Yoga Styles 101: An Introduction to Vinyasa Yoga
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Whether you are just starting out or already have some experience under your belt, you probably already know that there are various types of yoga you can practice.
Even though the asanas are generally the same, each style is different from the other.
In the coming weeks, we’ll be sharing insightful posts that break down the main yoga styles. We hope that by doing so, you’ll be able to choose the style that suits your needs and preferences.
In the meantime, let’s take a closer look at Vinyasa Yoga, one of the most practiced styles worldwide which focuses on the transitions and connections between poses.
In this article, you’ll learn more about its history, and what exactly makes this style different from the others.
But First, What is Vinyasa Yoga?
Photo credit: MoaAlm Mountain Retreat
To begin with, there are several definitions of the word itself. Some sources affirm it means “connection”; others translate it from Sanskrit as “to place in a special way”; and there are those who say it’s just “flow”.
With this in mind, it’s not surprising the broad usage of the term Vinyasa and the confusion it can cause. Choose whichever definition you like better, the important thing to understand here is that Vinyasa always links the breath with the movement. The focus is on the inhale and exhale while moving from one pose to the next one.
For this same reason, some yoga teachers use it to describe a gradual progression of postures connected by inhalations and exhalations (usually from Chaturanga to Up Dog to Down Dog).
Therefore, when yoga instructors started to base a whole class on these principles, the Vinyasa style made its appearance in a lot of studios all around the globe. According to our expert, Reejo, a lot of the confusion comes from its similarities to other styles.
The technique of the Vinyasa Flow is the same as in Hatha, and many asanas are shared with Ashtanga too. But probably the main distinction of Vinyasa is the order of the postures that often changes.
For example, Ashtanga uses some predefined sequences, but two Vinyasa classes are rarely identical. Also, while Hatha tends to focus on one pose at a time with rests in-between, in a Vinyasa Flow the poses string together to make a sequence.
The History of Vinyasa Yoga
There are only four original types of yoga: Njana Yoga, Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, and Raja Yoga.
Each type of yoga that we practice today has evolved out of different teaching lineages.
Vinyasa Yoga has its roots in the Ashtanga lineage, which was taught in India in the first half of the 20th century and later became popular in the West.
Vinyasa Yoga is a modern yoga style that has no official founder. However, being born out of the Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga tradition, it is based on the teachings of Sri Krishnamacharya.
According to Krishnamacharya, the movements between each asana are just as important as the postures themselves. Therefore, rather than focusing on getting into the posture and then breathe, in Vinyasa Yoga, the aim is to keep the deep breathing and body consciousness consistent throughout all movements during the practice.
The 4 Elements of Vinyasa Yoga Flow
The first two elements of the Vinyasa Yoga Flow are Sun Salutations A and B. They are the core of the Vinyasa style and are the perfect example of linking body movements with our breath. Generally, our body should be flowing upwards when inhaling, and towards the ground when exhaling.
The third element is represented by the Vinyasas, or the transitions.
When a teacher tells you to “take a vinyasa”, they ask you to transition from one position to another, by doing a certain sequence, depending on what asanas you are coming out of.
There are many ways to create variety with vinyasas, as well as with the Sun Salutations A and B.
The fourth element is the breath. Especially in the first part of the class, the counting of the breath is very important, and the teacher counts the number of breaths you should hold the pose for.
This is called Ujjayi breathing, also known as the ocean breath, in reference to the sound it produces.The lips must be sealed, and the air has to go through the throat. A good tip to get used to this is by breathing with your mouth open but closing it in the middle of the inhalation or exhalation.
Other breathing techniques to perform – recommended by Reejo, a teacher certified by the Yoga Alliance and one of the lead trainers at YogaVimoksha, are:
- Anuloma Viloma. The alternate nostril breathing is quite simple to practice starting your day well balanced. In this technique, you inhale through one nostril, retain the air, and exhale through the other nostril. The tradition is to adopt the Vishnu Mudra while doing it.
- Kapalbhatti. It could be interpreted as an inverted breathing technique in which the exhalation is more active than the inhalation. The base here is to put emphasis on releasing the air, assuming that all the disorder in your body and soul is also being liberated from your system.
- Bhastrika. This breathing exercise is used to energize the body and mind. Think of it as a cup of coffee without the negative effects of caffeine. To perform it, you have to use your diaphragm and expand your belly as much as you can when inhaling; the exhale should through the nose, forceful and fast.
Benefits of Vinyasa
Besides the breathing techniques and flow, in Reejo’s opinion, Vinyasa differentiates from other styles because it pays attention to the whole body without discriminating a single muscle.
“It serves as a strength-training process and helps build lean muscle mass throughout the body.
The main benefit of using Vinyasa Yoga as a primary method of building lean muscle mass is that all groups receive equal attention, creating balanced strength throughout the body” he explains.
Also, one of the most common challenges that all yogis face during any practice is the difficulty to move stiff muscles at will. The good news is that this represents another advantage for Vinyasa: its continual flowing movements stretch and elongate the muscles while being strengthened, allowing greater mobility and range of motion compared to other yoga styles.
Yoga Styles Based on Vinyasa
Another part of the confusion about what Vinyasa is comes because it is commonly used as an umbrella term for other flowing and dynamic yoga styles. These styles include Jivamukti, Power Yoga, Baptiste Yoga, Forrest Yoga, Acro Yoga, Aerial Yoga, among others.
Below, you’ll find more information about each of these types of yoga.
Jivamukti is a physical, ethical and spiritual practice suited for those who are fit, or already familiar with yoga. It combines Vinyasa-based exercises with five central principles: shastra (scripture), bhakti (devotion), ahimsā (non-harming), nāda (music) and dhyana (meditation).
It was created by Former ballet dancer, Sharon Gannon and her artist partner, David Life in the 1980s. It demands veganism as a central aspect of lifestyle, and it pursues animal rights, environmentalism and social activism.
Forrest Yoga is a slow-paced Vinyasa practice that focuses on abdominal core work, Pranayama, the long holding of positions and standing series. It’s great for advanced yogis that want to challenge and improve their physical capabilities.
It was established by Ana T. Forrest in 1982, based on her own experiences in self-healing and revitalization. This anatomical practice encourages students to discover the power of their personality along with the strength of their muscles.
Power Yoga can be understood as hardcore Vinyasa since it’s faster and more intense than traditional yoga. It focuses more on building strength and less on the spiritual aspects of yoga.
It was developed in the USA in the 1990s and, unlike traditional yoga where instructors work based on a fixed set of asanas, Power Yoga gives teachers more flexibility to arrange postures according to their preferences. Definitely a very challenging style!
Baptiste Yoga is a type of Hot Power Yoga that was developed by Baron Baptiste, the son of two of America's yoga pioneers. It integrates the asana (poses), meditation and self-inquiry, and it’s adaptable to any skill level.
Aerial Yoga is a hybrid type of yoga that combines traditional yoga poses, Pilates and dance with the use of a hammock. It was developed in 2014 by Broadway choreographer and former gymnast Christopher Harrison in New York.
It makes a fun and refreshing complement to regular floor-bound yoga practices and it’s safe for everyone to try with the help of an instructor. The two main benefits of Aerial Yoga are spinal decompression and lymph drainage, which greatly enhances detoxification.
Acro Yoga is a physical practice that combines yoga and acrobatics. Through this type of yoga, you have the opportunity to overcome fears and connect with the people around you in a playful way. It includes many types of partner and group acrobatics, making it a great way to enrich an existing relationship with your significant other, a good friend or just to make new ones.
Who Should Practice Vinyasa Yoga?
We’re making Vinyasa sound too good to be true, aren’t we? It’s a great yoga style if you truly enjoy a full body and mind experience, but it’s only expected to come with some challenges as well that practitioners have to overcome in order to stick to the mat every day.
Reejo agrees that the most challenging part of Vinyasa is the transition from basic poses to the more advanced ones (remember you still have to control your breath while standing in the hardest asanas).
A considerable degree of flexibility and strength is required in order to start performing the most difficult postures. Thus, a good dose of patience is the key to master Vinyasa. New practitioners may have to take it slow and spend a year or two with not so rigorous classes, in order to build up the foundation of flexibility and strength necessary for advanced sessions.
That’s Vinyasa, a style that took by storm the yoga world. Now we dare you to re-read this post using one of the breathing techniques we mentioned above. If you have yet to try Vinyasa Yoga, consider it your first practice.
Want to become a Vinyasa instructor? Join a yoga teacher training course and learn more about this style!