Counting my breaths is a habit that has become ingrained by years of Ashtanga yoga. Five breaths in this asana, twenty breaths in that asana, oh and a hundred breaths in Tolasana (that was always a challenge); I counted my practice away until it was over.
And now my yoga has slowed down, but I still count the breaths – ten breaths, twenty breaths, thirty breaths. I’m still counting!
There are definitely some benefits to counting. It’s a good way to measure the time in an asana and regulate the practice. It helps me to ensure I challenge myself sufficiently, without letting myself off the hook as soon as I start to feel any discomfort or impatience. It helps me practice evenly in the poses I like and the poses I don’t. It does help to focus the mind. Focusing on a count is obviously better than focusing on tonight’s supper or the things I must not forget to do tomorrow!
And yet, the more I practice and count, the more I feel that counting is actually distracting me from being really aware of what is happening in my body. I am focused on the counting in my head, instead of being fully present to the sensations of my legs, back, arms or even breath. I am slightly disassociated from my body when I count. I am focused on the end goal, rather than the moment, and sometimes my breath speeds up if I am particularly eager to reach that goal.
And yet, when I don’t count, it is a real challenge to judge how long to stay; staying long enough for the asana to be challenging, yet not so long that I lose my sense of ease and balance. It’s a new skill to notice the beginnings of discomfort, acknowledge them and then decide to continue a little longer before choosing the right moment to complete the asana.
I often get into an internal narrative about how long I have been there, and whether it is long enough, and of course that is even more distracting than counting. Some days I am impatient and can’t wait to move on, while other days I get so comfy in a pose I could stay there all day, so my practice is less even. I don’t know whether that matters or not. Maybe I just need to acknowledge that every day is different.
Of course, there is always the kitchen timer option! A timer can be useful for longer, restorative holds, as it does get rid of that internal narrative about how long I have been there. With a timer, it is easier to let go of impatience and allow whatever is there to be. But it also removes the challenge of listening to my body and making the right judgement.
And like so many things in yoga, there is a metaphor for life here too. How many times do I set myself a target of work to do, and complete it no matter what (even when I am tired, thirsty or need the loo); I ignore the inconvenient messages from my body. Whether it is completing my blog post before I go bed, tidying one room of the house every day, sorting out my email box before I go home or analysing that spreadsheet before I move onto another task, I set myself goals and focus on completing them, rather than truly listening to my mind and body, and using that to judge how much to do. I would probably be healthier and more productive if I took that break when my body is sending me thirsty/tired signals, rather than soldiering on to reach the target I have set myself.
So, later today I need to tidy and sort out my younger son’s bedroom (with his help, I hasten to add). Should I:
- A) Work for half an hour and then stop, no matter where I have got to
- B) Do half a bedroom and then stop, no matter how long it takes
- C) Stop when the time feels right – when I have made some decent progress, but before I feel tired and irritable (even if that is not very long at all!)
Answers on a postcard please….