One Breath At A Time: The Practice of Vinyasa
“O yogi, do not do asana without vinyasa.”
Central to the physical practice of Ashtanga yoga, these words of the sage Vamana are core to the teachings of this dynamic practice. Vinyasa, for the Ashtanga yoga practitioner, is seen as an integral part of the physical practice, as vital as asana itself. But what exactly is vinyasa? And why is it treated with such vehement importance?
Like many words in Sanskrit, vinyasa is a term with more than one definition. Breaking down the word, we find “nyasa,” a term denoting placing, planting or fixing. “Vinyasa,” stemming from this root, becomes an arrangement or an attitude, with “vi” often thought to indicate “a special way” of conducting placement. Vinyasa, then, indicates a sense of methodology, a specific path to reaching a desired point. In physical yoga practice, this point is the asana, and vinyasa is the map to entering it.
Rather than simply finding our way into postures haphazardly and in isolation, Vamana insists through his oft-repeated teaching that the practitioner establish asana in a specific, methodical way. By linking movement and breath according to a traditional sequence, Ashtanga yoga practitioners move through a series of asanas in a systematic way. These breath-movements are termed “vinyasas,” and they form a numbered roadmap leading the practitioner from asana to asana along well-marked paths.
“Just as music without proper pitch (sruti) and rhythm (laya) will not give happiness, yogasana practice without the observance of vinyasas will not give health.”
Wouldn’t it be simpler to just enter a posture, eschewing other concerns? Srivasta Ramaswami sums up the answer in his The Complete Book of Vinyasa Yoga, explaining how, “Just as music without proper pitch (sruti) and rhythm (laya) will not give happiness, yogasana practice without the observance of vinyasas will not give health.” On the most basic level of asana practice, the physical benefit to the body, vinyasa is essential.
Even for those concerned only with the physical benefits of Ashtanga yoga practice, vinyasa is key. Getting the blood pumping and the sweat flowing, it is vinyasa that makes the physical practice of Ashtanga yoga such a powerful workout. The practice of vinyasa adds a cardiovascular element to the physical practice, raising the heart rate, encouraging strength in the lungs, and helping to make the body strong and light.
Most importantly, this process of breathing and moving in dynamic synchronization produces heat in the body, “boiling the blood,” as Pattabhi Jois would say. Heating the blood improves circulation, moving blood through the body to internal organs to remove diseases and impurities. Just as boiling precious metals brings impurities to the surface, boiling the blood brings out the body’s toxins. The same vinyasa-induced heat that boils the blood produces sweat, a vital player in removing these toxins, carrying them through the pores and out of the body.
Purifying the body in this way is the first step towards the larger purification process that is the aim of all yoga practice. Through its methodical movements, the practice of vinyasa aids in the purification of the mind. Breath has a powerful influence over the mind. This fact is evident in its universality – after all, don’t we tell upset children (and adults) “to take a deep breath”? By bringing attention to the breath and regulating it in a measured way, vinyasa has a calming, steadying effect on our mental state.
To honor Ashtanga yoga’s vinyasa count is an exercise in mindfulness. It requires attention to execute correctly, forcing the practitioner to focus on the task at hand and eschew distracted thinking. In linking movement and breath in a systematic way, the practice of vinyasa requires concentration, helping to cultivate a one-pointedness that leads to a steady mind and reduces the influence of the mind’s constant monkey chatter. It is vinyasa that makes the Ashtanga yoga practice into a moving meditation. Without it, this powerful practice would be a simple exercise in calisthenics.
Yoga doesn’t end at the mat, however – and neither does vinyasa.
T.K.V. Desikachar has described vinyasa as “one of the richest concepts to emerge from yoga for the successful conduct of our actions and relationships.” In teaching us to be mindful in how we conduct our actions, paying attention to our course as well as our goal, the practice of vinyasa infuses consciousness into the life of the practitioner. Cultivating attention, learning to move in a thoughtful, considered way, vinyasa teaches us to honor every action. It teaches us to experience every moment with full commitment and live with intention.
One breath at a time….
(Photos taken in Ostional, Nicaragua.)