28 Feb Exhale There (why there is more to ‘vinyasa’ than going with the flow…
If you have been joining online classes lately you’re probably getting very familiar with counted or “led” primary series. This is an important aspect of the Mysore practice and if you have never been to one before, now is a good time to try it. ‘The count’ is a recital of all the vinyasa in the primary series. Although the count is not sung it has a mantra – like quality, with asanas and the transitions between them strung together like verses.
For teachers of Astanga Yoga, knowing the count like the back of your hand is vital and, when in Mysore, I have been tested on it by my teacher (even having to do parts of it ‘backwards’). This might seem odd until you remember that through much of its history Yoga has been disseminated orally. Getting it right ensures that Parampara (the unbroken line of teachings I spoke about in a recent blog) is preserved.
Getting it right also means that not a single breath (or to be more precise, vinyasa) is out of place. This might sound very pedantic. But the whole point of vinyasa practice is ‘everything in the right place’.
Vinyasa is an amalgamation of three Sanskrit words: Vivesha – Niyama – Asana (literally, “special rules for sitting”). It can refer to any activity which is ritualized. This means that simply getting on the mat at the same time daily could be regarded as a vinyasa. Remember that many Indians regard the last hour- and – a – half before dawn as the Brahma Muhurta: the most auspicious time for spiritual practices. We can’t necessarily stick rigidly to the same practice time every day in our busy London lives but in Mysore, on my first trip many years ago, I remember being taken aback at what seemed like a very strict insistence on not being late (or even early) for practice. Over time I realized that this was my teacher’s way of presenting new students with the opportunity to put the practice centre stage, in a daily ritual.
You have a chance to do this even if your schedule is erratic: You can create space around your practice time…a bit like de-cluttering a room. Take time to make sure your phone is silenced or switched off. Tell yourself that you have a set amount of time for practice even if you’re not sure how much energy you have. Whatever time is left spare after asana could be an opportunity to sit and meditate or simply take a longer rest.
It might seem strange to talk about sitting still or lying down in the context of vinyasa. For many people the word is associated strongly with movement or ‘flowing’ sequences.
Set sequences of asana should really be described as ‘Vinyasa Krama’. Some of the sequences are grouped in a way that will make them therapeutic (the twists of the primary series, for example, which are meant to stimulate the digestive organs). Others are about actions that complement or compensate for one another. This is why a group of forward bends might be followed by inversions or backbends.
The vinyasa themselves are the precise individual actions within the sequences. And even in a sequence which appears dynamic, some of the vinyasa are very still indeed.
These are some of the most crucial moments of the practice. Not a single one is there by accident and many of them are extremely helpful during some of the practice’s toughest sections. Ironically, because they appear at such moments, they often get forgotten about! This is a shame because many of the ‘still vinyasa’ are like hitting the pause button. They allow us a beat, a gathering of one’s strength or focus before pressing on. If they become habitual they also have a great effect on the mind.
There is a passage in Eddie Stern’s book One Simple Thing, which illustrates this perfectly.
“When we watch a movie it takes on the appearance of a flowing sequence of events, sort of like real life. But when we examine the film we see each individual frame. When we apply awareness to each individual vinyasa we can, for the time we are practicing, live in a frame -by -frame (or moment to moment) existence. In this mental space it becomes easier to examine our lives, goals, ambitions, faults and tendencies. The vinyasa in this way can teach us to live in the present. One breath, one moment at a time.”
Led classes are a very good opportunity to listen out for these ‘still vinyasa’ but of course it’s not always easy to make ourselves do this. We sometimes get caught up in a web of performance anxiety and exertion! So I thought it was worth pointing some of them out in a short clip.
I called the clip “exhale there” as a nod of deference to Sharath, my teacher in Mysore. Like many Astanga teachers I have taken the vast majority of my led classes with him. English is not Sharathji’s first language and he has a certain syntax which is quirky and charming at the same time. If you learn to count the primary series with him its hard to avoid coming out with these ‘Sharathisms’ from time to time. Some of them are indispensible because, having counted the practice for so many years, he’s learned the most efficient way with words. One of his favourites is used to describe some of the still vinyasa in the clip. When instructing the student to inhale and lift the chin to look forwards, he often says, “Head up only”. It’s very emphatic. Head up only is always followed with: “exhale there.” Take a class with Sharath and forget to “exhale there” and you may find yourself being teased or even admonished. It might sound ridiculously strict. It’s actually incredibly helpful. I promise, if you can teach yourself and then remember every single “exhale there” in whichever series you practice, things get easier. And, just like Eddie’s movie, this can become something we take off the mat. It’s not easy, but hitting the pause button during life’s trickier moments can be an emotional lifesaver…
To watch the clip follow this link