Teacher Speak: Take a Vinyasa

This column originally appeared in Om Yoga & Lifestyle Magazine, March 2015

Take a Vinyasa Defined

As postural yoga teachers and students we employ a variety of words and phrases that wouldn’t make much sense in polite society. We overload their meaning and use so heavily that we create a hugely subjective muddle. Let’s reclaim an understanding of these words, use them consciously, and deepen their effect.

Posturally speaking

As a frequently used shorthand instruction in flow classes, ‘take a vinyasa’ commonly means to come forward from downward-facing dog pose into chaturanga dandasana through upward-facing dog pose and then back again to downward-facing dog pose. The instruction is usually interspersed between standing poses. However, ‘vinyasa’ is a much more expansive and meaningful concept than this brief sequence of postures. Traditionally referred to as ‘vinyasa krama,’ it is the act and process of moving the body and breath in a systematic, intentional, and meaningful way for physical and spiritual aims. Your entire asana practice could be ‘taking a vinyasa.’ But back to this specific postural flow instruction, which is usually offered in conjunction with a powerful ‘or.’ Take a vinyasa or downward-facing dog or child’s pose. The teacher’s intention here is to give the student an opportunity to regulate intensity up or down. Frequently this translates into desperate rest in child’s pose, choice paralysis in dog, or rushed belly-flop forward through chaturanga to get it over with or prove some sort of a point. There is a tremendous misunderstanding and missed opportunity in this moment and in this instruction.

Spiritually speaking

In a challenging flow class, progressions of postures can be physically and intellectually demanding. Practitioners may work themselves to the edge of their capability, lose connection to their breath, and have serious demands placed on their mental focus. This, although not ideal, is a reality of practice and life itself. Between these progressions is the point where ‘take a vinyasa (or)’ is usually offered. A more comprehensive instruction would be to use rest in child’s pose, stillness in downward-facing dog, or movement through chaturanga/up-dog/dog to recalibrate a rhythm of breath, restore mental focus, and reconnect to one’s intention for practice. It is in the fact that these postures are repetitive and simple in understanding (if not always execution), that it allows the practitioner to restore the fractured strands of practice into focused and united intention. In this narrow moment are placed the seeds that eventually grow into an expansive practice of vinyasa krama, bringing together body, mind, and spirit through movement.

Shorthand instructions like ‘take a vinyasa’ are often supremely helpful in flow classes to reduce the noise pollution of teacher blather. However, it can easily become laziness for both teacher and student when the deeper intention underneath the instruction is lost. Be deliberate, skilful, and clear to reassert its power and efficacy.