Whose drumbeat do you move to?

Whose drumbeat do you move to? How do you keep a steady rhythm in your yoga practice and in your life?

Watching David Robson’s new, outstanding Learn to Float instructional video (review below) has me thinking about drumbeats, rhythm, cadence and steadiness — from salsa dancing and Ashtanga yoga to daily life and life trajectories.

The salsa beat

In kinetic and chaotic environments, it can be a challenge to achieve the focus needed to discern the right rhythm. When my boyfriend and I started salsa dancing lessons earlier this year, one of the hardest skills to pick up was how to hear the underlying beat pattern that was keeping pace of the song amidst the cacophony of all the other instruments. It’s easy to think you’re following the right beat — until it starts to speed up, or it drops altogether, signaling that you had your attention in the wrong place.

I see this a lot in new students who are on the mat but allow most of their focus to go toward flitting about the room on all the distractions around them — who is doing that challenging pose they can’t get into yet? Who’s come down into balasana (child’s pose)? Who just walked back into the room after a trip to the bathroom? I think of the jumping ball you get on a karaoke screen when I think about the level of attention we’re talking about in cases like these. A consistent practice helps eye-darters begin to settle in, and it helps them start to become more attune to the fluctuations of their own body and their own breath.

Now, after you discern the pattern, do you know which beat is primary? Once I started having an easier time recognizing the right rhythm in a salsa song, I learned that there was another factor to consider — which beat is emphasized. There are  two competing schools in modern salsa dancing — salsa on 1 (the kind we do) and salsa on 2, prevalent in New York. Changing which beat to emphasize can change your whole experience of the dance.

The Ashtanga breath

The salsa on 1 vs. salsa on 2 distinction reminds me a bit about the different schools of thought when it comes to vinyasa breaths. When do you inhale and when do you exhale in a sequence? In the Ashtanga system, when you’re in down dog and need to float forward to return to the top of the mat, it’s on an inhale. That just fundamentally makes sense to me, because you’re riding the wave of your breath to help you get from point A to point B as lightly and as effortlessly as possible. (As a side note, some ashtangis keep the bandhas engaged but “jump empty” to the top of the mat, taking the inhale to lift the head before coming into ashtau, folding forward. I’ve tried that out for some time and like that approach as well. Something about moving “empty” speaks to me. But this is probably a topic for another blog post.)

In the power yoga system I was taught, you exhale from down dog to return to the top of the mat (the verbal cue would be: “from down dog, inhale press, exhale step or float to the top of your mat”). I am less enamored of this way of floating, because I feel that it goes against the grain of how I contextualize the role of the breath. I think exhaling to the top encourages more of a strength-and-momentum-based, rather than a breath-and-bandha-based, approach to moving. (That said, I am a bilingual yogi — I can speak both Ashtanga and power :). When I teach a power yoga or vinyasa flow class, I teach with the verbal cue to exhale to the top of the mat.)

No matter where you fall on the inhale and exhale debate, perhaps the most important thing is that your breaths are consistent and are keeping a steady pace for the practice.

Moving at the speed of life

Ultimately, what does steadiness in our practice give us? It’s hard to be independent if we need someone else to keep time for us. I’ve always worked in deadline-driven jobs, so I know what it’s like to live, to some extent, on someone else’s clock. But even within that pressure cooker, you can find your own rhythm so that you don’t lose your own sense of grounding — or worse, so you don’t lose your sense of self altogether. Finding this space of being even-keel is one of my life struggles. I know I will be working on my level of reactivity till the day I die. But the more I find a steady beat on the mat, the more practice I’ll have in discerning the internal beat pattern that moves my spirit on some fundamental level — and the more likely I’ll be able to stay attuned to that pattern when I’m off the mat.

The Learn to Float instructional video

I wrote about the release of Learn to Float earlier this week, and was looking forward to having the time to finally stream it and practice along. (Watch a snippet if you haven’t already.) Ashtanga.com was right in calling this production “mesmerizing.”

I think beginning and advanced ashtangis alike should download the video, stat. For less than the cost of a typical drop-in yoga class — the streaming video is $9.99 CAD (about $9.52 USD currently) – you get a 45-minute video that’s beautifully produced and keenly focused.

David tells you he is going to break down how to find the graceful floating found in the surya namaskaras (sun salutations). To get there, David discusses the importance of the technique behind tristanum, which he describes as ”the union of three places of attention” — asana (posture), dristri (gaze) and breath (even, sounded breathing).

He gives an excellent explanation of, and breakdown for, mula bandha and uddiyana bandha and suggests two rules that will help keep you focused, which helps with floating:

  • Movement always follows breath.
  • Your vinyasa should be a straight line.

He does a fantastic job of laying out steps of safety — including how to make sure you’re not overworking the tops of the shoulders and thus risking injury.

David begins to demonstrate surya namaskara A with this instruction:

Ekam, inhale, lift the arms, hands touch with the end of the breath, dvi, exhale, speed the movement up, hands on the floor, trini, inhale, slow down, lift the head, chaturi, step or hop back, chaturanga dandasana, pancha, inhale, slow down into upward dog…

Meanwhile, there’s a steady drumbeat provided by percussionist Mathew Stephens that marks one beat per second, with each inhale lasting four beats and each exhale lasting four breaths.

David makes a point to say that the drumbeat is just a prop — when you practice on your own, your breath may be a slower or faster. He says:

What matters is that you’re feeling what it’s like to breathe evenly, and to pace the movements evenly with the breath.

This is where this video truly excels, in my opinion — in distilling the essence of the practice and setting a steady pace that can deepen the meditative level of these movements that are strung together. Not only do the beats play the role of a metronome for the practice — they prevent you from cheating in poses you don’t like. I know my tendency is to take longer breaths in poses I like, such as tiriang mukhaikapada paschimottanasana (three-limbed forward bend), and shorter breaths in postures I have aversions to, such as utthita hasta padangusthasana (extended hand-to-big-toe).

I started my last two practices with the sun salutations included in the final “practice” segment of Learn to Float, and then continued with the rest of my series trying to keep that same rhythm. It was so grounding, and a bit primal at the same time — just me, my breath and the steadiness of this external drumbeat that reflected the steadiness my internal heartbeat.

(Photo credit: Flickr photostream photo of a Taiko drummer by Mayu ;p via Flickr Creative Commons. By the way, if you’ve never been to a Taiko show, go! It’s amazing stuff, and you have to see it live.)

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