Technically, a ‘vinyasa’ can be any sequence performed with the breath; it isn’t restricted to the series of ‘chatturanga – upward facing dog – downward facing dog’, but this is indeed how we’ve lazily referred to these movements in the West for the past few decades. This is especially common ever since the whole Power Yoga and Vinyasa Flow Yoga styles became popular as a derivative of the traditional Ashtanga-vinyasa system.
A movement between asanas is a ‘vinyasa’, the movement of lifting the arms above the head and then releasing back down is a ‘vinyasa’, moving from sitting to standing is a vinyasa, the movement of your inhale and exhale is a vinyasa. Even walking to work is a vinyasa….
So what does the word VINYASA actually mean?
The term ‘nyasa’ means ‘to place’, and there are actually specific practices within Tantric Yoiga of ‘nyasa’ or ‘placing’ in which you would focus on or touch specific parts of the body in turn. This is usually accompanied by reciting a mantra and visualising a bija mantra. The practice is intended to bring and element of ‘the divine’ into the body.
The prefix ‘vi’ translates as ‘in a special way’.
When we place our attention and our movements in a special way, we move from mere exercise and physical movement, to the ability to create a literal moving meditation. In this way, your asana practice can be considered a complete ‘vinyasa’ in itself, from the first breath to the last.
Just as the notes of a song are intelligently and carefully placed, so are the movements within a Yoga sequence. Each posture and movement is intended to open and strengthen the body and mind, and move us not just towards a more difficult or challenging posture, but towards a state of being in which we are prepared for the next stage of Yoga.
The Ashtanga Yoga (eight limbs) System follows Patanjali’s 8 limbs of Yoga:
- We begin with our actions in the world – refining how we behave towards others and ourselves
- Then comes the physical practice
- Specific breathing practices follow, which are intended to direct and purify prana or ‘life force’ energy within the body.
- Pratyahara translates as ‘sense withdrawal’ and describes the ability for the mind to focus so intently that the senses of smell, sight, sound, touch etc do not distract the practitioner from their chosen point of focus.
- Dharana means ‘concentration’ and is really practiced simultaneously to Pratyahara. These two steps are what we do when we think we’re ‘meditating’. We’re actually just concentrating very diligently.
- The next step is actual meditation, which occurs spontaneously as a result of all the other practices. We are not aware of the fact we are actually meditating when this does happen.
- Samadhi means ‘bliss’ or ‘enlightenment’. For a deeper definition of Samadhi, read the excerpt below from THIS article.
One of the most exciting discoveries I’ve made since delving further into the hidden codes within Sanskrit words, is the real meaning of Samadhi, which we often equate to ‘bliss’, ‘enlightenment’, or ‘realisation’. The word ‘sama’ means ‘same’ or ‘equal’, while ‘dhi’ refers to ‘seeing’, ‘intellect’ or ‘understanding’, therefore the literal meaning of ‘samadhi’ is ‘to see equally’, or ‘to understand the same’, essentially – to be aware of something that is real. Enlightenment is not about floating away and living with our heads in the clouds, it’s about understanding and ‘seeing’ reality as it is.
To dive much deeper into the first two aspects of the Eight Limbs of Yoga, read some of the article I wrote for Ekhart Yoga: click here.
When we think about a vinyasa within the practice of the whole of Yoga, we could look at it as the careful and important movements between each of the Eight Limbs on the path to Samadhi.
So we can think about ‘vinyasas’ as the movements of ‘chatturanga – upward facing dog – downward facing dog’, the movements between postures, and the movements throughout the Eight Limbs of Yoga and Meditation…. But what happens when we leave the comfort of the Yoga mat? All too often that sense of ‘placing’ each of our actions ‘in a special way’ disappears and we go right back to moving mindlessly from one moment to the next, letting unnecessary chitta vrittis (fluctuations of the mind, or thought patterns) fill our heads, and all of a sudden life has happened in a blur.
If we take the meaning of ‘vinyasa’ off the Yoga mat and into everyday life, we realise that those more memorable moments in life (celebrations, the purchase of something new and exciting, holidays, relationships, promotions, break-ups, redundancies, loss, birth and death) are threaded together with lots and lots of little moments…. then we can start to become aware of every moment of life. Instead of waiting for ‘something’ to happen, we realise life is very much happening right now.
Becoming aware of the ‘vinyasa’ between the inhale and the exhale is a good place to begin the practice of being present. When the mind attempts to pull us figuratively into yesterday or next week, or it won’t stop repeating worries – often the breath is all we have that actually works to bring us completely into the moment of now. After this has been practiced consistently, we can start to apply this to other activities in life.
Something as simple and ‘mundane’ as walking the dog, washing the dishes, cleaning, cooking, picking the kids up from school, or shopping at the supermarket, can all be thought of as a ‘vinyasa’ through life. When you come to think about it, the whole of life can be thought about as one continuous vinyasa; from the first breath to the last.
If we place our attention and our actions mindfully, and with the awareness that each of our movements and interactions is indeed ‘special’, then we really are practicing Yoga off the mat and in every-day life, and that is where it really matters….
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