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Myth of the 90-minute Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series Led Class

Updated: Aug 14, 2022

Search online videos, DVDs of international teachers, yoga class schedules, beginning classes...etc. The 90-minute Ashtanga Yoga Primary series led class is available everywhere and seems to be the "standard class". You probably don't think very much about it (or confront it): "Can my movement really follow the breath every moment? “ Most people think they can progress by attending led classes regularly. Does "progression" mean doing all the postures of the primary series?

This article explores several aspects: the logic of moving with the second of breathing; the effects of shortness of breath; the reasons for focusing on the breath in yoga asana practice; the intention of the led class; what is the progress; conclusion and the views of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, Manju Pattabhi Jois, and Mark Darby on the subject of yoga.

[ The logic of moving with the second of breathing ]

First of all, ask yourself this question: How many seconds do I inhale and exhale during asanas (postures) practice?

The natural breathing of a human being is short and irregular. The practice of yoga already requires to become aware of this nature and then by introducing the Ujjayi breath to become familiar with this regular, slow and smooth breathing. Thus, a significant aspect of learning breathing techniques is the awareness of the difference between controlled breathing and natural breathing.

Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (founder of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga) used to speak in interviews and insist on keeping the inhalations and exhalations regular, i.e. if you have a 10 second inhalation the exhalation is also 10 seconds if it is 15 seconds on the inhalation then also 15 seconds on the exhalation and this without doing retention.

When we learned the Vinyasa Krama method with Srivatsa Ramswami who remained a student of T. Krishnamacharia (the same master as K. Pattabhi Jois) for 33 years, he insisted on longer exhalations than inhalations and he easily counted 5 seconds on the inhalation and 8 seconds on the exhalation, or even in some postures 15 seconds on the inhalation and 15 seconds on the exhalation as in Sirsasana posture (headstand).

The method is certainly not the same, but if you bring a critical sense on yoga practices, we will certainly agree on the fact that 4 seconds on the inhalation and 4 seconds on the exhalation seems to be a minimum, because below that we can't talk anymore about a yogic breathing which is supposed to have an impact on the nervous system and bring a deep calm and develop intelligence, which is essential for a realization.

If we take as an example 5 seconds of inhalation and 5 seconds of exhalation which should be a good average for an average practitioner in the first and second series, how long will it take to do the whole first series?

The result of our calculation is 2 hours and 12 minutes, which is 132 minutes.

It may be difficult for some people to inhale for 5 seconds and exhale for 5 seconds. So, as an example, how many minutes does the entire Primary Series last with 4 seconds of inhalation and 4 seconds of exhalation?

The result of our calculation is 1 hour and 46 minutes, which is 106 minutes.

And to this you should add at least 15 minutes for Savasana.

If you watch a movie, for example, the 121 minutes fast forward to 90 minutes to watch the end, the action in the movie becomes fast. The original normal fast walking scenes become fast walking.

Even as viewers, we cannot help but breathe faster as the characters in the film do.

This calculation is made with respect to the first series as it is given at present by Sharath Jois. The series has changed on the number of counts in certain postures compared to the time of K. Pattabhi Jois, but this and another subject.

With regular practice and provided you pay full attention, it is quite possible to keep a regular rhythm of breathing. If you observe K. Pattabhi Jois's count, it is not regular and everyone does the same thing, it has become an irregular count that everyone does by imitation to the point of copying even the intonation of K. Pattabhi Jois's English. If you observe well when he was conducting Samasthiti the last movement of the A and B sun salutation, the intonation and speed is not the same, but slackened and accelerated, and there you see everyone slackening and accelerating the movement with total lack of attention. Everybody knows that he was not regular in his count, this is not really the biggest problem, but it is a pity that most teachers and practitioners copy this model which leads to nonsense and an effect of the practice that is not as beneficial as it could be. Most of the time, the count is not regular ranging from 2 to 5 seconds and often, the transitions are sloppy. Most practitioners want to chain postures together by jumping from one posture to another without any awareness, without attention it develops the ego, and you see what you want to see but not what is actually there, if you put all your attention while respecting the well-directed breath then you will have more presence and this presence will bring you into awareness of the reality of the moment, this is the most difficult aspect of the practice, but when you taste it and you see what is in reality, you can't help but deal with it, because you see all your perverted patterns, it is no longer possible to go back, the practice will become a mirror of yourself, and if you are sincere then you have the possibility to change. No one is telling you to get there straight away, but don't escape this aspect as most people do in their everyday lives. Practice should never be an escape. And if there is an effort to be made, it is that of being in total attention, and there comes the possibility of a change, of a vision different from what we have been used to, of an internal transformation. It is double-edged, either you develop the ego and go down into the matter in more illusion and that makes monsters, and there are already quite enough of them in this world, either you bring to light what is in reality, in an upward movement and develop the intelligence. There are practitioners who have become worse than when they started Yoga by going in a direction that was the opposite of what Yoga should be about.

[ The effects of shortness of breath ]

● What happens when you feel shortness of breath?

It is often a response of your flight or fight hormone and nervous system triggering the neck and chest muscles to tighten. This makes breathing labored and gives a person that breathless feeling.

One aspect is the relationship between the breathing and the mind. It has been said that an agitated mind is reflected in an agitated breath pattern. So will not an agitated breath pattern make the mind agitated?

● When you feel short of breath, you may start to over breathe and lower your carbon dioxide levels.

When breathing is too short, less than half of the lung function is used, and the fresh air inhaled is expelled before it reaches the lower lobe of the lungs. Incomplete breathing causes carbon dioxide to remain in the lungs, which prevents the absorption of oxygen and the accumulation of fresh air, and slowly weakens the lungs.

[ The reasons for focusing on the breath in yoga asana practice ]

Breathing slowly and deeper are regularly advocated for relaxation, stress management, control of psycho physiological states and to improve organ function. Anatomically speaking, there is a favorable equilibrium (balance in breathing pressures) with breathing, which can be easily disrupted by fatigue or prolonged sympathetic (excitatory) nervous system arousal as seen with stress. One therapeutic goal of yoga is that it may reduce or alleviate some of the chronic negative effects of stress.

The first step of our yoga practice is to consciously link breath and body. We do this by allowing every movement to be led by the breath as we practice the asanas. The correct linking of breath and movement is the basis for the whole asana practice.

Normally we are not conscious of our breathing. It is an automatic process and we do it without will or volition. For breath and movement to be coordinated, our mind must attentively follow their union. When we do this, inhalation and exhalation are no longer automatic but become a conscious process. Finding the natural link between breath and movement is the most important aspect of asana practice.

We are closer to the flow of our breath and in this way can remain more alert during asana practice, , thereby avoiding mindless repetition.

The sound tells us when we have to stop or change an asana. If we do not succeed in maintaining a gentle, even, smooth sound, then we have gone beyond our limits in the practice. The quality of breath is therefore the clearest indication of the quality of our asana practice.

However beautifully we carry out an asana, however flexible out body may be, if we do not achieve the integration of body, breath, and mind we can hardly claim that what we doing is yoga. What is yoga after all? It is something that we experience inside, deep within our being. Yoga is not an external experience. In yoga we try in every action to be as attentive as possible to everything we do. Yoga is different from dance or theatre. In yoga we are not creating something for others to look at. As we perform the various asanas we observe what we are doing and how we are doing it. We do it only for ourselves. We are both observer and what is observed at the same time. If we do not pay attention to ourselves in our practice, then we cannot call it yoga.

[ The intention of the led class ]

The instructor's count of seconds is even and regular, so that the practitioner can recognize bad habits that he or she does not notice before. For example,

Each time they come to a particular posture, they tend to do habitual actions (arranging mats, wiping sweat, clearing throat…);

Always in certain postures, moving too fast or too slow, especially in transitions;

Mental expectations (the sun is about to shine on me, the instructor is coming to adjust me...)

● Some asanas are easier to do than others, and some require extra effort. The mental shift between "ease and extra effort" is one of the causes of distraction. The even counting of seconds in a led class allows the practitioner to remove his or her habitual judgments and concentrate fully on moving with the breath, a constant source of energy that comes from practicing one movement after another in unison with the inhalation and exhalation.

From the above, it is clear that the ideal participant for a led class is one who has practiced the asanas on a regular basis and is familiar with the sequence and movement details. Therefore, it is advisable for the instructor to consider which postures the participants are currently practicing (on a regular basis) before deciding which postures to lead the class to that day.

If in a Primary Series led class, some of the participants do not know the details of the sequences or transitions, the instructor may have to explain the details. For the instructor, the interspersed phrases explaining movement transitions cause the counting of breath seconds to become uneven, faster and slower. For the listener, the ears are constantly receiving movement-shifting phrases, As a result, one has to listen and do at the same time, invisibly putting the movement as the main thing and the breathing as the secondary thing or even ignoring it.

【 What is progress? 】

The progress can be clarified in one sentence.

Conscious breathing is one of the greatest tools to influence the effect of the postures without changing the posture.”– T.K.V. Desikachar

The first thing to realize is to let your body flow with the breath, not to let your body control the breath. No matter what asana you do, you should not do it at the expense of short, irregular breaths.

Moving with your breath, you can feel the Prana flowing. You are not in downward-facing dog and waiting for count 3,4,5. Your whole body muscles are working, connected. This is practice really is. That same practice which you got to do is to move slowly, with rhythm, bringing your energy to a focused attention. So you can watch the breath, watch the movement in the body. Yoga Asana builds the strength up. You learn aware the breath in Asana. Even in Navasana (boat pose), you still count to five, centered on your mind, just breathe. This is your count, nothing is going to change. Observe well also in the transitions Chaturanga, Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, Adho Mukha Svanasana.

Counting, Listening, Observing Breath. Keep the best part of exhalation, then you inhale. Try to apply these techniques on Asana, non-stop breathing, feel the life force.

【 Conslusion 】

The big deception.

Some practitioners have entered the advanced series without having a correct breathing in the first series or even in the sun salutations, many think they have arrived because they make a sound with the breathing and the postures and the advanced series, but the breath is not regular or even tense and it stops at certain moments and is not properly positioned in the body, there is just no awareness in the moment and the affect on the mind is not in the good direction. There is no harm in trying out the advanced postures for a while, but you have to be aware of where you are at and not be in total illusion. If you do a first series and you are out of breath and cannot keep a regular and calm rhythm, it is not necessary to go further, and it is the same principle in the following series, at this moment the teacher has to say it or he has not understood himself and the practitioner remains in the illusion or the practitioner does not want to hear anything, but this will catch up with him at some point.

The practice may take a turn in a direction that you didn't think of at first.

If your teacher tells you to come back in the first series as long as it will take, it is a good sign of goodwill on his part, because he knows that it will be beneficial for the practitioner to build him, and to build the internal strength, the strength of the yogi, and only when the practitioner is ready and if the desire and the need is there, approach the advanced series, but they will not bring you more on the level of internal transformation. Because do not misunderstand, it is not because you make all the sequences that you are advanced, that can be largely misleading, Yoga is invisible, it is better to study with a teacher who has a clear understanding of the sun salutations, because he will have understood everything else and will bring you to a different vision, and that will open a door, while a teacher who has not understood the basics, may take you to the advanced series, but it will be only mechanical and will have no flavor. The basics hold unsuspected things and can take you to an unsuspected subtlety, it is the door to infinity, the one that will take away even the desire to go to the advanced series, so happy you will be where you are, don't become a crazy monkey, too many experienced practitioners are unhappy, being happy is a key point of the practice, but it also requires going through phases of transformation that are not always easy.

The intention of a led series is to bring the practitioner to a regular rhythm without interruption and to remove the bad habits which can be taken during Mysore practices, and to purify the practice to remove all the unnecessary movements so as to purify the mind. Otherwise, It is not of much interest neither for the practitioner nor for the teacher, because to lead in Sanskrit account or to follow the count like a robot is not at all interesting. The led practice if it has no reason is the most boring part of the practice, so we might as well do it correctly, and it is not for nothing that we can say that the Mysore practice is a precious gift, because it is the most impactful approach in learning and understanding the practice. Do not become robots of Yoga, because robots of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, there are some, but not only in this system. To develop one's critical intelligence is an important part of the yoga path, but also simply, as a human being, it is a worthwhile effort in this world to live with integrity.

[Following are the three video extracts. Simple yet so true. ]

Simple yet so true.

Video 2006: Sri K. Pattabhi Jois ( founder of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga) on Ashtanga Yoga.One method, Yoga method.

Asana, Pranayama, Pratyahara, etc… This is all one type method.

That is universal not one man’s property, is not one country property.

Yoga is universal.

Yoga is not physically purpose.

Yoga is internal cleaning, internal exercise. Yoga is not external exercising.

Yoga means your self-knowledge.

Yoga is a taking that good way going. That is method.

You start yoga, asana (posture) is start. The asanas we do, given us a very good strength and stamina. Your energy is increasing every day. Your mind is also correctly standing. This is yoga method. Abhyasa (practicing for a longer time, practicing without interruption and staying committed to the practice).

You can take practice. Don’t talk.(Don't just talk about it but not practice it.)

First your stamina, you get it first.

Body means three types of body. External Body, internal body, and Spiritual body. That is, three types of body strength.

Only for yoga practice with breathing systems, with Vinyasas all included.

Breathing is very important. Without breathing, the spiritual body and mind are not coming.

Breathing, it is the method, that is called Vinyasas.

Inhalation, exhalation, one type of time. 10 seconds, 10 seconds. 15 seconds, 15 seconds.

Inhalation, 10 seconds; exhalation, 10 seconds.

Inhalation, 15 seconds; exhalation, also 15 seconds.

Same method, you follow.


Video 2016: Manju Pattabhi Jois (son of Sri K. Pattabhi Jois) on Ashtanga Yoga

What is Yoga about?

Yoga is all about understanding ourselves. It is a travel within yourself. It is the discovery of yourself, who we are, why we are, why we are here. These are the things that are important. Yoga, as in the Sansrikt word “Yuj”, means unite, unite with yourself. That’s what the yoga is all about.

How do I find a suitable teacher?

You want to find a teacher who is very humble. Who is happily open and non-ego. They should not have any ego at anything. Find a teacher who loves to teach you and share his knowledge with you. It is just caring and sharing, that’s all it is about. If you don’t find that in a teacher, you should not practice with them. When you choose a teacher, you have to be very careful. If you feel comfortable with the teacher, you to study with them.


Video 2022 : Mark Darby.

Darby and his wife Joanne began their practice with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in 1979 when they spent four years in Mysore, India.

What is the relationship between breathing and yoga?

If there is no breath, it’s not yoga. It’s that simple.

Breathing is the first thing that I learned with Pattabhi Jois. Our movements were coordinated with our breathing. Every inhalation there was a movement, the exhalation was a movement. We spent time in the postures. In those days it was 8 breaths in each posture. We are always counting the breath.

The Ashtanga system works with Vinyasa. Pattabhi Jois said “Do not do yoga without Vinyasas. Vinyasas translates as moving around the breath. Everything we do in Ashtanga is involved with breathing. As my other teacher Sheilendra Sharma says, “the breath is the liaison between the mind and the consciousness”. This is important as we breathe, it works with our nervous system. Our Chi and Prana ultimately works connected us to our brain and from our brain to the consciousness.

Breath and yoga are the most important thing. Without breathing it is not yoga. Pattabhi Jois said “no breathing, it’s only circus”. If you want to be doing yoga make sure you place the most emphasis on the breath. Evenness of breath.



The Heart of Yoga. Par T.K.V. Desikachar

Notes de cours avec Mark Darby et Joanne Darby au cours des 12 dernières années.

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