By Maria Rita Cucchiara
Vinyasa is a Sanskrit term. vi means variations, and nyasa means “within prescribed parameters”. In fact, in this style of yoga when we perform the variations, flowing sequences and movements of asana we do it in a prescribed way, according to the book of “Yoga Sutra,” Yoga aphorism, written by the sage Patanjali. But before talking about the prescribed parameters, I will state the main characteristics of Vinyasa yoga.
The characteristics of Vinyasa yoga, distinguishing it from the others styles of yoga, is that, in first place, asana variations are linked one after the others through precise transitional movements; secondly, there is a deliberate, smooth breathing that accompanies each flowing sequences, so that the breath is linked to every movement, and this is one of the most important therapeutic aspects of Vinyasa. The synchronization of the breath with the flowing of sequences is essential since it influences the mind, which becomes still. Peace is brought during a Vinyasa lesson, and this is the main purpose of Yoga, as we know. A third important aspect of this style is the slow way by which each asana is performed. In fact, it is important to never becoming out of breath when performing sequences of variations; the movements are to be performed in a gentle way. During a Vinyasa class if the student becomes out of breath is encouraged to rest either in balasana, child pose, or in adho mukha svanasana, downward facing dog, before performing the next asana. Accordingly, the flowing sequences are smoothly performed and deliberately connected to the breath, our dancing partner, which will accompany and help us in performing the variations and sequences. The mind will focus on the breath during the variations so that it is put at rest. This will bring calmness and peace. This state of mind is a necessary path towards the next stage of yoga, meditation, to reach the real aim of yoga, inner peace. Peace is brought when we identify ourselves with Brahman or Higher self. Vinyasa brings together this union of body – mind – soul.
I will now explain what Vinyasa sequences are in more detail.
Vinyasa is, as said above, movements and sequence methodology, which integrates mind-body-breath, used in the same time frame. Each asana is practiced with many Vinyasa, as variations and movements. The variations are linked one after the other through specific transitional movements (synchronized with the breath). This transitional movements are caturangadandasana, the four limb staff pose, in knees bent or straight legs, while exhaling; then, on inhalation we raise up to urdhwa mukha svanasana, upward dog or bhujangasana, cobra pose, and we exhale we move back into adho mukha svanasana, downward facing dog, to rest before passing to the next variations of asana. The fact that in Vinyasa we work in strict connection with the breath, the mind is unified with the body movement. So, we concentrate on each breath and movement at the same time with ease and posing to listen to the body, becoming more aware of it. The real joy and peace, as main goal of Yoga, is attainted through the practice of a Vinyasa Yoga class. Mental peace, calmness is established. The mind gets steady concentrating to the breath while forgetting any worries and pressure.
As far as the third paragraph is concerned, I will now describe the aphorisms of Yoga found in the book “Yoga Sutra” of Patanjali. This book gives us the “prescribed parameters” to follow when performing Vinyasa variations and movements. These parameters are: steadiness of a posture, or sthira; comfort, or sukha; smooth long breath in ujjayi pranayama, throat breath; the breath rate to be maintained; the focusing of the mind on the breath.
With sthira or steady posture we mean that each posture, to qualify as yogasana, has to be kept as steady as a rock. One has to be able to keep the asana with ease and without becoming out of breath for a certain numbers of breaths.
For sukha, comfort, we intend that the posture has to be comfortable to keep, this means that no strain, no discomfort has to be experienced. The practice of the asana has to give joy and relaxation, not pain or discomfort. This is not about defying our body and capability, but we listen to our body, as a consequence, each of us will perform the asana adjusting the posture so that it is comfortable to keep. No one asana will be performed in the same way the same asana to that of another student. Nonetheless, we will all have benefits from it.
For smooth, deep breath we intend to say that in Vinyasa we focus a lot of our efforts and attention to the rhythmic breath on expansive and contractive movements. The breath is paramount because the main concept in yoga is that the breath is life force, prana. The breath is to be smooth, long and as deep as possible, while also posing after inhalation performing the locks, and then again retaining it after exhalation. As a general rule, we inhale, purakha, on expansive movements, also called brahman Kriya or expansive action, such as when we are stretching forward or upwards; we exhale, Rechaka, on contractive movements when bending forward, bending the knees, twisting, for example. The breathing on contraction is called langhana kriya or contraction of the breath. This process of inhaling on expansive movements and exhaling on contractive movements is called Anuloma or breathing in the same direction of the air. There is an exception to Anuloma for obese, stiff, or old people. This category of people cannot inhale on expansive movements, so they will exhale while performing expansive movements instead. The opposite is not possible. In contractive movements is not possible for the body to inhale since the contraction impedes to breath in. In general, when in doubt, a student will exhale while moving, instead of inhaling.
When we talk about the breath rate to follow while performing Vinyasa variations and movements, this should be approximately of 6 breaths per minute. Those students who are more relaxed normally can make 4 breaths per minute, and some most advanced students can just have 2 breaths per minute since they have great level of relaxation, calmness, and so they can breathe with smooth and ease even in a complex pose and maintaining it for long, always in extreme relaxation.
Finally, the concentration on the breath, ananta samapatti, is another of the main objectives we want to attain during a Vinyasa class. Mentally we focus on the breath to relax the mind. When the mind wonders, we will once again concentrate on the breath sound, in ujjayi pranayama, throat breath, and movements of thoracic and abdominal muscles. Another great practice to be done while performing asana and while retaining the breath during pranayama, after exhalation, is that of performing locks, or bandhas, performed after inhalation and exhalation. After inhalation we hold the breath, ontara kumpaka (the holding of the breath after inhalation); we exhale on contractive movements, and after we perform bahya kumbaka or the holding of the breath after exhalation. At this point we will endeavor to practice the bandhas or locks like chin lock, abdominal and rectal locks to maximize the benefits of the flowing sequences and pranayama techniques. Finally, we breathe in ujjayi pranayama and we need to learn when to exhale, rechaka, in contractive movements, in a smooth way, and as long as possible. This last concept of performing a long exhalation is paramount in yoga since we empty the lungs from those unwanted wastes, such as carbon dioxide and we can purify our blood stream. When one learns how to exhale properly, purakha or inhalation will also improve. Purakha is, naturally, an important moment too, since it is the process by which we receive prana, vital energy into our body, by which we introduce oxygen to feed our body, together with the holding of the air after we fill the lungs in with this necessary prana/life force, so that we can store life in the body, and we leave less space for the wastes, carbon dioxide, in our body. Finally, the holding of the breath after exhalation is the moment, when the lungs are emptied and the abdomen is free to move to perform the locks: abdominal lock, rectal and chin locks. After exhalation, in Bhaya kumpakha, the movement of the pelvic, diaphragm, thoracic and abdominal muscles is possible since all the air is pushed out. All these terms seem to be complicated but all it is a natural process of inhalation, holding for few seconds the breath to keep life force or prana in our body, then we slowly and deeply empty the body exhaling. At the end, it is easy and will become natural to contract abdominal and pelvic muscles to perform the locks that will reinforce the benefits of each asana.
Finally, the aim of all yoga disciplines is that of find serenity inside us, eternal and real Peace and Joy. Atman unified with Brahman. When this oneness with the Absolute is found we reach the last stadium, Samadhi, where we stop from identifying ourselves as a body and mind. To get to Samadhi we first need to calm the mind. To do it we concentrate, during yoga Vinyasa class, to the breath rhythm.
During pranayama, one can also seal or close all the senses, so that the concentration is possible to pass to next stage, the meditative one. We arrive to the meditative stage when we forget we are a body and mind. Practicing asana before meditation is a good way to use all the energy of the body, then with pranayama the laziness and mental darkness is removed. After pranayama the mind is enlightened. So, the concentration on the breath that we use in Vinyasa is the first stage towards meditation, the real aim of yoga. To meditate, we focus on the breath sound and movements, or also on a mantra, or an object of meditation, till one day we will arrive to Samadhi when we identify ourselves with the same object of meditation, so the inner joy and eternal peace is reached. Vinyasa yoga is part of the asthanga, the eight limbs of Yoga, used to arrive to the main goal of all the disciplines of Yoga: finding the real Self, Higher Self, the Divine which is unique thing with ourselves, Pure consciousness. Vinyasa yoga incorporates pranayama to asana, so that during the concentration on the breath, the mind is at rest, relaxation is better reached while practicing Vinyasa yoga. May this peace, relaxation and joy of yoga reach each of us when performing asana.
Maria Rita Cucchiara is a certified Vinyasa Yoga teacher. She teaches Vinyasa Yoga classes in Saint Paul’s Bay, Malta.