Hatha Yoga is premised on the thought that mind and breath, citta and prana, move together like two birds, flying in formation. As one moves, so does the other, with the same cadence and rhythm. When the breath is tense, labored and constricted, the mind is tense, labored and constricted as well. When the breath is open, easeful and deep, the mind slides naturally into an open and quiescent state.
On this premise, Hatha techniques focus on liberating the breath. They encourage the breath to move without obstruction through the body, and to come into a natural fullness. As the breath expands, it breaks patterns of mental conditioning, and opens the inner space of the mind. The mind then becomes a templum, an open space for the contemplation of reality.
Hatha Yoga is the art of forming and sustaining that space – by working with breath. The practice uses breath to create the kind of opening through which meditative states can arise. In that opening, thoughts and feelings can change form and dissolve, without catching us up in their drama.
The Ashtanga Vinyasa method is one of the most brilliant of the Hatha techniques to emerge in the twentieth century. In Ashtanga Vinyasa, the Hatha practices of asana (posture), pranayama (breath expansion) and mudra (internal gesture or hold) are combined with precision into an elaborate ritual of movement and form. This ritual, which resembles sacred dance, entices the breath to move openly and rhythmically throughout the body. The body becomes a delicate wind instrument, which makes quiet harmonies with notes of sensation.
The practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa is an unbroken sequence of gestures from beginning to end. Each breath, movement and posture is assigned a unique place in the ritual. When these elements are arranged in a continuous flow, the distractive patterns of the mind begin to dissolve. The internal breath begins to move with focus and clarity, and the mind immediately follows.
The contemplative essence of the Ashtanga method is elusive. And the mind never stops trying to claim it for its own. As soon as the mind experiences the elation of opening, it covers over the experience with conceptual clutter. It forms an idea of what the experience is like, and how to recreate the experience again. When these ideas are given too much scope, the practice can lose its potency.
Under the influence of these ideas, we may find ourselves slowing down, looking for some elusive feeling of opening. As long as we are looking for that feeling, however, the movements of the breath cannot be open and clear. They are obstructed by our projections. And we have fallen for one of the mind’s brilliant diversions once again.
The mind can take refuge in a practice it has learned to control. So it will give us a thousand reasons to slow down, to analyze our experience, to form theories about our bodies, and to narrate everything that is happening. The mind wants us to practice with a continuous intercession of thought, for that allows the mind to remain in control.
To practice Ashtanga with intelligence, we must be aware of such diversions, and pull ourselves out before we lose ourselves in them. When the mind comes up with some reason to break the rhythm, or to pass over some part of the sequencing, that is usually a defensive stratagem to undermine the process of opening. These stratagems objectify the experience of practicing yoga, and that makes the mind feel safe. But breaking the habit of objectification is an essential part of the practice.
The practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa is about openness to what is happening now, not about making us into something that we are not. The potency of the practice depends upon the continual release of our thoughts and feelings. These include our notions about what the practice is supposed to do for us, or what the practice is supposed to achieve. So to retain the potency of the practice, we must suspend these notions. We must be open to rediscovering the practice every time.
The Ashtanga Vinyasa method is to follow the inner movement of the breath, no matter what kind of resistance we brook with our stories. And it is only when we release these stories that we can experience the opening and elation of yoga.