What exactly is Vinyasa Yoga?
Updated: Dec 23, 2022
What do you expect when you see Vinyasa on a Yoga studio timetable? Have you ever heard a teacher say "take a vinyasa"? So what exactly is Vinyasa Yoga?
Let's start with the Sanskrit definition of Vinyasa. The word is actually a combination of two Sanskrit words, "Nyasa" meaning 'to place', and "Vi" meaning 'in a special way'. So the word Vinyasa literally translates to "To Place in a Special Way."
In modern Yoga studios, like ours here in Wollongong, one can typically expect a Vinyasa Yoga class to have a feeling of sustained flow, where postures are seamlessly linked together while moving with a consistent, rhythmic breath. I created an earlier post about Hatha Yoga to try and clarify the orgins and meaning of that term, but in modern Yoga studios, people generally expect a Hatha Yoga class to be slower paced Asana practice compared with Vinyasa, where individual postures are held for a sustained amount of time. Just to be clear, Vinyasa Yoga still falls under the umbrella of Hatha Yoga (as described in the previous post) but people nowadays tend to think of each as a certain style of Asana.
History & Lineage of Vinyasa
So if Vinyasa means "to place in a special way", how did Vinyasa become known as a flowing style of movement where the transitions between postures have more of a focus?
Tirumalai Krishnamacharya is widely thought of as the father of modern yoga. He is said to have pioneered an experimental jumping style of Asana combining breath with movement in the 1920's and 30's. It always changed based on who he was teaching. He believed the most important aspect of teaching yoga was that students be "taught according to his or her individual capacity at any given time, and the path of yoga meant different things for different people". His use of the word Vinyasa described "a sequence of steps for approaching a given posture, or a stage in the execution of an Asana" such as the steps to get into bridge pose.
Krishnamacharya's students included many of the most renowned and influential yoga teachers like Indra Devi, K. Pattabhi Jois, B. K. S. Iyengar, and his son T. K. V. Desikachar.
K. Pattabhi Jois was one of Krishnamacharya's students who further pioneered the breath to movement Vinyasa style of Asana. Jois' approach used a set sequence of postures linked together with breath, including Sun Salutations (Surya Namaskar). He coined this style of Yoga as Ashtanga Yoga. The consistent sequence was designed to create a feeling of a moving meditation, and it also helped new pratitioners to adopt the practice as he brought it to the West. His usage of the word Vinyasa was "the repetitious linking movements" between the asanas."
*warning - the next paragraph contains sensitive content*
Although Pattabhi Jois helped to popularize the breath to movement Vinyasa style of Yoga, unfortunately, we must acknowledge the fact that accusations surfaced about some students receiving different "adjustments", and in 2009 further evidence and accusations emerged that he had systematically sexually abused some of his students. It is an unfortunate part of the history and lineage of the practice, and can be hard to reconcile alongside the fact that the style of Yoga he helped to propagate, heavily influenced the modern styles of Vinyasa that are practiced today.
Some of Jois's students like Bryan Kest, Larry Schultz, and Beryl Bender Birch took the breath to movement Vinyasa style taught by Jois to a new level by modifying the sequences and series with other asanas and removing the constraints of a set sequence to unlock a revolutionary style of linking any and all postures together - an art and a science of sequencing for modern Vinyasa yoga teachers.
Why I love Vinyasa
Rhythm: One of the reasons why I love Vinyasa is something that was pointed out to me in a training with one of my teachers, Jason Crandell who shared how one of the best aspects of Vinyasa is something called Sama Vritti, or the even continuity of breath. He said "It's easier to breathe rhythmically, when you move rhythmically."
I definitely feel that one of the reasons I feel so good after a Vinyasa practice is not just from the movments, postures, and transitions, but also the fact that I've done a sustained breathwork practice for an extended period of time. We've probably all heard the advice at one time or another when feeling stressed "to take 3 deep breaths." But what happens when you breathe with depth, mindfulness and continuity for an hour? How does that affect the nervous system, or in more Yogic terms, how does that afffect the overall mind-body complex?
Transitions: When postures are linked together seamlessly in Vinyasa, the top of an inhale is generally the inflection point where we transition to the next posture, and the bottom of the exhale is where we make the transition to the next, and so on. All of the movement takes place in the space of the inhale and exhale, which kind of begs the question; is the transition the movement in-between, or is the transition the posture itself (where the inflection of the breath happens)? I love how Vinyasa balances the scales to keep the same level of intention and mindfulness on the postures with an equal priority on all of the movement and breath that is happening in the space in between.
Variation: Vinyasa, especially in a modern context is a continuously evolving practice. A Vinyasa class generally feels really unique from class to class. I love the feeling of the familiarty of postures as sequences are developed and repeated and I find that flow-state within a practice. At the same time, I love the novelty of how each class can feel completely new and different in my body. Something as simple as putting the same familiar postures in a different order from one class to the next can make the transitions between them feel new and challenging (in a good way). And when classes are themed around a particular movement, a particular area of the body, or developing a specific posture, the class can leave me feeling a potency from the essence (or Rasa in Sanskrit) of the theme. Likewise, a well rounded 'potpourri' Vinyasa practice that touches on a variety of movements and areas of the body, can leave me with an overall amazing feeling as well.
Off the mat
Vinyasa teaches us to move mindfully and skillfully through all of the movements and transitions on the mat, which I think offers some expanded awareness to navigating the changing tides, and transitions of life off the mat with mindfulness and skill. Yoga philosophy describes a concept from the Sanskrit word "Parinamavada" which is translated as - the law of transformation. In other words, the only constant is change, and whether we're always aware of it or not, we are in a continuous state of transition. Life is a collection of moments, passing moments really. While we may recognize certain markers and milestones, like birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, we are invariably transitioning to the next thing the moment those events come to pass. We are always in the transition.
The philosopher Alan Watts said, "In music one doesn't make the end of a composition the point of the composition. If that were so, the best conductors would be those who played fastest, and there would be composers who wrote only finales. People would go to concerts just to hear one crashing chord; because that's the end! ... When we dance, the journey itself is the point, as when we play music the playing itself is the point. And exactly the same thing is true in meditation. Meditation is the discovery that the point of life is always arrived at in the immediate moment."
One of my favorite authors, Annie Dillard once said "How we live our days is of course how we spend our lives." As we take the lessons from Vinyasa off the mat, moving through the transitions and transformations of life with mindfullness and skill, allows the sum of a collection of moments to define the story of our lives. All of the moments in between are important.
About the Author:
Jason has been teaching Yoga in Wollongong since 2019 and began teaching Yoga after his teacher training at Yoga Six in San Diego California in 2017. He has since completed a Diploma of Remedial Massage Therapy and is passionate about creating and facilitating space for growth, transformation, and overall wellbeing. He primarily teaches Vinyasa Yoga, and offers Massage treatments designed for Yogis to embody their breath, improve posture, and soothe the nervous system.