“Vinyasa Yoga” and “Vinyasa Flow” Yoga are increasingly being seen on class schedules, not only in yoga studios but fitness centers as well. What exactly is Vinyasa anyway? Vinyasa literally means “arranging” or “placing,” it refers to the sequencing of movements to prepare the body, mind and breath to move in a particular direction. It also refers to the alignment of movement and breath, creating a flowing practice rather than a static one. Ashtanga, Viniyoga and “Power” Yoga are some of the forms that utilize sequences of movements that are directed by the breath.
One of the most commonly practiced Vinyasa flows is Surya Namaskar, or Sun Salutation. A standard vinyasa consists of the flow from caturanga (plank) to caturanga dandasana (low plank) to urdhva mukha svanasana (upward facing dog) to Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward facing dog). Often times in Vinyasa flow classes, if you hear a teacher say, “take a vinyasa” they are referring to some variation of this sequence.
Generally the idea of vinyasa is to move progressively from simple to more complex movements; from the external to the internal. The simpler postures prepare the body for more advanced ones. For example, simple backward bends prepare the body for deeper backward bends. This is also why asana, which utilizes the external body, is practiced to prepare the body for meditation, a more internal practice.
Most often, the breath is initiated prior to the movement, as it supports the natural structure of the spine. When used in asana practice, the breath is designed to maximize certain structural effects of the inhale and exhale. After all, the mechanics of breathing are related to muscular contraction. Instead of thinking of the postures themselves as the center point of the practice, returning to the breath reminds us that the asanas exist to enhance, or deepen the natural structures of the body.
For example, an inhale is initiated as a result of the contraction of the intercostal muscles that are located between the ribs and the diaphragm, which forms both the roof of the abdominal cavity and the floor of the lungs. Combined with other muscle groups that mostly attach in the upper back, a deep inhale contributes to the elevation of the rib cage, expansion of the chest, and increased extension of the spine. For many people who spend their days hunched over computers, their thoracic curve tends to be excessive, inhales are helpful in that they flatten this curve. While there are exceptions, inhales are most often linked to movements such as raising the arms overhead, expanding the chest, moving into backward bends and extension postures, and straightening the spine from a forward bend, lateral bend or twist.
A natural exhale results from the relaxation of the muscles responsible for inhalation. However in this case, conscious use of exhalation differs from our natural exhale. Rather than simply relaxing these muscles, the abdominal muscles are intentionally contracted progressively from pubic bone to navel. Occasionally, the muscles in the pelvic floor will be contracted as well. This action stabilizes the pelvis in relation to the lumbar spine, creating more stability in the low back, and reducing lumbar lordosis (excessive curves in the low back, another common structural issue). The organs in the pelvis and lower abdomen are also supported by this enhanced exhalation technique. Movements that are usually initiated with exhales include lowering the arms, and compression of the abdomen, which is used when moving into forward bends, twists, lateral bends, and when moving out of backward bends.
The combined techniques of inhale and exhale draw the focus to the breath and its relationship to the movement of our spine. Because the spine is the core of all movement, keeping our awareness there helps us to move consciously, enhancing the quality of movement in the whole body. By allowing the breath to guide the movement, we are able to feel from the inside how our body is responding to the asana, instead of focusing on its external appearance. In his book, “Yoga for Wellness,” Viniyoga founder Gary Kraftow sums it up this way, “An analogy can be made to swimming in a river, the current of the river being the breath; and, while there are exceptions, the general rule of asana practice is to first feel the current, and then swim with it.”
1. Kraftow, Gary. Yoga for Wellness. Penguin Compass. New York, 1999.
2. Kaminoff, Leslie. Yoga Anatomy, Human Kinetics. The Breathe Trust. 2007