Ashtanga Yoga: discipline as a path to inner freedom
how structure and discipline make us stronger and unconditionally free
Ashtanga Yoga differentiates itself from other styles through the discipline and structure it requires.
Practicing the same sequence 6 times a week, counting every breath, following precise vinyasas, a specific way of breathing, a prescribed drishti (gaze) for each asana and so on.
Also: no skipping asanas, no starting intermediate before one is comfortable with primary, being stuck in a pose for weeks, months or even years.
One would legitimately wonder why? Why inflict this to ourselves? Don’t we have enough obligations already? Why does yoga have to be so strict and methodical? Isn’t it supposed to help us find freedom?
Viewed from an outside perspective, Ashtanga Yoga could potentially look rigid and limiting.
It can look like any and all freedom of choice and initiative has been taken away from the practitioner who must just follow the orders of the teacher and the “Method” itself.
But is it really so? And which freedom are we talking about here?
Let’s go back to the second Sutra of Patanjali: “Yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind”. This is the main purpose of practicing Yoga (at least according to Patanjali’s Ashtanga Yoga): to make the mind still.
To define “stillness of mind” we should first try and find out in which occasions the mind is not still, what are those “fluctuations”. They are all our different moods, coloured by our desires, aversions and preferences, by all the things we like or don’t like. Every time they surface, our mind fluctuates, gets stimulated and stillness is disturbed.
Ashtanga Yoga teaches us in so many ways that our personal preferences don’t matter so much after all. The set sequence and repetition teach us equanimity.
It doesn’t matter if you don’t like backbends for example. If you practice with a teacher who follows the traditional method you have to do them anyway. You cannot cherrypick poses you like and you’re good at and avoid others. This might feel like a limitation to your freedom at first glance but after several years of practice you will most likely realise that your preferences and avoidances are not that strong anymore. In other words you have developed more “equanimity”; the capacity to accept things for what they are without letting them irritate or overexcite you.
The other thing Ashtanga Yoga does with all its rules is anchor the practitioner in the present moment. It is not so easy for the mind to wander when you have to focus on not just the asana but also correct breathing, counting and drishti. And even if you manage to go through the practice on autopilot, the asanas and series become more and more challenging with time, which again makes it much more difficult to think about other things while practicing.
Being focused on the present moment, even for a little while, means freedom from overthinking the past and worrying about the future. As someone who is prone to anxiety, the greatest gift this practice gave me is that at least for 2 hours every morning all my worries and fears go away.
Finally, by forcing us to work on poses that are difficult, painful or stressful, Ashtanga Yoga trains our nervous system to learn how to relax in stressful situations. If you always avoid what takes you out of your comfort zone you become dependent on the protective walls you build around you. The difficulties we are facing on the mat are a preparation for the ones in real life.
But then again, one could argue, how does all this lead to freedom? If you have to constantly follow all these rules, doesn’t this make you just that, a “follower”?
I truly believe that you must first learn the rules to break the rules.
Most of the rules in Ashtanga Yoga can be adapted to the individual and the different phases of their life. The more we advance the less rigid the practice becomes, the more our own intuition and inner wisdom come into play and allow us to make the practice “ours”.
But in order to gain the clarity needed to understand what serves you and what doesn’t you need to play by the rules first.
Most people come to yoga with a scattered mind and limited capacity to focus on anything for more than a few minutes.
It is not really our fault.
We live in a culture that glorifies multitasking, constant sense stimulation and unlimited choice, trying many different things every day and mastering none. This is what we call freedom.
Then Ashtanga comes and for the first few years limits us, taking away the factor of “choice” or “preference”. Already, there is some liberation in this. By taking away from our mind the possibility or duty to make a choice we start restoring our inner peace. By being forced to focus on internal elements like bandhas, breath and drishti, we gradually realise that the external conditions matter less and less.
After many years of practice for example, things like the temperature of the room, where we place our mat, how flexible or strong we feel on any given day or how well we perform don’t matter so much anymore. We just show up and do our practice. Our mind fluctuates less and less.
Ashtanga Yoga is a cure from overstimulation and the need to always get what you want.
There is something deeply liberating about not being the victim of your own desires and needs. In giving away some of our “freedom”, we gain in inner peace.
It doesn’t mean that we lose our capacity to make choices and form opinions. But those do not define us anymore.
What defines us instead, is that which does not change every second depending on whether our desires are met or not.
The unchangeable. This is what we are trying to come closer to through Ashtanga Yoga.
When we are constantly seeking external stimulation, when we always expect things to go our way, then our peace of mind will depend on external conditions that we cannot control.
We are given the choice, through this practice, through our sadhana, to reach beyond that and inhabit a place where our freedom and inner peace are deeply anchored and unshakeable, no matter what.