For the benefit of those who are newer to yoga or are thinking about getting into yoga, I’d like to start a series of postings about the different types of yoga and what each entails. To be sure, the term “yoga” has many different meanings in different contexts, and it can be a daunting and confusing task for the uninitiated to navigate through this mess. I’m going to focus my discussion on the main types of yoga that are practiced here in the US. Some of the terms I hope to define and clarify are: Ashtanga, Iyengar, Kundalini, Hatha, Anusara, Kripalu, Bikram, Viniyoga, Universal Yoga, Power Yoga, and Vinyasa Flow.
This time around, I’m going to talk about vinyasa flow yoga, the kind that I am most familiar with and the kind of yoga that is peraps most popular in the US. Vinyasa flow yoga is what is most frequently taught in gyms and in many “serious” yoga studios, especially those on the coasts and in major cities. Vinyasa flow is also sometimes called Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, Power Yoga, Yoga for Athletes, something ridiculous like Yoga Boot Camp, or sometimes simply Flow.
So what is it? Well, one way to describe vinyasa flow is in terms of the physical workout. In a vinyasa flow class, you can usually expect to sweat your butt off. Sometimes teachers even heat the room, which almost guarantees that you’ll be literally dripping with sweat by the end of class. Is it a hard workout? Well, that depends on your teacher. A really hard, advanced vinyasa flow class will, I promise you, be the hardest workout you’ve ever had. It’ll involve intense cardio and strength-building exercises, as well as some core work, a handful of asanas to increase flexibility, and some wildly fun acrobatic stuff that is reminiscent of Cirque du Soleil.
There is quite possibly no better overall workout than a really strong vinyasa flow class. In fact, NFL and NHL teams are now incorporating vinyasa flow yoga into their training programs, not just because of the flexibility you gain from yoga (it is, by the way, a HUGE misconception that yoga just about flexibility), but because of all of its physical benefits. As one yoga website describes it, “vinyasa flow is a workout that will change your life, if you can survive it.”
Now, to be perfectly honest, not all vinyasa flow classes are super difficult physical workouts. I’ve been to vinyasa flow classes where I didn’t even break a sweat. Needless to say, I never went back. But it is true that you need some considerable degree of flexibility and strength in order to do the harder asanas, so if you are new to yoga, you may have to spend a year or two in easier, less rigorous classes in order to build up the foundation of flexibility/strength necessary for the more difficult asanas.
Another way to describe vinyasa flow yoga is in terms of the mental workout, so to speak. Many vinyasa flow classes incorporate some kind of meditation before and/or after the class. Moreover, the practice itself is often considered a “moving meditation”. So, it’s not usually considered appropriate to talk during class, just as it would not be considered appropriate to talk during, say, a church sermon. And, indeed, many yogis, including myself, take the yoga practice as a kind of quasi-religious experience, and don’t appreciate it when people are disrespectful of the practice by talking unnecessarily during a yoga class.
So what are we meditating on when we do vinyasa flow yoga? Initially, when you first start yoga, all you can think about is how much pain you are in and how much your muscles burn. But, in time, you may learn to simply observe the sensations and thoughts that pass through your body and mind. This neutral observation process is meditation. In observing the movements and fluctuations of the body and mind throughout the asana practice, we learn to see that our bodies, physical sensations, and even our mental activity are not things that are integral to our true selves. Our true selves stand outside of these temporary things, and, as we come to learn and experience this firsthand, we learn how to be calm and peaceful in the midst of great challenge. A pretty useful life lesson, I think. Even if we don’t buy into this stuff about inner peace and our “true selves”, at the very least, it’s fairly well established that vinyasa flow yoga does effectively promote overall mental health, lower stress, increased focus and concentration, and better sleep.
Finally, another way to talk about vinyasa flow yoga is to talk about it in terms of its lineage and its relationship to Ashtanga yoga. Vinyasa flow yoga is really best described as freestyle Ashtanga, meaning that it draws heavily upon the Ashtanga tradition, but it does not adhere to the rigid structure or rules set out by K. Pattabhi Jois. Ashtanga yoga, as taught by Pattabhi Jois, is a system of yoga that consists of six distinct series of postures. Each series is progressively more difficult. Most people never get past the first series. Some people manage to get into the second series, but never master it. I think only one or two living people in the world, other than Pattabhi Jois himself, have actually mastered the postures in all six series. Technically, you are not supposed to do the poses in the latter series until you have mastered the beginning series. So, you are prohibited from doing any postures from the secondary series, for instance, if you have not yet mastered the primary series under the guidance of a proper Ashtanga teacher.
In vinyasa flow, however, we don’t care so much about these rules; we pick and choose postures from all the series, and we don’t do them in the order specified by Pattabhi Jois. Some traditionalists think this is horrible. Others, like me, think vinyasa flow is great because it allows us to do fun poses in the later series without having mastered poses that, for instance, require you to put your foot behind your head. There are advantages to sticking to a traditional Ashtanga program, however. The standardization of the Ashtanga system ensures that no matter where you go in the world, if the teacher is a strict Ashtangi, you will get a kick ass workout. (Be warned, however, that some teachers out there claim to teach Ashtanga but they really do not adhere to the Pattabhi Jois system.) Vinyasa flow classes, by contrast, are difficult to predict. Flow classes will vary greatly from teacher to teacher, city to city, and studio to studio. You will just have to shop around and find a teacher who fits your personal goals and intentions for yoga, and one who strikes you as trustworthy, knowledgeable, and hopefully friendly and not all too serious.