Yoga International emailed questions to three top Ashtanga Yoga teachers—David Swenson, Richard Freeman, and Tim Miller. In this Q&A, Richard Freeman comments perceptively on some of the mental and psychological aspects of Ashtanga practice—how students tend to avoid certain practices or issues, how working with the breath gives insight into the mind, and the importance of practicing with mindfulness.
What are the 8 limbs of ashtanga yoga (as described in the Yoga Sutra)? Do you have a favorite limb, and what is the main limb your students overlook?
Depending on their circumstances, students tend to overlook the particular limb of yoga—that aspect of the practice—that exposes the hidden side of their ideas about who they are. One may be likely to overlook meditation because they can’t be with chaotic, frustrated, sad, or other uncomfortable mind states. Another might, lacking compassion, overlook the effect of their yoga practice on their own body or how their actions impact others. Still another might overlook or demonize asana because of not understanding the purpose and the subtle internal technique of the practice or because they have somehow developed a fear of the full spectrum of physical and emotional feeling that will occur in a consistent practice.
The reason that there are so many limbs is so that we may learn to apply the insights of yoga to all aspects of our lives. This is particularly true in terms of how yoga impacts our relationships with other beings, for these basic relationships have the most powerful emotional influence on our body and mind.
All of us, as students, must continue to inquire again and again.
It is the nature of any student to avoid exposing the silliness of their mind and their egotistical attachment to unimportant frills associated with yoga. So all of us, as students, must continue to inquire again and again.
What is the importance of breath?
Besides keeping you alive, breath has an intimate relationship to the overall movement of prana throughout the entire body and the sense fields. One of the axioms of yoga practice is that as the breath (prana) moves, so the mind moves and as the mind moves, so the breath moves. Breath gives us a tool with which we can explore the subtle structure of our mental and emotional worlds.
Awareness or mindfulness of breathing can lead to insight into the nature of mind and freedom from suffering. Also, breath has everything to do with structural alignment and the patterns in which we hold the body, perceive the body, and move the body. Breath awareness can eliminate joint compression and other imbalances from one’s postures and attitudes and is a foundation for flowing seamlessly in movement through an Ashtanga Vinyasa practice.
We have heard about the annual Ashtanga Yoga Confluence led by the top Ashtanga teachers. What can people expect at the Confluence? Why is it so important to gather as a community annually?
The importance of gathering together as a community is that it provides the opportunity to see others who are working with the same challenges and difficulties and also experiencing exciting insights that arise from the practice. It’s a big world and it’s nice not to feel like you’re all alone and irrelevant to the greater evolution of human culture.
Another reason it’s important to meet is to discuss the details of our own particular perspectives, techniques, injuries, solutions for those injuries, and ways that we have adapted the practice to our unique circumstances. Also, it’s wonderful to get feedback from other practitioners who might see things from a new perspective. It can wake us up to see and listen to others who share a common love for the practice, but who might have seen aspects to it that we have overlooked. Even though we are all working within a single tradition, that tradition is still evolving and is bringing in threads of insight from other traditions. A confluence allows this to happen in an above-board, open atmosphere.
Even though we are all working within a single tradition, that tradition is still evolving and is bringing in threads of insight from other traditions.
People can expect from the confluence to have fun meeting all of the remarkably friendly and humble Ashtanga practitioners from around the world, and to get re-enthused by fresh and new ways of bringing an ancient tradition to life in the present moment.
What do you hope people take with them into their daily practice? What does the yoga community need to do to take the practice of yoga to the next level?
I would hope that people take from their daily practice a taste and enthusiasm for mindfulness which can be experienced as a brighter flame of intelligence that allows one to work more subtly and precisely with sensations, feelings, and thoughts as they arise. Also I would hope that all of us could be a little more curious about the roots of the yoga tradition, the variety of its expressions, its philosophies, languages, art, and its various beliefs. In other words, I would encourage us all to remember to come back again and again to an open-minded application of the attention of samadhi to everything in the whole world.
Practicing with mindfulness in this way can help us to take the practice to the next level because it requires that we act compassionately toward both ourselves and all others.
Practicing with mindfulness in this way can help us to take the practice to the next level because it requires that we act compassionately toward both ourselves and all others. This can remove the obstacle of hiding within a communal narcissism and can open the door to self-reflection and the ability to truly experience the interconnectedness of all things that is reflected through the practice.