By Sheri L. Lemon
“Due to differences in various minds, perception of even the same object may vary”. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra 4.15.
There are many classical definitions of yoga and each well-known guru adapts his/her own style into their definition. Since we are all individuals and everyone’s “yoga” will look different, my definition of “Yoga” is that it is the union of the mind (through breathing techniques), the body (through asana practice), and the spirit (through meditation) to achieve stillness and peace.
What then is Vinyasa Yoga? The word “Vinyasa” is a Sanskrit term often employed in relation to certain styles of yoga. The term vinyasa may be broken down into its Sanskritic roots to assist in decoding its meaning. Nyasa denotes “to place” and vi denotes “in a special way”. It has now come to mean linking various poses together that create a flowing sequence and each asana is linked to the next by either an inhalation, or an exhalation. Vinyasa Yoga can be fast paced to where the practitioner achieves an aerobic workout and each asana is held for a very brief period of time. It can also be slower and more flowing to where the practitioner concentrates on each movement and asana while linking it with the breath and the end result is that the mind, body, and spirit are joined to experience the joy of yoga.
The “Father” of Vinyasa Yoga is thought to be Sri T. Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) who studied under such gurus as the Maharaja of Mysore. Some of Krishnamacharya’s students became tremendously popular teachers themselves. Icons such as B.K.S. Iyengar, who is very respected for his Hatha Yoga style and also his numerous books. Pattabhi Jois who branded his form of yoga as Ashtanga Yoga, a fast paced sequence that requires skill and power, which has become very popular in the West. Krishnamacharya’s own son, T.K.V. Desikachar, also became very well liked with his style of yoga that adapted the asanas to individual needs, which became a more therapeutic style of yoga. And finally, Srivatsa Ramaswami, who studied directly under Sri Krishnamacharya and also took what he felt to be the ‘true’ Vinyasa teachings of his guru and put them together in The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga. This book is a very popular and important part of anyone’s library that is interested in learning about or studying Vinyasa Yoga.
Why has yoga become so wildly popular in the United States? The image of yoga and the people that practice it has changed dramatically in the last 50 years, it is no longer seen as a “hippie” activity. Media coverage touting the health benefits of yoga are showing people that they can alleviate symptoms and even prevent medical issues by adopting a personal yoga practice. This issue is becoming more important to many Americans for a variety of reasons.
Vinyasa Yoga can benefit practioners in two aspects of their lives: one being the physical aspect and the other being the mental aspect.
One of the quickest improvements people see when beginning a Vinyasa practice is the improvement of flexibility and strength. Each sequence is designed to gently stretch not only the muscles, but also the soft tissues of the body. This includes the ligaments, tendons, and the fascia sheath that surrounds the muscles. By stretching the muscles regularly, lactic acid that may build up within the muscles is released alleviating stiffness, tension, pain, and fatigue. Along with improved flexibility, many people see an increase in the range of motion in some of the larger joints, such as the shoulders and hips, while also seeing an improvement in their spinal motion. People with arthritis and other joint issues usually welcome this increased sense of fluidity and ease of movement in their bodies.
Since hand weights are not normally used in yoga, strength is improved by using the persons own body weight in various asanas. While yogis are not usually viewed as “muscle-bound body builders”, their strength comes from well-developed core muscles in the torso region including the abdominals and back muscles, and also from strong arms and legs. The core strength that is developed will help the practitioner sit or stand “tall” and with the improved body awareness that develops, you know when you are slouching or slumping and can adjust your posture. This improved flexibility and strength will greatly benefit our aging population as they may be better able to prevent slipping and falling, or if they do fall, may be better able to get up from the floor or ground.
In addition to the benefits listed above, a new practitioner will see an improvement in their muscle tone, which in turn will stimulate an increase in metabolism. They may then experience weight loss, which in turn will help alleviate health issues such as Type 2 Diabetes, joint problems due to excess weight and high cholesterol levels. This new body awareness may also lead a practitioner to make different food choices. They may begin to choose fresh foods such as fruits and vegetables and foods that they feel nourish them, instead of heavy, convenient, fast foods.
The skeletal and muscular systems of the body are not the only recipients of the advantages of a yoga practice. Our internal organs receive needed pressure and massaging in poses that employ twists, bends, and inversions. It is through this pressure and massaging that organs expel toxins and wastes, while also receiving fresh supplies of blood and oxygen. Conditions such as constipation, thyroid problems, asthma, menopausal symptoms, are just a few of the many benefits of a complete Vinyasa practice.
Vinyasa Yoga also employs deep, mindful breathing that most people haven’t experienced since their infancy. This long, deep abdominal breathing will quickly improve a practitioner’s lung capacity and oxygen levels in the blood, while at the same time, stimulate the relaxation response which lowers a person’s stress levels. Most new practitioners feel much less stress and more relaxed after just one class. This feeling of relaxation has an immediate impact on a person’s overall health, namely their heart health. With improved breathing techniques, lung capacity, and less stress, a person’s heart rate will drop along with their blood pressure and this in turn will lower their risk for a stroke.
To round out a full Vinyasa Yoga practice to include the mental aspects, a pranayama (breathing) practice and a meditation practice should be included. You may wonder, “why do I have to have a ‘breathing’ practice? I breathe every minute of my life”. But what most adults don’t realize is that the breathing they are doing every day, is not the breathing that will energize their mind, lift their spirits, tone their nervous systems, and just make them feel great. Once they learn how to breathe, Yogic style, they will realize just how inadequately they were breathing before. In a Yogic style breath, an inhalation through the nose, with the mouth closed, will expand the chest, lower the diaphragm, and massage the abdominal muscles and organs. They will then reap the benefits of fully oxygenated air entering the lungs and traveling throughout the body. An exhalation will lower the chest, raise the diaphragm, and contract the abdomen towards the spine. This movement will expel the built up carbon dioxide in the lungs and also completely empty the lungs of any residual air so that the lungs can be ready for the next inhalation.
James Hewitt describes meditation as a ‘mental hygiene’ in his The Complete Yoga Book. “Meditation cleanse the mind, refine and clarify consciousness, lighten the spirit, and foster mental poise and equanimity. Meditation calms and tones the nervous system, relaxes, harmonizes psychic energies, recharges psychic batteries, and cultivates serenity.”(Hewitt, p. 372). There are many different styles of meditation. What works for one person, may not work for another. Some people meditate by staring at a candle flame, some people incorporate mantras into their meditation, and some people meditate simply by closing their eyes and concentrating on their breath, while still some people meditate by knitting or crocheting. To have a successful meditation practice, each person has to find the method that they are most comfortable in. As long as they can quiet their mind, concentrate on their breath, and be present in the moment, they will be able to feel the benefits of a meditation practice.
Adults are not the only ones to benefit from yoga; children and teenagers can also reap numerous benefits when they include yoga into their lives. In this high-tech, face paced, hurry-up world that young people live in today, no wonder they are stressed to the point of developing “adult” health issues at increasingly early ages. Children and teenagers are developing adult on-set diabetes due to obesity at a very alarming rate. They are also developing high blood pressure and heart disease at ages that are far too young.
Yoga impacts children and teenagers lives in the same two ways that it impacts an adult’s life: physically and mentally. Physically it improves their flexibility, strength, coordination and body awareness. With these physical improvements, a child’s self-esteem is enhanced which may enable then to react to peer pressure in a more mindful way, instead of giving in, they may be more apt to say no to unhealthy activities. When a child is taught relaxation through deep breathing or meditation, their ability to concentrate and handle stress is greatly improved and this in turn creates a feeling of wellness within the child that they may willingly return to when needed. Some children may even learn to appreciate nature and the natural world around them at a much earlier age, this in turn may foster compassion for not only other humans, but also the animal and environmental world around them.
Once we have a Vinyasa Yoga practice in place, it should be practiced on a regular basis. But our practice should not end once we roll up our mats. We should strive to take our practice off our mat and into our daily lives. Why not enjoy the same serenity and calmness in our workplaces or our home lives? You may be surprised at your productivity, time management, and ability to breeze through tasks that before may have left you feeling overwhelmed and overworked.
Sri Swami Satchidananda states in his Translation and Commentary of The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, “without practice, nothing can be achieved” Sutra 1.1.
Hewitt, James. The Complete Yoga Book. New York, Schocken Books, Inc., 1977.
Ramaswami, Srivatsa. The Complete Book Of Vinyasa Yoga. Cambridge, Da Capo Press, 2005.
Satchidananda, Sri Swami. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali/Translation and Commentary by Sri Swami Satchidananda, Integral Yoga Publications, 1990.
Health Benefits of Yoga. Available from: https://www.webmd.com/balance/the-health-benefits-of-yoga
Definition of Vinyasa. Available from: https://www.widipedia.com/vinyasa