TOPIC OF THE MONTH
FEBRUARY 2006 / September 2011 / updated again and added to blog September 2020
Vinyasa is the way to go
Jump on back and feel the flow
Upward dog and downward too
Pick yourself up and jump on through
(My version of David Swenson’s vinyasa rhyme.)
A very loose translation of vinyasa is “flow” or connecting movements; when most people talk of vinyasa during our practice of postures they are referring to the “connecting” push-up position (chaturanga) into up dog and down dog that we practice between our postures.
A more literal and correct translation of vinyasa breaks down to: Nyasa which means “to place”, and the prefix Vi translates as “in a special way” or some people translate Vi as Vin to mean wind. Thus vinyasa means to place in a special way or place your body with your wind. Both translations are quite valid in my understandings. We now have a mental and physical way to approach our practice—with Awareness. (We can also take Vinyasa “off the mat” and apply it to our lives outside of the yoga studio, we can place our thoughts, actions, and words in a special way—with awareness and sensitivity.)
Vinyasa is to align you with your breath.
In Ashtanga Yoga the entire practice is vinyasa, from the first sun salute to the last hop (or crawl) through to lie down in rest pose; moving in this way makes the entire practice meditative. In other forms of yoga you get into a pose, hold it for 1-5 minutes during that time you are into your breathing and meditative state, then you break the state, come out of the pose, go into the next pose, realign, and get into your meditative state again…
In Ashtanga yoga, you try not to break “the state” for the entire practice. Ashtanga was one of the first methods to introduce the concept of vinyasa, now many other forms also incorporate vinyasa but use vinyasa in the looser term referring mostly to the physical postures–the connecting chaturanga, up dog, down dog postures. And most people think of vinyasa as these movements–which it is–but it is NOT ONLY those movements.
All of the ashtanga poses have a vinyasa count into and out of them, the sun salute being the classic example of having one movement match one breath, ex.
- Inhale reach your arms overhead
- exhale forward bend
- inhale lift your head up only
- exhale jump chaturanga or step back and lower down
etc. There are also vinyasa counts to enter a pose, in some cases you may do more than one movement in the “beat of your breath” for example in trikonasana the vinyasa count is:
- the first vinyasa is to step open to the right with your inhale,
- the 2nd vinyasa is on your exhale to catch the toe and look to your thumb and breath 5 times,
- the third vinyasa is to come up and turn your feet to the left side, all on an inhale,
- the 4th vinyasa is to exhale and catch your left toe; then hold the pose on your left side with deep breathing for 5 breaths,
- the 5th vinyasa is to inhale come up, and exhale to samasthitih.
This method trains us to move with our breath and remove fidgets and extra “mind stuff”. You breathe and move with the vinyasa counts.
This is why asthanga does not like to use props, props will break the synchronicity between your breath and movement. Personally I have found value in learning how to modify with my body instead of a prop. However if you do like to use a prop here and there in your practice; there are ways to incorporate them with the vinyasa counts.
Why all the chaturangas/updogs/downdogs vinyasas between the poses? This does make the practice more challenging. There is a reason though (as I’ve learned with every little aspect of the ashtanga practice!):
- Vinyasas give us a continuity via the breath and from posture to posture; we are not just switching from one posture to another but ebbing and flowing linking our postures and our breath
- This removes fidgets and “mind stuff” from our practice. Mind stuff being worrying about work or what we’re going to eat . . . fidgets being picking fuzz off our mats or toes, fixing our hair or clothes, looking at the clock, bathroom breaks, etc.
- They build up of heat in the body–all those chaturangas and updogs/downdogs build heat. It is the heat that aids in the removal of toxins from the body–internal cleansing.
- they build strength and endurance in our body
- This is more important in our lifestyles today. Our bodies do need to exercise — if yoga is your “exercise” there has to be some work in it. I was listening to Dr. Perlmutter, MD (a Functional Neurologist) interview Dr. Lisa Mascone on her new book “The XX brain”, speaking about the importance of exercise on Alzheimer’s. Exercising reduces your risk of Alzheimer’s by 30% — that’s substantial. If there was a pill that could do that the pharmaceutical company would make millions from it! We need to exercise to keep our brain health — exercise increases our BDNF (Brain Derived Neuroptropic Factor) which is what protects our brain from cognitive decline as we age.
- the up dog and down dog can give a counter pose, especially in the primary series where we do a lot of forward bending.
- However keep in mind, upward dog done without awareness will not be a counter balance to forward bending. Upward dog is a gravity assisted back bend, meaning you can do nothing but sag and hang on your joints and tendons and you will be in a back bend. Upward dog done this way is harmful. Upward dog done with awareness; staying strong and sliding your shoulder blades down your back lifting your chest upward (scapular depression), contracting your quadriceps (thighs) and keeping your knees off the floor, fully rolling over your toes and placing the top of your feet on the floor, and lengthening your neck as you lift your face to the sky will be a counter balance to forward bending and a very healthy way to do upward facing dog! Too many vinyasas and you will lose that form rather quickly ~
The method of vinyasa is an important part of the Ashtanga practice, maybe even the heart of it (vinyasa includes the breath). Pattabhi Jois likes to quote the sage Vamana who says:
‘Oh Yogi don’t do asana without vinyasa’ (in Sanskrit: “Vina vinyasa yogena asanadin na karayet”)
I would like to add . . . our western mind takes something good . . . and then thinks more of it will be better . . .
VINYASA (as in chaturanaga, up dog, down dog between poses) IN MODERATION; as in all things 😉 As Ashtanga yoga has gotten more popular many extra vinyasas have been added. Krishnamacharaya warns that too many vinyasas are not good for your joints. We need enough vinyasa to keep our heat for internal cleansing and to keep a rhythm with our practice helping to control the mind. No more no less . . . As you place your body with awareness pay attention to not deplete your own system of energy by taking too many vinyasa, your yoga practice should give you energy for your day, not deplete you of your energy.
Don’t spend too much time getting into the postures ~
You get more benefit from the pose than the vinyasa — vinyasas are quick, counts in poses are slower. This is how KPJ and Sharath lead a led class. I have noticed many people fidget around getting in the pose, then by the time they are “in it” it is time to come out. It seems many folks spend more time getting in the posture than being in the posture.
The vinyasa counts to get into a posture are rather quick so you don’t fidget so much with your body and your posture. Yes there needs to be awareness and alignment; a beginner will spend a little more time figuring out how to best put their body in a pose, however after a few months of practicing a pose this needs to become streamlined ~
Yoga is not alignment! Yoga is controlling your thoughts and putting your mind to good work. There is much healing we can do with our minds beyond the alignment of our muscles and bones.
Some of the vinyasa counts are a little too quick, for example marichyasana D, you have half a breath to get in to half lotus, bend your right knee, twist and bind . . . most people can just not do that. In the case you can not get into the pose in the specified breath count, no worries . .. just keep breathing as you get into the pose — and make your own vinyasa count. What can you do in the beat of your breath?
Make your own vinyasa count, for ex. for Marichyasana D:
- Inhale L leg to lotus
- Exhale bend your R knee
- Inhale start your twist
- Exhale complete the twist and try to bind . . .
WHAT IS MOST IMPORTANT IS THAT YOU DO NOT HOLD YOUR BREATH WHILE YOU ARE WORKING IN TO A POSE . . . BREATH HOLDING AND PUSHING YOURSELF = HIGHEST RISK OF INJURY.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO SKIP VINYASA IF YOU NEED TO FOR A REASON —
I was teaching a workshop in Peru where the teachers are very strict “new school” ashtanga; meaning they make you do vinyasas between every pose AND right and left sides of the body — if you don’t do that (or attain all the binds) you have to stop your practice! How absurd and what a shame. A lady there was having wrist issues and was quite upset that she could not continue her practice … I told her in my workshop you can skip the vinyasas —and I gave her some modified movements she could do instead of a traditional vinyasa that did not put any strain on her wrists. She was so happy she could continue in her practice and reported back to me it actually helped her wrist!
How do your remember the vinyasa counts?
For a beginner, the exact vinyasa counts are not that important. First you learn the series mysore style, as a beginner you do not really know the vinyasa count so much — you first learn the poses and your body in the pose — then you can start to increase your level of awareness of how to get in the pose staying with your breath. After you learn mysore style and you know your body in the poses you can go to led classes to learn the vinyasa counts and the rhythm of your practice.
Pattabhi Jois on Vinyasa
Vinyasa: Vinyasa means breathing and movement system. For each movement, there is one breath. For example, in Surya Namskar there are nine vinyasas. The first vinyasa is inhaling while raising your arms over your head, and putting your hands together; the second is exhaling while bending forward, placing your hands next to your feet, etc. In this way all asanas are assigned a certain number of vinyasas.
The purpose of vinyasa is for internal cleansing. Breathing and moving together while performing asanas makes the blood hot, or as Pattabhi Jois says, boils the blood. Thick blood is dirty and causes disease in the body. The heat created from yoga cleans the blood and makes it thin, so that it may circulate freely. The combination of the asanas with movement and breath make the blood circulate freely around all the joints, taking away body pains. When there is a lack of circulation, pain occurs. The heated blood also moves through all the internal organs removing impurities and disease, which are brought out of the body by the sweat that occurs during practice.
Sweat is an important by product of vinyasa, because it is only through sweat that disease leaves the body and purification occurs. In the same way that gold is melted in a pot to remove its impurities, by the virtue of the dirt rising to the surface as the gold boils, and the dirt then being removed, yoga boils the blood and brings all our toxins to the surface, which are removed through sweat. If the method of vinyasa is followed, the body becomes healthy and strong, and pure like gold.
After the body is purified, it is possible to purify the nervous system, and then the sense organs. These first steps are very difficult and require many years of practice. The sense organs are always looking outside, and the body is always giving into laziness. However, through determination and diligent practice, these can be controlled. After this is accomplished, mind control comes automatically. Vinyasa creates the foundation for this to occur.
Applying vinyasa to life
As I mentioned at the beginning vinyasa teaches us how to move through our life with awareness, not only physical awareness but awareness of how the placement of our thoughts and words effect ourselves and others.
On another level being aware of how your place your step is very helpful and part of a yogic lifestyle of mindfulness. The act of being aware of how you place your foot when you are running errands can help you NOT trip over a curb. I have found this particularly helpful in my life; I used to consider myself “klutzy”. Turns out I’m not. Having a very full life of being a self employed single mother kept me quite busy in my life, and before I developed my awareness I would be thinking about all I have to do as I was running errands and doing “stuff” … being distracted from where I placed my step. I used to trip over things all the time… but not so much anymore 🙂
And also a physical awareness of moving through our daily chores with some mindfulness on our breathing and movements. Breathing good all day long vs. just the hour or so you are on your mat has a lot more benefit. It also gives us a little more control over our mindstuff and nervous systems, keeping us calm and healthier as we move throughout our days.