You can find Vinyāsa Yoga on the menu at most Yoga studios. A famous studio that I used to frequent offers Hatha 1, Hatha 2, Vinyāsa 1 and Vinyāsa 2 among other classes. This can be confusing for the beginner. It seems there is more than one way of doing the same Trikonāsana. The Hatha way and the Vinyāsa way.
It is also common to hear the phrase: “take a Vinyāsa now” in Aṣtānga classes as if Vinyāsa is a particular movement or posture.
What exactly is Vinyāsa?
Lets start with etymology. Vinyāsa = vi + nyāsa. vi means special or systematic. nyāsa means to place, to put down or to fix.
Vinyāsa means to place in a systematic way or to place in a special, specific way. In the context of Yoga Āsana practice, it means placing the body, the limbs, etc in to a position in a systematic or specific way.
Clearly from just this definition it appears that all āsana practice ought to be done with Vinyāsa. After all we don’t get into any posture in a haphazard way. However, there is more to the concept of Vinyāsa than just systematic way of movement in the context of Āsana practice.
Lets do a small experiment. You can do this sitting on your chair or standing up.
Stand up tall, arms by your side, shoulders relaxed, chin tucked in slightly with gaze lowered. Feet can be together or hip width apart.
Exhale completely. Begin inhaling slowly. Now raise your arms up, keeping the arms as straight as possible. Inhale fully and deeply. Make sure the arm movement begins after inhalation begins. Palms need not touch, so the arms can be shoulder width apart. Take a note of how you feel. Exhale and bring the arms down. Repeat this exercise a few times.
Now come back to the same starting position with arms by the side. Inhale fully. Begin exhaling slowly. Now raise your arms up, keeping the arms as straight as possible. Exhale Completely. Make sure the arm movement begins after exhalation begins. Take a note of how you feel. Inhale and bring the arms down. Repeat this exercise a few times.
Of the two ways of raising your arms, which one felt more comfortable and natural? At the end of repetitions, which one left you with a strained breath?
Lets do another experiment.
Stand tall with arms raised up. Inhale deeply here. Now begin exhaling slowly and fold forward. Go as far as comfortable to you, bending your knees if necessary to relieve strain on the lower back. Palms can gently rest on the knees or shins or floor, whatever your flexibility comfortably allows. Exhale completely. Take note of how you feel. Inhale and come back up. Repeat this exercise a few times.
Now come back to the starting position. Exhale deeply here. Begin inhaling slowly and fold forward as before. Inhale fully and deeply. Take note of how you feel. Exhale and come back up. Repeat this exercise a few times.
Of these two ways of folding forward, which one felt more comfortable and natural? More importantly, at the end of repetitions, which one left with you with a strained breath?
In both the experiments, the first way of doing the movement, is more comfortable and natural. It is because the movement is aided by the breath and the breath in turn is not restricted by the movement. What does that mean?
When we inhale deeply, the rib cage expands, thoracic spine lengthens and the abdominal muscles relax so that the diaphragm can descend. The front of the body expands with the back either arching back slightly or straightening. The opposite happens on exhalation. The abdominal muscles contract and there is a compression of the front part of the body.
Therefore, movements (such as raising arms up) that result in expansion of the front of the body and lengthening of the spine are aided by inhalation. They are more comfortable when performed on inhalation. Also such movement do not restrict deeper inhalation.
Similarly, movements (such as folding forward) that result in the compression of the front of the body and contraction of the abdominals are aided by exhalation. They do not, in turn, restrict full exhalation.
This specific pairing of movement with appropriate breathing cycle is the essence of Vinyāsa.
Apart from ease of movement, why is this important?
Yoga Sūtras, as usual, offer an insight.
(Sutras 2.46) sthira sukhamāsanam / Stable and comfortable form of posture is Āsana
(Sutra 2.47) prayatna śaithilya ananta samāpatti bhyām / (Āsanas are perfected) by relaxation of effort and contemplating on the infinity (or the endless)
Contemplation on infinity or endless (ananta) is an important ingredient to perfection in Āsana. Hariharananda Aranya, in his commentary, suggests one to imagine a void surrounding oneself and oneself merging with the void. Such meditative state could also help with relaxation (śaithilya). One could also imagine space or the sky.
T Krishnamacarya, arguably the father of modern Hatha Yoga and the Vinyāsa method of doing Āsana, suggests contemplation on breath. Breath is endless relative to our existence. Our life lasts as long as breathing lasts.
Therefore, concentrating on the breath is another way of contemplating on the endless. It offers several advantages over contemplation on things such as space or sky or void. First, breath is real. Second, it is tangible in the sense that it can be felt. It can also be heard. Third, it can be controlled (lengthened or shortened). Fourth, you can move while breathing.
Contemplating on breath means feeling the breath. It means following the breath as it enters the nostrils, caresses the airways and fills the lungs and as it retraces its way out. during Āsana practice is possible only if the breath remains smooth and comfortable. If you are panting your way through asana practice, then it is hard to remain focussed on the breath. It certainly wont help in relaxation.
A beginner most likely will have a shorter breath. This means that the movements need to be quicker to accommodate the length of the breath. This also means that the beginner could get tired quickly. He/She is better off taking short breaks (e.g. Take a few breaths in Śavāsana (corpse pose) or Bālāsana (child’s pose)) during the practice. As breath lengthens with practice and the movement can be slower and the need for breaks may not arise.
Couple of points to note.
In a practice involving a long sequence of Āsanas such as Aṣtānga Primary Series, it is possible that there are movements, where breath cannot be paired in an ideal way. In my experience, these are few and far between and do not affect the smoothness of the breath.
During the stay in a posture, breathing is natural to the extent the the posture allows. So it is not that we do not inhale at all when we stay in the forward fold position! Inhale to the extent it is comfortable.
Pairing of breath with movement in an appropriate way is therefore important part of Āsana practice. Movements done in such a way help in maintaining comfortable breathing through out the practice. Then the practice “flows”.
This is Vinyāsa. And it makes sense to do whatever brand of Yoga you are doing with Vinyāsa!