The Up and Down (Dogs) of Vinyasa Yoga. ~ Colin Hall

Via on Jan 26, 2011

To Flow or Not to Flow.

Vinyasa is a Sanskrit word with a number of definitions depending on the context in which the word is used. Some of the more commonly used definitions are: putting or placing down, arrangement, movement, spreading out, exhibition or display, and connecting. Vinyasa, at least as it applies to hatha yoga postures, can be best understood as a method of sequencing or arranging those postures in a particular way.

Most teachers of vinyasa yoga would, I assume, not disagree with the above definitions. Most vinyasa yoga classes, however, consist of variations of the sun salutation and, in the best cases, some creative ways of moving from one posture to the next. If you sign up for a “vinyasa yoga” class, this is precisely what you would expect, because we have actually conflated vinyasa with “yoga flow”.

Why has vinyasa, an arrangement of postures, come to be recognized as a sun salutation-based flowing style of yoga asana practice? It is mostly the result of branding. Pattabhi Jois christened his athletic and dynamic style of yoga “ashtanga vinyasa”. This style has become a globally recognized brand, and, in the process, vinyasa yoga became so deeply associated with the brand that they are now one and the same (in the same manner as Kleenex and paper tissue; Xerox and photocopiers).

Prostrations to the sun, prayers to the sun, and invoking solar deities are all ancient practices connected to Vedic ritual; however, it is difficult to place the sun salutations, as they are practiced today, in a historical context. Anthropologist Joseph Alter discovered drawings and instructions for something that looks a lot like a modern sun salutation but not in an ancient hatha yoga manual. One of the earliest examples of a modern-day vinyasa class seems to come from the Malla Purana, an 18th century text on wrestling.

The exercises depicted in the Malla Purana are not only practiced in yoga studios around the world, but also in wrestling Akharas (schools) across India. The sun salutation is, essentially, a push-up. In fact, many martial arts schools refer to sun salutations as “hindu push-ups”.

Let me be clear: I am not taking shots at vinyasa yoga or sun salutations. I teach and practice them regularly. But we should recognize practices for what they are—body weight exercises. Push-ups. It is a workout. What has come to be known as “vinyasa yoga” is a great workout. The flowing between postures is heating and can be very beneficial to those of us with tight connective tissue and stiff joints. There is also a certain concentrative attitude that emerges when you are constantly moving from one posture to another. Like dancing, vinyasa yoga can lead to somewhat ecstatic states of consciousness.

There are also disadvantages to practicing vinyasa yoga: namely, the repetitive strain on wrists and shoulders, particularly if upward dog is included without much instruction or refinement. And like dancing, vinyasa can also become a mindless and self-aggrandizing exhibition rather than an ecstatic release in the present moment. The repetitive nature of vinyasa yoga lends itself to a “just going through the motions” yoga experience akin to popping on headphones and hitting the elliptical trainer. This simplistic and repetitive style of vinyasa can become a trap for yoga teachers, inviting them to go on autopilot and coast through their classes without ever really looking at their students, refining their own practice, or furthering their understanding of yoga postures.

Vinyasa means simply to put things in order. Good sequencing is vinyasa. There is nothing wrong with sun salutations, but a much broader understanding of vinyasa will make for much more interesting and fulfilling yoga experiences for teachers and students alike. If you are a teacher of vinyasa yoga, challenge yourself to create and discover sequences that don’t lean upon push-ups as the primary vinyasa. If you are a student of vinyasa yoga, recognize if your class could just as easily be done with a DVD instead of a live instructor. If your instructor never leaves their mat and gives you nothing but demonstrations and platitudes—you can get that at Wal-Mart (most likely for cheaper than a drop-in class!).

Colin Hall runs a yoga studio in Regina, Saskatchewan with his wife Sarah Garden. He is the father of two beautiful little people, has a MA in religious studies focusing on the teacher-student relationship in hatha yoga traditions, and has always dreamed of being a stand-up comedian.

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15 Responses to “The Up and Down (Dogs) of Vinyasa Yoga. ~ Colin Hall”

  1. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Les Elephants, megan griswold. megan griswold said: The Up and Down (Dogs) of Vinyasa Yoga. ~ Colin Hall: Vinyasa is a Sanskrit word with a number of definitions de… http://bit.ly/hOkeoW [...]

  2. denvergirl says:

    Colin,

    I don't agree with your assumption that vinyasa yoga classes are made up of only sun salutations and that this can cause a vapid, "going through the motions" practice. What I love so much about vinyasa yoga is that in every class,we are challenged with new and creative sequences. I also love that in a vinyasa class, students are not being annoyed with constant alignment directions and adjustments. I am against harsh alignmet directions and frequent hands on adjustments because everyone's body is different. What works for me may not work for the person behind me or next to me. I hate that people assume that vinyasa classes are not "real" yoga because you sweat during these classes. Last time I checked, getting your heart rate up was good for you, but this is not the point of a vinyasa class, it is just a byproduct. I think students should practice whatever kind of yoga resonates with them.

    Thanks for the article!

  3. Thanks for writing, Colin. Will post to Elephant Yoga Facebook page.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  4. Ben Ralston Ben_Ralston says:

    Thanks Colin, nice article which I'll promote now on the EJ fb page.
    It's good to see an intelligent critique of certain approaches to teaching yoga. Fact is that as yoga has become so popular (and fashionable, let's face it) demand for teaching has soared, and teacher training standards plummeted.
    Ben

  5. Tiffany says:

    Super Colin! you can do stand up comedy about this kind of stuff… YOGA!!! i just started doing stand up comedy almost a year ago and am now developing a character who is a narcissistic spiritual being… touching on all these types of subjects… and living in Los Angeles, WestLA to be exact, we are flooded with them. best wishes to you, namaste
    big hugs,
    tiff http://www.tiffanypeterson.com

  6. nivedita pingle says:

    thought-provoking, colin!

  7. Putmoo says:

    As a practicing ashtangi for the past 12 years, I find it amusing to see the proliferation of Vinyasa classes in every nook and cranny. The ones I've been to involve a scripted sequence that reveals no real point in the sequencing of postures: you just move back and forth between one standing posture and another as the teacher directs (and in sync with the music, of course). I have never had nor seen an adjustment.
    Perhaps I'm being a bit snobbish, but I do agree with Colin that in the definition of "vinyasa", the postures are supposed to actually lead somewhere – not just wiggle back and forth because that's the moniker attached to the class schedule at hand. I've also taught an Intro to Ashtanga 4 hour tutorial/workshop for students whose practices have been defined in terms of months (!) and were doing the workshop as part of their teacher training. In my book, a frightening prospect! Although I do understand the need for new yoga studios to be viable, and teacher training is a viable income source, yoga teachers with mere months of experience is not such a good thing for yoga. Perhaps the popularity of yoga will soon bring about a saturation and an eventual reduction of classes and stem the degradation of class and teacher quality. What I fear is that the studios that do survive the inevitable will be the "Corporate Yoga" types.
    But they say that yoga has evolved in the past and will continue to do so. It will be interesting to see what the next decade will bring.

  8. Colin says:

    I'm absolutely loving all this feedback! Thanks so much for taking the time to comment everybody.

  9. timful says:

    One of my favorite Iyengar teachers calls this "glow flow." I do get a feeling of euphoria, which I guess is similar to "runner's high." Much as I love it, and it is the style I do most often, it does sometimes feel like escapism. It leaves me feeling relaxed and content, but also spent. When I get done with a slower moving asana practice, I feel clear headed, and with a desire to do something with that clear head. Sadly I do not always know what to do.

  10. [...] sound system. The instruction will flow through many types of yoga including Forrest, Jivamukti, Vinyasa Flow, Anusara, and Dharma Mittra [...]

  11. [...] a flow between traditional yoga postures. The ‘Vinyasa flow’ is used especially during the Sun Salutation series. many types of Power Yoga, Hot Yoga and even Astanga also have elements of Vinyasa Yoga with the [...]

  12. [...] did Kundalini, Anusara, Vinyassa flow, and trance danced my way to multiple blisters on my feet and a profound release of old tensions. I [...]

  13. [...] helps set the tone for our offerings. It soothes during centering; it motivates during a burst of vinyasa; it takes us on a trip during savasana. On the other hand, maybe we don’t use music. Or, maybe we [...]

  14. [...] infinite, as yoga master Dharma Mittra says, why do I sometimes feel stuck in an endless loop of high plank—low plank—up dog—down dog? More than 15 years into my yoga practice, yoga had become as uninspiring to me as an organic graham [...]

  15. Colin says:

    thanks man…its actually a golf club that i converted to a marsh-mellow roasting stick.

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