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?
Each week, from Sunday to Friday, I get up at 3 am to do a two-hour long asana practice before going in to work.
Sometimes I’m so tired, later in the day, that I’ll actually fall asleep mid-conversation. To get enough sleep at night, I have to go to bed one hour later…than my 18-month-old son. When people hear about my schedule, they look at me like I’m crazy.
And maybe they’re right. I’m freely choosing to do something that limits my freedom. Why?
Because it’s my sadhana.
There is some contention around the idea of “traditional” Ashtanga.
Traditionalists would be the teachers and practitioners that follow the practice as it is taught in Mysore, India. We practice 6 days a week, with rest days on Saturdays and the days of the full and new moon. Practice is done “Mysore-style,” in a group setting.
In Ashtanga, we sweat a lot. Following the vinyasa system, we jump back and forth between postures and between sides. That creates a lot of heat. And then there’s the internal heat that we create with our breath. By controlling the inhalation and exhalation while we practice, making them long and even, we fan our internal, metabolic fire.
Guruji said that when we create this internal heat with our practice, we “boil the blood.” When the blood boils it becomes thin, allowing it to circulate more freely around the joints and to cleanse our organs.
I’m sending this post from Mysore, India, on my annual pilgrimage to study with my teacher, Sharath Jois at KPJAYI. This is my eighth trip to Mysore in the last nine years. I love it here. I get to focus on just being a student, and my body gets the chance to recuperate from all of the teaching I do in Toronto. Sunshine every day doesn’t hurt, either.
In Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, we practice a set series of postures. The poses are always done in a specific order. A student will practice up to the pose they have been given by their teacher. The teacher gives out the poses based on ability. Stopping at a particular pose isn’t a punitive decision by the teacher. It’s part of the technique of Ashtanga, and it allows our body to change and adapt safely to the rigours of the practice. However, this aspect of the practice can be a source of confusion and friction for some students, so I thought I would explain why we do it this way.
Each morning before beginning my practice, I recite the following chant. It begins:
vande gurunam caranaravindez
sandarsita svatma sukhava bodhe
I bow to the lotus feet of the gurus
The awakening happiness of one’s own Self revealed
Why do I open my practice with these lines? The clue lies in the concept of the "guru", or teacher.
When I was nine years old, I saw Indiana Jones and decided I wanted to be an archaeologist. My foster brother, Tom, was always supportive of my career path and, much to my mother’s chagrin, he bought me a real whip, a hunting knife and a survival kit -- complete with a needle and thread for self-suturing, lest I injured myself saving ancient relics.