March 29, 2012

Correct Vinyasa: It’s Really, Really F*cking Hard. ~ David Robson

Photo credit: EK Park

I’ve just recorded an MP3 of the Ashtanga Primary Series, set to the beat of a drum. The drum provides a measure for each breath: four seconds for the inhalation, four seconds for the exhalation.

I made this recording as an experiment. My teacher, Sharath Jois, says when we practice the breath, it should be even; inhalations and exhalations should be the same duration and intensity. In order to experience even breaths throughout the practice, I recorded Ashtanga’s traditional vinyasa count along to the drum. And, finally, after practicing along with the recording, here’s what I have learned: It’s really, really fucking hard.

The drum revealed that I lengthen some breaths and shorten others, I take extra breaths getting in and out of poses, and the vinyasa count is, in parts, almost impossible to match. I can’t do the whole Primary Series along the with the correct vinyasa count if the breaths are even. And I’m not referring to just the notoriously difficult poses and transitions, like Marichyasana D, or Supta Kurmasana; Utthita Hasta Padangustasana nearly killed me.

Does this mean that I’m doing the practice wrong? 

I don’t think it really makes a difference if I manage to bind Marichyasana D in one breath or not. On the days when I do get into the pose in one breath, I don’t feel any more enlightened—skinnier maybe, but no wiser. In fact, more struggle often seems to create an opportunity for more mindfulness. My practice is just as often about the discrepancies in the vinyasa as much as it is the times I actually match the count. Both experiences are mired in citta, and can provide the same opportunities for observation and non-attachment.

However, while I don’t have to be able to do floating jump backs, or get into Marichyasana D in one breath to gain the benefits of the practice, I do have to try as hard as I can—whether I can do it or not, the vinyasa count does matter. The count keeps me focused on the breath and in the present moment. And it is only by striving to match the vinyasa that the deep, internal heat of tapas, and its corresponding purification, will come.

In Ashtanga we work at our personal edge every day. That work is to balance sincere effort with ease and surrender. The vinyasa frames our experience during practice, limiting our focus to the prescribed breath and movement. But we also need to apply non-attachment, vairagya, to the experiences that practice yields.

I believe that the unattainable quality of the vinyasa count and the never-ending difficulty of the poses are designed to cultivate softness as much as strength. We need the ideal, the strong rules of the practice to direct and focus our energy. And we also need to accept the results of our efforts, whatever they are, with equanimity. When both sincere effort and non-attachment are present in our practice, correct vinyasa might just happen.

Read more:

Guaranteed Transformation – If You Want It.

Yoga DVD Review: Learn to Float.

My Sadhana Is Taking Over My Life.

David Robson is the co-owner and director of the Ashtanga Yoga Centre of Toronto. With 100+ students each morning, he leads one of the world’s largest Mysore programs. After completing degree in Comparative Religion, David made his first trip to Mysore, India in 2002, where he initiated studies with his teacher Sharath Jois. Since then he has returned annually to deepen and enrich his practice and teaching. David teaches workshops and retreats around the world, and he recently released a popular DVD on vinyasa, Learn To Float. He is Level-2 Authorized by the Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute.

Bio photo credit: José Sarmento de Matos.


Editor: Tanya L. Markul

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Scott Chisman Jul 10, 2015 8:27am

I admire Ashtanga Yogis. I admire them for their unparalleled dedication and relentless pursuit of the extreme yoga asanas.

Ashtanga was my first yoga, and I became certified as an Ashtanga instructor. I am a student of the Yoga Sutra of Patanjali and practice the eight limbs of yoga called “Ashtanga”. However; the term was co-opted by Pattabi Jois and made synonymous with the set of sequences which he defined, thanks to various texts such as the yoga korunta and yoga pradipika.

We find in LA studios this myth that there is a “correct way” to do a “Vinyasa”. Actually vinyasa is a sanskrit term that means the stringing of sequences of poses together with the breath. But “Vinyasa” has been used most often to the sequence of chatturanga, udrva mukha svanasana, and adho mukha svanasana. There has come this politically correct method of this sequences of poses with the knees off of the floor, the plank only descending until the arms are at 90 degrees with the elbows inward, etc. Whatever. Plop on the deck if you need. Try to keep your elbows in. Don’t worry about your knees. Let your body find its form in time. Rather concentrate on the entire body and the breath, and the fluid motion of the poses like a creature of the sea or something. I believe that is most important.

Realize that there are differing opinions on the “correct” up dog as well. Ashtanga teaches that the drishti is into the navel, while more common schools seem more concerned with achieving this perfect alignement and lengthened form. And that reminds me of why I love Ashtanga – because I learned that the five uindamentals of Asana are Mudhra, Drishti, Bandhas, Pranayama, and Vinyasa.


Sissy Karydi Feb 12, 2013 1:37pm

David , i found this article really really interesting and very much into my own thoughts about the breathing and the practice. Lately i came to the same conclusion that i don't have the same counting in my vinyasas and i tried for couple of practices to go into a counting of 8, of course no need to say that took me 2 hours without the finishing to do the primaries…but what i noticed it was that my practice was softer and more liberated. the drum rhythm with the count of 4 seems also challenging and a great idea! I was very inspired from this experiment and i think is a great way to drive your attention right to the core of the practice!!
All the very best
Aum Shanti

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