Patrick Caplazi had a really good question and with his permission I am answering it here.
Patrick: I just got an email from YiY announcing your intro to Mysore style course, and that reminds me I have this intro question that has been bothering me a little lately. Going to led primary should help, one would think, but as it turns out that makes things rather more confusing. Can you please tell me what the “generic” sync is between vinyasa count, movements and actual breath count for the seated primary series asanas between sapta and astau?
For example, entering Janu A, I believe the correct sync is sapta: inhale while jumping through with straight legs, landing, positioning the right leg, grabbing wrist, catching left foot and looking up. Astau: exhale while folding forward into the pose.
I can see – depending on which asana it is – that one would want or need a few breaths to accommodate all the action before going astau on an exhale. But those would be “extra” breaths. Asking around and trying to look up how those in-between breaths might be classified (extra, correct, incorrect, tolerated, irrelevant, encouraged…) I find ambiguous, if not conflicting information. And no answer at all about any approved numbers (e.g. “to enter Janu A, take 0 breaths between sapta and astau, but to enter Marichi D, take 2”).
Given that coordination of breath and movement is so important for the practice I find it odd that there should be this undefined space, a breath sinkhole, between sapta and astau.
Anne: This is a valid question and not one we always have time to formally address in a regular led class.
The vinyasa count you list between sapta and ashtau is accurate. And yet as you also bring up maintaining the exact vinyasa count is not always possible. In fact, most people take years to get to the point where they can maintain the actual vinyasas more often than not, let alone all the time. So what to do until then…
The reason you have received conflicting information as to how to breath when you can’t, is that one of the central axis often unspoken tenants of the ashtanga yoga system is, “You do!”
The watered down version doesn’t exist in the pure system. There is good reason, this helps them to keep the lineage alive and intact. If I teach you modified breathing, you start teaching your student modified breathing, pretty soon it’s like the game of telephone and there is little left of what was originally passed down.
But again, how to handle things in the mean time: What Pattabhi would do was ingenious to watch. He counted the vinyasas, but he waited for people to get into the poses. That way he gave you the purity of the lineage, intact, and yet he let you take the time needed to get into the posture (within reason). If someone wasn’t there yet the whole class would wait for him to adjust those still working on the pose.
The implication of this to me is this: Don’t lose sight of where this is going. Don’t hold your breath, breathe, be sensible, and keep working on it. The pure practice is where we are headed, and by keeping out sights on it we end up there and not in watered down land. And while not spoken we all get to be human too in our approach to perfection.
When someone goes skin deep on the practice they can think it’s uncompromising. If you hear a recording of the called practice you wouldn’t hear or receive this nuance. They demanded perfection. But in my experience they also understood we were human, and to this day I know Sharath maintains that as well.
The other reason I love Patrick’s question: It is a natural segue-way to another point that I’d like to make.
Led class is important. Mysore is amazing, we all know that, we’ve all experienced that. It allows us to learn where we are and work on the edges of where we are in this moment on a day to day basis. It doesn’t, however, always keep that vision of the pure practice with us. Our own bodies can betray us, in finding that way that is slightly easier, to take a shorter breath in the harder posture. Led doesn’t do that. We face a different confrontation of where we really are in this moment, not on our own terms but the terms of the practice itself.
It is honestly much easier for me to teach a mysore class than a led class. And yet we keep this class on the schedule for a reason.
I see the led series not as a chance to learn how to do advanced asanas, tho in a moment here or there it might become that. It is a chance to check ourselves. To listen to the vinyasa and breathe in and out of the practice together. We need to remember what the pure practice is. We need that weekly reminder. And we also need the opportunity to move through it all together.
I still remember my own slow realization of the wisdom in how Pattabhi would teach led. It was very simple. If you jumped the count the entire class would wait (while he yelled at the Bad Man or Lady depending), until you figured it out and went back to where he was. It wasn’t to penalize you, it was to bring everyone together. The strong couldn’t get high and mighty because you had to find the next place and hold it. The working on it folk would get the personal attention while we all waited. There was no showing off. It was about being together and moving together and breathing together.
So if you are hurt, I don’t expect to see you at the led primary series. There are practical times when it isn’t advisable. And if you have the meeting at work or have to take your kid to school that day, the practice does have the space for that.
But if you are feeling like you want to stay in bed that day, or just don’t feel like it, check that excuse at the door. You come, you take practice, and you will see the benefit. You will know the count. And someday you will be able to follow the “You do!” that was passed down.
That is the pure practice of Ashtanga yoga.
I hope Patrick this does a fair job of answering your question.