January 26, 2011

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

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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