On most yoga schedules in the western world we see the words ‘vinyasa’ yoga, but how many of us know what it really means? That ubiquitous phrase – “Now, take a vinyasa” – often refers to the challenging yoga sequence from plank, down into chatturanga, into upward dog and back to downward dog. For many students, this is their only understanding of vinyasa. But as our commitment towards our yoga practice develops, many of us look for deeper levels of insight within our practice. How can we enmesh the lessons we learn on our mats into the rest of our lives?
Vinyasa is a Sanskrit word that is formed by linking two words together:
Nyasa means, ‘to place’ and Vi means ‘in a special or sacred way’. Hence Vinyasa means ‘to place something in a sacred and special way.’
A common definition of vinyasa is ‘breath synchronised movement”. This is not completely incorrect, however, this popular definition that does not convey the true power of the word. A truer and broader reflection of the meaning of Vinyasa may be ‘the placement of movements and life events in a sacred and mindful manner’.
The father of twentieth century yoga practice was the great Indian yogi and healer Sri Krishnamacharya (1888 - 1989). His students include India’s most influential teachers, most notably B.K. S Iyengar, the late Sri K. Patthabi Jois and his own son TKV Desikachar. He taught yoga adhering to the principal of vinyasa krama; a structured arrangement of yoga postures progressing towards a desired goal. It was a highly personalised offering, carefully tailored to the specific needs of each student. For example, some vinyasa sequences he taught were therapeutic, some were invigorating, and some were restorative, depending on the needs (ages, gender and general health) of the student in front of him.
Today, vinyasa is commonly associated with the specific series of postures known as ashtanga vinyasa yoga. This yoga method includes six challenging series of yoga postures, each of increasing difficulty, which are taught sequentially with a focus on breath and movement co-ordination. Ashtanga vinyasa yoga has experienced growing popularity around the world since first being introduced to Western students in the 1970’s by the late Patthabi Jois. Prior to this time, it was a vigorous style of yoga that was only taught to young Indian boys.
In the past 20 years, there has been a natural evolution of the beautiful Ashtanga Vinyasa series towards more creative combinations of yoga postures. Vinyasa yoga today is personalised by each teacher, making it an open system relatively free from rules. It is commonly enhanced by music, and can combine elements from dance and martial arts alongside traditional tantric yoga techniques of mantra (sound), pranayama (breath control), mudra (hand gestures) and meditation.
Less well known, and perhaps more importantly is that Krishnamacharya also defined vinyasa, as any cycle or wave that has a beginning, middle, and an end. Upon examining this more organic explanation, we begin to understand that vinyasa is not limited to what we practice on our mat, but is also the intelligent unfolding of life itself. It is the movement of the earth around the sun (a 365 day vinyasa), the rhythmic passage of the four seasons (a 3 month vinyasa depending on your global location), the lunar cycle from new moon to new moon (a 28 day vinyasa), the ebb and flow of the tides and the daily arc of the sun (a 24 hour vinyasa), and each beat of our hearts and breath (a moment to moment unfolding). In fact, our lives are representative of a maha vinyasa (great vinyasa) from our very first breath at birth, to our final exhalation as we leave our bodies. Developing an awareness and appreciation of the many cycles in nature, enables us to live with a greater sense of connection and unity to the cycles living within us.
This is yoga, a sense of union, or non-separation with all that is around us.
Flowing through a movement vinyasa requires us to have mindfulness between one moment and the next. Vinyasa shows us that all forms are impermanent, cannot possibly be held on to, and that all movements have a clear beginning, middle and an end. With this idea, we can release our attachment towards their outcomes, knowing that the dissolution of each posture, gives rise to other related forms.
We practice the awareness of vinyasa as we observe and embrace the changing seasons, cook, share and enjoy a meal, or dance under the stars – anything that takes us deep into a state of flow with full awareness. So, the next time your teacher says in class the ubiquitious – ‘Take a vinyasa’, please take a moment to appreciate the flow into upward dog, and back into downward dog. These movements are symbolic for the many peaks and troughs of life, and our challenge as yogis is to ride this blissful wave with as much strength and grace as we can.
My next Vinyasa Teacher Training module, entitled "Circle, Spiral, Wave and Flow" is at 889 yoga from November 13 - 16. To register, please follow the link here