Personally, I started practicing Ashtanga to reduce my levels of stress while at the same time feeling I was doing something good for my body. But with time I started to feel that the practice can also be used as a mindfulness meditation exercise. The traditional yoga scriptures mention that one of the main elements involved in the practice of yoga is the self-observation faculty, or svadhyaya. I like to think the Ashtanga practice can be cultivated in such a way that we can increase the level of mindfulness, allowing to this self-observation process to naturally happen.
For me, the whole practice of yoga is about creating the right conditions and the right environment in which we can observe and explore ourselves, reducing any possible stress or tension in that process. The better this environment, the easier the exploration and the greater the probabilities to perceive things that otherwise would remain out of our range. It is like having a high-quality musical instrument with which we can produce better sounds, or having a more powerful telescope to better measure the signal from the distant universe. If we take care of this environment, we will feel safer and more confident to start to identify and recognise our mental world. From this recognition, it is maybe possible to start experiencing the ultimate purpose of the practice that is the stillness of the mind, or, as it is stated in the yoga sutras, yogah citta vrtti nirodhah. In the same way scientists prepare their labs carefully before starting a new experiment, or musicians tune their instruments before a concert, we can also prepare ourselves and our practice so this self-observation process can unfold smoothly and sustainably for a long time.
So, how can we cultivate our practice and take the most advantages of it? I think there are some fundamental elements in the Ashtanga method that can support us to achieve this. These elements need to be strengthened every time we practice, so with time they become an integral part of ourselves and we do not lose them. Breath, bandhas, dristhi and asana are the fundamental aspects of Ashtanga and each one will help in its own, but it is the coordinated execution of all of them that will allow us to go into a flowing meditation in which self-observation is possible.
Focusing on the right execution of our breathing and in the uninterrupted engagement of our bandhas, we can avoid being so easily distracted by external elements while we are performing the different asana. Additionally, the drishtis will give us a place to look at, so that our mind does not get distracted with different stimuli, reinforcing our concentration. With this, we can then focus our attention to our minds, observing our mental patterns. In this way, if a thought or emotion appears, we can mindfully observe it, recognise its appearance, and refocus our attention back to our “safe” place. This means that our attention does not wander off with any new distraction, but we rather recognise it and let it go more easily. As a result of this whole process of self-observation, the mental activity can be gradually reduced and we can start to experience the stillness in our mind. Then, the Ashtanga practice can ultimately become a place to find a long-lasting peace and happiness.
Note: In my next workshop, we will be exploring these fundamental elements of the Ashtanga method, helping us to create our own safe environment and creating the right conditions for a more mindful, sustainable and enjoyable practice.
View Gonzalo’s teaching schedule.