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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 a 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 down.” 

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”.  A guest of his benefactor, a maharaja, or prince, Krishnamacharya taught adolescent boys at Mysore Palace.  What better way to calm down active teenagers than with a lot of movement.

Who knew that insight is also perfect for calming the high-spirited mind of the modern world?

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

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 Yoga is So Popular

By any measure, Vinyasa Yoga is wildly popular.  If you were to look at the average Iyengar Yoga class you might find 12 students.  Contrast that to a Vinyasa class that has anywhere from 15 to 50 or more.  What’s going on here?

1. Vinyasa doesn’t take long to learn to teach initially.  It does take time and effort to learn to teach well. 

Go back to that Iyengar class and the teacher leading it will have to have had a minimum of four years of continuous study, with a Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher.  They have also either had a mentorship or graduated from a narrow list of teacher programs, had the recommendation of a mentor and passed an assessment so rigorous “they are starting to become the stuff of urban legend.”

The Vinyasa teacher might have two-years of teaching experience, will have completed a 200-hour teaching training program, where no two are alike, and not had a mentorship because they are rare. 

The reason it’s so easy to teach Vinyasa teachers also contributes to the popularity of the form.  In many Vinyasa teacher training programs, the trainees are taught a script—a specific sequence to teach.  A script can be a learning tool.  It also provides a lot of consistency from class to class, which students find reassuring.  Students like to know what’s coming because it allows them to be successful and feel confident.

But scripts can become crutches, or worse, anchors for both the student and the teacher.  In order to move beyond them, you have to know the poses well as both a student and teacher.

Poses are the building blocks of yoga asana.  They are like musical notes to a song.  A script is a completed song.  You can learn to play that one tune, but only that one.  If you ever want to play another or even write your own, it helps to read music.

This is why the most skilled Vinyasa teachers have done stints in Iyengar Yoga and/or spent a lot of time (years) practicing and working through different poses and sequences.  There is no shortcut for this work.

Because, while Vinyasa is a variable sequence format, it’s not “anything goes”.  Subtle changes and choices make big differences.

2. Vinyasa yoga is athletic and aerobic. People want to move and sweat and Vinyasa provide that.

Surya Namaskaras, Sun Salutations, are foundational sequences of Vinyasa and done repetitively they work to get your blood pumping.  Three rounds of Surya Namaskara A and another three of B and you’ll most likely break a sweat.  We like that because we equate it with getting a better workout.  While that’s not necessarily true it can be a good indicator that you’re ready to move into the next portion of class.

Sun Salutes are not the only way to warm up, or even the most helpful—only the best known.

3. Vinyasa yoga is fun.

If you find yourself having fun in life people will look at you with suspicion.  But many of us got into yoga because it felt so good to move.  It was fun.  And I would argue that’s critical because if it’s just work all the time and no play then we’ll stop practicing.

A multitude of yoga text citations tell us to practice repeatedly for that’s when you get the benefits of yoga.  And if having fun in yoga allows us all to practice more consistently then I’m a proponent.

And here’s a secret.  This is the point of both Vinyasa and life—to engage in it for the joy of it. 

The Relationship Between Ashtanga and Vinyasa

Do a little research on flow yoga and you run across this term “Ashtanga Vinyasa”.

The next thought is, “I thought they were two different styles of yoga. Is Vinyasa “Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga”?

To add to your confusion, you’ll find people who identify as practitioners of Ashtanga Vinyasa.

Ray Long, author, board certified orthopedic surgeon and student of B.K.S. Iyengar says, “Vinyasa Flow can be used to warm up the body for other types of practice or can embody the practice itself.

Let’s make it simple.

  • Recall that T. Krishnamacharya is credited with innovating Vinyasa.
  • He taught K. Pattaboi Jois Vinyasa, but not Ashtanga. 
  • Pattaboi Jois founded Ashtanga Yoga, which has the familiar Surya Namaskara A & B sequences in it. 

Therefore, Vinyasa and Ashtanga most likely share a history but Vinyasa predates Ashtanga.

Ashtanga and Vinyasa are independent practices, that coupled then went their separate ways. Vinyasa became an innovation. 

A student of Ashtanga Vinyasa practices Ashtanga Yoga, via the primary, secondary series, etc., while a Vinyasa practitioner practices flow yoga through a wide array of sequences that are connected through movement and breath.

Both Ashtanga and Vinyasa can use sun salutations to warm up the body, though the latter doesn’t have to.

Can You Get Injured Doing Vinyasa Yoga

Yes.  But while you can get injured in any type of yoga, or getting out of bed in the morning, how you do it matters. 

To stay safe, you have to know how to stabilize yourself in motion.  You may have the strength to hold yourself in a posture for a few moments, but it’s a different story when the pose morphs into another.  You have to let go of one muscular action and move to another seamlessly as you are challenged by gravity, load, and other forces.  Avoid uncontrolled momentum, which looks like flinging your body around.  Instead, it is a dance.

There are 60 vinyasa sequences in the primary series of Ashtanga Yoga.  That’s a lot of chaturangas, which means a lot of repetition and the possibility of repetitive motion injuries.  A typical Vinyasa class, by comparison, will have less than half of that and sometimes none at all.

If you choose to do the “Vinyasa sequence”, approach it in a stable and relaxed manner.  You also have the choice to modify.

Noted yoga anatomy teacher, and self-proclaimed Ashtanga practitioner, aka fan of Ashtanga, David Keil says “…the jump back into chaturanga or the upward facing dog out of chaturanga, can put strain on the shoulder girdle depending on how they’re done and what strength is available to stabilize the shoulder girdle.

He goes on to give a wonderful list of quotes from participants of surveys he has done regarding yoga injuries.  The respondents’ shoulder injuries stand out and boil down to three common ideas:

  1. A misunderstanding of how to do chaturanga
  2. Lack of strength to stabilize the shoulder
  3. Too much unconscious repetition

How do you help avoid injury?  David makes these recommendations.

  • Strength in the right places to provide stabilization
  • Patience
  • Good technique

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 founded One Flow Yoga® in 2010. She teaches students how to build a modern yoga practice rooted in tradition. Known as a practical, inspiring guide, she shares how to live in a meaningful and fulfilling way.

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