[This article was kindly contributed by Brooke Hewes].
Last month I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Rome’s Lino Miele at a workshop in Bozeman, Montana. If you haven’t heard of him, Lino is a senior Ashtanga Yoga teacher who has been studying the practice for more than 20 years-yet you wouldn’t know it at first glance. He’s as humble as a novice and as excited about the practice as if it were a recent discovery.
As those of us who practice know, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is vigorous. It’s a remarkable and joyful practice, but vigorous nonetheless. In fact, it’s the vigor-the progressively challenging postures strung together with coordinated breath and movement-that encourages body-mind unification. That cultivates all eight limbs of Ashtanga. That encourages stillness: the calm and joy inherent in the present moment. With the grace of a ballet dancer, the shifting intonations of a seasoned thespian, and the wisdom of a yogi, Lino showed a room full of students the gentle side intrinsic to Ashtanga. His lens and teaching tool was the Full Vinyasa System, which he also refers to as “the scientific method.”
The following highlights from his workshop can inform and lend context to all students of yoga, Ashtanga or otherwise.
1. Learn Full Vinyasa. Vinyasa is synchronized breath and movement. Each time you move with conscious breath, you are completing a vinyasa. While I have always known the definition of the term, before Lino I understood vinyasa as what transpires between poses: the moving transitions. In Ashtanga, however, vinyasa supports and cradles the posture, which itself is included in the vinyasa count that begins and ends at samasthiti. While counting vinyasa for janu shirshasana A, B and C, for instance, there are 22 coordinated body-breath movements between samasthiti, including “jumping through”, “jumping back,” and what Lino calls the “state of the asana”: the five breaths spend in head-to-knee pose.
Lino became interested in the scientific method of vinyasa five years after first studying with guruji in Mysore. In 1993, Lino was in France when he, as he writes in his book Astanga Yoga, was inspired when Sri. K. Pattabhi Jois “in his energetic voice [began] calling the exact number of the vinyasa.” Lino began researching the system, which Pattabhi Jois with his guru Sri. T. Krishnamacharya developed from the ancient text Yoga Korunta, which states “Oh yogi! Do not do asana without vinyasa.” In addition to listing each vinyasa count for all postures in surya namaskara A and B, the primary series and the finishing sequence, in Astanga Yoga Lino lists the benefits of each posture ascertained from time spent with guruji, consultation with doctors and persistent review of medical texts. And, no doubt, his own dedicated yogasana.
As students learn the Ashtanga Vinyasa sequence, Lino advises learning these counts-that uttihtia trikonasana (triangle pose), for example, has five vinyasas; parshvottanasana (intense side stretch pose) has 16 vinyasas; and navasana (boat pose) has 13-to see the big picture. To understand the fluidity of breath, body and mind so beautifully articulated through Ashtanga Yoga.
2. Practice Full Vinyasa. During what Lino called a full vinyasa practice, we came to samasthiti between most of the postures, including seated poses. As we did, Lino kept count. “Line up each asana with breath,” he said. He presented the system as a teaching tool that we should learn but not always do. Just knowing the count for each posture informs us of the extra breaths and fidgeting (i.e. the distractions) we so often take between poses. If one did practice with a vinyasa between each posture every day, the better part of their mornings would be spent on the mat. (And while this would be delightful, it precludes most day jobs.) Which brings me to another lovely lesson from Lino: learn, and then learn to let go.
3. Don’t Get Attached-to Full Vinyasa or Anything. Lino insists that learning about the vinyasa system helps one dive deeper into the sequence, and, eventually, oneself. “You taste it, eat it, swallow the system, you digest the system, “he told us in his Italian-accented, matter-of-fact English. In time, he continued, extending the metaphor even further, you become the system. “The practice is you,” he said, and each time you step on your mat, “you work on yourself.”
Years ago Lino taught this system at a workshop in New York City. After learning the full vinyasa system, one woman started doing it every day (as Lino himself did for years). She did it during the primary series and then the second series. Then, two years later, she saw Lino again and she was still doing it. “That’s enough. Basta. Stop,” he said to her. She asked why. He explained that had he taught it as a tool-to become aware-but not to do every day. She started crying, and not just with gentle, zig-zag tears, but with sobs. “Why you cry,” he asked. And she replied: “You’ve taken away my baby.”
It’s vinyasa, he told us all with a knowing smile and a stern wag of his pointer finger, not her baby.
In other words, don’t get attached.
4. Cultivate Compassion for Yourself. “What you don’t do today, you do tomorrow,” Lino told us. In terms of vinyasa, learn the proper counts for each posture and aspire toward them. In the meanwhile, be patient and give yourself a break as you practice lengthening your breath and becoming more adept at transitions. The strength, skill and stamina cultivated through practice will build and, eventually, give way to a fluid full vinyasa practice. Once there, you can decide on your own when it is best to practice with full or half vinyasa.
NOTE: In Astanga Yoga, Lino recommends that beginners practice half vinyasa-which most of us likely do and includes picking up, jumping back and jumping forward to seated positions sans samasthiti; for postures like supta padangusthasana (sleeping big toe posture) where you finish on your back, half vinyasa is initiated by chakrasana (wheel).
5. Practice Posture, not Pride. Which Lino-after arranging himself into a challenging posture and, in jest, strutting around the room with a proud, inflated chest-demonstrated by glancing toward the ceiling and, with one hand over the other, pulling down his ego. Yoga, he explained, lends ample opportunity for accomplishment. But when you finally get that pose you’ve been working on for months, years even, feel a sense of accomplishment and move on. When you move fluidly and properly through full vinyasa, congratulate yourself and then come back to your breath. Ground your ego just as you do your big toe mounds in samasthiti.
6. Go Ahead and Laugh. Have fun. He did. Just be sure to maintain vinyasa meanwhile.
7. It’s OK to be Selfish. Make time for your practice without feeling guilty. Through your practice, he said, you will open your heart to a more joyful, intrinsic way of being. You will change. You will find stillness and peace. By making such space in yourself, you will inspire love and mindfulness in others.
And while you’ve got some time, go ahead and practice full vinyasa. It may take longer, but as one woman who I practice with so intuitively put it, “it’s like coming up for air … one gets the chance to completely fill the lungs before diving back into the practice.” Coming to samasthiti between postures isn’t tiring, it’s invigorating for the many opportunities to take deep, comfortable breaths.
8. Carefully, Carefully. Slowly, slowly, Lino repeatedly cautioned. Pay attention to the unique way that your breath floats through your body. And if your breath is too quick or vigorous, stop, place your right hand over your heart, and catch your breath before moving on.
Again, because full vinyasa inherently slows and deepens your breath so that you can move within the prescribed vinyasa counts, you are careful. You are aware. You are present.
9. See Lino Again. That’s my lesson, not his.
â€¢ Lino’s Ashtanga Yoga Schools in Rome (Italy), Copenhagen (Denmark) and Helsinki (Finland).
â€¢ Astanga Yoga, written by Lino. This page also showcases his two DVDs, a poster illustrating the primary series, and Sri K. Pattabhi Jois’ book Yoga Mala.
â€¢ A photo essay of Lino’s annual workshop in Kovalam Beach, South India.
â€¢ A review of Lino’s first workshop in the states (Chicago, 1999).
A modified version of this story appeared April 25, 2008 in Yoga On & Off the Mat, a biweekly column by Brooke Hewes about Yoga that can be viewed at NewWest.net/yoga.