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.
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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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