Full, deep inhale; complete exhale and step back with the right foot. Drop the back knee, point the toe and inhale crescent lunge. As you exhale, drop into the hip socket more as you feel a stretch in the psoas muscle and step back with the left foot into plank and move through your vinyasa.”
This is what you might typically hear when you walk into my vinyasa flow yoga class. You may also see many students rhythmically flowing through varying asanas with a focus on a connection to the ‘breath’ while they begin to sweat. As a vinyasa flow teacher in Mumbai, I am often faced with the question, “What is flow yoga?”
It is not just a static, slow-moving practice although at times you will hold an asana for an extended period of time; it is not even a fast-paced athletic workout—it is both of these and more. Vinyasa flow is a yoga style that involves constant dynamic movement from one asana to another with the breath as the link between the body, mind and spirit. Each movement in the practice is accompanied by a full breath—inhaling and exhaling. The asanas are not held in a fixed position for long and they usually flow with a rhythm. Although the practice is physically demanding, the flows are creative and therapeutic for the mind as well as the body. Vinyasa flow is consciousness in motion.
What it can do for us
I like to describe vinyasa flow as a style of yoga where first the body moves, then the breath flows, and finally the mind follows. The practice of vinyasa flow brings awareness of the breath as a bridge between the body and mind. There is an undeniable connection between the breath and the body. The breath introduces prana or the energetic life force into our body. As the prana awakens and the breath and body begin flowing, an internal heat is generated in the core. With the increase in the warmth of the core, all the systems of the body benefit. This body heat works to purify the organs and detoxify the body. The nervous, lymphatic and respiratory system all become stimulated and healthier from regular vinyasa flow practice. There are other significant advantages to vinyasa yoga too:
- The increased body heat also stimulates blood flow, essential nutrients and oxygen within the body. With increased heat in the core, the metabolic rate increases, assisting the body in toning and weight loss. A person practising vinyasa flow yoga can burn from 400 to 600 calories an hour.
- Vinyasa flow yoga can benefit people suffering from various aliments and injuries. The graceful movements and heat generated in the practice help stretch and elongate the muscles while they are being strengthened, allowing greater mobility and range of motion. Other forms of yoga, such as hatha or iyengar, require that you hold the asanas for a longer period of time, which can be uncomfortable for tight muscles. In vinyasa flow, the continuing stream of movement, tied to the breath, allows for oxygen to fuel and loosen muscles.
- Flexibility in the muscles also takes stress off the joints, ligaments and tendons and helps prevent injuries like muscle pulls and tears. Those suffering from arthritis, slipped disc and spondylitis can boost resilience and reduce pain through regular practice.
- Symptoms of diabetes, asthma, high blood pressure, anxiety and depression can all be reduced with yoga.
Many people, including myself, have experienced the healing benefits of yoga first-hand and it is never too late to start practicing yoga. There is a style of vinyasa flow for everyone from beginners to advanced practitioners. Because emphasis is placed on awareness of the body and breath, practitioners are encouraged to listen to their own bodies and take a rest whenever it is needed.
Roots and origins
If we break down the word vinyasa into its Sanskrit roots, nyasa may be interpreted as ‘to place’ and vi as ‘in a special way’. Therefore, by combining these words and using the modern interpretation, vinyasa can mean to place a certain series of asanas and the breath in a special way. Also, following the modern interpretation of vinyasa as it refers to a yoga style, it can also mean to flow and connect the body, breath and mind.
The style of vinyasa flow yoga is influenced and inspired by all other types of yoga but claims no guru or true origin of source. People may use the label of vinyasa flow to cover many styles such as ashtanga, jivamukti and anusara, but in reality it is a mixture of all styles. Each practice is open to interpretation. This makes vinyasa flow a challenging, unique and playful style of yoga. When someone enters a yoga studio to begin a vinyasa flow class, they may not know exactly what to expect from the practice because every teacher and class are different. Some modern yoginis such as Seane Corne and Shiva Rea can be credited with bringing the vinyasa flow style of yoga into worldwide popularity. Today, people from India, China, Europe, Africa and North and South America have made vinyasa flow a celebrated form of yogic expression.
Although vinyasa flow yoga claims no lineage, Sri Krishnamacharya was the first yogi to introduce the idea of using the breath as a bridge in yoga practice to connect the body and mind.
Srivasta Ramaswami, author of The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga and a direct disciple of the legendary Yoga teacher Krishnamacharya, brings forth the essence of vinyasa in asana practice in the following way: “Just as music without proper pitch [sruti] and rhythm [laya] will not give happiness, yogasana practice without the observance of vinyasa will not give health. Yogasana [yogic poses], pranayama [yogic breathing exercises], and mudras [seals, locks, gestures] have been practiced with vinyasa from time immemorial.”
As stated in its title, vinyasa flow uses the vinyasa as a base for flowing postures and a rhythmic breath designed to create heat and energy in yoga practice. Each pose connects to the next with an inhale and exhale. Each movement becomes a prayer to your body temple and brings awareness to the divine energy within us all. With a focus on deep abdominal breathing, physical and psychological benefits in the body multiply. The inclusion of the spirit in this practice becomes a reflection of our grace and a divine expression of self on the journey we call yoga.
Getting started with Vinyasa
Here is a description of a typical vinyasa to warm-up the body and generate heat in the core. Don’t forget to synchronise your breathe with each movement. Find your roots and centre the body, breathe and mind. Listen to your body and rest in child’s pose [balasana] and continuing with the vinyasa. Begin on the right side and complete 2 – 3 vinyasas for each side.
Standing at the top of the mat [samasthitihi]
- inhale: arms overheard, palms touch lean back slightly
- exhale: fold forward hands to ground [uttanasana]
- inhale: flat-back gaze forward with hands on shins
- exhale: hands to ground step back with right foot
- inhale: crescent lunge [anjaneyasana]
- exhale: release hands to the ground step back to plank and lower [chaturanga dandasana]
- inhale: upward facing dog [urdhva mukha svanasana]
- exhale: downward facing dog [adho mukha svanasana]
- hold downward facing dog for 3 – 5 long, deep abdominal breaths
- inhale: step forward with right leg crescent lunge [anjaneyasana]
- exhale: release hands to ground and step forward with left leg
- inhale: flat-back gaze forward with hands on shins
- exhale: release hands to earth [uttanasana]
- inhale: open palms wide meeting above your head
- exhale: hands to heart centre in prayer
- Repeat with the left leg
Continue practicing with variations depending on what areas of the body you choose to focus on opening during your practice. Remember to breathe, find your flow and smile.