What is Vinyasa Yoga? History, Elements, Characteristics | Arhanta Blog
Feb 04

What is Vinyasa Yoga?

What is Vinyasa Yoga

Do you practice Vinyasa Yoga and have you ever wondered what is Vinyasa Yoga? Vinyasa Yoga is a widely popular style nowadays. It is often described as a practice with a theme or purposes consisting of poses linked and associated together. There are as many versions, sequences, and definitions as there are teachers. So, what is Vinyasa Yoga and how did it develop?

History of Vinyasa Yoga

Vinyasa Yoga or Vinyasa Flow is not a system and does not follow a clear lineage, hierarchy or leading guru. There is no official founder of Vinyasa Yoga. Vinyasa Yoga is a modern style of yoga, born out of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga tradition. The Ashtanga Vinyasa tradition, in turn, is based on the teachings of Sri Krishnamacharya.  Krishnamacharya taught that the movements between each asana should be considered just as important as the postures themselves. His idea behind this was to deepen concentration and body consciousness throughout the entire practice. Rather than focusing on “getting into the posture” and then breathing, in Vinyasa Yoga, the aim is to keep the deep breathing and body consciousness consistent throughout all movements during the practice.

Sri Tirumalai Krishnamacharya

Krishnamacharya is considered to be the grandfather of modern yoga. He 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 (Raja) Yoga system, also known as the Eight Limbs of Yoga.

In 1933 he began teaching yoga 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, various yoga styles have developed from one source, as their representatives were students of  Krishnamacharya at different times. Krishnamacharya 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 Viniyoga.

T.K.V. Desikachar

T.K.V. Desikachar (1938-2016) was the son of Krishnamacharya. He believed that yoga should be tailored to the individual’s needs. He initially used the term, Viniyoga, to describe his style of Hatha Yoga; later he dropped the term, but not the approach.

Although he spent much of his adult life lecturing and teaching yoga, Desikachar was trained as a structural engineer. He was also the founder of Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram in Chennai, India. Born in India, T.K.V. Desikachar was disinterested in yoga as a child and in early adulthood. In his 20s, he returned to his roots and studied under his father.

Desikachar first lectured in the United States in 1976 and later visited regularly, teaching and lecturing on his approach to yoga and yogic healing. He believed that yoga could be relevant for all people, regardless of physical capabilities. Adapting yoga practices to meet the needs of each yogi was central to his approach. Through yoga therapy, he integrated the physical practice of asana, pranayama, meditation and the traditional medical system of Ayurveda in order to promote physical and mental health.

K.S. Patthabi Jois

The Ashtanga school was developed by Patthabi Jois. He taught in Mysore, India in the first half of the 20th century. Later Ashtanga Yoga was taught by Jois as moving meditation which he also began to call as Ashtanga Vinyasa.

In the practice of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, breath is coordinated with movement. This Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is the source of almost all Vinyasa Yoga, Power Yoga and Yoga Flow styles that have become so popular in the West these days.

What is Vinyasa (Flow) Yoga?

Simplified, modern Vinyasa Flow Yoga (also known as Flow Yoga) is best described as freestyle Ashtanga Vinyasa as it doesn’t adhere to the rigid structure of the Ashtanga Vinyasa series set out by K. Pattabhi Jois.

Many Vinyasa Flow classes follow the basic structure of the Ashtanga Primary Serie, starting with Suryanamskara A and B but then offer different sequences thereafter. Many classes also closely follow the basic standing sequence of the Ashtanga tradition and the finishing sequence. There are no fixed series of poses. Each class can be different. The basic syntax of Vinyasa yoga allows one to explore a changing syllabus of poses. You can explore poses from the Ashtanga first, second and third series in a more accessible manner than in the Ashtanga Vinyasa series practice.

What does Vinyasa mean?

The term vinyasa is a composition of two words. Nyasa has several meanings like “to place”, “special order”, and “attention”, “and vi, which means “specially”. Vinyasa has many meanings in the Sanskrit language, however, in the context of yoga, Vinyasa can be best interpreted as

  • Special way
  • Special order
  • With attention

It is often interpreted as a practice with a theme or purposes consisting of poses linked and associated together.

There are as many versions, sequences, and definitions as there are teachers. Vinyasa Yoga or Vinyasa Flow is not a system. There is no clear lineage, no hierarchy and no leading guru.

Vinyasa, written with lowercase, usually refers to the progression and continuity between the asanas. In Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, the fluid transitions from one pose to the other, the famous jump-backs and jump-throughs are referred to as vinyasa. The most common usage is to define a specific linking sequence (based on the sun salutation — chaturanga/up dog/down dog) that is coordinated with the breath and gets you from pose to pose. The practice becomes a flow timed to the breath instead of just a series of discrete postures.

The vinyasa gives rhythm to the practice, keeps the heat building, builds upper body strength and acts as a counter pose to stretch the legs and re-set the spine to neutral for the next sequence.

Any sequence of flowing from asana to asana can be called a vinyasa — it doesn’t have to be related to the sun salutation movements encountered in Ashtanga Vinyasa style practice.

Keeping the concept of moving consciously, “in a special way” in mind a Vinyasa Flow class focuses on relationships between poses and, progressing from simpler to more complex asanas. Teachers also often work with setting an intention and on keeping the body-breath-mind connection.

Characteristics of Vinyasa Yoga

Linking of poses

Vinyasa Yoga links one posture to the next one using the breath. When the postures are practiced in such a manner they flow into each other. This is why it’s sometimes called “Flow Yoga”.  The opposite of Vinyasa Yoga are more classical styles such as Hatha Yoga, where students come into an asana, stay in the pose in a steady manner and then “break the posture” by coming out.

Read more: What is Hatha Yoga?

Breath initiates movement

The transition from one asana to the next is always initiated from the breath. The breath might become deeper and more strained due to physical activity, but ideally, it should remain regular and through the nose. The breath creates the rhythm and timing that underlie the linking of the postures. In fact, Krishnamacharya used to travel from town to town giving yoga performances with his students. In order to have them move in synchrony, he instructed them to breathe deeper and with a slight construction in the throat, which is commonly called ‘Ocean Breath’ or ‘Ujjayi Breathing’.

Cardiovascular work-out

A Vinyasa Yoga practice usually involves intense movements and generates a cardiovascular work-out not always present in other forms of yoga asana practice.  This is in contrast to classical Hatha Yoga principles in which we actually aim to keep the heart rate at a resting pace so that we stimulate more subtle processes in the physical body (the endocrine system, the lymphatic system, etc.)

Variety

A defining characteristic of Vinyasa Flow classes is the variation in sequence from class to class. No two classes are alike. This stands in stark contrast with fixed form systems such as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and Bikram Yoga.

Moving meditation

Vinyasa Yoga, due to its intensity and variety requires intense focus. The practice can bring you into a state that can be described as moving meditation.

The 4 Defining Elements of Vinyasa Flow Classes

Generally speaking, a Vinyasa Flow class is challenging, focused on continuous deep breathing, and constantly evolving as your practice deepens.

The Sun Salutations from the Ashtanga Vinyasa tradition form the backbone of a Vinyasa Flow Class. The Surya Namaskara A and B are used in their “pure” form to warm up the body, and then they are used as a red thread throughout the practice to weave in different asanas and exercises.

1. Surya Namaskara A

Instructions
  1. Starting in Samasthiti (Tadasana), with the toes together, heels can be slightly apart. Arms by your side, spine long.
  2. Inhale – raise your arms overhead in line with your forehead, palms together and gaze along with your thumbs.
  3. Exhale – Opening the arms sideways, bend forward with a flat back and bring the hands to the ground next to your feet, the crown of your head reaching toward the floor.
  4. Inhale – Lift your chest and gaze forward
  5. Exhale – step or lightly hop into High Plank and lower down to Chaturanga Dandasana
  6. Inhale – Point your feet and open your chest, shoulders wide and looking forward or diagonally up (Upward-Facing Dog)
  7. Exhale – Curl your toes and push your hips back and up (you may walk your feet slightly in). Finding a steady position in Downward- Facing Dog and hold for 5 breaths…. 1…..2…..3…..4…..5…. as you exhale- bend your knees and look between your hands
  8. Inhale – step or lightly hop-forward, with your feet in between your hands and look forward with your chest lifted
  9. Exhale – Fold-down, hands next to your feet, the crown of your head reaching toward the floor
  10. Inhale – reach your arms wide to the side, come up with a flat back and bring your hands overhead. Gaze along with your thumbs to the ceiling, neck elongated
  11. Exhale – Samasthiti.

Vinyasa Yoga Surya Namaskara A steps 1-6 Vinyasa Yoga Surya Namaskara A steps 7-11

2. Surya Namaskara B

Instructions
  1. Starting in Samasthiti (Tadasana), with the toes together, heels can be slightly apart. Arms by your side, spine long.
  2. Inhale – bend your knees and raise your arms overhead in line with your forehead, palms together and gaze along with your thumbs (Utkatasana).
  3. Exhale – straighten your knees and fold forward with a flat back, bring the hands to the ground next to your feet, the crown of your head reaching toward the floor.
  4. Inhale – Lift your chest and gaze forward
  5. Exhale – step or lightly hop into High Plank and lower down to Chaturanga Dandasana
  6. Inhale – Point your feet and open your chest, shoulders wide and looking forward or diagonally up (Upward-Facing Dog)
  7. Exhale – Curl your toes and push your hips back and up (Downward-Facing Dog)
  8. Inhale – Bring your left heel 45 degrees forward and step your right foot forward in between your hands (Virabadhrasana I). Right knee is above the ankle, left leg straight, arms raised overhead, gaze along with your thumbs
  9. Exhale – Place your hands on the mat and step back with your right foot, to High Plank and lower down into Chaturanga Dandasana
  10. Inhale – Point your feet and open your chest, shoulders wide and looking forward or diagonally up (Upward-Facing Dog)
  11. Exhale – Curl your toes and push your hips back and up (Downward-Facing Dog)
  12. Inhale – Bring your right heel 45 degrees forward and step your left foot forward in between your hands (Virabadhrasana I). Left knee is above the ankle, right leg straight, arms raised overhead, gaze along with your thumbs
  13. Exhale – Place your hands on the mat and step back with your left foot, to High Plank and lower down into Chaturanga Dandasana
  14. Inhale – Point your feet and open your chest, shoulders wide and looking forward or diagonally up (Upward-Facing Dog)
  15. Exhale – Curl your toes and push your hips back and up (you may walk your feet slightly in). Finding a steady position in Downward– Facing Dog and hold for 5 breaths…. 1…..2…..3…..4…..5.… as you exhale – bend your knees and look between your hands
  16. Inhale – step or lightly hop-forward, with your feet in between your hands and look forward with your chest lifted
  17. Exhale – Fold-down, hands next to your feet, the crown of your head reaching toward the floor
  18. Inhale – bend your knees and raise your hands overhead to come into Utkatasana, gaze along with your thumbs to the ceiling, neck elongated
  19. Exhale – Straighten the legs, arms by your side,

3. Vinyasas – Transitions

When telling students to “take a vinyasa”, the teacher asks them to transition from one asana to the other by doing the sequence of:

Plank – Chaturanga Dandasana to Urdhva Mukha Shvanasana to Adho Mukha Shvanasana and from there either to jump/ step forward to seated or entering a standing asana by stepping one foot forward.

When coming out of a seated asana, the vinyasa includes:

A lift-up, followed by a jump/step back to again Chaturanga Dandasana to Urdhva Mukha Shvanasana to Adho Mukha Shvanasana.

This is the traditional Vinyasa, as taken from the Ashtanga Vinyasa Practice by K. Patthabi Jois.

There are numerous ways to create variety with the vinyasas as well as within Surya Namaskara A and B, for example:

Replace Utkatasana (In Surya Namaskar B) with

  • Malasana (Garland Pose)
  • Parshva Utkatasana (Twisted Chair Pose)

Replace Chaturanga Dandasana with

  • Low Plank on elbows
  • Sashtang Pranamasana (Prone Prostration Pose)
  • Supta Eka Pada Rajkapotasana (Sleeping Pigeon Pose)

Replace Urdhva Mukha Shvanasana with

  • Low Cobra / extended Cobra
  • Anahatasana (Melting Heart)
  • Shalabhasana (Locust Post)
  • Dhanurasana (Bow Pose)

Replace Virabadhrasana I (Surya Namaskara B) with

  • Virabhadrasana II and variation (Warrior II and variations)
  • Ashta Chandrasana (Eight Crescent Moon Pose)
  • Sukha Hanumanasana (Easy Monkey Pose)
  • Utthita Trikonasana (Extended Triangle Pose)
  • Utthita Parshvakonasana (Extended Side-Angle Pose)
  • Prasarita Padottanasana (Wide-Legged Standing Forward Bend)

Replace Adho Mukha Shvanasana with

  • Shashankasana (Child’s Pose)
  • Khagasana (Hare Pose)
  • Steady Dolphin / Pincha Mayurasana (Forearm Stand)

4. Counting the breaths – Ujjayi breathing

An important element, especially of the first part of the class (before coming to sit) is the counting of the breath. In most Vinyasa Yoga classes the teacher counts the number of breaths that students should hold the pose. Usually, that is 5 breaths per pose.

The breathing should be slow and controlled, what is commonly referred to as Ujjayi Breathing, or Ocean Breathing. It is technically not the proper (classical) Ujjayi Pranayama, but Full Yogic Breath. While breathing deeply, in order to create the “ocean sound”, one gently constricts the opening of the throat to create some resistance to the passage of air. Gently pulling the breath in on inhalation and gently pushing the breath out on exhalation against this resistance creates a well-modulated and soothing sound—something like the sound of ocean waves rolling in and out.

Read more: The difference between pranayama and breathing exercises

Teaching Vinyasa Yoga

Teaching Vinyasa Yoga can be relatively easy and quite challenging both. It depends on how you choose to teach: Do you choose to mainly stay on your own mat and physically demonstrating most of the poses and exercises, while instructing the flow? Or, do you choose to keep walking around and verbally guide your students through the practice?

In the first scenario, it is rather easy to teach, once you know the flow of the sequence well. However, you won’t be able to see your students well and you won’t be able to adjust your class to their needs and level. Teaching Vinyasa Yoga while still being able to observe, adjust and modify however is a more challenging feat and takes practice.

It is our deeply rooted conviction here at Arhanta, that in order to grow as a teacher and truly serve your students your full attention should be on the student. Being attentive and observing your students will make the difference for them to choose coming back to your classes over and over again, rather than simply practicing with a video in the comfort of their home. And, it makes teaching so much more interesting, exciting and enlightening!

Also read: How much experience do you need to become a yoga teacher?

About the Author

Kalyani Hauswirth-Jain is creative director & senior teacher at the Arhanta Yoga Ashrams since 2013. She teaches during the Arhanta 200 hour Yoga Teacher Training, 300 hour Yoga Teacher Training as well as a variety of 50-hour courses such as the Vinyasa Yoga teacher training, for more than eight years now.

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