by Tim Noworyta
Exploring the Essence of Ashtanga Yoga with Richard Freeman
For many beginners as well as some more "advanced" practitioners hatha yoga seems largely a matter of muscling the body into specific shapes to attain various mental and physical benefits. This might seem especially so in Ashtanga vinyasa yoga, which requires not only strength and flexibility but also agility and endurance. If this were all there was to yoga, the measure of success would be the number and difficulty of the poses you could do. A second series Ashtanga adept would therefore be superior to someone who could only do the primary series, and a person who could do lotus would be a more accomplished yogi than someone who could only sit cross-legged on a block. But for Richard Freeman, the essence of hatha yoga including Ashtanga has little to do with external form or "level" of practice. It has even less to do with contorting the body into increasingly difficult positions. Instead, it's primarily a matter of releasing, letting go of thought and opening to life as it is, so you come to an Ah! The experience of profound understanding. "The first quality of yoga is delight" Richard says. "The measure of your practice should be that it feels good, not tortuous. And the more beginner you are, the more advanced you are, because the fundamentals are also where the advanced practice is. The best way to practice is not to practice, to not do anything. Instead, yoga involves looking in a way that releases the mind from its habit of naming, so you can just see and be nobody looking at nothing. Then the mind falls into the heart and you see things as they really are."
That was the main theme of the workshop Richard Freeman presented September 21-23 in Evanston under the auspices of the N.U. Yoga Center of Chicago a workshop originally scheduled for the week before but postponed when the terrorist attacks disrupted his flight plans.The 60-plus participants were treated to Richard's easy-going style, engaging wit, radiant intelligence and wonderfully rich knowledge of yoga. Here are some highlights of what he shared.
Yoga Begins with Release
One of the things I like most about Richard's approach to yoga is his focus on internal feelings and sensations as the guide to alignment. As we stood in samasthiti (tadasana) at the beginning of the Ashtanga series, he explained that the goal of the practice is to awaken the central axis of the body, from the muladhara chakra at the floor of the pelvis to the sahasrara chakra at the top of the head. We do this by using bandhas (primarily mula bandha, or root lock, and uddiyana bandha, or abdominal lock), mantra (in this case the sound of pure breath in ujjayi pranayama) and drishti (gaze) to move into alignment, focus the mind and facilitate the movement of prana towards an Ah! Most important, we start in the way that he says is recommended in the Yoga Shastras--with a release. According to Richard, the root of the palate is a reservoir of compassion or kindness. By letting the root of the palate release, we release the mind from the tension of thinking and let it fall into the heart, so it can see what's really there. This release also lets the apana prana fall to the floor of the pelvis, where it facilitates mula bandha and awakens the inner breath, or kundalini, to rise up the core toward the higher levels of awareness that are yoga. To achieve this release, he encouraged us to let the gaze become steady and soft and adopt an attitude of not knowing what to do. Instead we are to simply look, open the mind and senses, and listen to the breath, ideally the ujjayi pranayama, which creates a subtle sound, or mantra, at the top of the windpipe. We let the breath be long and even, like pulling threads of taffy, to help concentrate the mind. We bring the breath deep under the belly, to a spot about an inch above the perineal center--the spot where uddiyana bandha begins. And we let the release of the palate echo in the floor of the pelvis, where the pubic bone, tail bone, and sitting bones drop down, letting the center point of the perineum rise and creating mula bandha. This process binds thought, further quiets the mind, and lets the prana rise up through our core toward the top of the head, bringing us toward enlightenment.
Mula Bandha Is Key
For Richard, this process of enlightenment is the essence of yoga. And the key to achieving it is mula bandha, which he says is the asana (seat or foundation) of every asana. But mula bandha is not the muscular contraction it is often thought to be--and taught as. Instead, it's a more subtle yet more profound action that involves release instead of effort. "Mula bandha is slippery, like an avocado pit," Richard notes. "The more you try to grab or squeeze it, the more it slips away. It's not what you think it is. In fact, it's beyond thought and occurs only when you release thought. But you must always tend to it, because through it the flame of citta, or apana, the raw life force, rises from the pelvic floor to manifest at the crown of the head like the thousand-petaled lotus. And like all flowers, you hold this one from the stem, not the blossom, so you don't crush it. You therefore don't hold the flower with your mouth, but with the floor of the pelvis."
To move toward mula bandha, you release and let the four corners of the perineum--the pubic bone, tail bone and two sitting bones--drop, so the middle can float up. Richard says it's similar to what happens in the kids' game where a group of people hold the rim of a parachute or silk cloth and pull it swiftly down to the floor over the children. The center of the parachute floats up and hangs like a dome in the air. "Instead of trying to float the sinkable (the rim of the pelvis)," he says, "you sink the sinkable so the floatable (center point of the perineum) can float. "To help achieve mula bandha, you have to align your core. This involves bringing the groins back so the perineum aligns with the central axis, and the pubic bone begins to move down and back. Then you release the palate and mouth and let the release continue all the way into the sitting bones. Finally, you drop the tail bone and let the center point of the perineum rise. Richard says it's as if you're inhaling through a long straw that sucks up the pelvic floor. Richard also used bridal imagery to describe the conjunction of opposites that characterizes mula bandha. The pubic bone, or the queen, is the beloved of the tail bone, or king. But these "attendants" must stay out of the bridal chamber of the perineum, as must the sacrum, which he compared to the mother of the tailbone. She must move toward the navel. When the tailbone energetically connects with the pubic bone, you have mula bandha. So in yoga practice, he says, you let the pubic bone and tail bone do their thing, and you get out of the way. Then the kingdom flourishes.
The Rhythm of Alignment
For all this to occur in any given asana, everything must be properly aligned. And to align properly, you have to follow the rhythm of the breath. The inhale creates inner spiral, the feminine force. With the inhale you release, let the pubic bone drop back and the sitting bones ground. With the exhale, you bring the tail in and create outer spiral, the masculine force. Richard used the first three poses of the Ashtanga series to illustrate this rhythm of alignment. As you stretch up in ekam (first position), you release into the heels. (He says inhaling always deals with dropping into the earth.) As you dive over into dve (second position, uttanasana) you scoop over from the "cave" of the sacrum, letting the pubic bone swing back and the pelvis tilt forward to close the hip joints. He said the movement should come from the flame of pure consciousness one inch above the pelvic floor. As you extend out in trini (third position), you stretch the tail bone back and in to complete the process of mula bandha. Richard had us hold trini for a long time to feel the action in the pelvis. He used the metaphor of breath angels pulling at the four sides of the pelvic floor to help us get the right alignment. In all poses we applied these same principles of practice, imagining earth angels pulling us down in seated poses or sky angels pulling us up in inversions. For example, in paschimottanasana (seated forward bend), we extended on the inhale and folded on the exhale, letting the pubic bone drop back, the hip joints close and the sitting bones ground down (with the help of the angels, of course). Then, on the exhale, we brought the tail bone down and in and pulled the outer creases of the groins down (outer spiral) to complete the mula bandha process. I found the sequencing of these actions with the breath--and Richard's distinctively precise instructions--very helpful in getting more fully into a pose. We also applied several other alignment principles in all the poses. One of these was looping the shoulders up and back and lifting the inner armpits in what Richard calls "banker's pose." Another was keeping the feeling of dignity and nobility in the pose. To help do this, he encouraged us to look down the tip of the nose like a snob to achieve the release of the palate and to activate the skull loop, which keeps the neck from shortening when dropping the head back in poses like upward facing dog. So Richard would humorously rename poses--snob fish, flying banker's pose, snob hero, upward facing banker's pose and the like--to remind us to use these alignment principles. Here are a few of the other alignment tips he shared, drawn from working with masters like B.K.S. Iyengar and Pattabhi Jois, as well as from his own practice. In standing poses, keep the toes open and radiant, and the heels heavy. In back bends, maintain a subtle counter pose. From the lower front ribs, the skin flows down and the front muscles tone to keep the kidneys open and the lower ribs lifting back.
Always separate the tail bone from the sacrum. The tail bone moves down and in toward the pubis. The sacrum moves up and in toward the navel. In the seated poses, push alternately forward through the heels and balls of the feet to bring balance to the pelvic floor. In jumping back, throw your heart and face forward as you look out at a point to help keep the shoulder loop intact. When holding a pose, we used the undulations and pulsations of the breath to keep refining the alignment, making sure that the breath stayed full and even. Being precise in alignment, Richard says, enables us to catch the mind and pull it into meditation. Our goal is to find the central axis, then brighten. He used the image of stringing the poses on the thread of the breath to illustrate the importance of keeping mindful of the breath. "Doing postures without the breath is like having beads without a thread," he says. "You can't make a necklace without a thread. All you'll have is a pile of beads."
A Wonderful Teacher
Richard Freeman is one of the most accomplished yoga teachers I've had the privilege to study with. He not only has an awesome asana practice, he also has tremendous intelligence, learning and experience in various spiritual and philosophical paths ranging from Zen and Vipassana Buddhist practice to bhakti and hatha yoga, Sufism and Western philosophy. This broad perspective seems to have deepened his understanding of each of these approaches--as if these different wells tapped into the same water source--and has given him a subtlety, humility and sense of humor that are very nice to be around. Fortunately for others, Richard has distilled some of his storehouse of knowledge into a just-released set of audio tapes entitled The Yoga Matrix, produced by Sounds True Recordings (visit www.yogaworkshop.com for a sound bite and more information). Also, he's presently completing a new book on the Ashtanga primary series that's due for release early next year. Be sure to check it out. And if you ever get a chance to study with this thoughtful teacher, do so. You'll come away with wonderful insights into yoga--and into life.
Richard Freeman is the director of The Yoga Workshop in Boulder, Colorado. For more information about his classes, workshops and teachings, call 303.449.6102. or visit www.yogaworkshop.com.
Tim Noworyta teaches yoga at the Chicago Cultural Center, Evanston Athletic Club, Galter Life Center and N.U. Yoga Center. For class information, call 773.878.9031.