What is Vinyasa Yoga?

[wp_ad_camp_1] Vinyasa refers to the way in which we flow from one asana (posture) to the next in a yoga series. Like most classes, each modern vinyasa-style class will be different because each teacher creates his or her own dynamic flow (movement) through a sequence of asanas. But a class doesn't have to be called a vinyasa or vinyasa flow class to demonstrate this style. In fact, each time you do a sun salutation, you are participating in what is called vinyasa or, flow of movement.


A Little History

There are a many names you will come to hear frequently as you advance in your practice and education of yoga. Krishnamacharya is such a name and so are the names of a few of his students, Pattabhi Jois, Indra Devi and B.K.S Iyengar. Krishnamacharya lived in India all his life, from 1888-1989 and studied and taught for almost 70 years. The most prolific of those years he spent in Mysore, which is where he developed vinyasa sequencing as a physical fitness routine for young male students. Krisnamacharya is often called the "father of modern yoga," because of his role in developing the foundational sequencing we now know as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga. With further development by his student Patthabhi Jois, this dynamic sequencing evolved into the primary, intermediate and advanced Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga Series we know today.

Krishnamacharya is also the man behind modern yoga's focus on coordinating breath with movement. Though his teachings varied from student to student based on what he felt were their individual needs, pranayama was as an integral part of the learning for all of his students, including Pattabhi Jois, B.K.S Iyengar and Indra Devi. Each of these students went on to teach dramatically different styles, but all maintained a distinct focus on the importance of the relationship between movement and breath. Krishnamacharya taught that focusing on a long, slow breath, inhaling with specific movements and exhaling with others, allowed the mind to become clear for meditation.


What You're in For

Vinyasa classes have branched out from the strict, three series Ashtanga Vinyasa series developed by Krishnamacharya and Pattabhi Jois to include a creative and broad range of styles. The foundation of the practice they built remains strong, and vinyasa classes typically have a more energetic, less relaxing and more cardiac purpose than traditional hatha style classes. In a vinyasa class, you'll experience increased breath and heart-rate and likely break a sweat. A vinyasa class is perfect for the practitioner looking for a strong workout and one that also promotes an escape from the mind by introducing a focus on the breath.

Specifically, vinyasa yoga incorporates the movement of a sun salutation into a series of other asana creating a dynamic sense of flow. There is typically a vinyasa (sun salutation) that moves the practitioner in and out of each asana as well as an assigned gaze or drishti point in each posture to help the practitioner remain present and focused on the practice and keep the mind at bay. Vinyasa is no different from other yoga traditions in its underlying purpose as preparation for spiritual (though not religious) practice and meditation.

Although the Sanskrit definition of vinyasa is a verb (to place in a special way),  'a vinyasa' to modern practitioners has come to mean a fluid sequence of specific asanas and is frequently used as a noun. For example, when an instructor says “move through a vinyasa” it usually means moving through Chaturanga (low plank), Urdhva Mukha Svanasana (Upward Facing Dog) and Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog). Vinyasas can be added throughout a class sequence at the instructor's discretion to increase heart rate, build strength, increase flexibility, detoxify and release tension.


The Special Benefits of Vinyasa Yoga

As opposed to other types of strength building workouts, vinyasa sequencing and the repetition of its movements are designed to work the body's muscle groups evenly. This means that practitioners will receive a balanced sense of strength throughout the body. Yoga also offers the unique benefit of stretching and elongating the muscles as they become stronger to help build lean muscle mass. This system's ability to increase muscle flexibility while strengthening is healthier for the body and unique to a yogic workout. Another benefit of the vinyasa system, is its tendency to build heat in the body, which causes the practitioner to sweat. This internal warming steps up circulation and promotes detoxification.

The importance placed on coordinating breath with movement in vinyasa yoga leads to even more benefit for the practitioner. By expanding the capacity for breath in the body, the practitioner works to maintain and improve respiratory and cardiovascular health. Often, vinyasa teachers will introduce the Ujjayi breath, translated as victorious breath with a vinyasa sequence. This technique is challenging at first, but with practice, becomes a helpful tool for moving through difficult sequencing. It's power is in its ability to provide both energy and relaxation while naturally lengthening the breath.

With your mind focused on your body, breath and movement, you will receive the added benefit of mental cleansing and clarity. Vinyasa yoga works quietly throughout the class to calm the nervous system by shifting your focus from the anxiety and stress you entered the room with, to the ebb and flow of the present moment and experience.

What is Vinyasa Yoga? -


How to Know When a Vinyasa Class is Right for You

We are so fortunate that modern yoga offers the plethora of menu options it does. We are also fortunate that yoga has become so mainstream in our culture that studios often offer several different kinds of classes for us to choose from throughout the week. We can take a vinyasa class when we need a physical and spiritual pick-me-up, a restorative class when our bodies need to be soothed and nurtured and a hatha class when want to move slowly through the poses and focus on technique and alignment.

Choose a vinyasa class when you have energy to burn; when you're feeling restless or excited or are feeling the need to come away from class with a fresh perspective on a challenging situation. Choose vinyasa to soften anger or clear away stress and anxiety. Do not choose a vinyasa class if you are feeling overly emotional, fatigued, mentally exhausted or weak. On those days, take time to self-soothe or attend a restorative or gentle yoga class. Again, there are opportunties now to receive exactly what you need and you do not have to commit to one specific style of yoga for every practice. Explore what's out there and give vinyasa a fair shot by trying it out when you're ready for a strong workout.


Other Things to Keep in Mind

When I teach a vinyasa sequence, I ask students to let go of any judgment of their limitations or the way their bodies move. I ask them to connect with the flow of movement and their breathing as they shift from one asana to the next and visualize the breath opening up the body's energy channels and clearing them of energy blocks that manifest as tension, tightness or pain. When you enter the classroom, do a mental scan of your body, discovering where these blockages may be occurring in your own body. As you move through the sequence, imagine the movement opening up those channels and being cleansed by the breath. As you lay down for final savasana, check in with your body again, scanning from toes to the top of your head and pay attention to the affect the movement has had on your body, especially in the places you felt tension, tightness or pain at the beginning of class.

For me, vinyasa is a moving meditation. When I focus all of my awareness on the flow of my breath, body and movement, my mind quickly becomes clear. Especially when I am learning a new series or sequence, it is so effortless to let my mind escape the constant chatter and focus on the experience of my body as it moves and breathes.


Want to learn about other yoga styles? Check out our article on Bikram yoga!

Image via: @kelseywieds