Vinyasa yoga refers to a way of doing yoga that emphasizes the union of breath and movement, usually involving a gradual progression from one asana (pose) to the next so that the poses are smoothly connected. The word vinyasa comes from two Sanskrit words that mean “to place” and “in a special way.” Sometimes called the “breathing system,” vinyasa is not a distinctive tradition but a technique that can be incorporated into ashtanga, Iyengar, and other schools of yoga.
Vinyasa is sometimes used to refer to vinyasa flow, a style of yoga developed by Bryan Kest in the Los Angeles area in the 1990s. Kest, a student of Pattabhi Jois and the originator of power yoga, was followed by such other instructors as Erich Schiffmann, Shiva Rea, and Seane Corn, each of which has put his or her individual stamp on vinyasa practice. In vinyasa flow classes, students are taught to synchronize the breath with a series of body postures that flow into one another, and also to practice transitional vinyasas between sustained asanas.
There are several reasons why yoga practitioners may practice vinyasa:
Another reason for practicing vinyasa is that it teaches practitioners of yoga to extend the mindset of vinyasa practice to all of their activities. Specifically, vinyasa requires paying attention to the entire structure of one's practice: its beginning, its gradual building to a peak level of activity, its completion, and its integration. Extending this approach to one's entire life means giving proper attention to the beginning of any course of action, following through in a series of linked steps, and bringing the action to completion.
According to a survey taken by Yoga Journal, 16.7% of the 16 million Americans who practice yoga practice some form of vinyasa. Although vinyasa is incorporated into some forms of yoga instruction for children, most vinyasa classes are geared to older teenagers and adults.
Vinyasa yoga is usually traced back to Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888–1989), an Indian teacher of yoga who founded an influential school in Mysore. Krishnamacharya never left India over the course of his long life; however, his pupils carried many of his teachings to the West. They include B.K.S. Iyengar, the founder of Iyengar yoga; K. Pattabhi Jois, the founder of ashtanga yoga; and several other noted yoga teachers, including Krishnamacharya's three sons.
Krishnamacharya was noted for tailoring his instruction to the needs and capacities of each individual or small group. As a result, some of his former students find it difficult to summarize his teaching briefly or to explain it in full.
Some practitioners of yoga think of vinyasa as referring primarily to the six series of specific asanas recommended by K. Pattabhi Jois (1915–2009), the founder of ashtanga yoga. In Jois's system, the asanas and the order in which they are to be performed are strictly specified. Most yoga teachers, however, maintain that vinyasa can be correctly used to describe any progressive series of asanas that the instructor arranges. In some cases, yoga instructors may speak of “taking a vinyasa” as a shorthand term for a series of breath-synchronized movements performed in sequence between asanas held for longer periods of time.
Vinyasa as practiced in the ashtanga tradition is highly structured; the student is asked to perform a series of asanas in a standard order. There are six series in ashtanga vinyasa: primary, intermediate, and advanced A, B, C, and D.
Each of the six series has the same overall structure:
Vinyasa flow classes are less structured than ashtanga vinyasa practice, and often reflect the personality of the individual instructor. They do, however, follow the overall vinyasa pattern of self-evaluation prior to beginning the practice; using vinyasa krama to build toward a peak within a practice session; and bringing the practice to completion in an integrated and satisfactory way.
Preparation is an important part of vinyasa yoga. Since the overall structure of a vinyasa practice should be as structured and smoothly integrated as the flow of asanas into one another, preparation involves determining the goals of a practice before beginning, and then setting up a series of steps to attain those goals. This approach to practice is sometimes called vinyasa krama, krama being the Sanskrit word for tool.
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) recommends that anyone considering any form of yoga practice should consult their health care provider before starting the program. They should not use yoga as a substitute for conventional medical treatment and they should not postpone seeing a doctor about any health problem they already have. The individual should also ask the instructors at a yoga studio about their training and certification and about the physical demands associated with the type of yoga taught in the studio.
Vinyasa yoga is less risky for beginners or people with physical limitations because its instructors are trained to tailor the asanas and breathing exercises to individual needs. In addition, the variety of instructors claiming to teach one form or another of vinyasa means that a person can usually find a class that fits their level of experience and overall physical fitness. Most instructors of vinyasa yoga maintain that the students at greatest risk of strains, pulled muscles, or other injuries are those who are impatient with vinyasa krama and attempt more advanced poses before they have integrated the work of earlier stages of practice.
Different vinyasa instructors take their classes at different paces. So-called power vinyasa yoga instructors conduct fast-paced classes that are not suited for pregnant women or seniors. Ashtanga vinyasa yoga is also fast-paced. Unless older adults have had a number of years of yoga practice and are in good physical health, they should look into slow- or moderately paced vinyasa classes.
The remaining consideration is the individual instructor's personality and his or her interpretation of vinyasa. Because there is considerable diversity in vinyasa practice, some instructors' teachings reflect their particular quirks or preferences. It may be necessary for a beginner to try several vinyasa classes with different teachers in order to find a classroom setting and pace in which they feel comfortable.
Most people who practice vinyasa yoga report that it lowers stress as well as improves their flexibility and raises their overall energy level. Some also find that it assists their meditations or other spiritual practices.
There is relatively little research done on vinyasa by itself because it is considered an approach to yoga that can be blended into more specific schools or traditions rather than a distinctive school in its own right. One clinical trial of vinyasa under way began in 2007 and is sponsored by NCCAM. It is a study (currently in Phase 3) of the effectiveness of vinyasa yoga as an aid to smoking cessation for women.
See also Flexibility tests ; Yoga .
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Rebecca J. Frey, PhD
Revised by Laura Jean Cataldo, RN, EdD