Have you ever wondered what the Sanskrit counting in the Ashtanga method is all about?
Ever felt intrigued by it and wanted to learn it, but didn’t know what it’s good for and why you should even bother?
In this article you will learn how studying the vinyasa count will focus your practice, quiet your mind and "clean up" your practice while giving you new inspiration to grow through the daily practice of Ashtanga yoga.
Watching a long time Ashtanga practitioner can be quite intriguing. It’s what made me start the practice at first and continues to inspire me. Back then it was practitioners like David Swenson, Mark Darby or John Scott that I watched as they went through amazingly graceful and advanced movements. But apart from the breathtaking physical abilities, what struck me was their pure presence that shined through them as they practiced. A presence that is built and mastered over many years of practice.
There are 2 elements that allow the practitioner to develop this unique presence:
The fact that it’s a self-practice
The Vinyasa Count
Through continuous repetition of the same sequence, your focus eventually can broaden and go deeper.
The Ashtanga Method is based on self-exploration as one practices the prescribed breathing & movement sequence by himself, guided by a teacher only when needed. By having to memorize the movements, you stay present and focus on yourself (instead of on the constant external instruction by a teacher). Eventually - as the body starts flowing through the movements without thinking what comes next - you are able to draw your focus inward, . Then the awareness is able to go beyond the gross physical aspects of practice.
2. The practice is clearly defined through the vinyasa count:
Let’s first define what the vinyasa count actually is?
In Ashtanga every posture has a specific number of vinyasas (breath-aligned movements) which bring us from Samastitih to a particular posture and back to standing. You might have heard the count in an Ashtanga Led Class, where the count is used to lead practitioners through the movements without any extra explanation needed. Once a week, practitioners who practice regularly in a guided self-practice setting (Mysore class) will find it beneficial and fun to flow with the group just counting the vinyasas.
But also during your self-practice the count is very useful. You mentally/silently count the Sanskrit numbers of the vinyasa you are doing, adding the assigned breath (inhale or exhale, or both) while moving and adding the particular gaze (drishti). This way you are fully focused and your mind completely occupied, that there is no space for thinking of daily affairs, or the asana that you dread that will come up soon in your practice. And once you know by heart how to count yourself through each posture, it becomes much easier to keep your practice clean, sincere and graceful, transforming it into pure meditation in movement.
If you are also teaching this method, knowing the Vinyasa count has many benefits. It gives you clarity about what and how to teach it to your students, and gives you a benchmark what your student should focus on (and what not).
Well, first let me say that I do think that initially you can have a perfectly fine and beneficial practice by just practicing and breathing.
Back when I first started practicing Ashtanga, I didn’t have a teacher around so I practiced by myself at home. When I first travelled to India, I didn’t know much - apart from the practice itself. No Mantra, barely any asana name, no vinyasa count (I knew how to enter and exit the asanas, but no specific count). In fact, I don't think I even knew about the existence of the vinyasa count.
The first year of my yoga studies in India I could get away with it, as I didn’t get any new postures and didn’t talk much to people, but by the second year I was determined to learn everything. Something intrigued me about the counted led classes. But mainly I loved the geeky idea of learning something that not everybody bothers to invest the time to learn. Just like I loved to learn mathematics in University, I liked the idea that there is some kind of thought-through system behind all the crazy movements I did in my practice.
So I dug deep and learnt all the asana names and the proper vinyasa count. But was that just an intellectual effort, with the only benefit of being able to communicate better and show off with knowing all the terminology? Or was there actually a deepening in my practice - physically, mentally and spiritually?
The straight forward answer is: YES: I reached a new level of focus, a quieter mind, a totally cleaned up practice and the feeling that all parts of the practice suddenly became a unified whole. A transformation from merely doing the things to fully embodying the whole practice as I go through it.
But why is that?
What is it that makes the Sanskrit vinyasa count and calling out the postures with their Sanskrit names anything more than a mental construct of „I know something“?
I find that there is something about immersing yourself into study that creates focus and aides in absorption into the present moment. There is a higher sense of purpose when you have prepared the practice with study and are eager to put something new into practice.
The person who happily invests time in learning everything about the practice, and puts some work and effort into perfectionizing it will gain tremendous inspiration to actually show up for practice - and then using the effort to play and explore the details. The whole idea in obsessing about a detail and working towards a „perfect“ way of doing the practice is not to reach this perfection. Rather this work gives you the motivation to do the daily work, surrender to the process and finally let go of any perfection.
Obsessing about details and then later just letting that go prepares you, so you can finally just flow through the practice because your body, breath and presence just come together. Without any deeper thrive to master the details, rarely does one actually maintain the inner fire and discipline to gain the mastery that we need to just let go and flow - whether it’s the detail of the specific Vinyasa count or any other detail that you can focus on.
The correct vinyasa count is not what makes you gain extra points on your „How good of a Yogi am I“-scale.
It’s the love you put into learning the details that will create the tapas or discipline, the burning desire to do the daily work, which will pay off over time with higher gains. It’s the eye for detail, for always looking at yet another tiny detail within that will eventually let you arrive in the present moment, completely beyond bodily details. And you actually can reach the state of merging with your surroundings and experiencing what yoga is, just as described in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras.
If you want to discover the vinyasa count and asana names to benefit your practice (and eventually your teaching), and want to learn about the background and tradition of it, we would love to see you and share our experience and knowledge on December 1st for our Ekam-Inhale Ashtanga In-depth study. We are really excited about this topic, and cannot wait to share all the geeky details about it :)
All levels welcome, but you need a basic practice of Ashtanga.