Updated: Dec 23, 2021
The better we understand why we do something, the better we can work towards our goal. When we are practicing yoga to become stronger mentally & physically, our practice will be different than when we practice while nursing an injury - right? So one thing that we must understand very clearly from the onset is that no matter what practices we choose to do, it is all Ashtānga Yoga. We should avoid reducing our definition to just the Primary, Intermediate & Advance sequences. This is an inexhaustible tradition because really it is all just yoga. The skills we apply on the inside are far more important than which sequence, which āsanas and/or which practices we choose to do because this internal dimension directs the quality of our experience both on and off the mat. In yoga, along with moving our physical energies throughout the body, we learn to better manage our mental & emotional energies. We learn that - of all the thousands of channels traversing throughout the body - these are all just branches of the oneness residing along the central axis of the body. Some call this the suṣumnā nāḍī, others call it the cerebral-spinal axis. The name is not important; our experience of it is. This should be the foundation of our understanding of yoga if we want to master ourselves through yoga: Seeing unity within and knowing that the mind is the maker of both happiness & suffering, both liberation & bondage.
Amongst all the many many yoga practices (and so called yoga brands), there is really just one yoga - yoga - that is all! It is in this sense that we can call all the things we do - whether it is chanting, prāṇāyāma, Primary Series, or whatever - we can call it all Ashtānga Yoga so long as we follow this one simple and essential internal principle. So let us let us look at six different aims or approaches to yoga so we can better understanding where we are going & what we are trying to acheive: sṛṣṭi (growth), śikṣaṇa (learning), rakṣaṇa (maintenance), cikitsā (therapy), ādhiātmika (spirituality) & śakti (powers).
Sṛṣṭi: growth - Sṛṣṭi is the development of physical & mental strengths & skills. In this realm we are learning how to practice and working hard to develop more skills & practices. This phase always occurs in the beginning and also whenever we are trying to gain new abilities. Some take this to extremes while others are content just learning a modest amount of practice. Even the effort we put forth to regain our strength & abilities after having lapsed from practice - whether because of illness, travel, laziness or whatever - is also practice for the sake of growth (sṛṣṭi).
Śikṣaṇa: learning - Śikṣaṇa is when we work to deepen our awareness and knowledge of the practice. This has two primary categories: study of externals & study of the internals. Study of the externals means learning all the breathings and movements of the vinyāsas perfectly, as well as all of the details & subtleties of positioning. While internal studies refers to cultivating our awareness to understand the breath on a subtle level in the sense of how it effects our bio-rhythms & our mind. Internally too, we focus to feel the external positioning of the āsanas as an extension, an emanation of our core (head, neck, ribcage, waist & pelvis).
Rakṣaṇa: maintenance or protection - Rakṣaṇa is the use of yoga practice to maintain our health & vitality so that we can function more optimally throughout the day. If we have jobs and children, then this should be the main focus of our yoga practice. We do not need to impress anyone with our āsana prowess. We need to excel with our daily responsibilities. And for this, we should focus less on accomplishing a stunning practice, and more on how we feel the rest of the day after practice. The practice - when approached moderately (anywhere between 20 - 75 minutes) - can tremendously increase our mental focus, emotional balance & equanimity; and when these are optimized, then we execute tasks with a surprisingly high degree of skill & efficiency. Now that’s impressive! There is another important aspect of rakṣaṇa: Perhaps we have practiced for 15 - 30 years, have developed some āsana skills that we would like to continue being able to do. But, at the same time, we no longer feel the need to practice so physically intense. This happens because after a long time of practice, we naturally evolve from a growth based approach (sṛṣṭi) to feeling more interested in contemplative, self-reflective practices (ādhiātmika). In the initial stages of this transition, we will naturally want to maintain those skills that we worked so diligently to develop. So although time spent on āsanas reduces, we can practice to maintain certain aspects of our physical practice in addition to maintaining our health & vitality.
Cikitsā: therapy - Cikitsā is the approach when we need healing & rejuvenation. There are two primary categories: diagnostic and energization - viz. working to understand the issue & fix it or simply working to support the miraculous healing energy of this body. In practice these two work together. Diagnostics means that we analyize the problem and formulate a suitable solution. Energization means that we support the innate healing capacity of the body (homeostasis). Diagnostically, we may have educated knowledge about the body that informs a healing strategy; but even still, if we do not have this intellectual knowledge, we can use heightened sensitivity to guide us during our practice. By focusing acutely on the movement of our breath, we develop our ability to know how far to go into a position, how to subtilely adjust ourselves in a position and which positions to avoid. This awareness prevents us from aggravating the problem which would interfere with our healing. Through this approach our consciousness becomes deeply attuned to the life principles governing our body. Everyone is capable of this process without ever opening a book. We simply need to pay close attention to reading the sensations of breath in the body. We need to be patient and trust that the body will heal in its own time. People who follow this method set aside attachments of what was done yesterday and pay sole attention to what is happening, what is possible right now. These people maintain stability in practice and become proficient in yoga.
Supporting the regenerative and healing capacity of the body happens by providing good nutrition and a healthy balance between rest & activity. It also happens by deep internal prāṇāyāma & meditative practices. The body is constantly regenerating itself. Old cells are forever being replaced by new cells. Food - as raw material - is being turned into our bodies, energies & consciousness. Creation itself is happening within us every moment, and we have the ability to energize this process, to become partners in this process of creation. By consciously making efforts to increase our sensitivity, we begin to feel the biorhythms happening inside of us. Everyone feels the changes our breath undergoes as we quickly climb a flight of stairs or as we move through a certain sequence of postures - right? This is a change in our biorhythms. If we truly focus on feeling inside our chest, belly and/or head with each increment of each breath, we will feel the emergence of these changes in our biorhythms as they occur. In this way, we can directly partner with the force of creation happening within us. As beginners in this process, a simple way to support the inner healing capacity (homeostasis) is by breathing smoothly, as smoothly as possible, by making the exhalation & inhalation exactly the same. After this is mastered, then we gradually make the breath longer and more subtle. There are many specifics that will affect the breathing rhythm that the body needs. Our effort to elongate the breath must be done with great care and sensitivity as to how the body is responding, and what the body-breath is telling us otherwise we may create imbalances. However, everyone should engage in making the breath smoother and more even and from this process our sensitivity becomes qualified for stretching the breath into the realm beyond breath - called kevala kumbhaka or caturthi.
Ādhiātmika: spirituality - Ādhiātmika is any effort to understand ourselves better and ultimately to experience a purer version of ourselves by transcending our boundary creating notions. As we age, the amount of time spent doing āsanas should decrease while the amount of time studying, doing prāṇāyāma & meditation should increase. Our progress should be measured by how much kinder & more thoughtful we have become. We should have a generously patient attitude towards people. Not simply in terms of giving materially to people, but in terms of giving our attention with warmth in our hearts. Whether or not we practice yoga, believe in God or not, no matter what cultural things we identify with or not is insignificant when compared to having integrity, poise, equanimity, warm heartedness, joy, contentment, generosity, patience and such. If we succeed at becoming good humans than we will feel satisfied with our lives. This is a life well lived.
Śakti: powers or siddhis - Śakti means that we are pursuing powers. We may think that this just means pursing magical occult powers, but it equally refers to trying to master physical feats with the intent to impress others. This includes posing more beautifully in order to become more popular on social media. The pursuit of abilities & power (śakti) - both esoteric & exoteric - with the motive of being liked by others or for broadening our influence in society can never lead to true happiness nor a sense of fulfillment. The temptation to achieve power arises in us from our compulsions (kleśas) - erroneous belief that something other than our own self can either bring us happiness or unhappiness. The truth is though that the experience of both joy & sorrow is really actually a creation of our own minds. When we seek outside for pleasure or for the cause of our negative emotions, or when we blame circumstances for our anxieties, we dig ourselves deeper into the pit of ignorance & compulsive behavior. So although yoga culture is intermingled with the pursuit of powers, true yoga recognizes this as mere external phenomena that is forever unreliable. We must learn to work with the phenomenal world, but we must simultaneously rely on ourselves for our sense of wholeness, joy & satisfaction in life.
In order to apply this analysis, we need to understand the phase of life that we are in and how the process of growth & maturity best unfolds in our life. Each of us is unique, and will have different levels of interest & propensities in each of these categories. So there is no single right answer that will satisfy everyone. As time passes and we gain in experience, we may even find that our own understanding of what we need, of what balance looks like in our lives changes. That is a good thing - keep studying, keep an open mind and allow things to grow, unfold & change