A Practice that Counts

Emma wrote me a note when she sent me her blog post. She asked me, “Peg, do you ever sleep?” I answered her back: No. (And I was only half kidding.) Truth is, I’m excited to grow our Dispatch family of writers and welcome Emma Hudelson of the Buddhi Blog. I’ve been a fan of Emma’s writing for quite some time. She brings a fresh perspective, quick wit, and of course, a passionate love for Ashtanga! And her article today is the first post on our brand new Ashtanga Dispatch website! If you love her writing like I do (and I think you will), make sure you give her a share or comment below.

And now … I’m off to sleep.


The practice of Ashtanga Yoga may look like a series of poses, but it’s not …


It’s a system. Specifically, it’s the system of vinyasa. Breath and movement stepping hand in hand, dancing. Each movement has a breath, and each breath has a count.  If there’s no count, there should be no movement (see Rule #10 in Peg’s interpretation of David Robson’s rules). I learned Primary Series with my home teacher, Amanda Markland, and although I’m sure she mentioned it, I didn’t absorb this lesson until I practiced with Maia Heiss in Los Angeles. Sometimes hearing an old message from a new voice helps the words to hit home.


Let the ‘Sapta, jump through’ carry you through,” she said after I wiggled and sighed into Ardha Baddha Padma Paschimottanasana. “There’s no ‘Astau, prepare’ here.” Then she said the same thing for the Tiriang Mukha Eka Pada Paschimottanasana. And Janu A. And Janu B. And Janu C. Finally, I got it. For most poses–not all, there are exceptions–the sapta takes you into the “prepare” position, and then you astau, complete the shape.  I realized I’d been taking extra breaths to wiggle into just about every one of those poses. I’d sapta, jump through, all right, but I would exhale as soon as I landed, then inhale and exhale a few more times until I made the shape. Or I’d pause, scratch my head, fix my hair, adjust my sports bra and leggings, wipe off, straighten my mat towel, and then try to make the shape.


At first, it was hard to take that sapta all the way into the pose. It meant slowing down my inhale and finding the bottom of my lungs. It meant not doing any bra-adjusting. Which, really, is not ever necessary, unless a nipple slip happens a la Janet Jackson at the Super Bowl halftime show. It meant following correct method. It meant using 100% of that breath’s energy to find the pose. Which is the point, right? Through Ashtanga, we’re learning to pull the maximum amount of energy out of each breath. We’re only given a fixed amount of breaths per lifetime according to the Vedas. Once they’re used up, they’re gone. But if we can increase the amount of energy produced by each breath, then each breath will be more productive and efficient. Following correct vinyasa count means more energetic bang for your breath buck.


Guruji called Ashtanga Yoga a mala. The vinyasas are the sacred beads. The asanas are flowers. All are strung on the thread of the breath, which is a beautiful, poetic image. If the guru of this practice called the vinyasas “sacred beads,” then they must be pretty damn important. There’s magic in the count.


My experience is evidence of that magic.  As my count during Mysore-style practice became more correct, the whole practice began to fall into place. Jumping back got easier. Postures felt more complete. Led Primary didn’t kill me anymore. Maia spoke of “efficiency of movement” during practice. No flourishes, no extraneous movements, and stick to the count. So I cleaned it up. Big time. I started paying attention to the vinyasa, and at last, my practice was becoming efficient (most of it, anyways…my Supta K is more tragic than efficient). With that efficiency came increased energy for practice. All that wiggling and adjusting and wiping gave my energy away instead of keeping it within the container of my body.


And let’s not kid. Even though this practice boosts energy overall, it requires energy to complete. Anything I can do to keep energy in my body instead of leaking out into my mat towel (or hair, or bra, or head, or leggings, or whatever I’m futzing with) will be helpful. I’m going to need that stuff for backbends.


As a bonus, when the energy is in my body, I’m focused. I’m on. Being on means that practice becomes my world. I’m less likely to notice what’s going on next to me, or get distracted by someone’s cell phone ringing in the lobby, or think about that thing that pissed me off last night. I’m present in a way that I wouldn’t be otherwise. I’m fully embodying each movement, each moment. It’s like being in a very aware trance. Sapta, jump through. Astau, exhale, fold. Five breathings. Nava, inhale, look up. Exhale. Dasa, inhale, lift up. Ekadasa, jump back. And so on. Even the sound of the count is hypnotic.


When my practice was about the poses, instead about all the stuff that surrounds the poses, I was missing out. I was wasting time and misdirecting my energy. I’m so glad that someone noticed that waste and misdirection and gently realigned me. My natural state is one of moving in multiple directions at once. Right now, I’m writing this post, drinking a smoothie, checking my email, looking at flights, thinking about dinner, and texting my husband. I’m always multitasking, or starting new projects in the middle of current ones. I’m distractible. We all are. Ashtanga, when practiced with correct method, is all about focusing and efficiently using energy. The vinyasa count is a vital part of that. It isn’t a conformist attempt at control. It’s a system for producing energy and focus.


Long story short, a more focused and energetic practice means a more focused and energetic me. I teach college freshmen for a living. I need all the focus and energy I can get.


emma hudelson 1Emma Faesi Hudelson is a writer, reader, and Ashtangi. She teaches first-year composition and writes creative nonfiction with a focus on culture, the arts, addiction, recovery, and yoga. She blogs at The Buddhi Blog, and you can find her work on nuvo.netFeministingElephant Journal, and Miseducated. She teaches a couple led Ashtanga classes a week, and she lives in Indianapolis with her husband and a whole slew of rescue pets. Find her on Instagram and Twitter as @thebuddhiblog.