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

 

3 Top Considerations When Sequencing for Injuries & Larger Body Types in Group Classes

3 Top Considerations When Sequencing for Injuries & Larger Body Types in Group Classes

yoga sequencing tourGroup classes are the way that most people are introduced to yoga. In an ideal world, everyone would have a personal practice guided by a skilled yoga teacher who would design a sequence specifically for that individual.

But this is not economically feasible for the majority of the yoga students.

And, as teachers, we are left with the burden delight of the Open Level class, where once in a blue moon no one is injured and everyone is basically on the same level. Hurray!

But this situation is rare, as you teachers know. On a difficult day there’s a beginner, an advanced practitioner, a person with carpal tunnel, a person with a herniated disc, two pregnant ladies in different trimesters, and a man carrying an extra 150 pounds.

Oh, geez. Now what?

I believe that some decisions about how you teach your class you must make in advance to be prepared for this sort of scenario. If it is our mission to make yoga accessible to any and all people, then we must actually teach in a way that truly represents that mission, down to the very way that we teach the smallest possible movement or breath.

Here are my top 3 considerations to look at, scaled from “big picture” to “minutia.

1.  Do you teach a method that is contraindicated for certain injuries, conditions, or body types?

In addition to Forrest Yoga, I also teach a style I call “Forrest Inspired Vinyasa.” While we don’t spend as much time doing down dogs and vinyasas as in a more traditional vinyasa class, we still spend much more time doing those things than we ever would in a Forrest Yoga class.

And, whenever a person comes in with a wrist injury, I wilt inside a little bit. This particular class style is most likely going to be problematic for their injury. BUT. This reality is something I know, and can prepare for. And, I make it a point to think through these things, in advance.

There are certain things that I’m less prepared for, like the student with an eye disorder who could not put her head below her heart. Ever. We made all kinds of modifications for her, but in truth, the class style itself was a poor fit for her condition. Think about it for a moment: what do you do in a vinyasa class with a person who can NEVER put their head under their heart. What kind of poses does that exclude?

How about the larger bodied person, who will probably never step their foot forward from a down dog to a lunge? How would it feel to you to be constantly reminded of a limitation, every time you moved through a vinyasa? Certain people have more tolerance for those kinds of aggravations than others, while others might more easily get discouraged and give up. It’s hard to know who you’re dealing with exactly when you meet people for the first time in an Open Level class.

Because of my extensive training in Forrest Yoga and ongoing apprenticeship with Ana Forrest, I’m better prepared than most teachers to handle these sorts of complications. I have ideas at the outset about what to do (I have a contingency plan), and I know how to trouble-shoot on the fly without disrupting the flow of the class.

But at its foundation, there are some problems with my class style itself. And these are issues that I need to be aware of. These are issues that WE, collectively, as yoga teachers, need to be aware of.

Think about other styles of yoga that have certain contraindications. What do you come up with?

2.  Do you teach a set sequence, or do you teach a sequence that varies?

Personally, I have chosen to teach a sequence that varies.

Here’s why: suppose you teach a set sequence that is heavy on forward bends and hamstring openings, and in class have a person with sciatica, another with a hamstring injury, and a third with a herniated disc.

All of these injuries are contra-indicated for forward bends. I don’t believe that it is morally or ethically responsible to allow these people into your class and teach it, knowing full well that the poses and the sequence are injurious to those people. But, you’ve painted yourself into a corner if you only know how to teach one sequence, or one kind of set of postures.

And yet, this kind of thing happens all the time.

3.  Are you constantly expanding your understanding of injuries and other people’s bodies?

It takes a lot of effort to educate yourself about injuries you’ve not experienced and body types that are not like yours.

If it’s not your gig, then it is ethically upright and honestly transparent to acknowledge that your class is not suitable for people with certain types of injuries, or that it may be difficult for people who are carrying extra weight.

As I’ve mentioned above, a problem I have with Vinyasa—a practice I do, and love—is that it is very difficult on the hands and wrists, and for people who have and wrist issues (that’s like everyone who works at a computer) can frankly be injurious. As yoga teachers, we may not really be aware of this so much, because WE spend our days very differently than 90% of the population.

Or imagine if you weighed an extra 150 pounds: how do you think your hands might respond to all of the repetitive motions with additional pressure on the hands and wrists?

Stepping a leg forward from a down dog to a lunge can be tremendously difficult for a person who is carrying even as little as 30 extra pounds. Like, for instance, a pregnant woman.

So how can you educate yourself? Here are four ways to get started.

1.  Get curious. Start to really look at your students and see how they are struggling, and then imagine what that might feel like. Then, look for solutions.

2.  Consider the experience in your own body. Imagine if you had a hamstring injury. Catalogue all of the poses that you wouldn’t be able to do while you injury rested, for a YEAR. What would be good alternative poses, or modification ideas? What if you had a belly that “got in the way?” What couldn’t you do? What would be some good ideas for modifications.

As you start to gain a library of options, be ready to offer them up in class, either in the moment, or before the pose. Saying things out loud like “if you are hamstring injured, do this modification/pose instead” creates an atmosphere of accommodation and a culture of compassion where students begin to understand even if they are not currently injured that you are paying attention and will work with them.

3.  Talk to your colleagues about what THEY do when they encounter a certain kind of injury or body obstacle. What are some of their tricks when a person can’t step forward because of a round belly, or when someone comes to class with a disc injury? Keep everything in your toolbox. You never know when it might be useful.

4.  Take trainings that educate about these kinds of concerns. I am running a 100-hour training this February at PURE Yoga in NYC, where we will go over in detail¬ the kinds of modifications you can use, and actual healing techniques you can employ to help people, whether in private practice, or in group classes.

With regards to larger bodies, there are a handful of people who run trainings to help educate in this regard. But, you could also look locally to see if there is any one person teaching or a studio where they specialize in classes for larger bodies, and then inquire about the most appropriate way to learn and engage. I advise approaching this situation with as much diplomacy as if you were asking to sit in on a private healing session—creating space for people with larger bodies to practice may well be a sacred circle in which they don’t actually want participants whose bodies and lives exist outside that sphere.

I believe wholeheartedly that thinking about the experiences of other people important undertaking for yoga teachers, because in order to teach compassion and kindness, we need to widen our circle of empathy beyond our own personal experiences. The bodhisattva loves all people, and love means that you have a unique understanding of how people suffer. When you understand HOW they suffer, only then can you remove his or her suffering. It is not enough just to love. When you love generally, sometimes you actually increase a person’s suffering. Intention to help is not enough. The METHODS we use and their efficacy are equally, if not MORE important. Love is made of an energy called understanding. To understand, we must look deeply and care enough to learn about the students in front of us. Only then can we help to remove their suffering.

This blog post is one in a series of articles all month long on the topic of Sequencing To The Individual hosted by Kate over at You & The Yoga Mat. Follow along on social media #sequencingblogtour.