Vinyasa and Vinyasa flows are all the rage in modern yoga. But do you know the origins of vinyasa? And have you heard the term “Vinyasa Krama”?
Let’s dive in and explore the origins of Vinyasa, its benefits and its inherent problems!
The meaning of Vinyasa
Nyasa means to place down, to fix, to apply, to deposit something. It is a concept that is extensively used in Tantra, where it forms part of divinisation ritual of the body. It involves the practitioner placing mantras in different parts of the body to change his/her subtle energies to match those of the divinity he/she is invoking.
The prefix vi- is often used to denote either an antonym (for instance viloma = against the hair/tail) or to intensify the meaning of the original word (for instance vihimsa (himsa = to injure, vihimsa = to injure severely).
When it comes to physical exercise, Vinyasa refers to the placing down/depositing of limbs/subtle energies (notably prana).
Traditionally, the practice of vinyasa in Hatha Yoga was closely linked to its usage in Tantra, in so much so that the movement of the body was used to place prana in a specific fashion within the body. This helped the practitioner exponentially increase the effects of the asana he/she was practicing.
When used in this fashion, it was called Vinyasa Krama (krama can be translated as successive, or steps) or the way of getting into the asana. And it is this ancient knowledge of vinyasa krama that has given rise to the modern vinyasa “yoga”.
Did you know: Each asana has several vinyasa krama associated to it. And they completely change the effects of the asana!
The benefits of Vinyasa krama
Vinyasa Krama form an essential part of Hatha Yoga – and unfortunately, this is a part that is never written down in the texts. These vinyasa-krama were typically handed down from teacher to student in keeping with the oral traditions of Yogic science.
Here are some of the reasons why these vinyasa kramas are so important:
- Physically, while the vast majority of asana work upon the flexibility of the muscle fibres, they don’t help develop the necessary strength nor do they work our joints in an adequate fashion. This was the job of Vinyasa Krama – to ensure an overall development of the body, whether it was flexibility, strength, or mobility.
- They allow a yogi to work agonist-antagonist force of his muscles, which is an essential part of physical exercise. For instance, if before holding a forward bend like uttānāsana, we do a back bend like urdhva hastasana, it helps elongate the spine and open up the chest. This ensure better breathing, length in the spine, and the muscles that are more “open” to stretching during the forward bend.
- They allow a yogi to work different internal organs in preparation of the final asana, hence ensuring that his internal organs will receive the maximum benefit of holding the asana for several breaths.
- And, of course, they allow a yogi to master and direct the movement of prana, thus enabling him to go deeper into the subtler aspects of any asana.
The problem with vinyasa
If you noticed, when it came to benefits, I talked about Vinyasa Krama – indeed, asana should very rarely be practiced without their appropriate vinyasa krama! But when it comes to problems, I only talk of Vinyasa as it is practiced in modern yoga.
- Too much movement. The aim of asana practice is to ensure that the yogi can achieve stillness of mind and body. This actually requires your body to be still! (To quote Patanjali: That which is still and comfortable is an asana!).
- Not enough knowledge of subtle movement of prana. These days, everyone is inventing their own vinyasa. Yet, can all those people really see how their vinyasa is affecting the movement of prana in the body and what kind of long-term effects it has on their internal organs?
- Increased aggravation of vata dosha (and often pitta dosha). Our dosha are essential to our mental and physical health. But modern lifestyle vitiates vata and pitta dosha naturally. If we spend our yoga classes just moving and jumping, what kind of effect do you think it will have on our dosha?
Of course, a classic argument in favour of Vinyasa is “But I feel good after my class”. Unfortunately, this argument is erroneous. We feel good after any kind of physical exercise due to the presence of endorphins. These are essentially opiates that drug our system. They put our minds and bodies to sleep. Not only does it take us away from the path of Yoga, but often we don’t even realize the extent of medium-long term (and sometimes even short term) harm we have done to our internal systems.
If you’ve ever injured yourself during the practice, you’ll understand what I’m saying. During the exercise, we don’t even realize that we’ve hurt ourselves. It is only an hour (and sometimes more) afterwards that we start feeling pain!
Integrating traditional vinyasa into your asana practice
The traditional vinyasa krama were discovered through the study of the movement of prana in the nadis and the way the movement of body effects prana. This practice is closely linked to both tantra and to ancient systems of martial arts like Kalaripayattu.
There are two keys to understanding these vinyasa-krama:
- It is always the breath (and prana) that initiates the movement (and not the other way around).
- The movement works opposing muscle groups and seeks to open the body before holding an asana.
Now, unfortunately, I can’t suggest a book where you can find all the traditional vinyasa krama related to asana. I haven’t come across any. Even when it comes to teaching, these vinyasa krama remain hard to teach during the kind of classes we give these days (including mine!) because every class has new students with different needs.
Nonetheless, it is the reason why we changed Monday evening class to concentrate upon the Vinyasa krama. And our upcoming courses (both online and offline) will integrate the teaching of Vinyasa krama extensively.
In the meantime, concentrate upon your Surya Namaskar as most of the movements of Vinyasa Krama use this particular vinyasa as its base. The better you become at Surya Namaskar, the easier it will be to integrate Vinyasa krama into your asana practice!