Vinyasa Yoga Unveiled
The Story Of Vinyasa Yoga By Doug Swenson
The phrase “Vinyasa Yoga” reflects many aspects beyond physical yoga asana practice. In this article I will lift the veil, which can often conceal the true face of Vinyasa Yoga. Once you see the whole picture, awareness will become your companion in your daily practice and beyond.
Vinyasa (vi-nyaah-sa) is derived from Sanskrit and is often employed in relation to certain styles of modern day yoga. If we look deeper into the term Vinyasa, the word may be broken down into its Sanskrit roots which reflect its true meaning. Nyasa translates as “to place, or to step” and vi translates as meaning “in a special or specific way.” The Sanskrit words often have several different definitions, and the word Vinyasa also reflects slightly different meanings.
In his book “Heart of Yoga,” popular and highly respected guru T.K.V. Desikachar defines Vinyasa Yoga as Karma, implying an energy connection between body, mind, breath and life force.
In the yoga community, Vinyasa Yoga usually is used to describe a system, or style, of asana practice, which can be divided into visual or physical Vinyasa systems; and mental, unseen, or energetic Vinyasa systems.
There is visible energy and invisible energy. Waves crashing on a lonely beach are visible energy; the force pushing the waves is invisible energy. Trees dancing the wind reflect visible energy; the wind that causes the trees to dance is invisible energy. The Vinyasa systems are focused on creating an awareness of the invisible energy in us and around us, which translates into our own physical and mental energy. Yoga is an internal practice with external results – thoughts create seeds and seeds create action, and as a result your action becomes karma.
In the physical Vinyasa systems, there are various formal manners to move from one asana the next. These are specific movements that lace asanas together in a seamless flowing motion. The mental or invisible Vinyasa systems rely on breath, mental focus and awareness of energy. The term “Vinyasa Yoga” usually refers to systems which embrace a combination of all the above concepts when moving between yoga asana. In this approach, the student will learn to use awareness in breath and physical movement, mental focus and life force energy.
In the physical, visible Vinyasa Yoga systems, between your yoga asana you will be given a specific body movements to be used in conjunction with synchronized breath and mental awareness. In energetic, or invisible Vinyasa Yoga, you will embrace proper energetic flow, mental awareness and breath to create a fluid practice. Of course, students should learn and use aspects from both concepts of Vinyasa Yoga, and in the end will find them to be very complementary.
Vinyasa connects postures, thoughts, or energy together in harmony, plus creates internal heat, helps distribute pranic energy throughout your body and clears your energy field for a new asana. In addition, the fluid manner in which you move your body with focused breathing also affects your mind in a positive way.
One metaphor is to think of your yoga postures as different cities and imagine the Vinyasa as the electrical wires used to supply energy to those cities. You create energy in your yoga asana practice, and in Vinyasa Yoga one of the goals is to connect the energy between postures, allowing the current to become seamless and unbroken.
Another beautiful analogy of the art of Vinyasa Yoga is to see it as similar to music or dance. In music, there is no melody until you lace individual notes. In the same way, Vinyasa links yoga postures to form the music of your practice. Imagine a dancer holding one position without moving, as opposed to connecting several moves together with conscious and fluid energy lines, bringing the dance to life.
As you move between yoga asana the Vinyasa speeds up your circulation, increases respiratory function and builds heat in the whole body. As your body warms up, your muscles are more pliable, decreasing the chance of injury and creating sweat, which serves to release toxins through your pores and restore good health. The fresh supply of oxygenated blood to the brain results in a clear and alert mind, contributing to higher states of consciousness.
Through the avenue of Vinyasa, pranic energy is equally distributed to all areas of the body creating a sense of balance and inner peace. If we do one yoga posture after another, without any type of Vinyasa at all, we essentially clutter our energy field, like too much writing on a chalk board. The Vinyasa allows us to clear the energy field and return for a fresh yoga asana.
As we look to the background of Vinyasa we realize it is not a new concept. When we speak about the lineage of Vinyasa Yoga we are led to the origins of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, a type of yoga in which the postures are consciously linked together using breath, motion and focused mind. This system is a branch of the hatha yoga tradition. The roots and practice of similar yoga concepts span as far back as 8000 BC. Here’s a look through the ages:
8000 BC: Similar descriptions of the roots of Vinyasa Yoga are evident this far back, in ancient documents of the Vedas. Research has discovered evidence of four Vedas: the Rig-Veda, the Yajur-Veda, the Sama-Veda and the Atharva-Veda. In two of these documents there are references to a Vinyasa Yoga practice. You will see descriptions of conscious breathing and movement in Surya Namaskara, with suggested physical, mental and spiritual benefits.
300–400 BC: The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are laced with the unseen flow of energetic connection between each of the individual eight limbs of yoga. When we think of each limb, or organized concept of yoga, as representing a yoga posture, then we see an energetic flow connecting the foundation together.
1888–1988: If we look into the tradition of Ashtanga Yoga, we inevitably come across Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989). Like the beginnings of many myths from the traditions of yoga, Krishnamacharya was born into a time where yoga in India falls into oblivion.
1883–1965: Professor Ernest Egerton Wood, who was born on Aug. 18, 1883 in Manchester, England and passed away Sept. 17, 1965 in Houston, Texas, was a noted yogi, theosophist, Sanskrit scholar, and author of numerous books, including “Concentration: An Approach to Meditation, Yoga and the Pinnacle of Indian Thought.” Among his many other accomplishments, Wood taught hatha yoga and raja yoga techniques, and often used the concept of Vinyasa as a connection in yoga and life.
1916: If one traced the tradition of Ashtanga Yoga from Sri K. Pattabhi Jois and BKS Iyengar a step further, one comes to Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya. This great sage and yogi traveled to the Himalayas in 1916 to learn yoga. There, he met his guru, Sri Ramamohan Brahmachari, and spent seven-and-a-half years with him. During this time he studied the Ashtanga Yoga system. In 1933 he first taught in Mysore, India, and later in Madras, India, for many Indian and Western students. In addition to Pattabhi Jois, his best known students include Indra Devi, BKS Iyengar and his son, TKV Desikachar. Influenced by these masters, yoga styles have stemmed from one family.
Their representatives were students of the great master Krishnamacharya at different times. Krishnamarchaya taught a diverse practice along with more traditional and original forms of Ashtanga Yoga, in Mysore. In Madras he changed his style, which ultimately became Vini-Yoga. However, the origin connects Ashtanga with Vini and Iyengar yoga.
1927: In this year, K. Pattabhi Jois met his guru, Krishnamacharya, and studied Ashtanga Yoga with him for more than 25 years. BKS Iyengar also was one of the students, along with TKV Desikachar. Both became amazing yoga gurus and great influences on yoga around the world.
1958–1962: More recently, Pattabhi Jois wrote the “Yoga Mala” (the word mala translates to garland, which is the core of Ashtanga Yoga). In 1962, the book was published by one of his students, but it wasn’t until 1999 that Eddie Stern, a student of Pattabhi Jois, published the first English translation of the “Yoga Mala.”
1964: One of the first know European students of Pattabhi Jois, André van Lysebeth, a Belgian yogi, found his way into Pattabhi Jois’s tiny Yogashala in Mysore.
1972-1974: The first known Americans to study with Pattabhi Jois in India were Norman Allen, David Williams and Nancy Gilgoff. David and Nancy returned to the U.S, and in 1973 were teaching the Ashtanga system in Encinitas, California. My brother, David Swenson, met David Williams in 1973 and became completely fascinated with this system. A short time later, I studied with David Williams as well.
1974-75: I was involved in a bad automobile accident and broke my leg. Shortly after, I received an insurance settlement, which gave me the funding to publish my first book, “Yoga Helps” in 1975. This book was a holistic presentation of asana and philosophy, when yoga in the U.S. was just starting to take root. In this book, I reserved one chapter to describe the Ashtanga system and drew depictions of the preliminary starting and finishing foundation of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.
1975: David Williams brought Pattabhi Jois to Encinitas to teach a workshop. This was his first trip to the U.S. Only a small group of about 12 to 15 students participated in the first workshop. This was one of the first Vinyasa Yoga exposures in the U.S. Manju Jois, Pattabhi Jois’s son, accompanied his father on this legendary trip. He decided to stay in America to spread the traditional technique of Ashtanga Yoga in this part of the world.
1995–1999: In 1995, David Swenson published the first DVDs in the U.S. on the coplete Ashtanga Vinyasa system. Later in 1999, David published the first complete book on Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, representing primary and secondary levels. “Ashtanga the Practice” was the first and foremost guide on Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga practice in the U.S. These DVDs, along with the book, were responsible for the expansion of Vinyasa Yoga in the U.S. and beyond. David Swenson was responsible for inspiring many other teachers to try Ashtanga Yoga.
Vinyasa in the 21st Century
The following modern styles of yoga practice form a newer part of Vinyasa Yoga. Its founders have all learned from Pattabhi Jois. They include Prana Flow Yoga by Shiva Rea; Jivamukti Yoga by Sharon Gannon and David Life; Power Yoga techniques inspired and authored by Bryan Kest, Beryl Bender and Baron Baptiste; Dynamic Yoga by Godfrey Devereux; It’s Yoga by Larry Schulz, founder of Its Yoga and the Rocket Series, plus the recent Vinyasa Yoga techniques by Seane Corn. These teachers and styles have influenced many students.
Chuck Miller and Maty Ezraty, founders of Yoga Works in L.A., one of the country’s most successful and influential yoga studios, also represent Ashtanga and a variety of other Vinyasa systems. Many of the most popular yoga teachers of today were schooled out of this studio.
Avoiding and Overcoming Injury
The practice of Astanga Yoga can be strenuous and repetitive on joints and muscles. Accidents can occur, and injury can be caused by excessive or incorrect practice.
Here are some tips to avoid accidents:
- Be aware.
- Stay in the moment.
- Focus mind and body.
- Work within your limits.
- Breathe, and move with awareness.
- Balance strength and relaxation.
Cumulative injury is also a concern. Cumulative injuries can be caused by excessive practice, bad landings or technique, and lack of diversity. There is no exact blueprint for avoiding injury, yet the following suggestions are very helpful:
- Warm up.
- Cultivate a diverse practice.
- Rotate hard and soft practice days.
- Do wrist exercises.
- Work muscles on both sides of the body equally.
- Use yoga props.
- Cross train with non-yoga activities.
If injury does occur, apply heat and cold therapy and Tiger Balm, and try massage and body work. You may also bandage injuries. Use yoga props to avoid stress during the healing process, and take hot baths with salts.
Practice Vinyasa with common sense, take off days to practice non-Vinyasa systems and most of all listen to your body!
As the director of Sadhana Yoga Chi, Doug has been one of the pioneers of yoga here in the US. Teaching his infamous brother Dave Swenson when they were teenagers, for the past 28 years Doug has been guiding his students to truly understand the power of yoga and teaching them how to share it with the rest of the world. His Yoga Alliance accredited school is located in Lake Tahoe CA where he offers both 200hr and 500r teacher trainings in Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Yin, Restorative, and Power Yoga.
To learn more visit Doug Swenson