Number • 24 December 2010

At four a.m., the morning of this year’s longest night, the half-eclipsed moon was huge, hazy and bright through the trees behind the house. I was up to do this thing I do twice a year on the solstices –108 surya namaskara. There’s no reason for the ritual—no magic or meaning at all. But there is rhythm.

It’s my second Michigan winter mala—or “garland” of 108. This year, my hair is several inches longer. So after the first few rounds, the braids find their own pendulum swing, rocking on the flexion of my cervical spine, parallel to each other, in the plane that slices by body from front to back. This week, my biceps were more sore than usual—maybe something to do with cleaning the basement (last year, I didn’t have a basement). My sacrum was more still – the deep structure of the pelvis has tightened up a bit lately—maybe something to do with walking around in this weather. And I felt much warmer. It’s hard to understand, now, the deep bone chill I felt exactly a year ago… or the accompanying fear that I might never get warm again. I see now that I’ve acclimated.

Lately (in solstice ritual-time, lately = the last year and a half), the full 108 takes 75 minutes. One breath in down-dog, modest transitions, no pauses. Tuesday, the body state-changed from solid to semi-liquid by number 20; and to my delight I broke a sweat in the seventies. Just a bit of mist rising from the chest and head, and toward the finish a sweat droplet traveling up and down my nose, up and down, up and down, gathering enough volume that I could catch in on my tongue in the third position of number 105. What’s that business about rubbing the sweat back in to your skin? Oh well, in any case it is good to be a liquid. And, in any case, solidity is also spirit.

As for gas, well… Mysore is a gas in more ways than one. Anyone care to vaporize?

Usually for counting the mala, I take some nearby object – keys, a tea light, a ring, and move it across the floorboards on each group of ten suryas. But this week within the floorboard framework I found myself counting one through ten aloud. First in English and then in the numbers more common to my experience of these motions: ekam, dve, trini, and so on.

Ashtanga practice is rhythm within rhythm within rhythm. The first pulse is constant: in-ex-in-ex-in-ex-so-ham-in-ex-ah-men-in-ex-up-down-sky-earth-in-ex-i-am-in-ex. The next two pulses are made of language, Sanskrit enclosing English. The nine positions of the surya namaskara sequence count off in Sanskrit, and within that, the long hold between shat (six) and sapta (seven) counts off as one two three four five. The Sanskrit-counted movements enclose the up/down breath rhythm: one movement per in-or-out breath. Meanwhile, English is the language that measures stillness. Five in down-dog, or a ten that lasts arbitrarily long when the teacher decides to take a pee between “seeaahvaahn” and “yeeight!” of the final hold in ut pluthihi.

For the mala, this year, I found myself counting one through ten, 10.8 times. Arms up to touched-thumbs, ekam. Next time through, dve. Continuing, trini. And so on through the most beautiful word, dexa, also represented as dasa. And back to ekam.

What with all that tick-tocking of the braids, and yo-yo boing of the cerebro-spinal fluid, and—god knows—the pulse across the individual nuclei of the cells—I got myself good and hypnotized after a few tens. On the fourth or fifth panca, sounding it aloud, I SWEAR I head the warble of tiny Sambhav—Sharath’s baby son, who pulls himself up next to his father during led intermediate and calls out his favorite number when it’s time. It comes off as a vowely, gigging, high-pitched “paaawnnn-cha!?” After which the gallery giggles and the rest of us, holding catvari, inhale gratefully to upward-facing.

As I continued, I realized that ekam-dve-trini belong in my mind to my teacher. Who else to imitate when first learning these strange words? I’ve just superimposed my inflections over his, as I do for the invocation. Catvari, though, is all ponderous-Boulder-bhakti. Who else? Richard Freeman has my catvari. And sapta belongs to Sharath. So many of the vinyasas in his led transition on a seven. Sapta-that’s-enough-down-dog. Sapta-inhale-right-leg. Sapta-get-a-move-on. 

Winter Solstice 2010