Names and numbers are important. The Sanskrit word ‘Ashtanga’ refers to the eight limbs or components of yoga described in The Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali. John Scott tells of Pattabhi Jois calling Ashtanga Yoga a ‘counted method’, and even the name ‘Ashtanga Yoga’ has a number in it!
The fourth limb is given as prāṇāyāma, which can be translated as the practice of breathing exercises. The building blocks of pranayama are puraka (inhalation), rechaka (exhalation) and kumbhaka (breath retention). John Scott teaches a pranayama technique of twelve exhalation-inhalation breaths and uses a counting technique based on the fingers of one hand, which is also described by T.K.V. Desikachar in his book The Heart of Yoga. The four fingers of a hand contain twelve bones, and the thumb can trace a spiral round from the base of the index finger to count each breath.
Counting, breathing, moving. The union of body, and breath, and mind into a single focus. Continuing this focus of the senses for a single full breath of unbroken concentration lasting twelve seconds. Repeating for twelve breaths, taking us to the edge of meditation. Then perhaps repeating this twelve times over, leading into total, perfect absorption. Stillness. Equanimity. All this bringing together the limbs of Ashtanga Yoga into a practice we can do anywhere.
In our November ‘Monthly Primary Series’ class at Whitespace Yoga & Wellbeing Studio, we practiced counting twelve breaths and looked at how this mindfulness can be carried into our practice.
The next ‘Monthly Primary Series’ class is on Saturday 12 December and there is regular Ashtanga self-practice and led-practice every Sunday.
At times, the discipline of a yoga practice can be a struggle. It’s easy to forget this in a world of rainbow-coloured unicorns and perfect handstands on Instagram. If a yoga practice is indeed ‘practicing for life’, practicing skills on the mat that we can take off the mat, then a yoga practice should at times be a struggle, it should require effort, it should be hard. How that struggle manifests itself for any individual will be different, we all have our own demons, but building a sustainable yoga practice gives the personal space in which to identify and confront those demons.
In our October ‘Monthly Primary Series’ class at Whitespace Yoga & Wellbeing Studio, we looked at sūtra 1.12 of Patañjali’s Yoga Sūtras. This line begins a group of five sūtras that introduce the ‘how’ of a yoga practice. Two elements are identified: abhyāsa and vairāgya.
The Sanskrit word ‘abhyāsa’ is often translated to English as ‘practice’, and challenges us to cultivate a consistent practice over our entire life. An individual personal practice. One of persistent effort in our actions, our speech, our thoughts. A practice that leads to stillness, stability, tranquility, equanimity. One that builds positive patterns in our life, in good times and in bad, in times of struggle and in times of ease. Never give up.
This practice works together with ‘vairāgya’, meaning ‘non-attachment’. Letting go of aversions and fears, understanding the need to practice without attachment to the outcome. Seeing the negative patterns in our life, both the conscious and unconscious ones. Always let go.
We all have patterns in our lives, some we see clearly and others are deeply buried. Our unconscious mind, our automatic associations, attitudes and beliefs, influence what we perceive as conscious, rational decisions. These deep biases are the lenses through which our perceptions our filtered. The ‘IAT’ Implicit Association Tests developed by Harvard University measure attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable acknowledge conciously, such as biases on age, race, and gender.
The balance between practice and non-attachment given in sūtra 1.12 is sharply focused in an Ashtanga Yoga ‘led’ class, in which all the movements, the vinyasas, are counted out loud and everyone practicing follows along together. The effort of these classes is high, it’s easy to get too caught-up in the energy of the group, to lose ourselves in the practice and at the same time we’re challenged to let go of our own pace, let go of attachment to achieving a particular posture, a specific form. Find the balance.
The next ‘Monthly Primary Series’ class is on Saturday 14 November and there is regular Ashtanga self-practice and led-practice every Sunday.
When I first started practicing yoga asana, in standing forward bends I couldn’t touch the floor. Sometimes it still feels like I can’t move forward at all. However, when I look back, things have changed. It just takes a little time.
In Sanskrit, the seated forward bend practiced in the Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series is named paścimottānāsana. A literal translation to English of ‘paścima’ is west or back of the body. If I am standing facing the sunrise in the morning, then the front of my body is facing east and the back of my body is facing west, and so this forward fold that stretches the back of the body is the ‘western stretch’. This name doesn’t mention folding forwards, it’s all about the back of the body. I believe that’s helpful, to get inside forward bends we need to look at the entire back of the body, from head to toe.
There is a direct connective tissue relationship from the bottom of our feet to the top of our head. You can feel this in the body. One example is if you sit on the floor with your legs directly out in front, point your feet away from the shins, and then flex your feet with your toes towards the shins. Notice the changes in sensation down the back of the calves, knees, thighs and maybe even up into the seat and lower back.
In our September ‘Monthly Primary Series’ class at Whitespace Yoga & Wellbeing Studio, we looked at the anatomy and techniques involved in safe and effective forward folding. Exploring an understanding of the anatomy and having an intention in forward folding of more than just bending at the middle of the body.
Within the Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series there is a lot of forward bending. The second vinyasa movement of the practice is a standing forward fold and this is just the beginning. Asana by asana the intensity and emphasis of the forward folding develops through the Primary Series, allowing us to explore the sensation of asking the back of our body to stretch in different ways: with different relationships to gravity and to the floor, different foundations, different use of the feet, the arms and shoulders, different rotations of the hip joint, different relationships of the femur into the pelvis, sometimes with symmetry and sometimes asymmetry. This also highlights how the relationship between postures is not always consecutive with standing postures early in the practice having a relationship with seated postures much later on.
The next ‘Monthly Primary Series’ class is on Saturday 10 October and there is regular Ashtanga self-practice and led-practice every Sunday.
There are many ways to find happiness, but I believe part of the equation is to include moments of ‘flow’ in our lives. We’ve probably all experienced them. When you know what to do and how to do it, you know where to go and what’s coming next, the challenge is high but you know you have the skills, you’re free from distraction and can focus completely.
There are many ways we can train our minds to access this state. Some people do when they run or swim, climbing, perhaps at work, or perhaps on the yoga mat.
For me, a key principal of a yoga practice is to use it as a tool for reflection, for self analysis, and having models to inform this aspect is very helpful. One model I use is the ‘flow model’, described by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Working to train the mind to experience ‘flow’ during asana practice, sensing when we need to switch to ‘arousal’ as we learn a new skill, noticing if we’re too in ‘control’ and not being challenged, and then consciously moving to ‘relaxation’ when taking rest after practice.
And if anyone says a whiteboard isn’t a good yoga prop, send them to see me!
Sri K Pattabhi Jois was born on the full moon of July 1915 in Kowshika, 150 kilometers from Mysore in India. Today is the hundredth anniversary of his birth. I never met Pattabhi Jois, but his teachings have changed my life.
Pattabhi Jois had already been teaching in Mysore for many years by the time the first westerners visited in the mid-1960s. In 1973 he was invited to teach in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and then the following year to Encinitas, California USA. His teaching of the Ashtanga Yoga method continues to resonate with people around the world.
In our July ‘Monthly Primary Series’ class at Whitespace Yoga & Wellbeing Studio, we got a flavour of what it would have been like to practice with Pattabhi Jois, by practicing to a recording of his ‘count’.
Students of Ashtanga Yoga learn sequences of breath-linked movements, taking the body through a memorised pattern. To help remember these sequences, each one has a ‘count’, a way of enumerating the movements, remembering each breath, giving the mind an anchor as the body and breath flow. In a traditional group guided ‘led’ class, the teacher counts these movements out loud and everyone follows the rhythm.
There is beauty in this method, in just moving, breathing, counting. It’s so simple but infinitely complex.
I never met Pattabhi Jois, but his teachings have changed my life. And I am eternally grateful to him and to everyone who has passed these teachings on.
(Photograph of Sri K Pattabhi Jois © Graeme Montgomery/Guardian 2009)
The Ashtanga Yoga method contains many tools to help build a practice of yoga. One of the tools is the counting of the breaths and movements in the practice—the counting of the vinyasa. For me, in my own practice, counting vinyasa gives a structure and regularity to the movements. It’s the plan, the pattern to follow and the pattern to build from if I need to adapt the flow. Counting gives a predictability to the practice, a consistency, and helps me let go of what is coming next. After one is always two; after two is always three. Ekam, dve, trīṇi.
The count of vinyasa is also a key, a shorthand, with each number representing all the detail of each movement. In my practice, when I count ‘ekam’ in my mind, it is shorthand for all I have been taught about that movement, every time my teacher has adjusted me, each detail I remember of the technique. But it also reminds me to approach the movement like it’s the first time again—there is always a new lesson to learn. Ekam, dve, trīṇi.
In meditation and mindfulness practices, counting breaths is often used as a way to bring focus to the mind. The counting of vinyasa in an Ashtanga Yoga practice can be used in the same way. If ever I feel distracted during practice, coming back to the count brings the whole world back to a place where I feel just a little bit more in control, where things are simpler, clearer. Stilling the fluctuations of the mind. Ekam, dve, trīṇi.
This year marks the centenary of the birth of Pattabhi Jois and in the ‘Monthly Primary Series’ classes at Whitespace Yoga & Wellbeing Studio we are celebrating this anniversary. In the 1962 book ‘Yoga Mala‘, the first thing Pattabhi Jois writes about each asana is the number of vinyasa. It’s that fundamental.
Utkatasana. There are thirteen vinyasas in Utkatasana; the 7th vinyasa is its state.
Virabhadrasana. There are sixteen vinyasas to this asana, of which the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th are the states of the asana.
Paschimattanasana. There are sixteen vinyasas to this asana. The 9th is its state.
In our April class we spent extra time looking in detail at the vinyasa count and focused on a sequence of three adjacent asana in the primary series: utkaṭāsana, vīrabhadrāsana and paścimottānāsana. Everyone learnt the full traditional count of each of these asana in turn, from samasthitiḥ to samasthitiḥ. We then looked at how these separate asana can be brought together in a linked sequence as more often experienced within the primary series. Finally we practiced these three asana as an integrated part of a primary series practice.
May’s class is on 9 May 2015 and we will be looking at why Ashtanga Yoga is ‘hard’, focusing on simply moving and breathing.
(Drawing of Sūryanamaskāra A © John Scott 1993)