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Practicing inner yoga

By Michael Hamilton

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As a yoga teacher a big part of my daily life is observing people practicing yoga. Eager yogis come into the studio, unroll their sticky mats and stand in samastitihi (in an attentive devotional attitude) at the front of their mats. Often, after chanting quietly to themselves, they deepen their breath and dive into their practice.

The question is, what happens then? From that moment on, whatever the inner landscape of that person happens to be is indeed anybody’s guess, which brings up another question: what is yoga practice, or what then separates yoga from other physical exercise? The answer is remarkably simple: attention, or present moment awareness. Yoga done without awareness can have many benefits, but for it to be higher yoga, or the yoga of emotional and spiritual evolution, awareness is key.

It is very possible that the person is completely present for the duration of the practice, but it is also entirely possible that they are not present for a single instant, riding the train of thoughts reminiscing about the past and hopeful for the future.

As practitioners of the Ashtanga tradition there is a method for building the concentration necessary to be in the present moment. A core teaching of Ashtanga is that of tristana, or the union of breath (ujjayi), gaze (drishti) and internal alignment (bandhas). In fact, they are not separate. When we touch on the deeper aspects of one the others are also revealed.

The breath accompanies us throughout our lives. It’s the first thing you do upon entering the world, and the last thing you do upon leaving it, making it an excellent companion, not only for yoga practice, but for life. Yes, we all breathe, in fact we take it for granted, but to be aware of the breath means to pay attention, and to pay attention is to practice yoga. To help us with this we give the breath more resonance by slightly closing the vocal chords. It also helps us to direct the breath to various parts of the body. This way of breathing with a resonant sound is called ujjayi breath, or the victorious breath, symbolizing our victory over death.

As we listen to the sound of the breath we create space (akash). We give space to what is. For a moment we suspend our ideas about things. In this way we avoid our usual habit of assuming we know what we are experiencing through our senses, including the mind (thoughts), and actually observe closely the contents of our experience. This practice of listening is itself the starting point for paying attention, and for practicing yoga. One often encounters nada, or the practice of listening attentively, in esoteric yoga practices and old texts on yoga. The practice of listening helps us to have courage, to become warriors of light, and allows us to accept whatever arises in the present moment. Without this ability we cannot be in the present moment, as giving up wanting to control, and accepting whatever is (as an expression of the perfection of the moment) are required for being in the moment.

When we become aware that there is a connection between deeply looking and how this intimate perception affects our mental states, we practice drishti. In Ashtanga there are often said to be nine gaze points, normally arranged according to the dictates of the posture. However, it is awareness of the state of mind that is the purpose of the gaze and not casting the eyes about mechanically. As we continue to refine our practice we become aware of the inner gaze, which is what awakens when the practice becomes internalized. It is when the witness within us awakens, or when we become aware of being aware. It might sound complicated, even mystical, but have you ever noticed that you are daydreaming, or that you said something silly, or that you are experiencing an emotional state? Well, that knowing that you know quality of the realization, that moment of coming out of the trance like state of not paying attention, or that that noticed is the awakening witness. The witness is very important when we do yoga.
You can think of it as the inner guide, or spiritual friend, even teacher. It is what helps us to know what we are experiencing, and thus affirms what we can know through experience. So one can say that practicing the gaze awakens the inner witness of our experience.

Inner alignment (or bandhas) is when we awaken to the act of welcoming the body’s participation in the awakening of consciousness. We acknowledge the reality that being in the body, and moving through space, can be powerful tools for creating awareness. Awareness of how we move, how it makes us feel, what kind of mind states might result from it, and so forth. We awaken to our inner world of sensations. Performing asanas enhances those forces that animate us. It stirs up, so to speak, the very moving principle of the body (prana), and as such we can observe and learn from it. To do this we have to sensitize ourselves to this inward moving energy. This force can express itself in many ways and the old yogis called it prana vayu, or the animating winds. To observe these forces in the body and their effects upon the body can bring the mind into a very concentrated state, which has, as a result, a feeling of great calm, tranquility and bliss.

When we then apply the inner gaze to this field of sensations, combined with giving space to whatever presents itself for our observation, we can start to examine what we think we are, or what we think we know about ourselves, and thereby unravel certain deeply held beliefs, many of which are not true and which cause much suffering to us and others. Our practice then has a higher purpose. Then we can say we actually have a practice, one that does not end when we roll up our mats to go back into the world, that our yoga has become a practice for life.

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