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.
Vinyasa Yoga has several problems.
In yoga circles alignment refers to how the posture is done. (This is a huge, complicated subject and deserves its own discussion.) Alignment helps us to know how to practice yoga postures in a safe and stable way and helps us to prevent injuries. It lets us know what needs to be strengthened or turned on, and what needs to be opened.
Vinyasa classes tend to leave out a lot of alignment cues because there isn’t enough time. When you move from pose-to-pose using breath, you can only say so much.
Another big difference is when postures are repeated in alignment based yoga classes, it is an opportunity for the teacher to say more about the posture and add another layer of understanding. When a posture is repeated in a Vinyasa class it is with the intention to say less, sometimes only “inhale” and “exhale”.
2) Lack of Posture Knowledge
Vinyasa Flow Yoga is great for moving you around but it doesn’t teach you how to do the postures well. As a result, a lot of students have a general idea of what a posture shape looks like, but don’t know how to practice it safely or refine it.
Solution to 1 & 2: Shore up your knowledge of the postures. You can do this through workshops, taking alignment focused classes or better yet, seek out Vinyasa blended classes that emphasize both the form of the posture, as well as the breath and movement.
3) Endless Repetition
I’m ‘Enery the Eighth, I am,
‘Enery the Eighth I am, I am!
I got married to the widow next door,
She’s been married seven times before
And every one was an ‘Enery
She wouldn’t have a Willie nor a Sam
I’m her eighth old man named ‘Enery
‘Enery the Eighth, I am!
Second verse, same as the first.
Repetition shows up in two ways in Vinyasa Yoga.
First, as Vinyasa shares a kindred spirit with Ashtanga Yoga, it can have the same sort of repetitive sequences. These can be the commonly practiced Surya Namaskar A & B, (Sun Salutations), or even the direction to “vinyasa” (See here “Vinyasa Multiple Meanings”). In Ashtanga, all roads lead to chaturanga, meaning you are in for a big dose of them.
Second, Vinyasa Flow teachers often create a sequence of postures, called a flow and then just do the same thing over and over and over again. I call this, “building a flow and letting it go”. This adds a repetitive element but not necessarily insight.
Solution: Look for teachers offering sequences that make sense in your body and are interesting. It takes a lot of skill to do this. This brings us to the next point.
4) Teaching Vinyasa Flow Yoga Well, is Difficult
The paradox is it’s very easy to train Vinyasa teachers—and that’s part of the problem. If Vinyasa can have a lot of the same sequences repeated, why not just give people a basic class script and say teach this? That’s actually what many programs do because it’s fast and systematizes a class structure. In essence it’s taking the variation out of a variable practice.
“Without gatekeepers as in the hierarchical systems, anyone can teach Vinyasa Flow yoga. Amid this freedom there can be misguided instruction, confused or ineffective sequences, even dangerous classes, but with a growing number of recognized teacher trainers who are respected for their depth of knowledge, wisdom, and skill, Vinyasa Flow teachers are increasingly finding rich sources of guidance along their own creative paths.” Mark Stephens
Having a thoughtfully created sequence can be a great learning tool. However, you need to go the next step and teach teacher trainees the thought that went into preparing a sequence and why it works. Beyond that, you have to teach them how to design their own sequences.
And great sequencing begins with an intimate knowledge of the postures.
We’ve come full circle. Vinyasa teachers learn to teach Vinyasa Yoga because they love Vinyasa. And Vinyasa doesn’t teach alignment or the postures particularly well. This means there are a lot of Vinyasa teachers out there who don’t understand the postures—the building blocks of sequences.
Solution: All hope is not lost. Look for Vinyasa teachers that have invested in learning alignment and the postures. Some of the best have done their time in Iyengar type classes or done serious posture study. This takes time and commitment but the result is a better educated teacher more capable of offering a safe, accessible, challenging class.
If it’s not safe, it’s not fun.
When we do not understand the true work of the posture there is a tendency towards a path of least resistance that can make yoga more unsafe than it should be. There are many ways, for instance, to “bring your forehead to your knee,” but they are not all equal.
A typical forward bend, in the above example, calls for bending at the hips and engaging the leg muscles—particularly the quadriceps. That’s not obvious, though, and people new to the practice tend to grab their foot, round their spine and force their way down. That force gets passed along to the weakest part of the body, such as the lower back, and exposes you to a higher risk of injury than would a healthier, more supportive way.
Solution: In addition to seeking out skilled yoga teachers, heed the advice to listen to your body. Something that distinctly “feels wrong” most likely is. Remember too that each posture has a balance of strength and flexibility. If you are only feeling a stretch but no muscular action, then proceed gently because something else should be working.
6) Moving Fast
Vinyasa Yoga classes can be quite quick but that doesn’t mean the goal is to go as fast as you can. Racing through the practice is akin to racing through life—you miss out on what is actually going on. A mad dash tendency can lean on momentum to get you through instead of building strength, skill, understanding and awareness. Quickness can predispose you to injury because stability is missing.
Solution: Start slowly and grow your practice over time. A slower paced practice will build strength because it’s more difficult to go slow than go fast.
The point of yoga practice, like the point of life, is not to get from one end of life to the other—that’s a guarantee. Instead, we are here to enjoy and savor the experience of moving through it.
Vinyasa Yoga is a beautiful, dance of movement and breath. With an awareness of what can go wrong you can move towards what can feel so right.