When saying the word “vinyasa” many people would think of the contemporary style of yoga, an eclectic gentle to rigorous paced yoga class where people flow from one pose to the next. But like many Sanskrit words, vinyasa is a word that has many meanings. The roots of the word, however, vi and nyasa, when combined mean to “place in a special way”. Generally that is what we are doing in yoga.
In the Ashtanga yoga practice vinyasa means breath coordinated movement, the transition between postures, and/or the number of movements/breaths in any given asana. At its foundation vinyasa means breath synchronised movement. Vinyasa is a breathing and movement system maintained during asana practice to generate internal cleansing. For each movement there is a corresponding breath. One breath equals one movement. No breath should be taken without an equal movement and no movement should be done without the guidance of breath. Ideally the breath and movement will be the same length. This means that someone with a longer breath will use slower movement. Whereas someone with a faster breath will use quicker movements.
Vinyasa is also in reference to the transition we do between asanas, regularly referred to as “jump throughs” and “jump backs”. Some people do not pay much attention to the technique of transition between asana, but many teachers insist that the transition between the postures is just as important as the postures themselves. The system of transitional vinyasa in the Ashtanga yoga practice has changed over the years. Presently it is traditional to do a vinyasa, or breath coordinated transitional movement, between all asanas and between both sides of asanas (i.e right side, left side) with a few exceptions, such as pashasana, the first asana of the Intermediate Series where there is no vinyasa between the right and left sides.
If you read books written by or about Krichnamacharya and his disciple Sri K Pattabhi Jois, it seems that the system of vinyasa was less strict than it is today and more dependent on the individual student. For example Krichnamacharya did not require a vinyasa between sides in Bharadvajasana, but now it is standard to jump through between sides. It is also said by some of Jois’s older students that Jois did not require jump through on both sides or even in between postures until later in his teachings. Nancy Gilgoff recalls that certain postures were grouped together, such as Janu Sirsasana A, B and C, and Jois did not teach vinyasa between the postures but only after. Regardless of how the system has evolved, transitional vinyasa remains of fundamental importance.
Gregor Maehle in his book Ashtanga Yoga: Practice and Philosophy describes vinyasa on page 294 as “sequential movement that interlinks postures to form a continuous flow. It creates a movement meditation that reveals all forms as being impermanent and for this reason are not held on to.” Therefore vinyasa refers to the coordination of our breath with our movement that moves us from posture to posture. Vinyasa is also a constant reminder of the inevitable transcendence of all forms via the rhythmic movement between asanas.
All asanas are assigned a certain number of vinyasas, or breath led movements that comprise of the complete posture. For example, in Surya Namaskara A there are nine vinyasas. The first vinyasa is inhaling and raising the arms above the head with the palms pressed together. The second vinyasa is exhaling and folding forward and placing the hands besides the feet, and so on and so forth. For the beginner the correct number of vinyasas may not be possible. This is appropriate as long as the practitioner adheres to the correct inhalation and exhalation movements. With time and practice the correct vinyasas will become possible.
Vinyasa in all definitions is fundamental to the Ashtanga yoga practice. In asana practice, vinyasa, this disciplined technique and organised system of moving and breathing, is the foundation of our inner purification and strength. By moving and breathing together the blood is heated, which removes disease causing impurities from the blood and makes the blood thinner and lighter, so that it may circulate freely. As Sri Pattabhi Jois said, vinyasa will “boil the blood”. Vinyasa causes us to sweat, which is the vehicle by which the toxins are removed from our bodies, leaving the body pure, strong, light, and healthy.
Krichnamacharya, the guru of Jois and renown grandfather of modern yoga, spoke of and taught the importance of vinyasa. As he wrote in his book Yoga Makaranda “Yogasanas must be only practiced with vinyasas and never without it… Vinyasas create movement in the kosha (sheath), nerve, arteries, muscles and spaces between bones and helps eliminate impurities in these areas. In addition, muscle tissue develops and becomes strong. Practicing yogasanas without vinyasa will make the body lean and emaciated.” Vinyasa is an integral part of building our strength, flexibility, and purity. After the body becomes pure, we can then work to purify the nervous system and the mind. In this sense Vinyasa is the foundation for our complete purification.
Chiropractic doctor and Ashtanga teacher, Dr. Monica Gauci, verifies claims of the old Indian gurus in her essay “The Jumps – Why They are Good for You”. She writes: “when we jump, the stress registered in our bones encourages our bones cells to lay down new bone to strengthen the area and maintain bone density.” Literally the little shocks we give to our musculoskeletal system every time we jump through triggers our bone cells to ultimately increase our bone density. Doing close to a hundred vinyasas per practice also keeps our stabilising connective tissue and muscles strong and elastic. Vinyasa therefore also acts as the foundation to our strength and resilience.
As Krichnamacharya wrote, “Yoganga practice with appropriate vinyasa will eliminate and normalise all three times of body variations [types, in reference to the Ayurvedic doshas].” Vinyasa, which is not always easy to maintain throughout the length of practice, is thus a fundamental part of any Ashtanga asana practice.