This article was written by Srivatsa Ramaswami and is reproduced here with his kind permission:
‘Vinyāsa is a charming Sanskrit word. It indicates bringing out the beauty of an artistic activity. Modern Yogis are familiar with this word which Sri Krishnamacarya used quite extensively while teaching yoga, especially yogāsana. It is from the root ‘ās’ meaning ‘to place’ and has two prefixes ‘ni’ and ‘vi’ having virtually opposite meanings. Asa is to place something like oneself as in an Asana. The prefix ‘ni’ indicates something permanent (nitarām). It actually specifies the parameters, like how one sits like in lotus or padmāsana, where the feet are kept in a particular way and one may not change it. So ni would specify the parameters. Then ‘vi’ can indicate in a particular or special way as the word “visesha’ would indicate . However ‘vi’ also indicates ‘variety’ as in the Sanskrit word ‘vividha’ (vi+vidha=manifold). Since there are many variations possible with the legs kept in Padmāsana like Parvatāsana, Yoga Mudrā, Urdhvapadmāsana and scores of other positions still keeping the legs in padmāsana, we could say ‘vi’ is variety or variations . So āsa is to place something, ni indicates the fixity and the parameters defining the position or posture and ‘vi’ would indicate the artistic variations possible without violating the parameters indicated by ‘ni’ – so vinyasa is vi+ni+Asa. Vi could mean in a special way(visesha) or a variety of special ways (vividha) as my Guru taught us in vinyasa krama.
The root “ās’ would indicate to place something like oneself. Since we normally place ourselves in a seated position “ās’ came to indicate placing oneself in a seated position. So āsana is to sit. Asana also came to be known as the seat in which one sits. Asana is “āste, āsyate va iti āsanam’ - sitting, or that which facilitates sitting, like a chair or a throne is āsana. It also meant the lower posterior portion of the body with which one sits. An English word indicating the seat area of the body rhymes with the Sanskrit root “ās”.
Even though āsana would mean a seated position like padmāsana, vajrāsana. virāsana siddhāsana and others, yogis use the word to indicate any yogic posture provided it meets certain parameters, like steadiness (sthira) and comfort (sukha). Some adepts were and are able to stay comfortably and steady for long periods of time even on one leg (like Bhagiratāsana) or on their head (sirsāsana). Likewise the term vinyāsa in yogasāna is used to indicate among other things a posture without a name still meeting the basic parameters. Sometimes an āsana with a name is considered a vinyāsa if it forms part of a sequence—like for instance the well known Suryanamaskāra. Usually it consists of Uttānāsana, utkatāsana (in vinyāsakrama), caturangadandāsana, urdhvamukhasvānāsana, adhomukhasvānāsana and tādāsana. All these āsanas in sun salutation are counted as vinyāsas as they form part of a sequence. Vinyāsas sometimes form part of a lead sequence like getting to Vajrāsana from samasthiti. The sequence is same as in suryanamaskāra until one gets to adhomukhasvānāsana and then gently jumps through to Vajrāsana. See the video:
There are also a few modifications as you can see in the video. But then Sri Krishnamacharya taught furthermore a number of vinyāsas in classic āsanas like sirasāsana, sarvāngāsana, padmāsana, trikonāsana etc. bringing out the beauty and effectiveness of these wonderful main āsanas. Scores of the vinyāsas can be churned out of padmāsana like parvatāsana, yogamudrā, baddhapadmāsana, matsyāsana, utpluti, garbhapindāsana, uttanakurmāsana, urdhvapadmāsana and several other āsanas and vinyāsas. Here is slide show showing many āsanas and vinyāsas of Padmāsana or lotus pose in vinyāsakrama lasting for about 5 minutes. It contains the lead and return sequences, preparatory āsanas and vinyāsas and many āsana (not all) vinyāsas in Padmāsana. Sri Krishnamācāya talks about scores of vinyāsas in Padmāsana, here are a few.
Perhaps one of the best asanas that brings out the beauty of vinyāsas is the tādāsana sequence in which both the feet are kept together(with a solitary exception) but the body is worked around in scores of aesthetic and healthy vinyāsas. See the slide show of tadasana (about 140 frames in 7 minutes) from my book “Complete Book of VinyāsaYoga”
Sri Krishnamācārya in this fashion mentions about more than 60 vinyāsas each sourced from sarvāngāsana and sirsāsana. In this way my Guru taught me more than 700 vinyāsas built around about 150 āsanas. So we may say that one may find vinyāsas in lead sequences and return sequences and scores of more emanating from some classic poses. Additionally Vinyāsas become a very useful to prepare the yogabhyāsi to be able to do more difficult poses. For instance several vinyāsas like the forward bends and twists and movements in half lotus and sometimes lotus in inversions like headstand and shoulder stand would help the abhyasi to slowly achieve the capacity to be in lotus. Once one gets to such postures further movements/ vinyasas in those poses helps body make finer adjustments to reach the final posture. So Vinyāsas help to achieve the final pose like lotus and remain in it for a long time, steady and comfortable to be able to do prānayāma and meditation
Sometimes vinyāsakrama is very helpful in achieving very difficult poses. Take the case of Kapotāsana. This is progressively achieved by following the sequence done over many number of days step by step.
Here is the progression of back bend asanas/vinyasas in Vajrasana*.
The counter pose (pratikriya) of Balasana
Half camel/poor man’s camel pose
Ushtrasana (camel pose)
Kapotasana (pigeon Pose)-fingers inward
ekapada ushtrasana (camel walk)
edapada ushtrasana/kapotasana- fingers inward
See this slide show:
and here is a related video:
As mentioned earlier, some āsanas like sirsāsana, sarvāngāsana, lotus, trikonāsana lend themselves to several vinyāsas. Sri Krishnamacārya mentions more than 60 vinyāsas with each of the the twin inversions and scores of vinyāsas in Padmāsana. Some vinyāsas, like raising the arms, in many of these postures are simple but very effective. Raising the arms and stretching the waist in the process in Lotus is known as Parvatāsana and my Guru used to ask us to stay in it for several breaths, even as it would appear innocuously simple. Such vinyāsas done in many poses like tādāsana help to stretch the spine, pull up the waist and release the thorax and additionally the good inhalation helps to expand the chest and also effectively stretch the thoracic spine and help the nourishment of the spinal cord. But there are more complex asnan vinyasas , like garbhapindāsana in lotus or mandala in inversions.
In my June 2012 newsletter, I wrote about the use of breath in āsanas and vinyāsas which was the hallmark of Sri Krishnamacārya’s teaching not sufficiently emphasized these days. He even would quote the Yogasutra “prayatna saitily ananta samāpatibhyam” to emphasize that even according to YS breath coordination and synchronization and mindfulness of the breath is sine qua non for vinyaāsa yogābhysa. Use of breath along with many vinyasa movements has many advantages. One is able to help increase both the muscle pump effect and the respiratory pump effect in the circulation of blood (rakta sancāra) by increasing the venous return of blood which in turn improves stroke volume and cardiac output thereby reducing the strain on the heart. A very favorite theme of my Guru was that the yogic exercises should help the heart and not strain it.. Further the mind is required to closely follow the breath (while maintaining the breath-movement synchronization) so much so the mind gets trained to remain focused. It also enables the yogābhyāsi to practice prānayāma well as the mind is trained to be with the breath all through the āsana practice. In other forms of physical workouts, there is a certain disconnect among the mind, breath and body (movements) .Further, slow controlled breathing has a relaxing effect on the system, one of the main goals of Yoga.
The word vinyāsa also would indicate a progression, say from easy movements to more involved postures and vinyāsas. For instance if one wants to practice very involved hip openers like dvipāda sirsasana (feet behind the neck) it is more systematic to work with simpler hip positions and movements like maricyāsana, then janusirsāsana, half lotus, then triangmukha, ākarna dhanurāsana, then krouncāsana. Staying in each of these āsanas and doing several vinyasas like forward bends, turns and twists then back bends will progressively help to open the hips. Additionally hip movements in several beautiful hip openers in inversions like headstand and sarvāngāsana will form a vinyāsa krama approach to more involved poses like dvipādsirshāsana, durvāsāsana etc.
In fact the entire aṣṭāṅga yoga (classical) is a vinyāsakrama or a progression. Firmly established in yama and niyamas, āsana practice helps to have a good control over one’s body, reduce rajas (āsanena raj hanti). Then prānayāma starts working with the mind , reduce the tamas (tatah ksiyate prakāsa āvaranam–YS) and prepares the mind for meditation or antaranga sādhana. Thus prepared one helps the indriyas to fall in line with a delightful pratyāhāra practice like shanmukhi mudrā. Then meditation or antaranga sādhana itself is a progression according to Patanjali. One having prepared the body and the mind with āsana and prānāyāma, we may attempt to teach/learn an activity called one-pointedness (ekagrata) in a step by step approach, First the mind is given a simple, clean, uplifting object to think again and again during the short period of mediation time. If the mind wanders or dozes off, it is brought back to the same simple object again and again. This is the first stage of meditation where an attempt is made to break the non yogic habit of uncontrolled wandering of the mind. Once the mind starts staying with the chosen object in this first stage called dhāranā, the practice is continued with more vigour when after some practice the mind stays with the same object for the entire duration of meditation when it is called dhyāna which is good enough for most people. Some yogis go on to intensify their efforts and finally succeed in remaining with the object even forgetting themselves when they are said to be in samādhi. It is not possible for anyone to reach samādhi unless one follows the krama of the various steps or vinyasas of ashtanga yoga and the inclusive antaranga sādhana.
Vinyāsa is not exclusively a yoga term, it or its derivatives are used in several Indian arts like poetry, mantras, classical music. Vinyāsas are aesthetic variations within the parameters set like raga, tala, sruti in music, meter in poetry, nyasas like anganyāsa, karanyāsa matruka nyasa in mantra puja. The word vinyāsa is also used in the sense of an art form. In Chennai there is an art gallery called Vinyāsa gallery.
My Guru used the vinyāsas very effectively and made yoga accessible to many others who could benefit by practising yoga, like the young, the old, the sick, the handicapped, obese, the agitated, the depressed, the faithful, the non believer and many many more. It is not possible to make yoga’s benefit reach everyone if yoga teachers would teach only a couple of dozen asanas or half a dozen inflexible sequences made up of many difficult āsanas and vinyāsas. He used the enormous resources of Yoga, the hundreds of vinyāsas, scores of āsanas, a variety of yogic breathing routines/prānayāmas, traditional philosophy like the yogasutras, upanishads, the Gita, appropriate mantras and chants, religious practices to the faithful. He made yoga accessible to almost everyone in whatever condition or age one may be in. He used Vinyāsas as art form of yoga but also used them judiciously for varied individual requirements for physical and mental health. Traditional Yoga is rich, Krisnamācārya’s yoga is very rich indeed.
There are some great yogis who depend entirely on their personal experience in their teachings, but there are many more who study a lot and depend upon the texts and sayings of other yogis present and past to explain yoga to their students. Krishnāmcārya was one rare exception who relied on both traditional studies and his exceptional practice and application. His yoga has therefore a certain authenticity which my be difficult to match.’