Rechaka, Puraka, Counting twelve breaths

Rechaka, Puraka, Counting twelve breaths

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 eight limbs of yogaThe 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.

Remembering Pattabhi Jois

Remembering Pattabhi Jois

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)