their usual form. These forces are then allowed to move openly, and we feel them coursing through our bodies in exhilaration.
This kind of release is ecstatic. It quickens our senses and takes us outside of ourselves, outside of the space in which our stories reign. It allows us to experience ourselves directly, without the mediation of our ideas. In the immediacy of these experiences, we feel more present to ourselves than ever before. And as we make a practice of these experiences, we slowly release ourselves from our subconscious patterns of conditioning. Such is the process of yoga.
The mind is quick to intervene. It likes to place our experiences in narrative context, so that it “knows” what we are experiencing from one moment to the next. It throws concepts over our experiences, and casts the psychical forces that move inside of them into a familiar emotional form. Rather than allowing us to experience those forces directly, the mind casts them as familiar emotions like anger, shame, resentment, anxiety or grief. The confrontation of these emotions is where most of us spend the better part of our struggle in yoga.
The mind has a profound fear of letting go into the unknown. It wants to make sense of everything, to control everything, and to predict the recurrence of destabilizing experiences before they happen again. So in yoga, the mind attempts to narrate the experience of opening as quickly as it unfolds. And this tends to disrupt the process. Rather than admitting its disruptions, it pretends to be in control. It sees its narrative activity as part of the process of mindfulness.
Oftentimes, the mind pretends to speak for the body, to give an account of what is happening from the body’s point of view. The mind tells us that the strange sensations that we experience when we practice are signs of danger, that it would violent or disrespectful to the body to continue. This creates a powerful diversion from the process of release. It leads us away from subconscious forces that we would rather not confront, and it strengthens our emotional density in the process.
The body, however, has an intelligence of its own, which is awakened by the process of yoga. The tensions that we experience in the body are largely tensions of the mind, without which the body would be more open, more at ease, and more able to relate to the hidden forces that shape its surroundings. The practice of yoga helps release these tensions, so that the body can adapt, but the mind holds on. It creates all kinds of diversions to keep the body from opening, and we fall for these by accepting the stories that go with them.
So for all our talk about listening to the body in yoga practice, we tend not to listen at all. Instead, we tend to listen to our projections about what we are experiencing, and to the stories that our minds tell about what our bodies need. In this way, even as we practice yoga, we hold ourselves in confinement.
To listen to the body, we have to set our ideas aside. That is, we have to set aside our tendencies to engage indirectly with the body through the projections of our minds. And this is not an easy thing to do. Our projections of the body are so thick and settled that we hardly know how to recognize them.
In the practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa, we begin by listening to the breath. That is, we begin by listening to the movements of the breath resonating throughout the body. And as our attention is drawn inward by these movements, we find ourselves listening to the psychical currents beneath our thoughts and feelings, the currents that run through our subconscious minds. As we give space to these currents, they begin to run outside our patterns of conditioning.
This kind of listening requires the suspension of thought, not the projection of thought onto something more fundamental. The mind resists this suspension, however, with all the force of its impulse for control. And learning to undercut that impulse is the secret of release. To realize that secret, we have to stop working on our yoga practices, and allow our yoga practices to work on us. And we begin that process by listening.