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

 

What does it mean to “Adore Your Body?”

What does it mean to “Adore Your Body?”

Screen-shot-2014-01-29-at-10-1.39.03-PM-960x474A couple of years ago I crafted a Signature System to help men and women get over their body image challenges. I named it “Adore Your Body.”

I was looking for some words that were “gender neutral” but still encompassed the mission. For me, the word “love” is over-used, misunderstood, and also has some sexual connotations. I didn’t want people to think the program is about masturbation! And yet, I know that some recoiled from the title. For many, to adore your body is a far stretch, already out of reach. For more people than you might think the starting point was “I hate my body”—it was for me!—and from that low, low point a step up would be, well, to hate it just a little less. Maybe, “loathe,” or “despise,” or even “tolerate” would be a really great place to move into!

When I crafted the course title, the body positive movement was just gaining steam. Since that time in 2013, the movement seems to have plateaued a bit: there’s far less writing on the topic, and I think perhaps thanks to Tess Holiday attention has pivoted to acceptance of fat bodies, which is in-and-of-itself a good thing! In the intervening couple of years, there was a lot of writing that I think transformed the project of bolstering your body confidence into yet another female social obligation, one where, if you fell short, it was just yet another task to fail. Bummer. In response to that new social pressure, some people decided to opt out. Why should I have to love my body? They asked? Isn’t it enough just to call a truce?

Yes it can be, and to my point, reaching a neutral place with your body is a terrific place that falls along this spectrum that I’m talking about, where HATE lies at one end, and well, I’m proposing that “adore” lies at the other.

Another critique of the movement was around the project of “body improvement.” So, if you want to improve your body, is that necessarily a form of body hatred, or could it possibly be another form of body love? My answer: it all depends on the intent behind the action. And, the only person who can really be honest about that is YOU. So you want to loose weight because you enjoy the project of working out, eating well, being at the gym, and having measurable results? Cool! But, I ask you this: would you be able to feel good about yourself if you were unable to do all those things? Would you be cool with an extra 10 pounds? Because if you can’t, then you’re probably not really adoring your body.

Why? Here’s the thing. In my mind “adoring” is an unconditional kind of gig. As best as fallible humans can pull of “unconditional.” “Adoring” means, I respect and honor you through thick and thin, through good times, and bad, though health and illness. You don’t have to do anything, achieve anything to be awarded my love. It is enough that you ARE, and for that I adore you.

Adoring is not the kind of emotion that says: I only approve of you IF you look a certain way, behave a certain way, achieve certain things, HAVE certain things. Those are the hallmarks of a conditional kind of love. That is not “adoring.” And, I believe, that is not even love. It is a cage.

O.K. that’s all well and good, you might be thinking, but, what does adoring look like in practice? When I slam up against all the difficulty and messiness of life: then what???

I have ideas for you, and some of them have to do with how do you practice yoga, because on the mat is the place where I began to unravel my own body hatred. If you don’t practice yoga yet reach out to me, and I’ll help you find a good teacher to work with. It’s important that you get some guidance in this department, because not all yoga instructors are trained around how to promote body positivity in the classroom.

If your body is injured, ill, or tired, respond to that accordingly. The demands of our daily lives often seem to take precedence over, well, everything, including the body that houses all other parts of us. Over centuries, we have come to treat the body like it is a machine, but it is not. The body is a mysterious, complex, and intelligent organism. What would it feel like to treat it with that kind of due respect?

Yoga portraits at JR Studio on December 12, 2015 in NYC. (Photo by Ray Tamarra)
Lounge Lunge is like my favorite pose ever. (Photo by Ray Tamarra)

Here are a few thoughts:

If you’re injured and continuing your yoga practice, you need to modify the postures. If you’re not sure how, find a skilled instructor who can help you figure out what to do in the poses that threaten your injury.

If you are sick (like a cold, or a headache, or something like that): don’t go to work! Don’t “push through.” Rest. If you are tired, notice that, and adjust your routine accordingly. Can you go to sleep earlier? Can you catch a 20-minute nap? Could you put your legs up the wall at your office?

The ways that we are cruel to our bodies begin here with small, daily occurrences. And, we have an opportunity to alter that relationship, every day, through small behavior adjustments.

If you gain some weight. Wait. Don’t do anything. Often people gain weight and freak out. They think it’s a bad thing to gain weight. And why wouldn’t they? Everything about our society tells us that to be thin is to be virtuous and to be fat is to be reviled. But, I ask you, why do you buy into this? Have you really thought it through? Where did this construct come from? How does it fit into a historical context? What is the function of this ideology? There was a time when being thin was unattractive and being fat was IT. These ideals as not inherently “good” or “bad.” We have decided that they are. And we can “un-decide.”

So, if you gain three pounds or five, or twenty, refrain from:

  • Putting yourself on a diet, cleanse, juice fast
  • Doubling down on your exercise regime
  • Thinking doomsday thoughts

Instead, get curious about what your body is doing, and why. Is it responding to the season? Is it building new hair, bones, or fingernails? When your body puts on some pounds, its not “doing it to you.” It has its own agenda, which you mostly know nothing about. So, get curious. Curiosity is part of “adoring.”

Watch the way you talk about your body. Watch the way you THINK about other people’s bodies.

Very often we think and say derogatory things about our bodies. There are so very many reasons that we do this. I’m not gonna get into it. I’ve got one thing to say: STOP IT.

Often we think ill thoughts about other people: Why did she think wearing that was O.K.? Fashion FAIL! Looks like she’s put on a few pounds. Getting wrinkles! She’s aged badly…

Take your pick of cruel thoughts. But here’s the deal: those are fears about yourself that you have projected onto other people. So, instead of doing a silent mental laceration of another human being, shift into a place of curiosity and compassion. Try these thoughts instead:

Wow, what an original outfit! I wonder what made her think to put those things together today. Or, maybe she was just down to the very last clean items. Haha! I know what that feels like!

 She’s got such a cute look: no matter whether she’s a little thinner or a little heavier, I just adore everything about her.

Wrinkles are so great. They show a life-line on the face. Hopefully there’s a lot of laughs there! I hope that the past few years haven’t been too hard on her…Maybe I should check in…

A word or twelve about food: We live in a “diet culture.” What does that mean, you ask? It means that in our society, dieting is considered compulsory and a sign of virtue, especially for women. Here’s what I’ve got to say about that. No one knows better than your body does what it needs to eat. The entire process of undoing ideas of “I should eat this” or “I shouldn’t eat that” can take many years. But in the end, no book, no other human or “authority figure” can figure out for you what you need to eat. It’s a private and intimate conversation between you and your body. And, believe me, your body WANTS to eat nutritious, yummy food! So, consider “adoring” to include going on a quest to find out what your body really wants, when, and how much. No one likes to be starved. Don’t do it. Don’t do it ever again.

Finally, be sweet, and gentle, and generous with touch. When you touch your own body—if you pay attention carefully—you might be surprised to discover that you poke, prod, pinch, twist, scratch. Most of these are probably not experiences that a person would submit to as a form of receiving love. Begin the process of building an adoring relationship with your body by touching it in ways that it responds to favorably. Be respectful. Be gentle. Be kind. These are ideals that can go along with “adoring.”

Start with the practices. And, if you’d like to go deeper, hop on my mailing list at www.ericamather.com, and you’ll hear all the news, including when I roll out my next body confidence coaching program. I hope to have to opportunity to work with you! I’m passionate about this project, and view it as a lifelong adventure, building a positive relationship with the body so that you can stop wasting time in the energy drain of body hatred and instead use your life for your own good, and for the good of everyone around you. I hope to hear from you soon!