What is Vinyasa Yoga?

Vinyasa is a style of yoga characterized by stringing postures together so that you move from one to another, seamlessly, using breath.  Commonly referred to as “flow” yoga, it is sometimes confused with “power yoga“.

Vinyasa classes offer a variety of postures and no two classes are ever alike.  The opposite would be “fixed forms” such as Bikram Yoga, which features the same 26 postures in every class, or Ashtanga which has the same sequence every time.

The variable nature of Vinyasa Yoga helps to develop a more balanced body as well as prevent repetitive motion injuries that can happen if you are always doing the same thing every day.

As a philosophy, Vinyasa recognizes the temporary nature of things.  We enter into a posture, are there for a while and then leave.

While Vinyasa, or Vinyasa-Krama, dates back to the Vedic age—the earliest period of yoga thousands of years ago—it referred to a series, or sequence of steps, to make something sacred.

The movement practice of Vinyasa is said to begin with T Krishnamacharya who has had the largest influence on how yoga in general is practiced today.

Put all this together and Vinyasa, is a breath initiated practice, that connects every action of our life with the intention of moving towards what is sacred, or most important to us.

While Vinyasa Yoga is one of the most popular forms of the practice in the world today, it is not well understood.

Vinyasa Yoga Definition

As with many things in yoga, the definition is dependent on the context and on who you ask.  Below are the more common definitions.

“The Sanskrit word Vinyasa comes from a prefix vi, which means variation, and a suffix, nyasa, which means ‘within prescribed parameters.’”  Srivatsa Ramaswami, student of Krishnamacharya for more than thirty years.

He goes on to refer to classical yoga, from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, for the specific parameters:

  • Steadiness (Sthira)
  • Comfort (Sukha)
  • Smooth and Long Breathing (Prayatna Sithila)

The term Vinyasa is derived from nyasa, meaning “to place,” and vi, meaning “in a special way.”  This indicates that we are not “throwing our bodies around” but are bringing consciousness to each movement in each moment.

Shiva Rea adds, “Vinyasa in its original meaning from the early Tantras is understood as the ‘sequence of consciousness,’ or how life unfolds from…the creative pulse of life.”

Vinyasa can be defined as our external movements that are an expression of how we think and feel.

Synonyms:  Continuous.  Seamless.  Integrated.  Change.  Rhythm.  Evolve.  Cycle.  Connected. Movement.

Characteristics of Vinyasa Flow Yoga

  • Vinyasa Yoga connects one posture to the next using the breath.  This can be thought of as linking or flowing into postures which is sometimes why it’s called “Flow Yoga”.  The opposite of this would be an alignment based class where students engage with a posture, explore it for a period of time and then “break the posture” by coming out.
  • Transitions” are what connect one posture to another in Vinyasa.  They are the in-between part.  What is not always appreciated is that transitions are considered postures themselves.  To move in a more graceful, connected way, allot just as much time developing skill in the transitions as you do in the asana.
  • Vinyasa is synonymous with movement.  Moving in and out of postures is the obvious movement but even in stillness Vinyasa is represented by the beat of your heart and inhale/exhale of your breath.
  • Move with breath.  Breath initiates the movement of Vinyasa which is why you’ll hear it referred to as a “breath-synchronized” practice.
  • Ujjayi Breath is the breathing technique used.  It is done by inhaling and exhaling in a rhythmic manner through the nose.  The overall sensation is one of relaxation.
  • Vinyasa practice generates heat and can add a cardiovascular component not always present in other forms of postural practice.  The picture below is from a student’s heart rate monitor worn during a regular Vinyasa class I taught.

Heart Rate Vinyasa Yoga Class

 

“[Vinyasa] Flow yoga can be practiced in a vigorous, dynamic and stimulating manner and also as a soft, gentle, restorative practice.”  Ganga White

  • Often equated with high-energy, there are many ways to approach Vinyasa from rapid to slow.  Build strength, coupled with flexibility, by emphasizing and exploring slower options.  Doing so will help you create a sustainable, life-long practice.
  • Vinyasa Yoga is a more complete type of class as it typically moves through all of the various asana families in a single session.  The families, also called categories or classes, are the groupings the postures belong to such as standing postures, backbends, forward bends, etc.
  • Contrast this to alignment based classes that cycle through the asana categories over a series of weeks, instead of every class.  The benefit is greater depth of postural understanding, in a particular class, at the expense of single session balance.

A hallmark of Vinyasa Flow classes is the variation in sequence from class to class.  (A sequence is any time two or more postures are strung together.)  No two classes are alike.

In a fixed form system, such as Bikram, or Ashtanga Yoga, the sequence remains the same to reveal what changes day-to-day—mainly us.

A variable form system, like Vinyasa, exists to help us see what is changeless and permanent throughout all of the change.  This might be an intention or purpose, a way of thinking or connection to something greater than ourselves.

One other key aspect of the variation is it keeps your interest.  Many practitioners move from the fixed forms to Vinyasa because they become bored.

  • Vinyasa meets you where you are—which in today’s world is usually high energy, going in a million directions at once.  It meets you there and leads you by the hand back to an inner peace that exists within you.

“A powerful Vinyasa practice can shake things up to the point of calming things done.” 

Rusty Wells

  • Vinyasa Flow can induce a Flow State, a type of consciousness defined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as, “That place of being fully absorbed and highly focused,” on what we are doing.  During “Flow” everything feels easy and connected, what yogins call “effortless effort.”

            prayatna saithilya ananta samapattibhyam II:47 Yoga Sutras of Patanjali

“Perfection in an Asana is achieved when the effort to perform it becomes effortless and the infinite being within is reached.”  B.K.S. Iyengar

Csikszentmihalyi recognized the Yoga/Flow connection and comments:

“The similarities between Yoga and flow are extremely strong; in fact it makes sense to think of Yoga as a very thoroughly planned flow activity.  Both try to achieve a joyous-self-forgetful involvement through concentration, which in turn is made possible by a discipline of the body.”    

  • Vinyasa ends where it begins.  We start in a posture, such as tadasana, travel through a myriad of options and come back to tadasana.  If we listen, though, and pay close attention, the experience changes us.
  • Considered a “moving meditation,” Vinyasa is about harmony and balance, grace and fluidity.  We move and notice how we are moving and what moves us.
  • In Vinyasa we move together to support one another.  This reflection reminds us we are all in this together and that the practice, and life, is bigger than ourselves.

Where did Vinyasa Yoga Originate

Krishnamacharya is attributed with being the architect of Vinyasa.  He expands on the importance of it in his book “Yoga Makaranda—The Nectar of Yoga”.

Rishi Vamana is also credited with creating Vinyasa Yoga.  The idea was to simultaneously embody the different facets of yoga:  mudra, pranayama, meditation, asana, and japa.

Vinyasa Krama

The first reference to Vinyasa, dates back to the earliest yoga age called the Vedic Period.  Here, Vinyasa was defined as a step-by-step process to make something sacred.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali also cite [vinyasa] krama:

            ksana-pratiyogi parinamaparanta-nirgrahyah kramah IV:33

“The progression [of any object through Time] corresponds to a [series of] moments.  It is perceivable at the final [moment] of change.

Nothing is static but changes every moment.” Edwin Bryant

Vinyasa Multiple Meanings

Verb:  Vinyasa

The Sequence:

  • Chaturanga Dandasana
  • Urdhva Mukha Svanasana
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana

…is commonly known as a “vinyasa”.

Vinyasa is the breath-synchronized movement

A vinyasa is the count of each movement it takes to get into a posture (asana) in the traditional way.

“The real vinyasa, or link, however, is the intention with which you practice the asanas.”  David Life

Is Vinyasa “Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga”?  K. Pattabhi Jois is the founder of Ashtanga.  His teacher, T Krishnamacharya, taught him Vinyasa but not Ashtanga.  Therefore, Vinyasa and Ashtanga most likely share a history but Vinyasa predates Ashtanga.

The Problems with Vinyasa Yoga and Solutions

Each yoga system or type of yoga has deficits for none is perfect.  The well informed yogin knows what they are and works to reduce them.

Why Vinyasa Flow Yoga

The practice of linking breath and movement to flow through postures invites us into an expression that is sometimes missing in other forms of the practice.  It the experience of being alive, connected and free.

It reminds us that everything is connected and interdependent.

The Bigger Story of Vinyasa

In Vinyasa we move from child’s pose to death pose (savasana) and experience an entire lifetime.  Vinyasa serves as the metaphor for our own life, as we move from one situation to the next.

How we enter each posture, or stay, or leave is sacred for it reflects how we do the same everywhere else in life.

Skillfully navigating, and even appreciating these places on the mat helps us in tangible, practical ways.

For instance, we can befriend the in-between places, as represented by the transitions.  These pertain to the ambiguous and unknown parts of life.

We can learn to be content with what we’ve been offered, despite when we aren’t where we want to be but are thankful we are not somewhere else?  We don’t have the job, house, relationship we want, but do have work, a place to live and people in our life we care about.

If everything is connected, then the thing we spend so much time looking for must also be present here, in this moment.

This wisdom is revealed through watching ourselves move through postures and the world in general.  “How” we move takes on a greater importance than “what” we are doing.

To miss this is to be unaware and unconscious of our movements.  This leads to us to a state of “going through the motions” but not learning anything.  We just keep going round and round.

We journey and strive, as if we are going somewhere, but ultimately the practice brings us back to where we started.  Hopefully, though, our attention and vulnerability allows our experience to inform us.

On a bigger scale we are moving energy, described as prana or life force.  The process of moving invites us to feel alive.

Flowing from pose-to-pose also underscores the temporary nature of everything.  This is the only time ever you will have this moment.  It is the only time you will get to live this life–it’s not a dress rehearsal.

“The core idea of Vinyasa Yoga is to shift emphasis from posture to breath…the only thing permanent in the practice is the constant focus on the breath.”  And the breath is a metaphor for what is permanent in our ever-changing life—the universe, infinite consciousness or, most of all, love.  Gregor Maehle

Instead of trying to hold on or get “attached” to it, enjoy it fully–like a sunset–and then let it go.  Life is short.  That makes it so much sweeter and precious and is a reminder to focus on what’s most important.

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Kate Saal

Kate Saal, Yoga Teacher and Educator, teaches a sweet practice, rooted in tradition, and infused with a modern, spicy flare. Known as a practical, inspiration guide, she shares how to live in a meaningful, fulfilling way.