By Luigi Lungo
WHAT IS VINYASA YOGA ?
“Vinyasa means breath linked with movement. It is a conscious flowing movement where each posture is intimately linked with the breath. It focuses the mind on the movement and allows the Yogi to go deeper into the practice.”
Vinyasa Yoga is more dynamic than a Hatha Yoga class which is concentrated more on static poses usually held for a longer period of time. Practicing only static poses does not reveal the incredible potential of asanas to be explored when linked in Vinyasa. When you practice a sequence of asanas you link them with conscious breathing. As stated by David Life and Sharon Gannon in their book ‘Jivamutki Yoga’ at page 144: “The real Vinyasa, or link, however, is the intention with which you practice the asanas. It is the intention that links the postures with consciousness instead of unconsciousness.”
HISTORY OF VINYASA YOGA
Of course the practice of the Yoga asanas goes back many thousands of years. ‘Asana’ means ‘seat’ and the Yogis developed the various asanas or postures to enable them to sit comfortably in meditation for lengthy periods of time. However, the father of modern Vinyasa Yoga is undoubtedly Sri T. Krishnamacharya who was born in 1888 and died in 1989.
Sri Krishnamacharya produced four students who would go on to catapult Yoga, and to a certain degree Vinyasa Yoga, onto the world stage. They are BKS Iyengar; Pattabhi Jois; Srivatsa Ramaswami and Krishnamacayra’s own son TKV Desikachar. Iyengar, although universally popular, is the only one who did not base his style on vinyasa.
WHAT TO EXPECT IN A VINYASA YOGA CLASS
As can be seen already the Vinyasa class will be dynamic and breath / movement orientated. You will be instructed to move from one posture to the next on an inhale or an exhale. The technique is also called Vinyasa Flow because of the smooth way that the poses run together.
A ‘Cat-Cow’ sequence is an example of a simple Vinyasa as the spine is arched on an inhale and rounded on an exhale. A ‘Sun Salutation’ is an example of a more complex Vinyasa which can involve 12 movements or more, each done on an inhalation or an exhalation.
You will be instructed from time to time to “go through your Vinyasa”. That describes a series of four poses that are part of the Sun Salutation series being (i) Plank; (ii) Chaturanga; (iii) Upward Facing Dog; and (iv) Downward Facing Dog. Other postures will be linked into the Sun Salutations such as the Warrior Poses; Triangle and Extended Side Angle Pose. You will be instructed to “go through your Vinyasa” when completing one group of these postures on one side (such as in Triangle where your right leg was forward) to transition to the other side (where your left leg is now forward).
Vinyasa Yoga allows for a great deal of variety and diversity in the practice which should be stimulating, challenging and hopefully never boring.
THE IMPORTANCE OF THE BREATH IN VINYASA YOGA
“Yoga is as much a practice involving breath as it is involving the body”. [TKV Desikachar ‘The Heart of Yoga’] This statement by the son of Sri Krishnamacharya points out the importance of the breath in Vinyasa Yoga. Every movement should be led by the breath as we flow though our practice.
The correct linking of breath and movement is the basis for the practice. Our mind must come into play to consciously link breath and movement. Finding this conscious link is fundamental to our practice. It is important to use the least number of breaths and movements to enter into, transition and go from one position to another.
Of course we must use the correct breath(either inhalation or exhalation) with a particular movement. Generally an expansive or ascending movement, such as raising the arms up, would be led and continued with an inhalation. Conversely, a contacting or descending movement, such as lowering the arms down, would be led and continued with an exhalation. It is important to lead into the movement with the breath (either inhalation or exhalation) and continue that breath during that particular movement. The movement should not precede the breath.
During Vinyasa the breath should always be flowing in or flowing out. The breath should not be held. If it is held it is usually when one is struggling in a posture and forgets to breathe. Firstly, the breath should always be through the nose unless a particular posture (such as ‘Lion Pose’) calls for the breath to be expelled from the mouth. To assist in the flowing of breath we use what is called ‘ujjayi’ or ‘victorious breath’. That is where there is a slight restriction of the glottis in the throat which during a breath gives a sound similar to a wave on the beach. Being able to hear the ujjayi breath makes you more aware of the breath and more likely to continue its flow.
BENEFITS OF VINYASA YOGA
Any form of Yoga will provide physical benefits including improved balance and flexibility. Vinyasa Yoga in addition will increase your stamina and endurance. This occurs through the dynamic movements that increase the heart rate and develop muscle tone and strength. Increased muscle strength around joints helps to support the joint under pressure. Improved strength and flexibility reduces the risk of injury, or re-injury. Another benefit is the improvement of immunity and of course a sense of well-being that spreads into your daily life.
The body becomes revitalized and its ability to heal is enhanced by stretching, strengthening and breathing techniques. Increased body heat and energy will loosen muscles as well as instigate stronger blood flow carrying oxygen to vital organs. Increased heat in the body leads to sweating which helps rid the body of harmful toxins.
Another benefit of Vinyasa Yoga is that it promotes attentiveness and you do not become easily bored. TKV Desikachar observed the following in his book ‘The Heart of Yoga’ at page 45:
“If we practice the same asanas over and over again for a long stretch of time, they can easily become mere routine, even if the choice of asanas and breathing exercises is well planned and designed specifically for our condition and goals. Our attention to what we are doing steadily diminishes with this kind of unbroken repetition, and boredom sets in……………. Staying alert and constantly discovering new forms of awareness are essential features of a correct asana practice. The proper practice of asana requires our mind to be fully focused; this is automatically achieved by arousing interest and attentiveness through new experiences.”
As can be seen from the foregoing, Vinyasa Yoga is a dynamic flowing form of Yoga that has many benefits both physically and psychologically. It is still of importance to practice with awareness and within your capabilities as explained by Shiva Rea in her DVD ‘Yoga Shatki’:
“One of the principles of Vinyasa is to ‘start where you are’. Please scan your body before you practice, and assess your energy. Honour any ‘tweaks’ or ‘injuries’ that may require extra attention or slight modification of a pose.”