I took the opportunity to ask Sharath in his office yesterday if, after the few days of teaching I did here, he trusted me to represent this tradition. “Yes”, he said, “and so much will come from experience. But fundamentals must be same.” I believe he is calling us here to teach the fundamentals. In concrete terms, the fundamentals are drishti, gazing points; asana, posture; vinyasa, breathing system.
Drishti: Each posture has a point on which to fix the eyes. We must be familiar with the points specific to each asana and have the presence of mind to bust students on incorrect gazing. When the mind goes outside the practice, the eyes go outside the body. The sense organs, eyes ears nose mouth skin, are always going in search of objects for sensing. These organs are designed to be busy, bringing in information about the environment, which is important, yet yoga seeks to reign it in so the unconscious action of attention going outward becomes something we are aware of and can contain or utilize at will. Drishti trains the mind, increases focus. I find drishti to be an effective tool that is not often found in many yoga classes.
The vinyasa are fundamental to this practice and might be considered Krishnamachrya’s greatest gift to modern yoga. Vinyasa is a sequence of postures, practiced with specific technique, building up to performance of the main asana. In India, the word “performance” is used. We don’t “do yoga”, we “perform asana.” Performance implies practice and technique. It’s very scientific, the vinyasa, and Guruji was a scientist. That is why he called his Mysore shala the Ashtanga Yoga Reasearch Institute. He and Sharath have done a lot of research on the techniques of the specific vinyasas they are teaching. Sharath is sharing, as a fundamental knowledge of the Ashtanga system, not only what the sequences are (and these can easily be found on the internet) but what the technique is to help students achieve the desired effect of the main asana. The main Primary asanas, Marichasana D, Kurmasana, Baddhakonasana, and backbending must be understood in the context of an entire hour and a half practice which supports systematic, sequential performance. Each of the poses has a therapeutic benefit, generally relating to digestion, circulation, or nervous system (which make even more sense now that I am studying the Ayurveda). The postures are not effective without an understanding of the desired effect, which comes naturally with practice and everyone in the course this month has been studying here at least 8 years.
Correct breathing in the practice is another fundamental. We are instructed to listen to our students' breath. The technique of Ujaayi breathing is audible and it becomes obvious if a student, or oneself, is not breathing correctly. Inhale and exhale breath should be equal. Otherwise, the practice will exacerbate an imbalance of the pranas (circulations of vital energy in the body). When a student is not focused, angry, or afraid, this shows up in the breath. Through control of the breath, the mental disturbance is calmed. Learning to focus the mind on the breath, instead of all the information coming through the senses (including sensation in the body due to the asana) is THE key to the practice of Ashtanga yoga. Everybody knows Ashtangis are all about the breath, and this is why.
So these are some fundamentals, already commonly known. But to be busted mercilessly (they say Sharath is a Libra, but there must be some Scorpio going on!) on our own slip ups, whether we are practicing or teaching here, has again brought the fundamentals to the forefront. It doesn’t really matter how challenging the asana sequence is, the work of training the mind, containing senses, and smoothing emotion- all the while achieving therapeutic benefits, is present even in daily practice of the Suryanamaskar. It is up to each individual to know how far they want to go with this yoga, what is the personal goal. One might be happy with a 30 minute practice, if this is the attention span for drishti, asana, and breath. Slowly, slowly, our capacity to do longer, more demanding practice increases due to our modest daily efforts.
As for the “so much” that comes with experience, there is knowing how best to help each student perform a difficult asana correctly, knowing within a few weeks what fundamental is most challenging for each and creating an environment where individuals can master that challenge, then moving into the next.