Vinyasa yoga is one of the most practiced styles worldwide according to a survey by the Yoga Journal, it is the most popular style amongst yogis. So, why is it that there seems to be some confusion about what vinyasa is? Is it a style? A sequence? Or is it just a technique? And what exactly does it mean when a teacher says "take a vinyasa?"
Since I was a bit confused with all these concepts, too, I searched for an expert in vinyasa to get some answers. I found advice from Reejo, a teacher certified by the Yoga Alliance and trainer at YogaVimoksha; he helped me to understand vinyasa better and I hope his explanation does the same with you. Catch your breath before you keep reading, you're going to need it to go with the vinyasa flow.
To begin with, there are several definitions of the word itself. Some sources affirm it means "connection;" others translate it from Sanskrit as "to place in a special way"; and there are those who say it's just "flow." With this in mind, it's not surprising the broad usage of the term "vinyasa." Choose whichever definition you like better; the important thing to understand here is that vinyasa always links the breath with the movement.
The focus is on the inhale and exhale while moving from one pose to the next one. For this same reason, some yoga teachers use it to describe a gradual progression of postures connected by inhalations and exhalations (usually from chaturanga to up dog to down dog).
Therefore, when yoga instructors started to base a whole class on these principles, the vinyasa style made its appearance in a lot of studios and yoga retreats all around the globe. According to our expert, Reejo, a lot of the confusion comes from its similarities to other styles. The technique of the vinyasa flow is the same as in Hatha, and many asanas are shared with ashtanga, too. But probably the main distinction of vinyasa is the order of the postures that often changes, two vinyasa classes are rarely identical.
How to do it
Sun salutations A and B are the core of the vinyasa style. They are the the perfect example of linking body movements with our breath. Generally, our body should be flowing upwards when inhaling, and towards the ground when exhaling. But keep in mind that the intention of vinyasa is not to do the poses trying to keep the pace of your accelerated breathing; it's about learning to control it to allow the postures to naturally follow each breath. This is what is called pranayama, and to get the best results, Reejo recommends to constantly practice any of these techniques:
- Anuloma Viloma. The alternate nostril breathing is quite simple to practice to start your day well balanced. In this technique, you inhale through one nostril, retain the air and exhale through the other nostril. The tradition is to adopt the Vishnu Mudra while doing it.
- Kapalbhatti. It could be interpreted as an inverted breathing technique in which the exhalation is more active than the inhalation. The base here is to put emphasis on releasing the air, assuming that all the disorder in your body and soul is also being liberated from your system.
- Ujjayi. Also known as the ocean breath, in reference to the sound it produces. The lips must be sealed and the air has to go through the throat. A good tip to get used to it is by breathing with your mouth open, but closing it in the middle of the inhalation or exhalation.
- Bhastrika. This breathing exercise is used to energize the body and mind. Think of it as a cup of coffee without the negative effects of caffeine. To perform it, you have to use your diaphragm and expand your belly as much as you can when inhaling; the exhale should through the nose, forceful and fast.
Benefits of Vinyasa
Besides the breathing techniques and flow, in Reejo's opinion, vinyasa differentiates from other styles because it pays attention to the whole body without discriminating a single muscle. "It serves as a strength-training process and helps build lean muscle mass throughout the body. The main benefit of using vinyasa yoga as a primary method of building lean muscle mass is that all groups receive equal attention, creating balanced strength throughout the body" he explains.
Also, one of the most common challenges that all yogis face during any practice, is the difficulty to move stiff muscles at will. The good news is that this represents another advantage for vinyasa; its continual flowing movements stretch and elongate the muscles while being strengthened, allowing greater mobility and range of motion compared to other yoga styles.
I'm making vinyasa sound too good to be true, am I not? It is for sure a great yoga style if you truly enjoy a full body and mind experience, but it is only expected to come with some challenges as well that practitioners have to overcome in order to stick to the mat everyday. Reejo agrees that the most challenging part of vinyasa is the transition from basic poses to the more advanced ones (remember you still have to control your breath while standing in the hardest asanas).
A considerable degree of flexibility and strength is required in order to start performing the most difficult postures. Thus, a good dose of patience is key to master vinyasa, since new practitioners may have to take it slowly and spend a year or two with not so rigorous classes in order to build up the foundation of flexibility and strength necessary for advanced sessions.
That's vinyasa, a style that took by storm the yoga world. Now I dare you to re-read this post using one of the breathing techniques I mentioned above. If you have yet to try vinyasa yoga, consider it your first practice.
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