There is a saying in Zen monasteries, regarding their concern for keeping time, “the schedule is the teacher.” The idea is that, by keeping the schedule, we can better observe the workings of our minds. That is, we can see how distracted we are, and how our impulses drag us about with their impetuous schemes. In keeping the schedule, we learn to defuse our impulses and develop a posture of dispassion toward our minds.
In Ashtanga Vinyasa there is a comparable saying, “the practice is the teacher,” and the meaning is more or less the same. When we submit to the practice, and we keep to the prescribed routines, we learn to relate to our impulses dispassionately. Instead of enacting them, we learn to detach from them, while seeing them clearly for what they are, and releasing them into the emptiness of the breath. As in Zen, the purpose is to make our minds quiet, focused and lucid, so that we can see ourselves, and other beings, with pristine clarity.
In Ashtanga Vinyasa, submitting to the practice means keeping the schedule meticulously, and showing up to practice even when we are inclined to be somewhere else. And once the practice is underway, it means following the thread of the breath through the occasional storms of unpleasant sensation and the loud protests of the mind.
When we follow that thread, we see how cunning our minds can be, and how far they will go to derail us, sending their storms of sensation, and spinning their complicated stories of excuse, limitation and injury. Through consistent practice, we learn to derail our minds in turn, by allowing our impulses to arise, unfold, and dissipate on their own, without catching us up in their dramas. The practice thus teaches us how to be still in the tumult of our minds.
There is much to be said for having a competent guide in Ashtanga, someone who has been thoroughly tempered by the practice, who can point out the obstacles along the path, and guide us to places of higher insight. However, the path of yoga leads directly through the dark shadows of our own minds, and to make any progress, we have to confront these shadows by ourselves.
The practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa arranges this confrontation. On the visceral level, Ashtanga exposes us to the patterns of psychophysical tensions that we hold in our bodies, and invites us to breathe into them until they dissolve. The dissolution of these tensions is an exhilarating experience that allows us to feel more comfortable in our skin. And it has a profound impact on our minds.
Our bodily tensions are reflections of the psychological tensions by which we define our psychical boundaries. These dramatically inform the way that we think, speak, and act. When we release them, we break the patterns of prejudice, anxiety, jealousy and fear that distort our perceptions of ourselves and others.
When we first undertake the Ashtanga practice, our bodily tensions appear to have no psychical depth at all, and so we pull against them as if we were trying to remold some inorganic material. As we continue to breathe into them, however, they begin to reveal themselves as deep reservoirs of emotion and memory. Through continuous practice, we learn to release the psychical energy that lies within them. In these releases, we can experience profound upheavals of thought and emotion, many of which are dark, austere, or altogether scathing. The practice teaches us to meet these upheavals with dispassion, and thus to meet them without identifying with them or pushing them away.
When we observe our upheavals with dispassion, the psychical impressions that underlie them begin to lose their gravity. They begin to dissolve into the emptiness of our own awareness. Soon we find ourselves feeling lighter and more lucid.
Most of the impressions that we release through practice do reappear, however, because they reflect psychical patterns that are imprinted so deeply into our subconscious minds that we cannot resolve them without many years of practice. To be sure, we have to practice with unwavering persistence for a long time to create lasting results. But through persistent practice, we can disrupt our conditioned patterns of thinking, speaking and acting, and we can induce profound psychological changes in ourselves, changes that allow us to see more clearly and to relate more openly to ourselves and to other beings.
In the practice of yoga, immediacy is of the essence, for we have to confront our own reactive patterns, and make the kinds of internal adjustments to our mental postures that allow us defuse our impulses instead of enacting them. The posture of dispassion must be cultivated by trial and error. It requires us to strike a middle path between the suppression and enactment of our impulses. There is no way that any teacher can make the necessary adjustments for us in this process. The proper alignment is internal, and we have to find it for ourselves.
Indeed, there is no set of techniques that we can apply to effect true release. The techniques are simply prompts for us to find the release within ourselves. Thus, we have to experiment with the practice in the internal space of our own minds until we find the proper balance. The practice, therefore, must be our guide.
The point of doing Ashtanga is not to advance to some “higher” state. In truth, there is no advancing in yoga. There is only finding balance in the present moment. And in each moment, we have to begin again, as if for the first time. This is what the practice teaches us to do. Thus the truth of the dictum, “the practice is the teacher.”