Saturday, 1 March 2008

Vinyasa - Taking Flight

By Vedran

Vinyasa is one of the key elements of Ashtanga yoga practice. Vinyasa gives the practice its distinctive sense of flow and it keeps the heat up so that the body opens up and becomes agile and pliable. It is easy to forget this getting caught up in the acrobatics of asana. Yet, it is precisely the understanding and application of the vinyasa principle that fuels asana in Ashtanga sequences.

What most people seem to think of when they think of vinyasa in Ashtanga are the transitions between the positions that come after the standing sequence - the lift-offs and the jump-backs and the subsequent fly-throughs. This is probably due to the fact that these present a formidable challenge for most people, especially novices. In addition, they have a yogic acrobatic aesthetic quality that stimulates our egos, making us feel strong and agile when mastered. This is not to be looked down on, of course. Mastering unusal movement patterns is one of the tools yoga offers that teach us about moving beyond what we considered absolute limits, physically, energetically and otherwise.
Still vinyasa is much more than this. An often used translation of the word vinyasa is the "breath and movement system". John Scott writes in his "Ashtanga Yoga" book that in the literal translation of the word, "vi" means "to go" or "to move", while "nyasa" means, amongst other things "placing" or "planting". Vinyasa is co-ordinating breath and movement, so that they become one. In Ashtanga, there is no movement without breath. The concept of tristana - the union of vinyasa, bandha and dristi, points to the complexity of the system. In Ashtanga, there can be no vinyasa without ujjayi and these two without the gaze focus, or dristi, make for an incomplete practice. Every transition from position to position and within a single asana, every movement, has its own in- or exhalation. Surya namaskar A, for example, has nine vinyasas, starting from the first lift of arms putting palms together, to the last re-entering Samasthitih. I once read that Vinyasa in Ashtanga yoga practice isn´t something you do betwen the asana, but asana is what you do between the Vinyasas. This is actually a constructive way of thinking yoga practice. Vinyasa, supported by bandha, ujjayi and dristi is where the strength of our practice comes from. When the focus in Vinyasa is good and properly applied, one can feel stronger and more charged the further into the practice one gets. So, by the end of a practice session, when one would feel exhausted practicing most any other system of physical exertion, in Ashtanga practice with Vinyasa and bandha applied, one is more energized than when one started. Many yogis have experienced this: dragging oneself to the mat, tired and unmotivated and leaving the mat stronger and more energized.

Apparently, Vinyasa Yoga was designed specifically for householders. Householders are people who have social duties outside of their personal yoga practice. Unlike renunciates (sannyasi), householders (grihasta) cannot devote their entire existence to concentrated practice. Vinyasa yoga is meant to compress the practice of all eight limbs of Ashtanga into a two hours practice. The postures are not held for a long time, so that a yogi can´t identify with them. Vinyasa creates a relatively fast flow of one posture into another and, ideally, we create an awareness that witnesses our presence in different asanas. This is yoga.

The flow

The distinctive flowing quality of Ashtanga yoga is due to Vinyasa. Take Utthita trikonasana, for example: you breathe in - arms out - you breathe out - you bend to one side with your body centered over one leg. After five breaths, you breathe in to come up, breathe out and change side and so on. Every breath-coordinated movement is one Vinyasa, meaning that the flow comes entirely from Vinyasa. For people who are new to Ashtanga, this is one of the most fundamental things to learn, alongside understanding bandha and breath. Perfecting of individual asana can never happen without perfecting the transitions between the postures and between the fragmenst within a specific posture. The Vinyasa transitions are as much a crucial part of any posture in Ashtanga practice as whatever you might be doing while holding any posture. There are no pauses in a strong practice. It is all about movement linked by inhalations and exhalations. Very often, when people who have had too much focus on mastering the asana without paying attention to linking the postures, actually start learning Vinyasa, the whole practice and the feeling of it changes. This can feel like a fresh beginning og like being adjusted backwards and re-learning the practice. This is why the best way to start learning is to start with the fundamentals: ujjayi, Vinyasa, bandha dristi. This is what creates the flow.
Ashtanga yoga has spawned a great number of other practices, where different teachers have restructured the sequences and given the practice different names. You´ve got a gazillion types of power yoga, Vinyasa flow, Baptiste power yoga et cetera. A common denominator in all of these is Vinyasa. No matter what the sequences look like or how advanced or not the practices are, the movements are linked by breath and the focused by dristi. The rhythm of this powerful style of yoga comes from this linking of principles. And from this rhythm comes the beauty and strength. And the strength, of course, is built through the application of Vinyasa - this is how the practice gets its flowing ease. It might sound like a paradox, ease coming through exertion but this is perhaps the core of yoga - the ease and weightlessness amidst possible difficulty and challenge.

Vinyasa, bandha and dristi

For the flowing quality of Ashtanga practice to be possible, both strength and flexibility need to be built. The one doesn´t work without the other. Yoga give us countless insights about the operating principles of the body. One of the reasons for this is the fact that energetically and movementwise, yoga works by quite intricate principles. You can be strong, each part for itself, but if the strength can not be integrated, there will be yoga postures that just can´t be reached. Take arm balances, for example. If your arms, back and abdominals are strong, you will have a good physical platform for these postures. Still, if you can´t integrate the strength from these different bodyparts into a singular flow of energy and strength, you will probably have trouble balancing. That is why one sometimes sees people who don´t seem perticularly fit float up into handstands with their legs straight, while people with more obvious muscular strength can struggle to get their feet off the ground. This is first of all because it is not about the muscles but about sending the energy through your body by using bandha and channeling it into Vinyasa. And second - arm balances are about integrated strength. You can use only your arms to get up but you will lose strength rapidly. If the system works together, the energy will be rationed correctly and the movement will be executed with less physical effort.
This integration is reached by the union of Vinyasa, bandha and dristi. The energy locks, bandhas, need to be there for Vinyasa to happen at all - the psoas muscle well used is what swings you between your arms in float-through Vinyasa - and dristi, together with the ujjayi breath helps you to keep your focus. People often forget the importance of the focused gaze, dristi, while practicing. And yet, if you want to turn your practice into a moving meditation, which is what we are aiming for, the gaze needs to be focused. Just like every movement has its in- or outbreath, every asana has its focus point, or dristi. The efortlessness of a strong yoga workout is derived from a disciplined mind. If your mind is to be disciplined during physical exhertion, you cannot let your eyes go zooming from one place to another. Changing the visual focus will entertain the mind and there will be NO focus. This is the role of dristi - creating focus. Noticing where you are and observing. Even if you don´t know what the correct dristi is in a perticular asana, a rule of thumb can be to look in whichever direction you are streching. This will not always be correct according to the traditional Ashtanga method but it will, all the same, give you more focus than if you let your eyes rest on, say, whatever a person practicing next to you is doing. Focus the dristi, bandha and Vinyasa and you will breeze through your practice, no matter how hard it is.
Vinyasa heats up the body and makes the muscles more pliable. It also accentuates the importance of balancing the flexibility out with the strength. the lifting and jumping between the sides in each asana creates the stability needed to "bind" what has been obtained in the way of flexibilty. This is one of the most important methods of avoiding injury. The muscles need to be warm and where strength is used, flexibility creates the balance and vice versa. One should not aim for flexibilty that one is unable to support with strength.


Vinyasa is perhaps the heart of Ashtanga. One of the biggest mistakes many yoga practicioners make is giving all their attention to the individual asanas, while Vinyasa gets neglected. You are not doing Ashtanga if you forget Vinyasa. It is as simple as this. It is not so unusal to see practicioners who skip the lift-offs and jump-throughs between the sitting asanas. Because they find it easier. And the thing is that it actually gets easier if you do it the hard way and do your lift-offs etc. If you never spread your wings, you don´t fly. You fall. And crossing those ankles, pushing up and jumping back and so on and so forth is how we learn to fly.

The beauty of the Ashtanga vinyasa method is in this incredible ease amidst the apparently bone breaking movements. It is not what you do but how you do it. Being able to contort into the most difficult postures is not what makes your practice yoga. If it was, all gymnasts would make grand yogis and they don´t. Breath, focus, what happens inside and, in the case of Ashtanga, Vinyasa, is what makes it yoga. I once read that Krishnamacharya wasn´t impressively flexible. But his bandha control, and through this, his Vinyasa, was so strong that he executed the practice beautifully. You can see this in some contemporary superyogis: Edward Clark doesn´t consider himself to be especially flexible but his flow is phenomenal, his bandhas strong and vinyasa breathtaking. So, his practice is powerful and truly amazing. It is HOW he does what he does and not about how flexible he is or not.

And what does it all boil down to? Perhaps to the simple fact that the fundemental principle in all forms of Vinyasa yoga is that the emphasis shifts from posture to breath. Asanas, as everything in life, are impermanent. What we search for is the formless. Gregor Maehle writes that the yogis search is for the formless, for what was here before the form arose will be here when the form ceases. The Ashtanga system is therefore organized in such a way that nothing impermanent is held on to. "Vinyasa Yoga is a meditation on impermanence", he writes.

Don´t hold on - let it flow. Feel the heat arise. And see yourself burn. What arises from the ashes might just be the real you.