Whether rounds of sun salutations, or the number of breaths, or how long you inhale, exhale, or retain, chances are that counting plays a role in your yoga practice.
Some people use their fingers to keep track, some count out loud, some count in their heads, some just trust the teacher to do the counting, and some are the teacher doing the counting.
Different traditions have different styles:
Ashtanga yogis hold each pose for five breaths, no more, no less.
In alternate nostril breathing, the exhalation is usually double the length of the inhalation. Inhale four, exhale eight. Inhale five, exhale 10. And then you must count how long you hold the breath. A common ratio is 1:4:2—so if you inhale for four, you hold the breath for the count of 16. Your eyes are closed, your mind is alert. You might be reaching altered states of consciousness, but you’re still counting.
Magic numbers abound, applied with dogmatic faith, 108 being the most auspicious. Any multiples of nine have their power as well, or so we’re told.
But what if we repeat a mantra only 107 times? Or maybe 109? What if we inhale on four and exhale on 10? Will the world fall apart? Will the techniques fail to work?
I try to get away at least once a year for a 10 day vipassana meditation retreat, to boost my practice and recharge my batteries, and to look deeper within. The most recent retreat I attended was in Kathmandu.
It’s a lovely centre, up on a hill, right beside a forest reserve, overlooking the Kathmandu valley. This was my twelfth 10-day course, so I knew what to expect. But the golden rule in yoga or meditation—or at least one of them—is no expectations.
What happened was something I didn’t expect.
The mind turns in on itself, which is pretty much the point of a meditation retreat, but sometimes it gets involved in strange and bizarre behaviour. After a couple of days I started counting. At first I wasn’t even aware I was doing it, it was just there in the background. But soon it became louder and started to override everything.
I counted each breath, each inhalation, and exhalation. Those of you who practice vipassana will know this is not part of the technique. During free time, I walked and found myself counting each step. At meal time I counted how many times I chewed.
It wasn’t deliberate—I just couldn’t stop. I counted anything that could be counted, the number of tiles on the floor, the number of windows, the number of doors I had to pass to make my way to my meditation cell in the pagoda.
Every time I became aware I was doing it, I tried to stop. But soon the counting just started up again.
At first I was vaguely amused at my mind churning up this incessant flow of numbers, but after a few days it became overwhelming. I started to panic. What if I had somehow broken my brain and would never stop counting again?
I went to the teacher and explained my predicament, expecting and receiving the standard response—”just observe.”
So I observed. But I also tried to understand why. I’m not particularly mathematically inclined, numbers hold no fascination for me. As I tried to figure it out, pun intended, it came to me that in my daily life I actually spend a lot of time counting.
Like many readers of this journal, I teach. I start every morning with my mind a blank slate and teach half an hour of pranayama, counting out loud, counting each inhalation, each exhalation, counting, counting, counting. Then later in asana class I’m counting as well—how long any posture is held, or how many rounds of sun salutation.
I realized that by starting each morning this way I was embedding this counting habit deep into my mind, so it was normal that my mind entered that groove. This came as a sort of an “aha!” moment, or maybe as more of a “duh!”
As soon as I figured out the cause of this frustrating behaviour the counting just stopped and I was able to finish the meditation retreat without any more counting. But it set me thinking about obsessive behaviour—because it was obsessive.
Full blown OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) is debilitating. People who suffer from the condition find it very hard to cope. They can observe and understand their behaviour as irrational but they are powerless to change. Their rituals must be respected—the hands washed in a certain way, often uncoincidentally combined with counting. This applies to brushing teeth as well.
Cleansing rituals are essential for sufferers of OCD and they must be performed precisely. Any mistake invalidates the whole thing and they have to go back to the beginning and start again. Their lives become a series of rituals—which leg goes in the trousers first, which shoe is put on first. The order of dressing must always be the same.
When we start to look at the yoga tradition through this lens, we can see some similarities. Cleansing rituals? Check. I start every day with my neti pot, and that’s probably the mildest of all the kriyas.
The standard advice for building up a meditation practice is always sit in the same place, at the same time, use the same cushion, even face a certain direction. There are lots of rules. And if we don’t follow them exactly, what happens?
We might think it’s not worth taking the chance to find out, we trust the teachings—after all there must be some valid reason? We can easily finding ourselves building our routine into something precise and rigid. The exact number of sun-salutations, the exact same asanas, in the exact same order, held for exactly the same time, a precise number of breaths, relaxing and rotating consciousness, following the exact same order.
There’s more than a little OCD going on here.
One thing it seems to be about is control. Another is validation. When we know exactly how many times we should do something and we do it—then things are under control. We have performed whatever exactly as prescribed. Pat on the back, you’re following the rules, you’re playing the game, you’re walking the path.
Another important aspect, never to be underestimated, is that the mind likes routines. It feels reassured by routines, and when the mind is reassured it can become calm, and when we are calm we can focus more sharply and go deeper into the practice.
As with everything in life, there are pros and cons. The reassurance of rituals and ritualized behaviour can help us to still the mind, but there’s a line where obsessive behaviour becomes more a hindrance than a help.
If your peace of mind depends on repeating that mantra an exact number of times, and no more or no less, then maybe that’s something worth examining. We don’t get extra points for counting, or holding the breath a precise number of seconds—yoga doesn’t work like that.
So next time you’re counting, or find yourself counting, bear in mind that it’s just a means to an end.