In Ashtanga yoga we not only move within a set sequence of postures but the transitions between these postures are also choreographed. These transitions are the vinyasa and each of them has a number. In a traditional led Primary series class the teacher will call out the numbers in Sanskrit and indicate whether to move on an inhalation or exhalation.
Delivering the class with emphasis on breath and vinyasa count facilitates flow. Through the breath and flow we can begin to focus, build connections – and the yoga happens. Our attention isn’t directed by the teacher towards single parts of the body or significant ‘challenge’ postures, it encompasses the living, breathing whole – the whole being – the whole sequence.
We learn the postures and vinyasa by experiencing them through doing and being in our bodies as we flow from one movement to the next. I still hear my teacher Matt Ryan’s voice echo in my head with the count, and through him I hear Pattabhi Jois. This is a wonderfully audible example of parampara, the passing of knowledge from teacher to student.
For a beginner the choreography of movements may initially seem quite abstract but with practice we can begin to notice patterns with the sequencing. For example let’s look at the sun salutations Surya Namaskara A and B. When making yourself bigger, reaching upwards or extending the spine it’s on an inhalation (and an odd number) e.g. raising in the arms (No.1 Ekam) and Upward dog (No.5 Panca). If you’re making your self smaller, moving to the ground or flexing through the spine it’s often on an exhalation (and an even number) e.g. Uttanasana the forward fold (No.2 Dve) and Downward dog (No. 6 Sat).
Samastitihi doesn’t have a number and acts as zero, although that certainly doesn’t mean it’s nothing – it’s quite the opposite. In fact its significance is another blog post in the making!
If you’ve become familiar with the numbers you may have noticed that some are missing e.g. in the seated postures the count for the next posture starts at the jump through from downward dog which is Sapta (No. 7) – hopefully you haven’t been losing sleep over what’s happened to numbers 1-6! Technically the jump-backs are ‘half vinyasa’, if we were to come up to standing between seated postures and return to Samastitihi we would be practicing ‘full vinyasa’ which would enable movements 1-6 to take place, plus the vinyasa which take us back to standing. This is the same reason the vinyasa count for some of the standing postures doesn’t always begin on Ekam (No.1) e.g. Trikonasana B and Parsvakonasana B start on Dve (No.2).
Following the correct vinyasa is an excellent exercise in focus and awareness, particularly if students are getting accustomed to the counted method. Vinyasas between Prasarita Padottanasana A,B,C and D (wide legged forward folds) are a great example of this as they are a mix of reaching the arms out wide and keeping the hands on the waist and it’s so tempting to take the arms out wide in places where you’re not meant too!
Similar challenges are also there for the highly experienced student practicing with a new teacher as there can be subtle differences in the count for some postures depending on who they studied with or when they studied at the home of Ashtanga yoga in Mysore – so listen up!
During practice don’t think too deeply about what the numbers are doing – stay with your breath and experience through doing, be in your body and with your breath!
by Marie Harris
Marie teaches traditional Mysore Ashtanga Yoga every Tuesday & Thursday in Manchester – full details here