ashtanga yoga as a concentration practice

Dharana, concentration, is the sixth limb of Patanjali’s yoga.  It’s sort of a precursor to Dhyana, meditation, which, in turn, is a precursor to Samadhi, the culmination of yoga.  At least, that’s my understanding.  A lot of what is called meditation out there is concentration practices, focusing on a mantra or the breath for example, to still the mind.  Anyway, lately, I’ve found myself using the ashtanga tristana, or (1) mula bandha/(2) dristi/(3) uijai breathing, all jumbled together, as a focus point for a concentration meditation practice.  I first wrote about stumbling on this here.  Basically, instead of sitting zazen, or sitting at all, to meditate, I’m doing all these crazy asana, but the asana is secondary to the concentration.

I think I may, in this way, have accidentally become someone who meditates.

The seeds of this approach started last summer at David Williams’ workshop.  He talked a lot about the supremacy of the “invisibles” that is, breath and bandhas.  He also talked about making the goal doing the practice every day for the rest of your life, rather than on achieving a difficult asana.  Asana was way down on his list of priorities.  He also said, “Do your practice like it is half yoga, half tai chi,” emphasizing making the practice itself pleasurable at partial effort, partly to avoid injury, partly to encourage you to get on the mat every day.  It’s a lot easier to unroll the manduka when you know it’s going to feel good.

So for me, nearly two years into this yoga experiment, I now know the Primary without thinking about it, and have a found a variation of every pose that I can do with mild effort and in a pleasurable way.  And lately, the practice is running through this series of asana in the background while I focus my chattering, insano, mind on the tristana.

This is probably totally obvious to most ashtangis.  Sorry.  I’m slow.

And let me say right now: I totally suck at this.  I haul my wandering thoughts back from wherever a gazillion times every Primary, trying to rest them on the bandha/sound of my breathing combo, but ricocheting off into space every other breath or two.  Which makes my practice really hard, mentally hard. The biggest challenge of doing a whole freaking Primary has become what is in my head.  Yeah, I’m tired, my muscles sort of shake at the end, but that’s nothing compared to the work of concentration.  Who knew?

And look, sometimes I hate it.  Concentration sucks!  I get really annoyed, irrationally mad, like, “Hey, I want to think about stuff!  I like thinking about stuff!  I’m good at thinking about stuff!  I’m going to daydream about my novel right now so bugger off you tristana you!”

Other times it’s okay, a humming along blank mind thing.  Although I haven’t hit the Big Silence again.  I remain hopeful.  I’ve gotten there twice.  I’ll get there again.  But I can’t say that I do this weird mind-practice thing because it’s fun.  Honestly, I don’t know why the hell I’m doing it.  It just seems to be what I do now when I get on the mat.

Is this how real practice is?  It finds you, sneaks up on you, and wrestles you to the ground?

5 thoughts on “ashtanga yoga as a concentration practice

  1. grimmly Grimmly

    Yes yes, this idea made a big impression on me too, most of what we think of as meditation is concentration practice, if that’s the case then it makes sense to treat the Ashtanga series as developing concentration. We shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves though, Ramaswami puts it that one reason for asana is to get rid of rajas, ( three gunas theory here yes?)our restlessness, agitation etc. so of course the mind wanders. Next comes pranayama, the intense breathing to wake us up and energise us a little after all that knackering asana. Now we’re ready for serious concentration work, again for Ramaswami this might be the repetition of a mantra or perhaps some chanting. Or of course some vipassana, Jana or zen

    1. maya Post author

      Hi Grim! Yes, I agree, but what mother of small children has TIME for all of that? It would be wonderful to pursue all those limbs individually, but I’m usually lucky to get an hour. The householder’s dilemma. Maybe that’s why the ashtanga thang with it’s asana, pranayama (ujjayi anyway), pratyahara (dristi for sight, ujjayii for sound, focus on bandha for touch, I dunno, it works for me sometimes), and dharana, (and maybe maybe a little dhayana) all in the same, all at once, one hour’s session, BAM, is so appealing. So efficient!

  2. grimmly Grimmly

    oops sorry, forget sometimes how spoiled I am. Sometimes when I’m rushed I’ll do pranayama in shoulderstand and headstand, something Ramaswami talks of. My point though was that on the raja/tamas savic view having a restless mind in asana is normal, to be expected as that’s what the asana is supposed to be getting rid of. Perhaps that’s why the mind tends to settle down a bit half way through.

    1. maya Post author

      Pranayama in shoulderstand, that’s interesting. I’ll look in his books for more on that. But I see what you mean about the burning off of the restless mind. It seems impossible that the mammoth amount of mind-restlessness that I have could ever be burned off, but I guess it’s worth trying. 🙂

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