In Ashtanga, there is a brilliant mind trick of counting five (or eight or ten, etc.) breaths in a posture and then moving on to the next posture. We count the breaths in each pose trying as much as our attention allows to feel the subtlety of that pose in that moment. The body is always changing; the pose is always changing; the perception of the body in the pose is always changing.
Sometimes five breaths feels like an eternity and sometimes it feels like the blink of an eye. When the count is up its time to throw that experience into the sacrificial fire, go on to the next pose, and not look back.
For most poses I allow the sound of my exhale be a kind of subconscious ticker. It is as if the ticking of my count was in tune with the high-pitch nada (inner vibration) that I use as the object of my meditation early in the morning. Maybe in your room or corner where you practice in silence, you can actually hear the voice of your teacher counting for you.
But the joke’s on us, because as soon as we get to five, we are right back at one! As soon as I roll up my mat, it’s often already less than a day until it’s time to unroll and start over again. Time: what a concept!
This concept is symbolized by the ring of fire that Shiva (Lord of the Yogis) dances in. It is the akhanda mandala, the unbroken circle, the integrated universe. Oddly enough, it kind of even looks like the face of a clock, or the head of a drum. But it symbolizes the continuous flow of reality unbroken by our concept of time. Shiva wears a crescent moon on his dreadlocked head to symbolize that he has conquered counting the time.
I guess that means that Shiva can do urdhva dhanurasana (backbend) all day… (please don’t try that at home;-) But what if you too just stopped counting one day, perhaps in sirsasana (headstand)? Or uthplutihi (that very last one – your favorite;-)?… Maybe on a day when you don’t have to rush off to work after practice.
Shiva may not use a stopwatch in his pranayama practice, but he plays a little wooden drum called the damru, to keep rhythm. He plays a drum and counts beats, and we make asana and count breeaths. All of this is to support our effort to be present.
When we really learn to swim in the present, we all may be able to leave behind the counting and journey out on our own.