The primary series is a limbic lullaby, if you get the rhythm right. It has re-patterned my breath. It probably coordinates my blood circulation, nerve impulses, body awareness and heart rate in some sort of healing rhythm. It has helped shift my center of gravity from physical to energetic space . In the empty space before ekadasa catvari jump back, it has taught me the diaphragm movement chain that leads to bandha. It’s the means by which I merge into large student bodies from time to time, and it’s facilitated the bond with my teacher. And, in the long run, it seems to be relaxing my relationship to time.
The count is a just a script, but it’s also a speech act and initiation. There’s sort of nothing there, but it contains a huge amount of information in the simplest possible form. (Good call, Chris.) We don’t know where it comes from: it could be part rishi revelation, but it feels a lot like ritual play. Both ancient, and emergent. In any case, it is potent.
There are a thousand ways to mess up the count – some mentioned below. If you’ve had a weird (authoritarian, dangerous, spacey, confusing) experience with it, there’s a good chance the teacher was out of their depth.
Without wondering why, I loved the count from the start. Didn’t know what it WAS: just did it, loved it, left it alone. Still now it feels wrong to try to pin it down. It’s so esoteric. With a person who moves you to the soul; the way to cultivate the capacity to be moved is to let them have their mystery. Don’t try to control them, and never think you have them figured out. Jungle medicine is not so different. You come into relationship with the medicine. In its structure it contains an intelligence, and the way to be changed by that is to approach with inner quiet, respect, openness.
But it was inevitable. A summer of study with a bunch of Ashtanga teachers was going to get in to the liturgy, and so now I know how a bunch of colleagues relate with the count. And this would be the day to write about it. It’s the end of a long trip to Mysore that has crossed four months, from late June to the second of September. This morning Gokulam emptied of foreigners; in evening the locals rolled out the stages for Ganesh’s birthday. I’m still in town, to have time alone with the city, and to reflect on this experience. There is so much to digest that it could take months.
But by tomorrow, Ganesha Chaturthi will take over here and next day I’ll be teaching three classes on the other side of the world. So everything is shifting. Meanwhile the count as always is stable, and uncrazy, and it takes care of things. Elusive and intriguing YES; confusing and destabilizing NO. Jungle medicine for a mind on the move.
I can’t explain the count, but here are some aspects of it that I love.
The count is a tool to shift your reality, and to bring on a variety of consciousness states wherein different types of tension (emotional, psychic, maybe physical) are released. For new practitioners this is so effective that there can be a temptation to just let it flow through you and be done with it, but I’m writing this now because there’s another level of ownership of your practice that comes when you learn the language, and start to research the systematic effects of vinyasa.
The counted primary series is a kind of life span, from ekam to gestation to death, rocking the nervous system through a catharsis I’ve NEVER regretted I undertook after hundreds of trips through. On a pedagogical level, the count cues a shift from narrative to rhythmic instruction. Less explanatory, more metronomic. This marks a move towards subtlety.
The count is an historical incantation. Like any good constitution, its origins are fuzzy, it makes a people what they are, it is alive and evolving. In American jurisprudence there are the strict constructionists – the conservatives obsessed with honoring the intentions of the so-called “founding fathers.” And there are the case law people, who slowly evolve the codes as a mirror to the society it holds together. These interpretive poles give rise to, and support, each other any time a constitution is in play. The story of emergence and evolution of the count is a book someone else should write, while there is still time to interview the people in SKPJ’s first led classes on the road (What on earth is he saying?), and while there’s a still a youtube archive of RSJ’s experiments to update the Virabhadrasanas. The count doesn’t change, and is changing all the time. Constitutions are operating systems.
And it’s ART. How brilliant is it that the count has been syncretic as long as we’ve known it – English (or Chinese, Russian, Spanish) embedded in Sanskrit? Add to the syncretism a synchrony of body movement. Bookend that with beautiful sounds. Then make that whole protocol leave you luminescent and a little changed. God.
And it’s BAIT. Same as the postures are bait, but the count is even more tempting. You want to make a thing of Marichy D, and nail it? Sorry, no. This is Jedi mind training, where thinking there is a game to win is what makes you lose the game. The postures are process. They don’t go somewhere. We eventually figure this out and learn to swim figure-8s around that line of hooks dangling in the water. But then, being two-dimensional, the count seems even more easy to objectify and get exactly right. Yes the teacher has to know the count cold, forward and backwards, insofar as it can even be known; but making others enact it exactly right is not actually the method. The method is grounded in your context. Here’s the thing. Extreme attachment to rites and rituals is a granthi. That knot loops around the heart. It keeps the mind comfortably right. The way to cut through this constriction is to be in relationship, which brings in bodies, randomness and loss of control. A secret from studying my teacher over time: if you accidentally pitch the perfect class, throw in a joke towards the end. No need to be witty about it. Most of humor is timing, and all of the count is timing. In that context, intentially missing a beat is the most hilarious thing. It’s the devotees and the system-lovers who know the count to perfection, and this has made a lot of them secret comedians.
Beyond just bait, the count is a neuro-linguistic coup. NLP sculpts samskaras on command by modulating voice, breath, language, number, and inter-personal rapport. These principles are age-old and esoteric, and extremely effective in the power of car salesmen and cult leaders. Again, if a teacher is out of his depth with the count, it’s trouble. When it comes to the internal programming aspect, the count starts with a potential to establish profound rapport between two people – teacher and student – as they give themselves over to attending to each other, without interruption, through continuous breathing and action.
In addition to two-person rapport, the count done well constitutes entire student bodies as coordinated organisms. Collective effervescence. Moreover, the use of numbers within numbers has a clarifying, AMPLIFYING effect on the mind and nervous system. To see just how strong that is, try this: some evening (you’ll be tired after), have a very close friend count you through practice, but count the breaths backwards. Five four three two one. Counting down is hypnotic if the counter has some ability to transmit mental states. Counting up, especially with nested English and Sanskrit counts, can still be pacifying if the teacher can channel a certain meditative vibe. But it doesn’t feature the same down-regulation and loss of conscious control that you get approaching zero. When the teacher actually embodies the count, the rhythmic-numeric pattern can strengthen the mind. It’s part of why Ashtanga practitioners get so powerful. Not necessarily a good thing. We are playing with fire, especially as the actions become more streamlined and concentrated. This power gets destructive if it’s not grounded and contained. The count takes the fire in the belly and the nervous system, evens out the breathing and movement, and then brightens the fire in the mind.
For those who share this weird fascination, I see that the count creates a unified field of awareness, across bodies and cultures and time. Say you were to eat, sleep and breathe this practice… say you grew up in this practice… how deeply would its spare language be lodged in your consciousness? If there are times you dwell in the count, you’re not the first or only one. There are people around this practice who, in an idle moment, might find their minds running the names of the postures the way someone else would sing a childhood song or recite scripture or relive/invent conversations. It’s mantra – it takes on a life of its own. Any sound, you rehearse it silently for long enough and it’ll become self-intelligent. It’ll be in your cells. It’ll animate you back. There are so many of us now who have crossed that line. It’s an uncanny connection, to share this spirit with someone even when there is no possibility of conversation.
So how do you embody it?
If knowing the count were a matter memorization, everyone would have it. Write out the script, recite it nightly for a week or a month until you have it.
But that’s not what this is. It’s an induction into subtle states of consciousness. If the person counting does not fully inhabit the language rhythm, it comes out brittle or phony. If one tries to teach with the mind set on doing it exactly right, she won’t perceive group, and the magic will not happen.
I’ve found a few colleagues who transmit VERY well. It seems most have learned the same way. The foundation is a decade or more of daily practice, and with that oodles of led. Add to this that a fascination with the ritual of led practice. They’ve all got the count in their bones; they study its history and the path of its evolution. They know the books are wrong. That’s the sweet thing about yoga books. Their ROLE to be partial or wrong in little ways, to point back to the tacit and relational nature of the practice.
Those I’ve met who transmit well all have another thing in common, and this is where I fall short. They’ve figured out how to stay conscious of the count while practicing – they have trained their minds to keep some analytical tracking online even while they are in the subtle states brought on by led class. This means they can internalize verbal facts while taking class, and compare different led classes over time.
I started trying to do this in 2010, when I realized that a decade in to practice I didn’t know the number of vinyasas in Surya Namaskara B. Crazy. When I first started trying to track the count during practice, I couldn’t get past the suryas before slipping into the usual place where it doesn’t matter whether head up is sapta, ashtau or nava. I don’t actually feel this is a problem. There was a strong pull into a non-verbal state of flow, and having habituated to it I couldn’t go more than a few minutes before giving in. By gritting my teeth and popping my eyes out, the furthest I’ve ever gotten is through the standing postures before awareness of a sequential number-chain collapses. Then it’s just binary rhythim – inhale up, exhale down, inhale up, exhale down – with some variation in the shapes that hang off it. This is a sweet state of consciousness, but one can’t really teach from it. Eventually I stopped fighting it. (This raises the question of how a practitioner in a state of deep concentration on the breath would respond to the sort of teacher who stops her in marichyasana and demands to know which vinyasa she is on. As if she should be verbally counting herself trough the practice, and loss of the numerical address of her posture signals that she has lost consciousness. How odd. Tristhana isn’t about numbers, it’s about energy.)
Given the limits I encountered in my own mind, I learned the count through impractical and sentimental means. It has been inefficient, but I think it’s also greatly increased my love for this part of the method. In 2010 I was learning the Yoga Sutras through oral transmission. I didn’t know what they meant, but just sat and chanted them call and response style because this made my mind feel amazing all day. I seemed obvious to approach the count in a similar way, so I started sitting on the shala steps for one or two led classes per week. I’d put on headphones and pretend to be listening to them, but really that was a social barrier to set my attention on the count. As interesting as memorizing the exact vinyasas was the variation between every class – every class was subtly adapted to a different group on a different day. There was use of timing to make things more serious, or more humorous. Eventually I got that there were little changes in the count from week to week, and from year to year. Every class had an internal consistency that blew my mind, but across time every one had a slightly unique pacing and emotional tone.
Over the next six years, this experience set me up to make one kind of teaching mistake, but not another. On an off day I might say ekadasa when I mean nava, or count to 11 breaths when I mean to stop at 10. But what I don’t do is stop interacting receptively with any given group. Broadly, it seems that the hazards in counting fall into two categories – those of having too little rigidity, and those of having too much.
How else can one mess up the count? Teach it when you’re not ready or you’re not entirely interested in it. Try to make the situation be something it’s not. Try to be someone you’re not. Come to the role with negativity that will infuse the room (because in teaching, in many ways we are made transparent). Here’s Helen Luke’s description of her Los Angeles priest in 1950s:
“As a man, he was full of fire and often outrageous! As a priest, he brought the fire of the spirit to life. One who is identified with his priesthood says the Mass in a personal way which is most disturbing. One who is clearly conscious of the distinction [between ego and the function of saying Mass] will say it in a unique way, which is an entirely different thing. Such a one always has a very strong personality and a dark shadow of which he and others are fully aware, but it never intrudes upon the mystery; the rites are then celebrated with power.” (Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On, p 62.)
Incantation is potent in any tradition. Our form of it may be elusive in certain ways but it’s also accessible, largely predictable, and available to anyone who takes an interest. Nobody owns it, but it’s possible to be inhabited by it to a greater or lesser degree.
There are three threads of study in this yoga – did you know? Vinyasa, tristhana, and the six poisons that cover the spiritual heart. Let’s say led class is where you study vinyasa, and Mysore practice is development of trishthana, and then everyday life is where you face down the limits of the heart. So ashtanga people get to do all kinds of Mysore style practice in groups or by ourselves, and daily life is always there. Meantime the led class thing isn’t trivial. There’s a lot there. A lot.
*Image above used by permission from the artist, Thomas Pastrano, and available here.
*Something on Led Intermediate, which is sort of a different thing.