With so many styles of yoga emerging it can be difficult to keep them all straight. It doesn’t really help either that styles can vary drastically regionally, studio to studio and teacher to teacher. I practice and teach Vinyasa style yoga and one would be hard pressed to convince me to switch my allegiance. I can see the benefits of other styles to be sure but to me they just enhance my own understanding and practice of my own heart, Vinyasa. But what is it?
Vinyasa literally means “To put in a special place”. Like many Sanskrit words and terms this definition could go many ways. Some say it refers to the attention to the breath in Vinyasa practice. You see, Vinyasa yoga comes from the Ashtanga tradition of yoga. Each of the prescribed movements in Ashtanga is paired with a breath, inhale or exhale. In Vinyasa we have more freedom to play with the individual poses but we still focus on the marriage of the breath and the movement. This reaches it’s pinnacle when we practice Sun Salutations or Surya Namaskar which are a series of poses practiced between the standing poses in a Vinyasa class. By harnessing the breath for these movements we not only retain our attention but also our heat. The breath is about safety as well, believe it or not. When we inhale we increase the inter-abdominal pressure in the body, lengthening the spine and therefore protecting it. Often we will utilize a strong exhalation to come into more challenging poses because as the belly draws back to press the air from the body it can contract more fully adding a bit of oomph to dicey transitions. Breath is the master of the body and the mind, it’s “special place’ is paramount to the safety and effectiveness of the practice. I love the way Richard Freeman puts it when he speaks of asana or yoga poses “Think of it as a very complicated breathing exercise”. Because yoga without the breath is just overpriced exercise.
Others say that this term Vinyasa or “To put in a special place” refers to the heat created and retained through repetitive movement. Vinyasa is actually another term used for Sun Salutation. These codified movements can be performed quickly or slowly but always with intention and care. Sun Salutations make Vinyasa yoga a cardiovascular workout for many raising the heart rate and bringing on a shocking amount of heat and sweat. This heat is vital to opening up the muscles and connective tissues in the body to begin to create lasting change and healing. Think of the Vinyasa as a blacksmith who heats his medium to shape and render it useful. Those with tighter muscles find this kind of practice satisfying because they can rely on their own internal heat to delve deeper into their poses. Vinyasa yoga should be carefully crafted to combine complementary poses that flow into and out of one another. A progression should be observed that allows students to move deeper and deeper over the course of a class and achieve some measure of personal success.
Still others would assert that “To put in a special place” honors the knowledge that nothing is permanent. All things will begin and end and in our Vinyasa practice we pay homage to the yogic concept of Aparigraha or non-attachment not only in the form of flowing movements but also in our desire to release expectation, anticipation and judgment. Indeed this is the goal of all yoga. We show up, do our practice with the desire to find some measure of peace in our minds. It gets a lot easier when we release expectation and try our best, without being attached to the result.
Vinyasa is the lens through which I view yoga, my passion and my profession. I love the flowing movements and the endless variety of creativity afforded by this free and playful style. I, like many sought yoga to become fit but I stay with it because I have discovered it’s capacity to help me settle my thoughts and release if only briefly my worries and doubts. To me the special place is what is beneath the emails, carpool and pay days. I glimpse the part of me that is unrelated to what I do or say or even think. It binds me to what is below the surface in all living things and gives me a place in the world.