Vinyasa, as commonly understood, consists of moving from one asana or body position to another, combining breathing with the movement. This is a word popularised by my guru T. Krishnamacharya in his teachings and has become part of the yoga lexicon. The deeper import of the word vinyasa is to place things where they belong or are appropriate.
The concept is to take orderly steps, each step placed correctly, while considering the person and goal so that progress is consistent and steady. The order in which the poses are done in an asana practice is not an arbitrary matter. You may have all the ingredients for a powerful practice, but if they are poorly ordered you not only won’t achieve your goal, you will also stand a chance of hurting yourself. It is as if the asanas were letters of the alphabet. When strung together without purpose they form nonsense, but when properly ordered they create words, sentences, and wondrous literature. Each asana can have a different effect depending on the steps leading up to it and those that follow. Any posture can be beneficial or harmful depending on these factors.
Correct sequencing is both an art and a science. It involves a knowledge of the principles, clear and continuous self-assessment, prior organisation and considerable creativity. For every goal there are many paths. For every person there are many possible practices. For every practice there are an enormous number of variables that have an impact on its effect. However, consideration of all these factors will result in a truly integrative practice.
Asana practice should be such that we are inspired and challenged to do more. However, there is always that little detail in life known as balance! “Do as much as you can” is good advice only for some students. Some students will do too little. And some will do far too much. Helping the student find that middle ground where there is sufficient challenge to ensure progress but not enough to cause frustration and injury — that is the responsibility of the teacher.
In the setting of group classes today, where we have many students and one teacher, this responsibility becomes all the more relevant. There is a systematic way to prepare for a difficult asana and to balance the stresses of the body after doing it. The teacher must have that knowledge and adapt it to the student within the constraints of the class. Without adequate instruction and suitable perspective, the instruction, “do as much as you can,” may have deceptive consequences!
A microcosm of vinyasa is a flow of asanas where each asana is a step to the next. The concept as envisioned by Krishnamacharya is meant to have a much wider scope and depth, however. That is why he used to say, “Do not practise asanas and other disciplines without vinyasa (orderly steps).”
The concept of vinyasa applies not only to the body but to the breath, senses and mind as well. Without progressive steps in deepening mental focus, there is no vinyasa at the mental level in asana practice. Since yoga is itself about bringing the mind to stillness, vinyasa necessarily implies orderly steps toward a steady mind. Thus vinyasa in asana practice should also incorporate minding the mind in a progressive manner.