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.
Since 1982, World Peace Day takes place annually on the 21 September and is a time dedicated to the absence of war and violence. It is supported by many nations, political organisations and military groups globally.
Yesterday, as part of this day, hundreds of people gathered in Trafalgar Square at the heart of London to meditate. The rain was coming down and, as I stood, slowly the square became quiet. Still. At first the noise of the traffic seemed loud, but then it also faded. It’s not that the noises stopped or were suppressed — meditation isn’t about suppressing anything — but as you take a step back from your own thoughts your attention shifts. The rain running down my face. The smell of incense from near by. My body breathing. Thoughts of family, of friends. Being in a silent crowd at Trafalgar Square before. Place. Time. Relationship. Change. Loss. Love. The rain stopped. A hint of blue-red sky as the sun was setting. And noise returned as people noticed a rainbow appear behind us.
Pattabhi Jois often talked about the importance of mental training in yoga and how the asanas will lead to a strong mind as well as a strong body. In March 2013 I attended a workshop with Greg Nardi at Stillpoint Yoga London that explored the practice of Ashtanga Yoga as a mindfulness technique: how the right attitude and focus are key to fulfilling the deeper wisdom of yoga and how the physical practice becomes a moving meditation.
Greg taught yoga philosophy and Sanskrit on my Teacher Training and he spent years of dedicated practice under the guidance of Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois in Mysore, India. Greg also participates in Georg Feuerstein’s Traditional Yoga Studies course and has studied with Vyaas Houston of the American Sanskrit Institute.