What is Vinyasa?

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

 

On Forrest Yoga and Why You Really Must Attend Wind Horse

On Forrest Yoga and Why You Really Must Attend Wind Horse

 

 

 

 

 

 

We are at a very interesting crossroads in the history of American Yoga.  The Titans are rising and falling around us.  I know that many yogis have been deeply wounded by the Anusara happening, but it was bound to happen.  Why?  Because where there is light, there will be a shadow—we need only to look for it.  You have a shadow.  I have a shadow.  To think that you do not is delusional; to think that your beloved teacher does not is crazier yet.  And, to hold the existence of their shadows against your teacher is only to do violence against yourself.

Ana Forrest has fierce Kali energy.  She prowls the shadows of life.  Behind her, she leaves lives transformed.  For this reason, I believe, you either love her and her practice, or you hate her, or you just feel hot, tremendously sweaty, and don’t really “get it.”  It is a certain person at a very particular point in their spiritual development that is ready to take a deep, hard look at their shadows.  As Nietzsche says, “When you look into the abyss, it looks back into you.”  Be prepared to hold its gaze.

I am a Forrest Yoga Guardian: someone Ana has entrusted with the duty and privilege of seeing that the lineage endures.  As a student of the Shadow Lady, I am aware of her shadows—her humanity, if you will.  She is no deity.  She certainly is no Guru (never call her that! She will yell at you!).  I love and respect Forrest Yoga and its Creatrix, but will never idolize it, or her, because doing so is incorrect thought and action.

Though I will not suggest that Forrest Yoga is the correct practice for you (that is for you to find out), there are certain standout characteristics I believe worth noting.

First, Forrest Yoga encourages you to take a deep look into the abyss, for you to find yourself.  It never tells you what you will find.  It only creates the structure in which you can locate yourself.  This is immensely valuable.  Systems that tell you who and what you are, or should be, are not trustworthy.

Second, Forrest Yoga places a premium on feeling and breathing.  Only by feeling, and knowing your body, can you come to know yourself, and therefore make better decisions, be in clearer communication, and make good choices for your body while you are practicing.  By breathing consciously you begin to find the roots of your habitual ways of behaving.  I find that many of my students give me feedback that after studying with me, they really feel safe in other classes because they’ve learned tools of discernment and how to actually feel for themselves.  They can decide when and how to up level or down-level.  They begin to “see” themselves on the mat—the Witness wakes up.  Forrest Yoga creates independent thinkers and practitioners.

Third, there are not a lot of Forrest Yoga instructors.  This must be annoying to Ana—she pours the depths of herself into intimate, intense teacher trainings, and I bet would like to see the fruits of that in the form of many, many Forrest Yoga teachers.  But, why I think that this is actually a good thing there are so few, is that it is evidence of how Forrest Yoga teaches you to be true to yourself, and to find yourself.  Sometimes this means doing other things with your life, or teaching a different form of yoga, or just teaching “yoga.”  For example, I was recently teaching at the Bali Spirit Festival, and had an opportunity to lunch with Les Leventhal, a fellow Forrest-trained teacher.  He said Ana noted, “You’re not really teaching Forrest Yoga, Les.  What’s up with that?” to which he replied, “You told me to find my voice.  So I did.”  Boo-ya.  Many a great teacher is indebted to Ana for finding their voice; to see this, you just have to start looking for her tracks.

These are just a few of the really precious gifts of Forrest Yoga.

Ana Forrest’s life mission is to “mend the hoop of the people.”  As far as I can tell, her life mission is not to make a lot of money, or be a super-star (though she can be a serious diva—check that wardrobe!  Have you SEEN her on her Harley???), or get a spot on T.V., or have thousands upon thousands of Facebook followers.  Truly, she is absorbed in her dharma and this makes her very refreshing and lovable.  Having assisted a number of her shorter teacher trainings, let me tell you, “mending the hoop of the people” is a serious, deep, and exhausting undertaking.  Her practice authentically is all about mending, and not so much about marketing and commerce, which may well why YOU have yet to actually be in one of her classes, or one of her teacher’s classes, or attend a teacher training.

Ana’s star is rising, though.  She recently published her first book, Fierce Medicine, which is in its third printing.  Have a peek.  This year will mark the first all-Forrest festival, Wind Horse, held August 17-20 at Snow Mountain Ranch in Colorado.  I will be there teaching, as will many of the other Guardians.  If some of what I’ve already written has not convinced you of the merit of attending, allow me to appeal to some other factors.

There will be amazing, amazing teachers there!  Every last one of them.  Ana Forrest hand-picked all of these people, each who has very unique and special gifts, some with their hands, some with their sight, some with their ability to intuit and empath deeply.  They might not be names you know (yet), but consider it a chance to discover fresh voices.

It will be one-of-a-kind opportunity to feel and see what Forrest Yoga as it is interpreted and expressed through these very special, funny, sincere, authentic, no-nonsense human beings, my tribe, colleagues, and the people who Forrest Yoga will become.  Think about it.  At Wind Horse, you will be present for the inception of the next stage of development for Forrest Yoga, and important and landmark event in the history of American Yoga itself.

The event schedule was recently published, and there promises to be very special classes that speak to the talents and proclivities of each Guardian there.  I will be teaching one titled “Heart of Darkness—The Shadows and the Light,” a back bending class where we will really take a look at the things you fear most and hold them close.  I will also be teaching a class on “Smart Sequencing for Your Body,” where you will learn about how we put together Forrest Yoga classes, and why, and in which you will begin to write a class for yourself.

It is my deep wish that Wind Horse attracts practitioners from near and far, and generates massive enthusiasm for and excitement about Forrest Yoga.  It is also my sincere hope that as the Forrest Yoga community grows and matures, it can skillfully apply the shadow work in which the practice engages, and therefore sidestep the scandals and heartbreak that so many spiritual communities inevitably endure.  This work I believe must be a group effort, not a “top-down” affair.  Making the work the sole burden of the master teacher is both unfair and unrealistic.  As students in a lineage—ANY lineage—it is our job to study ALL parts of ourselves, and to see how our light casts shadows, and how we project them onto our teachers.  Spiritual evolution is accomplished through “together action” and this necessarily includes our teachers.  So, when your teachers are in your classes, touch them—even if you are scared to, even if you think their practices are so perfect—love them up.  If you see your teacher doing something you consider unethical, respectfully correct.  To allow anything else is to be complicit in wrong action.  We need to “spot” one another; everybody needs a hand getting to the next level.  Teachers are students and students are teachers.  All of us are fallible, human.  Remember this.

See you at Wind Horse.  A-ho!