If you are new to Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, then one of the first things you will learn is that each posture (except a few finishing postures) is held for five breaths. Why five breaths? In short, because you are trying to maintain a energizing pace in the practice. An old saying in Ashtanga is “With heat, even iron will bend.”
There are exceptions to the five-breath rule. In fact, in Yoga Mala, the only stipulation for how you should breathe in a posture is: “While in the state of this asana, the lower abdomen should be drawn in and held tightly, and rechaka (exhalation) and puraka (inhalation) should be done slowly and as much as possible.” Further, if there is an ailment, then the practitioner can hold a posture for as long as 50 to 100 breaths. But these are special circumstances, and in general, it is advisable to hold each posture for 5 breaths, maybe the occasional posture (like baddha konasana, which has enormous benefits for limbering the body in other positions) for 10 or 20 breaths.
The finishing postures are held for longer than 5 breaths, anywhere from 10 to 25 breaths. (I will go into the benefits of slowing down your finisihiing postures in a later post. Why longer for the finishing postures? Because you are trying to cool the body and mind down. So, the method of Ashtanga Yoga has built into it the balance of opposites: hot and cool, soft and hard, strong and supple, energizing and collecting.
Here are five reasons to embrace 5 breaths per posture (excluding finishing postures):
- Focus: Having just 5 breaths in each posture makes you focus more profoundly on what you are doing. If you just have 5 breaths, then you have to make them count!
- Heat: One of the hallmarks of vinyasa yoga is the flowing movement from one posture to the next. Staying in a pose for 5 breaths before moving onto the next one keeps the body moving and thus you end up feeling warm and loose while practicing the series. Conversely, staying in a posture for a long period of time allows your body to cool down, which is the reason why the finishing postures are held for more than 5 breaths, often 10 to 25 breaths.
- Precision: Again, if you have only 5 breaths in each posture, then you really have to be precise with how you enter the posture, how you hold it, and how you leave it. You don’t start to dawdle while you hold the posture. Less is more!
- Quality of Attention: It can be easy to get distracted the longer you hold a posture. You start thinking about what the next posture is, or what you are going to do after practice, or what happened last night. If you know you have 5 breaths to hold the posture, then you can keep your attention sharp and keen.
- More energy: The longer your practice, the more energy it consumes. It’s not too uncommon for Ashtangis to be obsessed with having long practices. Especially as you are learning Intermediate or Advanced Series, the postures just keep getting added on, and your practice gets longer. Although this can be an enlightening way of practice, for most of us (myself included) it is not sustainable long-term. The ideal length of time for most people to practice yoga is between 45 minutes and 90 minutes. If you have two hours to practice every day, then take advantage of it. But at some point, it won’t work anymore because you’ve got work to do, a family to take care of, or it just doesn’t feel good. Learn how to adjust your practice to your needs each day, rather than feeling that you have to do a really long practice to feel good.
Let me know what your experiences with a renewed focus on holding postures for 5 breaths does for you.