Vinyasa: the nature of all things embodied

All things in life have an ebb and a flow – the flow of the seasons, the rise and fall of the tides in response to the moon, a seed coming forth in spring and the flower unfolding, the creation and destruction of all things mortal and the flow of Suryanakaskar.What do all these diverse phenomena have in common? They are all Vinyasanas, progressive sequences that unfold with an inherent harmony and intelligence. “Vinyasa” comes from the Sanskrit word “Nyasa” which means “to place,” and the prefix “Vi”, in a “special way” – as in the arrangements of notes in a symphony, the progression of a mother through childbirth, the steps along a path to the top of a mountain, or the linking of one Asana to the next. In the yoga world, the most common understanding of “Vinyasa” is as a flowing sequence of specific asanas coordinated with the movement of breath.

Krishnamacharya, the father of modern yoga, emphasized Vinyasa as an artful approach to living, a way of applying the skill and awareness of yoga to all the rhythms and sequences of live, including self-care, relationships, work, and personal evolution. In essence, Vinyasa can be considered the yogic art of conscious evolution.

Krishnamacharya, to the amazement of his private students, would always greet them at the gate of his center, guide them through their practice, and then honor their completion of their time together by escorting them back to the gate. The way he honored every phase of their session – initiating their work, sustaining it and building it to a peak: and completing and integrating it – illustrated two of the primary teachings of the Vinyasa method; each of the phases has it’s own lessons to impart and relies on the work of the previous phase. Taking an example as fundamental as building a house we need first a proper foundation, before we can frame it, we also can’t build a good yoga practice unless we pay attention to how we begin. The structure then houses the heart of the practice and in order to bring our actions into completion we must finish with the roof that contains and protects all of the contents. Vinyasa yoga requires that we cultivate an awareness that links each action to the next – one breath at a time.The teachings of yoga encompass a concept called Parinamavada, the idea that change is constant and an inherent part of life. To proceed skillfully and intelligently with any action we must first assess where we are starting from today; we can’t assume we are the same person we were yesterday. We are all prone to ignoring the changing conditions of our body/mind; we often distort the reality of who we are based on who we think we should be. This can lead to inappropriate choices on and off the mat. It is important therefore to start with an accurate assessment of our current state, just as a house builder would look over the quality of the blue prints and the building materials before him.

Once we have properly assessed our condition and initiated action we can focus on the next phase of Vinyasa; building our power, our capacity for a given action. Power is the ability to sustain the rise and fall of change fluctuation and movement on the smooth steadiness of the breath. The breath is the power and makes the action effortless and fluid.

To build real change in a student’s capacity for action Krishnamacharya used a method he called Vinyasa Krama (Krama means “stages”). This step by step process involves knowledge of how one builds, in gradual stages, toward a “peak” within a practice session. This progression can use elements such as using asanas of ever-increasing complexity and challenge, or gradually building one’s breath capacity.

Vinyasa Krama is also the art of knowing when you have integrated the work of a certain stage of practice and are ready to move on. This may involve the intuitive capacity of knowing how to push oneself to a safe edge or how to back off and focus on other elements such as breath.

Ultimately Vinyasa concludes with completion and a desired bhava or feeling. This then becomes the pathway of transformation in one’s yoga practice. It is important to remember that Vinyasa is not just any sequence of action; it is one that awakens and sustains consciousness. In this way, Vinyasa connects with the meditative practice of the eight limbs of yoga.

Basic Techniques of Vinyasa Flow Yoga

  • Asana Postures: standing poses, balance poses, backbends, twists, forward bends, hip openers, inversions
  • Ujayi Pranayama:”Victorious Breath”
  • Drishti: Gaze placement of the eyes for concentration and inner and outer balance.
  • Bandhas: Three Bandhas (locks or gathering of energy):
    1. Mula Bandha (root lock),
    2. Udyiana Bandha (“to fly up” lifting of the lower belly),
    3. Jalandhara (chin lock)

Navigating the flow

Questions to help connect the underlying evolution within a practice

  • Grounding/Stabilizing the Pose: Where is the anchor within a pose?
  • Activation: Where is the pose activated/initiated from?
  • Elongation: In which direction is the spine elongating?
  • Relationship: What is the relationship from one pose to the next?