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Vinyasa: Meditation on Impermanence

Updated: 3 days ago

Focus of the Month: July 2024

written by Mina


Vinyāsa is one of those words you think you understand until you are asked to explain it. Frankly, when I started practicing yoga fifteen years ago, I understood vinyāsa to be “the cool yoga” as opposed to the other styles of yoga. It seemed flowy, the breathing smooth and intense, and the room moving in unison felt hypnotizing. 



Although “vinyāsa” can depict a style of yoga that is now wildly popular, it can mean so much more in different contexts – so let’s dig a little bit into the roots, the multiple uses, and the many layers of vinyāsa, so we can start to cultivate a deeper relationship to our practice.


Etymology

First and foremost, the Sanskrit word vinyāsa is a composite of the term “nyāsa” meaning placement, and the prefix “vi” referring to its intentional quality. On our mat, it becomes the conscious placement of breath with movement and the linking of one movement to the next. Richard Freeman writes in this context “It can be a specific form of yoga practice, but in a broader sense, vinyāsa is the mindful process that naturally occurs when we arrange any circumstances correctly.”


West meets Vinyāsa

The broader Western world first heard of the term vinyāsa through T. Krishnamacharya, the grandfather of modern-day yoga – a South Indian yoga teacher, ayurvedic healer, and scholar. He studied with various masters in the first 40 years of his life and then went on to teach “vinyāsa krama”, as he called his method, to thousands of students till the end of his life in 1989. Krama means steps or stages and in his book “Yoga Makaranda” he writes “Only after practicing according to krama for a period of time will the yogabhyasi gain strength of body, good health, and happiness” pointing to a very systematic approach to his teachings.


Global Dissemination of Vinyāsa

Amongst his most devoted students, we find B.K.S. Iyengar, whose teachings have become very popular, strongly emphasized asana while widely neglecting the aspect of vinyāsa. T.K.V. Desikachar, Krishnamacharya's son, used the term vinyāsa krama, later Viniyoga, which tends to reflect the teachings of his father’s later years, offering a more gentle and therapeutic approach. Srivatsa Ramasvami studied over an astounding 33 years with his teacher, which allowed him to reflect Krishnamacharya’s vinyāsa krama most authentically, even when he didn’t gain the degree of notoriety of some of the others.


Ashtanga Vinyāsa Yoga

Although modern-day vinyāsa is a compound of different teachings, the influence of “Ashtanga Vinyāsa Yoga”, founded by another devoted student of Krishnamacharya, K. Pattabhi Jois, is probably the most undeniable. The athletic and dynamic style of Ashtanga Yoga and its strong emphasis on the vinyāsa aspect seemed to resonate with a broader and perhaps also younger crowd. Ashtanga Yoga is traditionally practiced Mysore style, which means that a set sequence of asana or series is practiced individually under the guidance of a teacher to a vinyāsa, in this case meaning exact “choreography” of inhales and exhales to get in and out of poses. Once his shala became very crowded, the LED class was introduced, where a series is practiced in a group under the verbal cues and Sanskrit counts of the teacher. There are altogether six series but most of us will be happy to dabble in the so-called beginner’s series, which includes quite a few not-so-beginner-friendly postures as well.


Narrowest meaning of Vinyāsa

Ashtanga Yoga also demands many, many vinyāsas in the narrowest sense of the word, also known as half vinyāsas, which means going from plank (inhale) –> chaturanga dandasana (exhale) –> upward facing dog (inhale) –> downward facing dog (exhale). Of course, this sequence can be modified to meet different needs, for example by going through knees chest chin, and cobra or a simple cat cow until we build enough stamina. It can also be used to advance your practice by working on transitioning from seated to chaturanga through handstand and working on floating qualities. The purpose of this sequence of movements is to reset the spine and to build strength and heat that can fall behind if we lean into the flexibility of asana too much.


" For a yoga practice to work for householders, it would have to be compressed into two hours and yet retain its benefits, and so the eight limbs (of Patanjali Raja Yoga) would have to be practiced simultaneously and not sequentially."

     

  - Gregor Maehle


Why is Vinyāsa so popular?

The popularity of vinyāsa yoga might lie in the fact that it is a style of practice created for the householder. A householder is anyone, who has social responsibilities, a family, and or a job to attend to. On the other hand, we have renounciates who devote their lives to the spiritual path and can practice 10+h per day. In “Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy” Gregor Maehle writes: “For a yoga practice to work for householders, it would have to be compressed into two hours and yet retain its benefits, and so the eight limbs (of Patanjali Raja Yoga) would have to be practiced simultaneously and not sequentially.” The core idea of vinyāsa yoga is to shift emphasis from posture to breath and therefore to realize that postures, like all forms, are impermanent. Vinyāsa yoga is a meditation on impermanence.


What can you take onto the mat this month?

Let’s look at each of the eight limbs and see how they translate to our vinyāsa practice according to Gregor Maehle. Especially the higher limbs can be a bit intimidating, but we can ease into them. If you have time to do separate pranayama, meditation, chanting, etc, wonderful, but let’s make the most out of the 2h, 1h, or even 30min you might have on the mat as a householder.


Yamas & Niyamas: The inner and outer observances are a prerequisite to a successful yoga practice but I’m going to skip them today and refer you to Marlene’s article this January which was all about them :)


Asana: Asana is the glue for the eight limbs to come together on the mat and the half vinyāsa holds the two sides of the body and the different sections of the practice together. You can start by cleaning up your half vinyāsa. Chaturanga and both dogs are postures that can be tweaked forever. You can even lift off from a seated position and play with jumping back into Chaturanga and back through with blocks. It’s hard but fun!


Pranayama: This can be applied through the ujjayi breath. We breathe through the nose while constricting our glottis slightly to make the breath long and thin. Over time it should feel like the waves of breath or prana, our life force, is moving us.


Pratyahara: Sense withdrawal happens through our gaze (drishti), listening to the sounds of our breath, and focusing on our proprioception. Through our inward focus, the outer world starts to recede into the background.


Dharana: Concentration comes from zooming in on our bandhas, our energetic locks, and the seamless unfolding of breath with movement. Over time, this deep concentration will lend itself to shifting into slower brainwaves (alpha) which is a prerequisite for meditation.


Dhyana: While in concentration there is an effort to exclude all thoughts that are not relevant and in meditation, there is a constant flow of impressions without any effort of the will. In vinyāsa yoga, we might feel like we are being moved rather than doing the practice. In modern terms, this might be called a deep flow state. 


Samadhi: Meditative absorption is a tricky one when we are trying to handstand or a hip opener is splitting us in half, but we can get curious about what it would feel like if our mind like a clear, even water surface continues to faithfully reflect what it is shown and does not produce a simulation of reality, that is distorted by our conditioning – pure consciousness. 


Perhaps the most obvious example of vinyāsa is the constant movement of our breathing: inhaling and exhaling. (…) With practice, we experience a singular focus within the field of awareness, and our thoughts settle effortlessly as the mind becomes calm and steady – the rule of paying attention to composite, opposing, and paradoxical patterns as they arise. This is the essence of vinyāsa.

- Richard Freeman


Happy practice!


Mina




Quellen

  • “The Art of Vinyasa” Richard Freeman & Mary Taylor

  • “Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy” Gregor Maehle

  • “The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga” Srivasta Ramaswami

  • “Yoga Makaranda” Sri T. Krishnamacharya 

  • “Yoga for Wellness” Gary Kraftsow

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