Why does the breath and the count matter?
Written by Tanya Rajfeld, July 2017
Why do we practice yoga?
There are many reasons people practice yoga, for some it is about promoting a sense of well-being, stretching their limbs or a way of reducing stress; for others it is to find a far more innate connection to a deeper part of themselves.
I remember the very first time I practiced Ashtanga Vinyasa, in a Mysore room I had gone on holiday to Sri Lanka in 2007 and had randomly booked a week with an Ashtanga Yoga teacher called Anthony Carlisle or “Prem.” I later found out that Prem was one of the first western sets of yoga teachers to go to Mysore to practice and learn with Pattabhi Jois, the main founder of this style of practice. I had been dabbling with yoga on and off for years, practising mainly Iyengar and Hatha based yoga and had tried a few led classes of Ashtanga in my local gym. I had found it incredibly hard, but had somehow liked the challenge.
What I discovered on my first morning in Sri Lanka was that I was not in a led class but in a room of individuals practising on their own, deep in concentration, and all I could hear was the wispy sound of continuous Ujjay breathing. I felt slightly intimidated but was amazed at the level of concentration and focus in the room. Prem asked me about my practice and I realised very quickly that I was a complete beginner, not knowing that this was a set series called the Primary Series and that I needed to know the sequence. I was quickly given a piece of paper with the postures and spent the next week sweating and being guided with lots of help from Prem.
What I realised at the end of my week was that I had learnt so much, perhaps more than I had in my seven previous years of yoga practice. It was a humbling experience, as like an onion I had been stripped back, taking off several peels of the outer layer of the skin. I had sweated, cried, felt adulation and incredibly rested. It was utterly different from any of my other yoga experiences. I was hooked and a few years later I started to practice Ashtanga self practice or commonly known as "Mysore style" and have been practising ever since. What I discovered was the practice of yoga was far more than just a physical practice, it helped me tap into a deeper emotional and psychological level. To this day I find that Ashtanga grounds me, gives me clarity and is a practice the enables me to understand myself better.
What is the Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga system?
According to M, Stephens, (2010), Ashtanga means “eight limbs,” as in Patanjali’s eight-fold path outlined in the Yoga Sutras, but it is also the name of the yoga taught by Pattabhi Jois of Mysore, India. We are told it is an ancient system of practice written down in the Yoga Korunta, one of several texts said to have been transmitted orally between teachers in the early twentieth century. Jois’s version of the practice was first published in 1962 as Yoga Mala (Jois 2002).
Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga is traditionally taught in “Mysore style,” in which each student in a class moves through a sequence of poses on their own while the teacher gives individualised guidance with lots of hands on adjustments. The Primary Series, an intense series of postures also called yoga chikitsa, meaning “yoga therapy”, enables the body’s energy pathways (nadis) to open so prana can then flow throughout the body, ridding it of toxins and calming the nervous system. However as a beginner, there are many poses in the primary series that are considered advanced in other approaches but can be broken down and modified, conversely there are some easier poses.
Typically in each stage, the teacher moves the student on to the next posture only when they sense they are ready by checking their comfort and steadiness in a pose. There is a strong steady breath throughout the practice and often the student or the teacher counts each movement, to contain their focus. Ashtanga is the system of vinyasa and when practiced with correct method, is all about focusing and efficiently using energy. The vinyasa count is a vital part of this method. According to Emma Faesi Hudelson;
“it isn’t a conformist attempt at control. It’s a system for producing energy and focus”.
Why do we count in Ashtanga Vinyasa?
According to Patabi Jois, (2002), he called Ashtanga Yoga a "Mala", meaning set of beads. The vinyasas he described as the sacred beads, the asanas as flowers. He then went onto say that all are strung on the thread of the breath. It is therefore the breath that keeps the count, with each pose to be meditated on and counted before moving to the next. As the student of Ashtanga learns the choreography of the series, the counting becomes a mantra for their practice, providing more focus and mindfulness. The reason we count then in this method is because the count takes us inward.
How then does this deepen our practice?
Even though in the beginning it is often hard for students to connect breath with the count and they need to add extra breaths in between, there is an incredible value added to student’s practice as they listen to or add the count. It helps to give a sense of concentration (traditionally known as pratyahara, which is the 5th limb of yoga). By learning the correct count, we gain another tool for our own yoga practice and for our own meditative state that we aim to reach in our daily practice.
By learning and incorporating traditional count we also show respect for this sacred tradition. It teaches us focus and mindfulness that we can then apply when our minds start to wonder. What can follow is the experience of union and interconnectedness with breath, with ourselves, and the world around us.
Jois, K,P, (2002), Yoga Mala, St Martin's Press, New York
Stephens, M; (2010); Teaching of Yoga, Essential Yoga and Techniques, North Atlantic Books, Berkley, California.
Flynn, Kimberly. 2003. FAQ, http://www.ashtangayogashala.com.