What is Vinyasa?

Photo by Ray Tamarra
The beginning of a Sun Salutation.

I think that it might be prudent to begin with an orientation. My views and perspectives on vinyasa are in part tempered by an historical moment (2004-2017) and a region of the world: New York City. What vinyasa is here today, is probably different than it was 20 years ago, and is probably different than what it is in other regions and cities.

A brief history: Vinyasa was invented by Krishnamacharya. Among many things, he made two contributions to our understanding of “vinyasa” yoga: breath connected to movement, and “pose counter pose” theory. Pattabi Jois, who studied with Krishnamacharya went on to develop Ashtanga Yoga, which is formally named Ashtanga Vinaysa Yoga. Most modern practices generally called vinyasa have Ashtanga as a parent practice.

From The Heart of Yoga, Krishnamacharya’s son, Desikachar, writes:

“Developing a yoga practice according to the ideas expressed in the Yoga Sutra is an action referred to as vinyasa krama. Krama is the step or literally “stages,” nyasa means “to place,” and the prefix vi –translates as “in a special way.” The concept of vinyasa krama tells us that it is not enough to simply take a step; that step needs to take us in the right direction and be made in the right way.” (The Heart of Yoga, pg. 25)

These days, this definition of vinyasa floats around and is commonly cited: to place in a special way. It is sourced from this book. “To place in a special way” is partially correct. If you read carefully, in the quote, Desikachar is also very clear about two things:

  1. The step must be in the right direction
  2. It must be made in the right way
Arms overhead

Consider this. You have a candy bar, a key, and a watch. You place these things in a special way upon your dresser. Have you done vinyasa?

I jest, of course, but I do so to point out the other crucial aspects of vinyasa. You gotta know where you’re going. You gotta go in that direction. The step you make needs to be done in the right way. If you’re headed towards advanced OCD, then maybe putting your candy bar, key, and watch in a special way on your dresser is exactly correct, and then yeah, you’re doing vinyasa. Have fun!

In the interview section of The Heart of Yoga Desikachar applies these two ideas—that you need to go in the right direction, and you must take the right action—to yoga more directly. He answers an open-ended request from the interviewer to say something about “structuring your yoga practice intelligently—the concept of vinyasa karma.” Quoting at length:

“First I must ask: what do you mean by “intelligently”? You are probably familiar with the argument that doing the headstand brings more blood into the head. Somebody who has the feeling that the blood supply to the head is not good enough then comes to the conclusion that the headstand is the best asana for them. But first we should think this through. Do we all suffer from a deficient supply of the blood to the head simply because we stand and walk upright? Suppose that someone is haunted by this idea so much that he begin to practice the headstand every day, if possible first thing in the morning, perhaps as the first and only asana. Our experience in working with all kinds of people has taught us that people who do this eventually suffer from enormous problems in the neck, that then result in great tension and stiffness in that area and a decreased supply of blood to the whole musculature of the neck—precisely the opposite of what they hoped they would achieve.

An intelligent approach to yoga practice means that, before you begin, you are clear about the various aspects of the asana you wish to practice, and know how to prepare for them in such a way that you reduce or negate any undesired effects. With regard to the headstand, for example, the questions are: is my neck prepared for this? Can I breathe well in the asana? Is my back strong enough to raise the entire weight of my legs? To approach your practice intelligently means that you know the implications of what you want to do, whether that be asana or pranayama, and to make appropriate preparations and adjustments. It is not enough to jump if you want to reach the sky. Taking an intelligent approach means working toward your goal step-by-step. If you want to travel overseas, the first thing you need is a passport. Then you need visas for the countries you intend to visit, and so forth. The simple fact that you want to go there does not make the trip possible. All learning follows this pattern.” (ibid, xx)

Forward fold. Sort of. Mostly.

In modern yoga, we may at any time be working with these four basic definitions of vinyasa (I’ve ranked them from most common understanding to least-known):

  1. A type of yoga class—now-a-days sometimes even assumed to be a “flow” class.
  2. A specific sequence of breath-synchronized movements to transition between sustained postures, a shorthand for: plank, chatturanga, upward-facing dog, downward-facing dog
  3. The linking of body movement with breath
  4. Setting an intention for one’s personal yoga practice and taking the necessary steps towards reaching that goal

“Vinyasa means a gradual progression or a step-by-step approach that systematically and appropriately takes a student from one point and safely lands them at the next point. It is sometimes described as the “breathing system,” or the union of breath and movement that make up the steps.” Maty Ezraty

Styles of yoga that a commonly considered to be vinyasa based on their relationship to Ashtanga yoga include Baptiste Yoga, Jivamukti, Power Yoga, and Prana Flow. I also consider my home lineage, Forrest Yoga, to be a vinyasa practice for two main reasons:

  1. How strongly we link the breath to motions. Not always “big” movements, as are often expected, but smaller more internal actions as well.
  2. How we always set a strong intent for the practice with a specified asana goal, as well as a goal for internal work, and then set about creating an intelligent pathway towards success.

Often, in my classes, students find that they are able to accomplish things that they previously had never done before. These results are the effects of skillful vinyasa—it’s the responsibility of the teacher to help guide our students towards successful outcomes, in the form of asana accomplishments and internal breakthroughs.

Half Lift

Often in my classes, students have the experience of breathing more, and more deeply than they ever have. This is the result of vinyasa—the deep union of breath with actions small and large.

The aspect of vinyasa that intrigues me the most, is the potential for teaching people about how to reach their own goals in their lives. Step by step, intelligent action towards an asana goal feels a certain way. It contains elements of making a decision about where you want to go, studying the possible routes, deciding on a course, taking deliberate action, making course corrections on the way, cultivating patience and determination together, faith in the process, surrender to the mystery, and celebration upon arrival.

If we teach our people about these things in class, and dissuade them from the things that will impede their progress—impatience, ego, lack of a plan, use of undo force, giving up, just to name a few—then we will be giving them incredible life skills. This is part of why teaching yoga can be so powerful: you have an opportunity to model for your students decisions and actions that will lead them down a path to success, and then encourage them to find similar experiences on their own.

Vinyasa is so much more than it seems on the surface. Vinyasa is a way of living life. Vinyasa is a form of critical thinking that will help people move towards their successes. Vinyasa is a about skillful teaching, learning, and the process of living feeling empowered.

Make THIS definition of vinyasa the one that comes to the fore whenever you hear the word, and it will change your perspective forever:

Setting an intention for one’s personal yoga practice and taking the necessary steps towards reaching that goal.

Downward Facing Dog

For those of you that don’t live in our fair city of New York, I hope that you’ll check out my Sound Cloud channel, where I have many, many “Forrest Inspired Vinyasa” classes up for you to take. On friendly online “stalker” made my day by writing this about me: You have teaching perfected. Seriously. Tone of voice and perfect blend of seriousness and humor. Like hanging out with a friend that will call you on your shit.  DANG GIRL! MY WORK HERE IS DONE: PERFECTION ATTAINED! haha. Click HERE to see of you agree with her! 

And, if you’re on the East Coast, I and my buddy Leslie Pearlman teach a weekend module about Forrest Yoga & Forrest Inspired Vinyasa. We’re available to teach it at your studio, or if you’re free the first weekend in March (2017), join us at her studio for what will be an incredible weekend of knowledge. Click HERE to read about the modular  300 hour training of which this weekend is a part. If you want a description of the module, just reach out in the comments, and I’ll email it to you.

Bye for now. Keep being awesome.

~E

 

2 thoughts on “What is Vinyasa?

  • February 21, 2017 at 8:09 pm
    Permalink

    Great way to bust through the made up wall I have had in my way for the last 6 months!

    Thank you for bridging the gap of real facts and word on the street. I now hope to teach more in my communality since everyone is asking for more Vinyasa classes.

    Reply
    • February 22, 2017 at 2:08 am
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      Tell me more! Where are you in the world? What is your training/background?

      Reply

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