Considerations for Vinyasa Yoga

Big thanks to Noah Maze for inspiring my yoga practice and teaching in recent years and for the following thoughts he shared through his newsletter on the art and practicalities of teaching vinyasa flow yoga classes.

The style of yoga practice, known these days as vinyasa-yoga brings out and preserves essential aspects of our wildness, fury & urgency. This practice heats you up, makes you sweaty and drippy, your eyes become bright like embers and your skin gets flushed with blood. It messes up your hair and your carefully coordinated outfit. When this happens, resist the urge, even if just for a moment, to 'fix' yourself. Vinyasa gives you permission to unapologetically be your hot, sweaty, messy, bad-ass, powerful self....

Creative Sequencing

It's common that teachers come to my Vinyasa Teacher Tune Ups with a stated goal of becoming more creative in their sequencing. I find myself nodding in affirmation of that goal, while simultaneously smiling to myself. Here is why I smile:

In sequencing vinyasa, I often limit my creativity. I aim to have a fair amount that is predictable and repeatable in sequencing. Think about it; if we want our students to experience something that we might call a flow state of consciousness, they will need to be in familiar territory, in terms of poses and transitions, to experience that moving meditation of body/mind/breath. Creative sequencing implies change and newness, which stand in contrast to the repeatable predictability at the core of "finding a flow state." If Vinyasa krama is concerned with choreography and connecting poses with an emphasis on breath and dynamic movement, but the "choreography" is unfamiliar, the sequence likely won't feel like it flows. Teachers must engage process to help students create familiarity with the unfamiliar, which likely warrants more stop/start; or learning in pieces with demonstrations and repetition. As such, I want enough of my sequence to be familiar, predictable and repeatable so that we can dive into a flow state, and meander between effortlessness and effort.

I will have certain "set pieces" in my vinyasa sequence, like Surya Namaskar A (see video below) and B. Such are active choices to limit creativity and leverage pattern that are already established and familiar. If I'm not being creative with the 9 poses and Surya A and 17 poses of Surya B, then my creativity will come in in HOW i'm facilitating those sequences.

Then I look for the opportunities to be creative in the sequencing; what I often call Surya Namaskara C and D and E and get the idea. But even then, I am conscious to repeat and build upon what is already familiar so that (1) we keep a flow state in play, and (2) when it gets difficult and someone needs to tag out and rest, there are opportunities to get back into the sequence in familiar sections. An example would be sequencing in Vira 3 after Vira 1 in Surya B.

It's of great benefit in vinyasa that we have common poses and sequences already on the table. So we strike a balance between predictability and creativity. In alignment, there are no poses or sections of sequences that are already on the table; it's more of a blank slate.

Inversions in Vinyasa

Some thoughts about inversions in Vinyasa-krama...

In my years of practicing Ashtanga Vinyasa, I learned and practiced shoulderstand and headstand in closing poses (the last section of the sequence). While these poses can certainly have grounding and soothing affects after the more dynamic aspects of the practice and ease you into Savasana/meditation/pranayama, as a teacher, I don't often sequence my vinyasa classes this way anymore.

Here are a some of my thoughts:

  1. RISK CONSIDERATIONS - While headstand and shoulderstand can be soothing and grounding poses, they still require a lot of strength, physically and mentally. As teachers (and practitioners) we must take seriously the risks associated with the increased compressive load on the cervical spine. If students are fatigued, as I would expect in a strong flow class, inversions in closing poses is NOT the safest choice we could make. Managing risk is something we MUST consider in how we sequence our classes and approach poses. It is no longer a good enough reason to sequence this way because that's how it is usually/traditionally done.

  2. WHEN BEST TO LEARN - "Closing poses" should consist of poses that the students already know and are competent with. While some individuals in class may have great competency with inversions, my experience tells me that the majority of students in a mixed-level vinyasa class do not. When students are newer to inversions, these poses need to be taught in a step_by_step manner, which the teacher may not want to make these choices in the down slope towards savasana, neither is it the best time for the students to assimilate new information. In this case, I would favor more simple shapes/movements in closing poses, that make sense in the overall arc of class and that can easily be taught with simple instructions.

  3. TEACHER RESPONSIBILITY - Many times I have attended vinyasa classes that have what I call an "inversions recess." This is when the teacher says something like, "for the next 3 or 5 minutes, practice the inversions of your choice." This would presume that every student in the room knows what to do and is qualified to make healthy choices for themselves. While this assessment may be accurate sometimes, it is not the case in most vinyasa classes, and the teacher is abdicating responsibility for having these higher risk poses in their sequence. Teachers, if you want inversions in your sequence, then put them in your sequence and prepare your students accordingly. You are in charge. You can still give students choices, but do so in parameters that set them up for greater success.

  4. USING PROPS IN FLOW CLASS - I am a fan of props for shoulderstand. While I practiced this pose religiously for many years with no props, I was in my teens and early twenties. I know a lot more about poses and anatomy then I did then. My body is different, despite the masculine ego thinking it's forever 21 and invincible. My yoga goals are different. My approach to these poses is different. Using props for this pose may not feel like it works within vinyasa organizing principles. I get it; folding and stacking blankets for shoulderstand may feel like it "interrupts the flow. Also, putting blankets down in a puddle of sweat, sweating on them, then they go back in the stack until the next class uses them = gross!

  5. An example could be building a pathway to Adho Mukha Vrkshasana from a Surya Namaskara B framework. Vinyasa Teachers, how do you sequence inverted postures into your flow classes?

Backbends in Vinyasa

Backbends certainly occur in vinyasa yoga but are generally vastly outnumbered by forward bends. When Urdhva Dhanurasana makes an appearance in vinyasa, it's usually in closing poses, when the class is lying down and is offered as an option after Bridge Pose, usually to people who already know it, have it in their practice, and want to do it. I'm okay with that strategy sometimes but not all the time. Because how would someone who doesn't already know it get to know it? How would someone get it in their practice if it was never taught to them? In vinyasa classes, how can we teach things that are less familiar and will benefit them to know, but keep the momentum and rhythm and breath in the forefront of awareness?

A few of my thoughts and strategies:

  1. Move a backbend earlier in the sequence- If you want folks to have a greater shot at the difficult thing, don't leave it until the end. This usually means you have to create a pathway to lying down (and then up again) in the vinyasa choreography. The supine entry and exit for this pose is the most straightforward path, and it makes sense to establish that first before you might "fancy it up" with another transition, like through Wild Thing & Flipping Your Dog.

  2. Prepare for it- While I don't disagree that the sum total of all the movements done in vinyasa can effectively prepare you for this backbend, you can also be much more strategic in your preparation of lengthening and strengthening structures for the backbend. There is much you can do to be more thoughtful and deliberate to draw out and accomplish the essential preparation in the flow of breath based linked poses.

  3. Teach it- Take some time to concentrate on step by step instructions for the pose. While I agree that vinyasa is a less instructional type of yoga class, there is much opportunity to instruct. Be concise. Slow pace down to teach the entry and exit movements AND what to do in the pose. Pair movements with breath cues to make your sequence more breath based. Then streamline instructions and teach more fluidly at a more moderate pace. Then (maybe) do it again at a faster pace, at a 1 breath per pose pace.

If you are a teacher or serious student of flow styles of yoga, Noah and his team are offering great yoga education, in person and online, through his website.

Thanks again Noah, for inspiring my yoga practice and teaching!