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

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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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anonymous 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.


anonymous Feb 27, 2013 5:17am

[…] a Vinyasa back into Downward Facing […]

anonymous 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

    anonymous Feb 28, 2013 5:07pm

    8 seconds per breath? Ugh. That would be tough. Definitely straight to the core!:)

anonymous Nov 19, 2012 4:17pm

It was great to find this article as I searched for some clarity on the tempo of the vinyasa count. I've seen so many different paces of practice…it seems to fluctuate with the instructor's own personal "tempo". I like the four count per breath…it jibes with me as a musician. I recently have started introducing this "matched breathing" in my led classes during the first sun salutations. I don't want to torture my students with my own obsessiveness, but I do feel that it's an important and worthy exercise to illuminate our own habitual shortening or lengthening of certain vinyasa.

anonymous Nov 15, 2012 6:16am

[…] drives the ever repeating cycle of the breath, it has a major role in helping you understand vinyasa. When you study the diaphragm you study vinyasa from a central vantage point; through breathing you […]

anonymous Oct 3, 2012 8:49am

Thanks for this article! Why 4 seconds and not 3 or 5?

    anonymous Feb 28, 2013 5:05pm

    4 seconds was mostly an arbitrary choice. 3 sec felt too short, and 5 felt too long. Duration and intensity of breath are probably determined by lung size and depth of practice, i.e. unique for every practitioner.

anonymous Aug 25, 2012 1:17pm

[…] Correct Vinyasa: It’s Really, Really F*cking Hard. […]

anonymous May 30, 2012 12:59pm

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

anonymous Apr 22, 2012 6:46pm

thanks for sharing! its good to know that other people also do that as i felt like beeing a bit too perfectionstic using a metronom. i use a metronom that u can listen to online for free with one beat per second. i do 2 sec inhale and 2 sec exhale and in some difficult poses only one sec trying to lengthen the breath over time. and in the finishing poses i lengthen the breath more. i like the metronom because it brings me back to the present moment and deepens my concentration. it helps to make the inhalation as long as the exhalation which i find important too. trying to remain a steady cognitiv stream of accurate counting helps me to register when my thoughts go in other directions and realising when my breath becomes short helps to notice when i m too deep in a posture or just not relaxed anymore.

anonymous Apr 16, 2012 3:17am

I just did your full primary MP3 and was very humbled by how much harder every single pose was with proper breath count (just when I was starting to actually enjoy navasana)! You managed to kick my ass all the way over here in Jerusalem. Thanks for your authenticity and intensity.

    anonymous Feb 28, 2013 4:57pm

    Awesome to know I can have an effect all the way over in Jerusalem! xo

anonymous Apr 6, 2012 5:56am

I do not think this is taking an idea too far. In fact, I think that breath elongation and mastering is FAR more important that entering an asana in one single breath. Or staying there 5 breaths.
When I do the primary series (not often I admit) I also try and keep a 4 sec length for both inhale and exhale. It has an incredibly relaxing effect. The best of the best is to ensure you complete the breaths, in the sense of cherishing that little spontaneous hold that happens at the end of inhale and exhale, without hurrying to the next asana. It changes the practice completely. I am not necessarily talking about ashtanga vinyasa but any personal practice.
I could even recommend that you try and make your exhale slightly longer, and even that you try and increase the inhale and exhale length to 6 sec. This is apparently the best physiological breath ration (4-5 breaths/minute) to induce relaxation effects, although I admit it is pretty hard during such an intense practice as ashtanga. But for any other vinyasa, especially vinyasa krama, or viniyoga, just try! and you will see what I mean.

anonymous Apr 3, 2012 7:46am

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

anonymous Apr 2, 2012 7:33am

Great article! It would be pure stumble hell to 'attempt' to hold Utthita Hasta Padangustasana for this amount of time. Kudos to you my friend for such an honest and wonderfully written piece…

anonymous Mar 31, 2012 9:29am

[…] but it is, I suppose, worth noting when similar ideas bubble up in our virtually connected world. Link for those […]

anonymous Mar 31, 2012 12:09am

I once tried to set my practice to the beat of a metronome. And I'm glad to know that 1. I'm not the only insane person to have tried to math the inhale with the exhale, and 2. I'm not the only insane person to find that it was really fucking hard.
I think I went crazy after 1 Surya Namaskar A.

I laughed because I still often come to my mat with the attitude that if it took 1 person 3 years to 'master such and such,' it'll only take me a month….hah. All ego, but an ego I can definitely laugh at.

    anonymous Mar 31, 2012 10:57am

    Yes, I agree that the whole metronome/breath really is taking an idea too far. But it is definitely interesting, and provides such a great screen against which we can watch the ego squirm.

anonymous Mar 30, 2012 3:31pm

This is great. Thank you, Robson!

anonymous Mar 30, 2012 12:05pm

Awesome article. The Primary Series is so incredibly humbling. Any given practice features so many aspects I can't get to – but the thing I really appreciate about Ashtanga is that the ideal is presented and kept in mind. It's by no means demanded of the practitioner, but it's part of our awareness.

    anonymous Mar 31, 2012 10:53am

    Thanks for commenting Andy. Yes, trying to maintain the ideal in the Sadhana, for 1.5 hours or so, is great Dharana, but we have to actively strive for it.

anonymous Mar 30, 2012 11:36am

"In Ashtanga we work at our personal edge every day. That work is to balance sincere effort with ease and surrender."

I think the beauty of this idea captures very simply why it is that both Guruji and Sharath are famous for remarking that the only person who cannot take practice is a lazy one.

Posting to Elephant Ashtanga. Be sure to Like Elephant Ashtanga on Facebook.

    anonymous Mar 31, 2012 10:49am

    That's exactly it, Thaddeus. It took me a long time to understand "Only a lazy man cannot practice."

anonymous Mar 30, 2012 6:22am

[…] David Robsonの短いエッセイが、ちょっと響いた。–david-rob… I don’t think it really makes a difference if I manage to bind Marichyasana D in one breath or […]

anonymous Mar 30, 2012 12:58am

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anonymous Mar 29, 2012 1:45pm

I appreciate this honest article. I blogged a bit about my experience as a struggling practitioner today because of it.

    anonymous Mar 31, 2012 10:49am

    Hi Idas. Thanks for reading, and I'm happy to see you starting a daily practice at AYCT!

anonymous Mar 29, 2012 12:17pm

[…] Robson of Toronto features twice this week. First up, an interview he did in Portugal and then a blog post which he wrote for elephant journal on correct vinyasa and the variation of the length of the […]

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