An airplane’s flight and an ashtangi’s float

I was watching Man Vs. Wild the other night and a Delta Airlines commercial came up. I wasn’t even paying attention to what was on the screen, but one of the lines I heard from the commercial caught my attention: “If you run before the wind, you can’t take off.”

I teach up to four Ashtanga classes every week, which means I am verbally cueing a lot of float-throughs — going from adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog) to a seated position — so I think about that float-through journey quite a bit. When I heard this random line from the commercial, I suddenly started paying attention because I thought that it might be a fitting analogy for Ashtanga vinyasa float-throughs. Although Ashtanga yoga can be made accessible for everyone, there’s no question that it’s extremely challenging. And within this practice, the float-through or jump-through can be one of the hardest aspects for new and veteran students alike.

So, inspired by this ad (?!), I decided to break down how I think it relates to floating through in Ashtanga. Here’s what the narrator says in this black-and-white commercial:

What does it take to fly? It takes knowing we have our work cut out for us. Flying brings more challenges every day. But if you ask any of the pilots who work here, they’ll say one of the first things they learned in flight school is that if you run before the wind, you can’t take off. You’ve got to turn into it — face it. The thing you push against is the thing that lifts you up.

How can this imagery be applied to the ashtanga float-through?

What does it take to fly? It takes knowing we have our work cut out for us.

The first step to floating is to understand that it takes a lot of practice. In many cases — my own practice included — years of trying. Not weeks, not months — years. It took me longer to learn how to float through than it did to get through my undergraduate and graduate studies. I think one of the most important lessons we get from Ashtanga yoga is that we need both short-term and long-term patience. It’s not a cliche to say that with this practice, it is about the journey, and not the destination.

Flying brings more challenges every day.

After we find our float-through, then what? It’s just more work, because when we do unlock our personal mystery of how to find this yogic flight pattern, the journey continues to challenges us. Then it becomes about refinement of bandhas (the energy locks employed in Ashtanga yoga) and refinement of form.

…if you run before the wind, you can’t take off.

Here we get to mechanics. As we learn the jump through, we really need to focus on what the hips and core are doing, and how the breath factors into that.

This is what has worked for me. In downward-facing dog, check in and make sure your energetic locks are engaged (mula bandha and uddiyana bandha) by lifting up on the pelvic floor and spiraling that energy through the low belly. (Bandha interlude: If you practice Ashtanga, you know that figuring out bandhas can take years — decades even. David Williams says in his interview in Guruji: A Portrait of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Through the Eyes of His Students that it took him 10 years to understand mula bandha. My latest eight-word summary of these two energetic locks? Bringing buoyancy to  the base of the spine.) Inhale length into the spine. On the exhalation, bend the legs as if your lower body were a wind-up toy. Look far forward — very, very far forward — and on the inhale, ride the air current of your breath to float your body through.

British yoga instructor John Scott — who came to yoga by way of golf — offers a beautiful breakdown of the floating-through process in his book Ashtanga Yoga. I found an excerpt of this part of Scott’s book, but I truly hope that you buy the book or buy the video rather than rely on this excerpt. For one thing, there’s the whole yogic concept of asteya. For another, they are excellent resources.

You’ve got to turn into it — face it. The thing you push against is the thing that lifts you up.

The breath is what literally keeps us alive. And yet most of us go through the day without breathing to capacity — holding our breath, even, when challenge strikes, as if that will somehow help us get through adversity. For the Ashtanga float-through, become your breath — that wind will carry you farther than you thought possible.

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