Using Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and Meditation as Embodiment Practices for the Cultivation of Organic Intelligence
A practitioner in my Mysore program recently asked me: “If one side of a posture is more open than the other, and I feel like I can keep going deeper in the more open side, should I hold back to try to even it out with the less open side?” My response drew from what I feel is one of the most beautiful aspects of the Ashtanga Vinyasa practice. What follows is an expanded version of my response to this question:
“Don’t attempt to consciously direct the organic intelligence of the body. There is a deep intelligence in the sequencing of the postures and vinyasas. They are designed to restructure the body in a particular way over many years of daily practice. The body also has its own innate, organic intelligence. The intelligence of the body interacts with the intelligence of the practice in a complex way, which even the most knowledgeable anatomy expert cannot even begin to see clearly.”
The tensegrity patterns which hold the body in its stable structural state exist within a vast and complex web which has its own inherent intelligence. As the practice influences the body and the tensegrity patterns of its structural state, all kinds of complex shifts, changes and evolution in those patterns are taking place. What we observe on the surface may sometimes seem illogical or counterintuitive – such as one side of the body becoming more open than the other side, or some types of transient pain. But, if we could see what is happening beneath the hood, in the myriad of complex inner patterns which we cannot directly perceive, what is happening may make perfect sense. The temporary outer expression of the body is simply a passing phenomenon which is a byproduct of a much vaster internal process. The organic, instinctive intelligence of the body knows very well what it is doing. It is often better not to impose our conscious ideas about the restructuring process onto the body, because our conscious ideas are based on very limited information – the outer expression which we see on the surface.
Trust the innate intelligence of the body to direct that deeper internal process in the best way possible. It is more relaxing that way. Sit back and surrender to something that does not actually require conscious manipulation. Do all of the postures and vinyasas of your practice every day, in order, with sensitivity and awareness. Whatever the body happens to be allowing on that particular day, go into it. Allow it to happen. Don’t hold back. Whatever the body happens to be resisting on that particular day – encounter it, but don’t force it. Respect the resistance. Come up to the edge of it and feel it, but don’t push too hard against it. Flow through the practice in this way and just sit back and watch as the magic unfolds within, and the patterns of tension and release continue to shift, change, and evolve over time as the structure of the body shifts, changes and evolves over time. It is a beautiful journey.”
I’ve maintained a daily practice of the first four Ashtanga series, without any alteration to the modern sequencing for 13 years. The description above represents my current perception of how the system works most effectively and healthily on the human body, based on my own personal experience as well as the experience of observing hundreds of students who have practiced with me. The concept of “surrender” to a greater intelligence than that which we can directly perceive is a key theme in the above description.
I believe that “surrender” is an inherent property of a healthy human mind. The human mind has a powerful capacity to conceptualize, and to attempt to control its inner and outer environments. This is a wonderful capability, and we can and should use it when it is appropriate. It is also important to understand that relaxation cannot occur without surrender, or a relinquishing of control. If we are always attempting to control and manipulate ourselves and our surroundings, we will exist in a constant state of stress. This is a pathological condition. Stress is unhealthy to any organism. Some tension is necessary for life to exist, and some degree of conscious conceptualization and manipulation will increase our quality of life, but a dynamic balance between a state of tension (or stress) and relaxation (or surrender) is likely to be the most functional and healthy. This balance is another form of bandha.
Spiritual and religious systems also cite the concept of “surrender” as being an essential ingredient in the path to liberation and freedom. In other articles I have written, I have discussed how this surrender often takes the form of giving one’s personal power away – to a god, to a guru, to a dharma, to a concept, to an imagined and unattainable ideal, etc. In these contexts, surrender becomes a subtle but powerful way for people to be subjugated and controlled and essentially to mistrust themselves. I feel that modern religion and spirituality emerged and became rooted in human cultures by capitalizing on the inherent need and characteristic of the human mind to “surrender”, and feeding it lofty abstract concepts such as gods, gurus, heavens and ideals of liberation to which it should surrender.
It is no coincidence that modern forms of religion and spirituality came into existence around the same time that agriculture did (about 10 000 years ago), and the modern human population began its path of unchecked expansion and growth. The need to organize greater numbers of people into increasingly co-operative networks based around increasingly unnatural and specialized tasks (ie. modern human society) required a common ideology, a common myth, a common shared story that we could all agree on and be bound together by. Religion and spirituality evolved to fulfill this crucial role and requirement for modern, organized human society to work.
Religious and spiritual concepts which claim to be of divine origin, and are therefore essentially unchallengeable by mortal and imperfect humans fulfill this role perfectly. Early modern humans agreed that in order to attain freedom, heaven, salvation, or eternal peace, they had to surrender themselves to the demands of the higher powers – the gods, the gurus, the concepts, the liberation ideals – which governed the universe. This proved to be very effective and allowed human society to continue to co-operate and expand its numbers and its power to the point we have reached today, where we live in a dream bubble of our own making and have very little relationship to our organic, animal roots as members of the interconnected web of species on the planet earth.
This worked to increase the numbers of our species in the early phases of the agricultural revolution – and increasing numbers of copies of genes is the currency of success as far as biological evolution goes. However, having transcended some of the laws of biological evolution at this stage in our species’ journey, we have come to a point of deep crisis, and our very survival is likely at stake, unless we are able to radically shift our worldview and our reality.
If surrender is an inherent trait of a healthy human mind, then it must have already existed in the human mind before the emergence of agriculture and modern religion and spirituality 10 000 years ago. It is likely that the new abstract religious concepts to which humans learned to surrender subverted the traditional ways that human beings utilized the mind’s ability to surrender for the millions of years that the homo genus existed before the comparatively recent advent of agriculture and modern religion and spirituality.
My current feeling is that that when human beings existed in hunter gatherer clans prior to 10 000 years ago, the mind’s surrender would have been to the innate biological intelligence of its own organism. Though the state of consciousness of pre-agricultural humans cannot be definitively understood, I feel it is possible to speculate based on the anthropological observations we have of the few hunter gatherer societies which have survived in the modern world, as well as introspective observation of the way my own consciousness behaves in different environments and lifestyles that I have engaged in throughout my life.
In pre-agricultural times, humans likely spent much of their existence in an embodied organic animal state of intelligence. This would have been a very beautiful form of self-awareness and self-understanding, which placed great confidence in the human sense of instinct and intuitive understanding. This state of consciousness and self-awareness is very different compared to that which our rational and analytic dominated minds tend to exist in today.
To survive in the forest, without the network of support of a modern human society, the sensory and perceptual systems of these humans must have been highly developed. The variety and degree of intelligent skills that each and every human being would have developed and mastered over a course of a lifetime would have been enormous. Those who were not able to do this would not have survived. The embodied state would have been a prominent feature of this existence. Consciousness would have generally stayed within the framework the physical, biological organism, and this likely led to a very deep sense of trust – or surrender – to that innate organic intelligence. I imagine it was a very complete and whole way of living, and the existential crises and feelings of disconnect that so many people experience in the modern world likely did not exist for those human beings. There was probably not much need for lofty spiritual aspirations, because an embodied life that directly perceived its place within an interconnected web of species was likely full and complete in nearly every way.
Modern humans currently face a serious crisis as a species where we are literally poisoning the planet that we are a part of, and which we rely on for survival. It is quite possible that in the not too distant future, the planet earth may no longer be hospitable for human life and homo sapiens will become extinct. I believe that the fundamental reason we are allowing this to happen is that over the past 10 000 years, we have moved from a reality and a self-awareness which is based on intuitive, instinctive, organic intelligence to a reality and existence which is entirely an abstract construct of the human mind. Our sense of self and awareness is now based on the ideas and suggestions of these imagined and artificially constructed concepts, rather than the organic physical reality of our bodies and the rest of the planet which we are a part of.
In a recent TED talk author and historian Yuval Harari gives a very lucid description of the difference between objective, physical reality and the imagined fictional reality that humans have created, and which we now almost entirely exist in. The objective, physical reality of trees, rivers, wind, rocks, animals, and our own organic intuitive intelligence is our biological heritage. It is the reality that humans existed almost exclusively in for the millions of years before the agricultural revolution. Over the past 10 000 years, and especially in very recent times, that objective physical reality has been almost entirely replaced by an imagined, fictional reality created by the human mind. Money, countries, cultures, corporations, laws, religions, heavens, hells, and gods have no basis in physical reality. Yet – we base nearly all of our lifestyle habits, behaviors and decisions on these fictional entities which the human mind has created. As Yuval Harari says in his talk, these imagined entities are now the most powerful forces in the world, even though they are not real. It is no coincidence that the rise of power of these creations of human imagination has occurred at the same time that the objective reality of lakes, rivers, trees and animals has become neglected, abused and destroyed.
Not only has the objective reality of these other physical entities of the planet earth been forgotten and neglected, but the objective physical reality of our own instinctive, organic, intuitive human intelligence has also been neglected and abandoned. How many people today can say that they truly live in a way that most of their decisions, behaviors and actions draw from an ability to perceive and understand what is going on within their own organism at the level of embodied experience? I think very few people can honestly say that they live this way. Most decisions, actions and behaviors are based on the fabricated ideologies and expectations that come from society, culture, family, job, religion, scriptures and idols.
Where does the modern human being place its faith and its capacity for surrender? Is it in abstract, fictional concepts, or is it in the intuitive organic intelligence of our own bodies and beings? I think the answer to this question sums up the vast majority of what is wrong in the world today, both in terms of intrapersonal well being, and in terms of our collective problems as a species.
If we turn to spiritual practices as part of the solution, then we need to be sure that we are not using them to perpetuate the problem. As I stated earlier in this essay, I feel that modern spirituality and religion arose as a part of this process of abstraction and the manufacturing of a fictional reality. Any spiritual practice which asks us to give our power away by surrendering to a fictional idea is not going to help in the current crisis that we face. Nearly all the religions and practices that exist today fall into this category.
What will help are practices which help us to rediscover and deepen our relationship with ourselves by cultivating, and ultimately surrendering to, the intuitive, organic intelligence of our own bodies and beings. This increases self-trust, self-confidence and a sense of wholeness. We need to stop giving our faith and trust away to ideas and ideals, and start cultivating and placing our faith in our organic intelligence. We need to stop surrendering to the whims of gods, jobs, countries, cultures and money and start surrendering more to the power and intelligence that lies within the nerves and flesh of this animal human body. By reconnecting to and developing reverence for our own objective, physical nature, we will naturally reconnect to and develop reverence for the objective reality of trees, rivers, rocks and animals. The path back home to nature begins through our own bodies.
This leads me back to the description of the process of Ashtanga Vinyasa practice that I began this essay with. I have maintained a 16 year daily practice of two of the most powerful embodiment techniques available on this planet today – Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and Vipassana Meditation. Both of these techniques are also connected to extensive dogmas and ideologies which are products of the human mind. By saying that, I do not mean that the philosophy surrounding these techniques is worthless. Certainly, some of the ideas of fictional reality that human beings have created are positive and helpful.
Yet, after 16 years of open minded practice and experimentation, I have found that the real reason these techniques work for me is not due to the fictional ideologies that they are connected with, but because I use them as a way to embody my consciousness and to develop the capacity of my organic intelligence.
Whether I am sitting still in meditation and experiencing the subtle ebb and flow of sensation throughout every part of my body and being, or whether I am flowing with my body and breath in a profusely sweaty sequence of advanced asanas and vinyasas, the essence of what I am doing is the same. When I practice either of these techniques, I am practicing the letting go of my rational, analytic mind, and letting go of the governance of human made ideas over my being, and I am dropping deeper into and surrendering to the organic intelligence and the felt physical reality of my human body and its sensations and feelings. Many people consider asana to be something that is designed for training the body and meditation to be something for training the mind. For me, they are just different aspects of one and the same thing. They are both somatic, body oriented practices which are extremely effective at cultivating and deepening the sensitivity of our intuitive and instinctive intelligence.
In both of these techniques, there are steps in learning which require rational and analytic understanding. In Vipassana meditation, we must learn how to apply our focus to different parts of the body, how to scan, feel and move on, what to place importance on or not place importance on, etc. In the Ashtanga Vinyasa technique, we need to learn how to move the breath inside the body, how to sequence the asanas and vinyasas, how to position the body correctly according to basic principles of alignment, etc. Yet, these are all very superficial aspects of the techniques. They are only meant to be a doorway which opens up into a much deeper experience of embodiment and a state of consciousness which flows intuitively and instinctively.
In a mature Vipassana meditation practice, there is very little conscious directing of the awareness. Once one has learned how to move the awareness through the body and feel the somatic experience of sensation everywhere, the conscious directing mind can step back and allow the intuitive aspects of the process take over. In many of my meditation sittings, I drop into a dream like state, where I am continuing to scan and feel my body, but the conscious mind actually becomes suspended and the subconscious dreams, visions and images become my predominant mental experience. This is a feeling of the self at an extremely deep organic level – the subtlest layers of somatic tissue sensation with the corresponding mental images and patterns which arise spontaneously from that felt awareness, with no overlaying of conscious ideals or ideologies. What plays out in those states is very healing, clarifying and restorative. Deep and sometimes detrimental patterns of the psyche are disrupted and reconfigured. Much of what the mind requires from actual sleep and dreaming is accomplished in these sittings, and the need for sleep and dreaming is significantly reduced.
In a mature Ashtanga practice, there should also be minimal conscious direction. Once one has learned the correct vinyasa sequencing, and the correct breathing and alignment principles, all that remains to do is to shut the analytical mind off and to flow through the practice instinctively and intuitively. This is where the real magic takes place. When one’s mind simply flows with the movement of the breath and the physical body – especially the subtler internal movements connected to bandha – one can feel the dynamic intelligence of the organic body itself take over. The body understands intuitively how to move or not to move. It understands how to expand and slow down the breath, how to slide deeper into a position, and when to back off and not push against some form of resistance. Some mature practitioners speak of experiencing a state where “some other force” is moving their body and breath through the practice. This force is certainly connected to bandha, but the essence of that force is the organic, intuitive animal intelligence. It feels very good to surrender to this intelligence in practice. When the conscious, analytical mind overlays its ideas and ideals onto the practice and subverts the organic intelligence, the problems of lack of self-trust, self-confidence and self-acceptance occur. This also becomes a breeding ground for injury.
Conscious analytical and objective analysis of breathing or alignment techniques may sometimes be beneficial and necessary, especially in the beginning stages of practice. But, in a mature practice which is used as a technique of embodiment and cultivation of organic intelligence, this conscious analysis should constitute only a very small percentage of how the energy and attention is directed. The analytical, objectifying practice is a much more superficial level of practice than the practice which flows from a purely intuitive and instinctive state of being.
When one is able to practice in this intuitive way, self-practice in isolation often becomes preferable to practicing in a group or under the direction of a teacher. I am sometimes asked if I am okay with practicing alone for most of the year, and without the guidance of a teacher, or whether I am able to go as deep into my practice and progress on my own as I am with a teacher. The truth is that nearly all of my deepest, most beautiful, and powerful practices occur in that very intimate space when I am alone, with myself in the dark early morning hours. It is easiest to slip into the purely embodied state when one is not concerned about being watched by others, or about integrating instruction from others. When we are alone, and in the dark, we are forced to feel ourselves more.
It is good to visit a teacher from time to time, and if one is fortunate enough to live close to a good teacher, it can be good to practice most of the time in the teacher’s shala. However, all mature practitioners should strive to be as independent as possible in their practice. Relying on a teacher to “take you deeper” is a giving away of one’s power. It makes one reliant on the power of the teacher, and it undermines one’s ability to surrender to and develop confidence in one’s own intuitive organic intelligence.
A good teacher knows this fact very well. A good teacher can see when a practitioner is able to access their own organic intelligence, and therefore requires very little input or external direction in their practice. Giving input or adjustment where it is not necessary will disrupt the student’s internal process. As a teacher myself, I find that as my experience and maturity grows I place more and more importance on allowing the practitioners’ own internal journey to unfold within the container of the shala room, with as little input from myself as possible. The best moments in teaching for me are when I can step back and scan a full room of 20 or more practitioners, and feel like there is no one that I need to attend to in that moment. The only sound is that of everyone’s breathing, and everyone is immersed in their own internal journey. This is where the magic of group practice really happens, when everyone is practicing in the intuitive animal state of organic consciousness.
When a student requires assistance to attain a particularly difficult asana, or if they are stuck in some inefficient movement pattern, I will certainly help them. I might help them every day for weeks or months at a time. But, as soon as I get the sense that this person has the capability to find their own way into it, then I start to leave them alone and just watch. It is fascinating to see the animal intelligence take over at this stage. Everyone has their own unique way of finding their way into something new. This is also why I feel it is important not to impose strong and rigid micro alignment ideals onto people. For me, the most fulfilling moments as a teacher are not when I physically or verbally help someone to attain something, but when I watch them learn how to attain it themselves, without my help.
It is not only through physical yoga and meditation that we can access and cultivate the organic intelligence of the human body and nervous system. As I stated earlier in this essay, our hunter gatherer ancestors probably existed in this state nearly all of time. Their life and their sensory relationship with the more than human world of animals, rivers, wind, rocks and trees would have been completely inseparable. They were part of this greater whole, and living in the world absolutely required living in an embodied state.
Any activity which requires us to be both physically active and sensitive can help us to cultivate and deepen this organic intelligence and to deepen our trust in it. Hiking is one of my favorite ways to do this. Long before I discovered yoga or meditation, I used to spend a lot of time hiking with a good friend. We enjoyed going out to the forest late at night, and to walk along the forest trails without the use of any light to guide us. We would use other abilities aside from our vision to feel the forest and navigate through it without stumbling or falling. It is a skill which develops very easily and quickly, once one surrenders to the innate capabilities of the human body. Sometimes one of us would break into an spontaneous run, and the other would attempt to keep up and follow, somehow navigating all of the hidden obstacles, and making lightning fast bodily decisions as each rock, tree, twist or turn suddenly presented itself. Things would happen much too quickly for the analytical conscious mind to make decisions. It was purely the organic instinctive body intelligence which would lead the way.
I was reminded of this wonderful kind of experience a couple of weeks ago as I was descending through the forest trail after climbing Gunung Abang here in Bali. The trail is narrow and steep, and full of large rocks, tree roots and erosion ditches. I had been walking down fairly slowly, carefully scanning the ground and placing my feet in the appropriate places. After reaching a particularly steep section, the stress of continuing to move slowly and carefully seemed to be too much, so I broke into a bit of a run, and then just kept going. I picked up speed and suddenly my body was flying down the trail, with that familiar experience of having to make lightning fast decisions as each rock, tree, ditch or turn in the trail presented itself. There was a great sense of freedom in letting go of the stress of calculating each and every movement, and just surrendering into the instinctive organic reactions of the body to guide the way as I sped down. Even though any wrong move at that speed could have led to serious injury, my confidence in and surrender to the organic intelligence of my body made me certain that I would be fine. It was a far more uplifting and liberating way to experience the descent.
When watching a master musician perform, one can get the sense that the same thing is happening. Things are happening far too quickly for the performer to be calculating or analyzing the notes or strokes or various techniques that they are applying. If one watches and listens with an open mind, one can literally feel the embodied state of the performer as they drop into their own organic intelligence and allow the body and sound to flow spontaneously.
I love to watch the bats around my house at sunrise and sunset. They move with such lightning speed and precision as they catapult themselves around, catching insects to eat and avoiding obstacles. Occasionally, they will fly into my open house and effortlessly zoom around, seeking their prey, and avoiding all the walls, pillars, roof, floor (and me!). Sometimes one will fly straight at me, and I will instinctively duck down, even though I know there is no chance of it hitting me. The amazing thing is that bats do not use sight at all. They feel their environment through echolocation – emitting high frequency sounds, and then navigating with their sensitive ears, according to the pattern of those sound waves bouncing off the objects around them. When I watch them, it absolutely blows my mind to witness the stunning organic intelligence and precision that nature has endowed these creatures with.
In Ashtanga Vinyasa asana practice, the technique of moving the body and breath with vinyasa allows us to access the deepest and subtlest layer of somatic movement, which is that of bandha. Bandha will not be readily accessed by most other forms of embodied activity, such as hiking, sports, playing music, etc. Accessing the physical state of bandha in body and breath takes us to a much deeper place of embodiment and organic intelligence, and hence awakens perhaps as yet untapped layers of the human potential in this realm. Similarly, in meditation techniques which focus on embodiment, if we can sit still in a well aligned posture where bandha is present, and we train the mind to feel the subtlest sensations in the deepest layers of organic tissue, we also access untapped layers of the human potential. Many people tend to focus on the idea of these techniques leading us to altered states of consciousness. I prefer to think of them as leading us to much deeper states of embodiment and a very effective deepening of our organic intelligence.
These techniques will not automatically accomplish this for everyone. Intention must be there. Those who practice yoga and/or meditation from a place of dogma, and who constantly impose these ideologies onto their actual practice, will only end up objectifying and vilifying their physical body and their organic intelligence. Those who view the body as something that is “lower” or an “obstacle” that needs to be overcome through rigorous practice will certainly not become more embodied or sensitive through their practices. These practitioners usually end up creating more dissonance in their relationship with their own bodies and mistrust or even disdain for their organic intelligence. They often display a lack of self-trust, a lack of self-love, and a lack of true self-understanding. When they discuss their practices, it will always be in the language of dogma and striving, and never in the language of felt, personal experience. I see many devout yoga and meditation practitioners who dutifully and devotedly recite their prayers and mantras before and after their practices, yet when I observe their actual practice, I see no sensitivity, trust or faith in themselves, in their body, or to the actual technique they are practicing. The practice becomes a way to further mistrust the body and to give their power away to an idea. These same practitioners will usually display very little sensitivity in their daily lives. Rather than using the practices to increase somatic sensitivity and awareness, the practices are used to distance themselves from their own organic experience, while they overlay the ideas of the dogma they are following onto the body.
Whether or not one finds meaning in the philosophies and dogmas connected to the practices, I feel the most important thing is to approach the practices with an intention to become more embodied, and with an intention to surrender to the instinctive organic intelligence that lies within the physical tissues and nerves. This ultimately leads to self-trust, self-love and an embracing of the organic animal intelligence of our human heritage. If the practices are to help make us “whole”, then we need to bring this long neglected and forgotten aspect of being human back into our way of being. Once we learn to love and trust ourselves as the animals that we are, we can then relearn how to love and respect the rest of the planet earth, which we are inseparably a part of, and which we rely on for our own survival and longevity as a species.
Returning to the wholeness of a hunter gatherer existence is not feasible for the human race. We have forsaken our roots long ago, and there is no turning back now. And, there have been many beautiful and wonderful ideas that have developed in the past 10 000 years of human culture which we cannot and should not forsake. I think the issue facing us now, is to understand that we have strayed too far from our roots, to the degree that wholeness and longevity are no longer possible in the state we currently exist, both as a species as a whole in our current position on the planet, and as individuals in the state of consciousness that our modern, manufactured reality has promoted. What is required is a radical shift in perception, and I believe that shift must involve reincorporating our organic, animal intelligence back into our way of living and being. I view effective embodiment practices such as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and Vipassana Meditation as being excellent tools to aid in this process, if we choose to use them in this way.
Interview with Iain Grysak about this article:
Thank you to visionary artist Edward Foster, for allowing me to reproduce images of his beautiful paintings for this article. When I was searching online for a supporting image for this article, I came across his paintings and spent quite a bit of time on his website admiring his works.
The title “Becoming Animal” is borrowed from the excellent and recommended book of the same title by cultural ecologist David Abram
Thank you to KPJAYI authorized level 2 Ashtanga teacher Greg Steward of Ashtanga Vidya in Seoul for taking the time to edit and offer valuable suggestions on the first draft of this article. Many of my articles are also translated into Korean and published on his website.
Thank you to Francesca d’Errico for translating this article into Italian. The Italian translation can be found on Francesca’s blog