This year I have been blessed with three wonderful opportunities to meet and further my Ashtanga journey with Ashtanga-legend John Scott, a dedicated and direct student of Guruji, Shri K Pattabhi Jois, since 1989.
John’s knowledge and understanding of the Ashtanga tradition runs deep, and his inquisitive mind has led him to a very precise and detailed way of teaching both the physical practice and philosophical background of Ashtanga Yoga. I have been deeply inspired by John’s teachings, which have led to significant shifts in my own practice over the past six months. Tempting as it is to try to include everything I can possibly recall here, I am going to limit this post to the subject of the Counted Method.
The Counted Method describes the choreography of the various series of Ashtanga (I have only explored it in regards to the primary and intermediate/second series so far). It means that there are a specific number of vinyasa (movements with breaths) to enter and exit each asana (posture) of the series, and each asana itself has a specific number or ‘state’. Each vinyasa count starts from and leads back to zero at Samasthitihi (equal standing pose).
For example, Trikonasana (triangle pose) has 5 vinyasa and the state of the asana is 2 (right side) and 4 (left side).
The vinyasa are like beads on a mala (prayer beads, like these beautiful ones in the photo from Driftwood Girl on Etsy), with each one to be meditated on and counted before moving to the next. As the student of Ashtanga learns the choreography of the series, the counting becomes a mantra for their practice, providing more focus and mindfulness. In addition to learning the count, the numbers are repeated in Sanskrit language. This shows respect for the traditional roots of Ashtanga and is also a brilliant way to challenge your mind … For me, it is still a major challenge to maintain the Sanskrit count if/when my mind wanders!
So before we delve deeper, lets take a look at the numbers (with the translation as it sounds in my head in brackets):
1. Ekam (A-kam)
2. Dve (Dway)
3. Trini (Tree-nee)
4. Catvari (Chat-waaree)
5. Pancha (Pan-cha)
6. Sat (Shat / Shut)
7. Sapta (Sap-ta)
8. Astau (Ash-tau)
9. Nava (Na-va)
10. Dasa (Day-sha)
11. Ekadasa (A-ka-da-sha)
12. Dvadasa (Dwa-da-sha)
13. Trayodasa (Try-yo-da-sha)
14. Chaturdasa (Chat-uhr-da-sha)
15. Pancadasa (Pan-cha-da-sha)
16. Sodasa (Show-da-sha)
17. Saptadasa (Sap-ta-da-sha)
18. Astadasa (Ash-ta-da-sha)
19. Ekonavimsatih (A-cone-a-vim-shat-ee-hee)
20. Vimsatih (Vim-shat-ee-hee)
21. Ekavimsatih (A-ka-vim-shat-ee-hee)
22. Dvavimsatih (Dwar-vim-shat-ee-hee)
Most of the vinyasa counts are 22 or less, except for Supta Padangustasana with 28.
I am still practicing and learning the counted method within my own practice, but have started to introduce the count in my Ashtanga classes for the sun salutations, Surya Namaskar A & B.
Surya Namaskar A, 9 vinyasa:
Ekam, inhale, lift your arms up and look toward your thumbs,
Dve, exhale, fold forwards,
Trini, inhale, extend your spine and look forwards,
Catvari, exhale, step or jump back to chaturanga,
Panca, inhale, lift the chest to upward dog,
Sat, exhale, downward dog. Hold here for five full breaths.
Sapta, inhale, step or jump feet forwards to towards the hands,
Astau, exhale, fold forwards,
Nava, inhale, come to standing and lift your arms up,
Surya Namaskar A is the best place to begin introducing the counted method to your own practice. Once confident here, you can try to introduce it to Surya Namaskar B, and then to the first few standing postures. As you memorise the specific count for each asana, you can add the next, until you have learnt the entire Primary Series. There is no rush for this, it may take an entire year or more.
There are numerous resources to help learn the count for yourself. My favourite at the moment is John Scott’s app, available on iTunes and for Android. I would also recommend Dr. Ronald Steiner’s cheat sheets, which I have printed out and have to hand for my self-practice. Additionally, Guruji’s book, Yoga Mala, plus books from Lino Miele, Sharath Jois and Maju Jois all include the count.
It is worth noting that there are some discrepancies between these various sources. Choose one that works for you, but remain open to the others – they all have their own benefits and logical system. I will stick with John’s count within my practice, but it was not uncommon to hear debates during the Mysore practice when I was with John in Italy is July about whether a particular asana had 15 or 16 vinyasa.
Also consider that the specific vinyasa count should not rule your practice, but rather guide it. If ever you need to take an extra breath or two between counts then you should feel free to do that. In fact, there are certain asana that have official non-counted additional inhalations and exhalations. For example, when moving into and out of Padangusthasana or standing forward fold, there are extra non-counted breaths on both the inhalation and exhalation (click here to see this described on ashtangayoga.info).
The version of the primary series that I practice and teach is usually (sadly) governed by time, and so we practice ‘half vinyasa’. This means that we usually enter each of the seated postures from Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward dog). For the ‘full vinyasa’ method, we should return to standing in Samastitih between each asana or pair/set of asana. The official count is based on ‘full vinyasa’ and the same count is used for ‘half vinyasa’, meaning that as we jump through from downward dog, the count will often be sapta, seven, rather than ekam, one. This method assumes that we would have already taken six vinyasa to move from standing to downward dog.
All this may seem a little overwhelming at first, but as you begin to become familiar with the count, you will soon begin to recognise patterns in the numbering, and certain rules that help you to find your way if you lose the count (it happens!).
I would highly recommend attending one of John’s workshops, or that of another traditional Ashtanga Yoga teacher, to help set you on the right path towards this. I am confident that learning the Counted Method for your practice will help you to find new levels of awareness and focus, to help you gain some of the deeper benefits of Ashtanga. In John’s words, “it will help you to transcend space and time”.
Always feel free to ask me if you need pointing in the right direction. I’d love to hear from you!
xx Helen xx