Yoga Musings

What is Vinyasa Flow Yoga?

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.

 

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32 thoughts on “What is Vinyasa Flow Yoga?

  1. Great article, thanks. Love the ‘freestyle ashtanga’ description, going to use that from now on! But, for me, missed the defining nature of vinyasa flow – it means ‘breath-sychronised movement’. The breath initiates the movement, it dictates the type of movement, it demands presence and focus and inner awareness throughout the practice, and that’s why it becomes a moving meditation. Love it! (particularly tripsichore – have you tried that?)

    • Thanks for your comment, Emma. I just re-read this article (which I wrote quite a few years ago), and I too am alarmed that I neglected to say anything about the connection of breath and movement! This is certainly a very important point. Unfortunately, it’s easy to forget about the breath-movement connection and to focus just on asana. Even a lot of experienced vinyasa flow teachers fall into this trap. I’ve been to so many flow classes lately where there is zero attention to the synchronization of breath and movement. This is frustrating, because it’s really this aspect of vinysasa flow that connects it to the Ashtanga tradition. Ashtanga, as you know, emphasizes very precise synchronization between breath and movement, and a vinyasa flow class that doesn’t at least attempt a similar synchronization is, in my opinion, no longer a class in the Ashtanga tradition. It should probably be relabeled as Hatha, or something else.

      • totally! although hatha is supposed to be a catch-all term to cover all physical yoga practice. and the breath should be at the core of all styles, however fast or slow. but so many people miss that point. anyway, love to all and enjoy your vinyasa flow classes (remember to breathe!) xxx

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  3. You made no mention of authentic Ashtanga yoga which is the eight limbs of yoga described in detail in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Genuine, traditional Ashtanga yoga has nothing to do with Pattabhi Jois who created his own vinyasa flow series of yoga postures, then took the name Ashtanga and applied it to his system. For you to mention traditional Ashtanga Yoga and Jois in the same article tells me you don’t know your yoga history, and are perpetuating the myth that traditional Ashtanga Yoga and Jois are somehow one in the same. Genuine, authentic Ashtanga Yoga is a very spiritual practice. Any genuine yoga practice is not “kick-ass” and a comment like that shows the sorry state of yoga in western society and the pure ignorance most people have to what yoga really is. But, this is the kind of misinformation one gets in a $6 billion completely unregulated industry. The only two genuine, authentic Yoga practices mentioned in your first paragraph are Ashtanga (not the kind you describe) and Hatha. “Power” and “Yoga” do not belong in the same sentence, for example. This creates the impression in the public that yoga is “a really good workout”. Wrong.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Jo. You bring up some very good points about historical yoga, and you are certainly correct to remind me and others that yoga has a rich history that involves practices that are quite different from what most people in the US do when they do yoga. Keep in mind, though, that this post was intended for those who are new to yoga, especially those who are thinking about taking a yoga class at a local studio or gym that teaches vinyasa flow or power yoga. My intention here was merely to give those folks an idea of what they can expect.

      As a former yoga teacher, I have found that it’s generally not helpful to tell prospective students about the long and complicated history of yoga. It’s better to make yoga accessible, and “workout” is term that most Americans can understand (as opposed to esoteric spiritual terminology). This is not to say that yoga is nothing more than a workout. But for a lot of people, this is an entry point that is both non-threatening and comprehensible.

      Also, and more importantly, I am of the view that there is no such thing as “genuine, authentic Yoga.” The practice of yoga is something that is continually evolving, changing with each culture, historical period, and person who touches it. I actually had the opportunity to study yoga history and philosophy as a PhD student, and one thing that I took away from these studies was an appreciation for the diversity and complexity of the yoga tradition. As any scholar will tell you, there is no one thing that the term “yoga” refers to. And as the history of yoga reveals, the meaning of this term has morphed considerably over time. (For some more on this, check out my post on the meaning of “Yoga”: https://yogaisforlovers.wordpress.com/2007/04/27/what-does-yoga-mean/)

      I think it’s good to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism about claims to “tradition” and “genuine” or “authentic” practices. My partner, a history professor, is always quick to remind me that these sorts of claims are frequently the result of deliberate myth-making, often in defense of protecting the hegemony of a certain group of people. But when you look more closely at the supposedly monolithic “tradition” of something, what you tend to find is great diversity, dissension, and quite a bit of contradiction. In the case of yoga especially, it should not come as a surprise that impermanence and continual change are its primary characteristics.

      • good comments also. Overall, I understand your desire to make yoga accessible in general terms, but it’s that perception of yoga as a “workout” that newcomers are left with. The public basically thinks of yoga as a fitness class. If that’s all they’re shown or told, then that’s what they will always think.

        Thanks for the book mention in your linked article. I look forward to reading it.

    • (a little late to the conversation, but…) I have never met Pattabhi Jois. I have met a few people who did meet him and get to know him. To say that what Pattabhi Jois taught was not Ashtanga Yoga, was not authentic and was not spiritual is like saying that some Indian who worships a rock is not a Hindu. The fact that you way he “created his own vinyasa flow series” shows that you have very little knowledge about his experience and lineage. I always liked to think that Pattabhi Jois answered questions honestly and without much thought about larger interpretations. So when some westerns showed up and said “what are you practicing” he said “I’m practicing Ashtanga Yoga”. Because he was. He was practicing his understanding of Ashtanga Yoga as it had been taught to him by his teacher. And who are we to question that. We like to put things in boxes, and say this is this and that is that. That is why you have an incredibly diverse religion such as Hinduism put into a little box so Europeans could try to classify it. To say that an Ashtanga Yoga practice as taught by Pattabhi Jois is neither authentic or spiritual is an extremely narrow and uneducated comment.

      That being said there is a much more diversity to the lineages of Ashtanga Yoga that do not all originate or end with Pattabhi Jois.

  4. Yes most people (including me) used to think that yoga is a fitness class, which it is in a way.But is SO much more, if done consistently and if one is lucky enough to find a good teacher. Most yoga classes the truth be said are just a fitness class indeed, and most yoga students won’t get very far without some proper guidelines.

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