Vinyasa Yoga: Your Complete Guide

Everything you ever wanted to know about this popular and energizing style of Yoga!

If you’ve just started attending Yoga classes at your local studio, you might have noticed a strange word that keeps coming up again and again. Vinyasa.

If you haven’t hung around yoga people too much you might be a little confused. After all, it’s not like it ever comes up in the normal day to day conversation. People aren’t exactly hanging around the water cooler at work talking about the awesome Vinyasa classes they all took last night.

Well…maybe in California.

The point is that, as usual, we’re here to answer any questions you might have and then some with our Complete Guide to Vinyasa Yoga!

We’ll cover all the basics and give you a simple 20-minute Vinyasa Flow sequence for beginners specially designed to get you on the right path toward an invigorating and expansive Vinyasa Yoga practice!

Let’s start with the most important question:

What is Vinyasa Yoga?

what is vinyasa yoga

Vinyasa is a word from the Sanksrit language of ancient India that essentially means “to place in a sacred manner.” In practical terms, we can say that a Vinyasa is any movement done in a mindful, deliberate and methodical fashion, in order to create an atmosphere of meditation and devotion.

However, in modern yoga practice, Vinyasa has a more specific meaning. It refers to the movements that link poses together to form the dynamic sequences of a led yoga class. Classes that incorporate poses linked together in this way have come to be called “Flow” classes.

The word “Flow,” is essentially a translation of the word Vinyasa and the two terms are interchangeable.

However, as if things weren’t complicated enough, there’s an even more specific use of the word Vinyasa that it’s important for a keen student of yoga to know about, as they will encounter it frequently. That is when they are asked to “take a Vinyasa.”

Taking a Vinyasa

Most of modern Vinyasa Yoga is based in one way or another on a style of Yoga called Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, which was originally taught by the famous yoga pioneer T. Krishnamacharya and eventually formalized by his student K. Pattabhi Jois.

In Ashtanga Vinyasa, most poses are linked together by a sequence of movements based on the traditional Surya Namaskar, or Sun Salutation. This sequence is almost always the same every time.

So, for example, if the pose you are doing is a seated forward bend and you are asked to take a Vinyasa, you will either jump or step back into a plank position on the inhale.

Lower into Chaturanga Dandasana, or the bottom of a push-up on the exhale.

On your next inhale you will press into the hands and arch the back, opening the chest up towards the front of the room, and entering Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, or Upward-Facing Dog.

one flow yoga

Then, on the next exhale you will tuck the toes under and press back into Adho Mukha Svanasana, or Downward Facing Dog tilting your tailbone up towards the ceiling and relaxing the head towards the floor.

Downward Facing Dog is usually held for five breaths, after which point you will enter the next pose, often by jumping the feet through the hands or to the front of the mat on the inhale.

In many Vinyasa classes, taking a Vinyasa is usually an option given for students who wish to have a more intense practice. In these cases, it is also appropriate for a student to simply take Downward Facing Dog or even Child’s Pose, while others are taking a Vinyasa if they feel they need a bit of a rest.

What is the difference between Ashtanga and Vinyasa Yoga?

We’ve established that most forms of Vinyasa Yoga are loosely based on Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, usually shortened to, simply, “Ashtanga,” but exactly how are they different?

Ashtanga uses a fixed sequence of postures that are intended to be practiced every day. The sequence is gradually added to, pose by pose, when the teacher feels a student is ready. Because the sequence is fixed, the student is expected to memorize the sequence and perform it at their own pace of breathing. Traditionally Ashtanga classes are almost never led.

Rather, students come together in “Mysore-style” classes, where they practice the sequence at their own pace and the teacher is simply available to help students refine the poses, learn new poses or address any issues that may arise.

Vinyasa Yoga, on the other hand, is almost always in a led, class-based format. Teachers build creative sequences that are intended to address specific issues, work certain body parts or build-up to peak postures and movements.

Vinyasa Yoga classes are usually different from class to class, though there are many teachers who have pioneered their own fixed sequences that they might cycle throughout the week, month or year.

What are the Benefits of Vinyasa Yoga?

Because Vinyasa Yoga emphasizes both aerobic physical activity and breath-centered meditation it has the capacity to be a complete system of holistic health and well-being that not only helps to develop the body, but also the mind and spirit.

5 Top Benefits of Vinyasa Yoga

vinyasa yoga benefits

Its benefits are almost too numerous to name but here are the five most important ones.

1. Cardiovascular and Respiratory Health

By adding in the linking sequences, Vinyasa Yoga becomes a cardiovascular workout, particularly if the sequences are performed in a brisk fashion. A challenging Vinyasa class should raise the heart rate and leave the practitioner sweating.

Additionally, because the focus of the Vinyasa movements is always on smooth, full and deliberate breathing, it helps to exercise the diaphragm, stretch the muscles that expand the ribcage and helps to maintain healthy lung tissue.

2. Strength

Because Vinyasa Yoga sequences are usually done with as little momentum as possible, they are extremely effective compound exercises that work the core and the stabilizer muscles as much as they do the large primary movement muscles.

This helps to build balance and confidence in movement and can help to maintain joint health and equilibrium as we age.

Long-term practitioners of Vinyasa Yoga often become very strong and athletic while also staying quite lean.

3. Weight Loss

There is much debate over whether Vinyasa Yoga leads to weight loss. However, anecdotal evidence from countless long-term practitioners suggests that it does.

This may be because a serious practitioner of Yoga will consider their diet, habits, and behaviors as an integral part of their practice and will generally lead a healthy lifestyle off the mat.

However, the intensity of a Vinyasa Yoga practice can often be wildly under-estimated by non-practitioners because it looks easy. This is because part of the practice is to maintain slow, deliberate breathing and a relaxed, tension-free expression.

Vinyasa Yoga can be intensely athletic, and daily practitioners will tend to lose weight with consistent practice, particularly in combination with a nutritious diet.

4. Discipline and Focus

Vinyasa Yoga almost always links its movement with the breath, along with very specific physical alignment cues and even gazing points. This helps to develop an incredible degree of concentration and can help to build mental focus and clarity.

Despite its obvious use as a form of physical exercise, most people who practice Vinyasa Yoga for a long period of time will find that it’s most profound effects are on their mind, rather than their body.

5. The Flow State

Vinyasa Yoga is often described as “moving meditation.”

There is an incredible amount of focus that needs to be employed to perform the movements and postures effectively, and an incredibly fine amount of detail that is called for, often including where to look, how to breathe and wherein the body to draw the awareness too.

All of this helps to draw the practitioner into what is known as the “flow state.”

The flow state is a state of mind where someone is entirely focused on the present moment and the unfolding events immediately at hand, rather than ruminating about the past or planning for the remote future.

The ability to enter a flow state can be enormously useful for managing symptoms of anxiety and depression, helping to reset the mind and control the capacity for negative, circular self-talk.

Is Vinyasa Yoga for Me?

The short answer is almost definitely yes.

However, there are some important things to consider before starting a Vinyasa Yoga practice.

Vinyasa Yoga can be taught in countless different ways and can be tailored to fit the needs of most people regardless of their age, body type, or health challenges. However, there is no guarantee that the “Vinyasa Yoga” class on the schedule at your local yoga studio is going to be appropriate for you.

Make sure to inquire beforehand about the difficulty level and focus of the class before you dive in, especially if you have health issues or mobility challenges.

If you do have these sorts of issues the best thing to do is to form a relationship with a teacher you trust and who knows about your condition. If they are experienced, it will be easy for them to modify the practice to suit your needs.

If you have a little extra cash, it might be worth organizing a few private sessions with a teacher so that they can give you the information you need to modify the practice on your own, so that you can attend different classes without having to worry about aggravating any issues.

A 20 Minute Vinyasa Yoga Sequence For Beginners

Begin by standing tall at the front of the mat with your chest open, your core engaged and your pelvis neutral.

This Vinyasa sequence will begin with a variation on the classic Surya Namaskar or Sun Salutation.

1. Sun Salutation (Beginner Variation)

On an inhale, micro-bend the knees and lift the arms over the head in a wide arc, stretching through the shoulders and opening up through the chest.

On an exhale, slowly fold forward, bending the knees as much as you need to draw the belly towards the thighs. Relax the neck and shoulders.

At this point, we will step back into Downward Facing Dog. Place the hands on the floor and step the right leg back and then the left. You can begin by taking the right knee to the floor first if you wish. Your tailbone should be tilting up towards the ceiling and your head should be tracking towards the floor.

The next few poses represent the “Taking a Vinyasa” portion of the sequence and will be repeated several times later.

On an inhale, enter a plank position by straightening out the body and drawing the shoulders over the hands.

On an exhale, we will lower down to a variation of Chaturanga Dandasana called Ashtanga Dandavat.

ashtanga yoga

This version of the movement can be used for anyone who is still building strength in the shoulders and upper body, or if you’re simply tired or sore on that particular day.

Lower the knees to the floor first, then the chest, then the chin, keeping the tailbone tilted towards the ceiling.

On an inhale we will enter an easy Cobra Pose.

vinyasa

Placing the hands on the floor alongside the ribcage, press slightly into the hands and open the chest up towards the front of the room, drawing yourself into an active backbend. Keep the arms bent for now.

On an exhale, tuck the toes under and return to Downward Facing Dog, take 3 to 5 breaths here before moving on to the first pose.

2. Virabhadrasana II or Warrior II

On an inhale, reach the right leg up and back. On an exhale, round the back and place the right foot in between the palms, coming into a lunging position. If this is difficult you can lift the right hand off the floor first.

Drop the left heel to the floor. The back foot should be on a 90-degree angle relative to the front foot.

yoga bikram

On an inhale, swing the arms up in a wide arc and stand up, opening the shoulders and chest up towards the side of the room. Sink deep into the lunge and bring the gaze over the front hand.

Work on lengthening through both sides of the trunk. Hold the pose for three to five breaths.

Once you are finished, on an exhale, slowly bend over, placing the right hand on the floor on the outside of the right foot and the left hand on the floor on the inside of the left foot. Step the right foot back and return to Downward Facing Dog.

yoga flows

At this point, you will repeat the “Taking a Vinyasa” sequence and perform the pose again on the opposite side. Once that pose is complete, you will Take a Vinyasa again and return to Downward Facing Dog before moving on to the next pose.

3. Trikonasana or Triangle Pose

Step the right foot forward and return to Warrior II on an inhale.

Straighten the front leg, keeping a slight micro-bend in the knee, and turn the back toes in slightly. Continue reaching out through both hands and slightly depress the shoulder blades.

Bend over to the side reaching the right hand towards the right shin. Open the chest and shoulders up towards the side of the room and reach the left hand towards the ceiling.

vinyasa flow

If it feels OK for the neck, take the gaze towards the lifted hand. Otherwise, you can keep the gaze on the floor or directly in front of you.

Hold the pose for three to five breaths and return to Warrior II on an inhale

On an exhale place the hands on the floor, take a Vinyasa and repeat the pose on the other side.

4. Parsvakonasana or Extended Side Angle Pose

Step the right foot forward and return to Warrior II on an inhale.

Take the right elbow to the right knee and reach the left arm up and forward towards the front of the room, keeping the chest and shoulders square towards the side of the mat.

yoga flow

Keep some space between the extended arm and the ears. Try not to hunch the shoulders.

Keep the back leg active, pressing it strongly into the floor, and focus on lengthening the entire side of the body.

Hold the pose for 5 to 10 breaths then, on an inhale, return to Warrior II. On an exhale place the hands back on the floor alongside the front foot and take a Vinyasa before repeating the pose on the other side

5. Ardha Chandrasana or Half Moon Pose

Step the right foot forward and return to Warrior II on an inhale.

This pose may be more accessible with a block. If you have one place it about a foot length in front of the right pinky toe.

Shorten the distance between the feet slightly and then place the right hand on the block, floating the back foot up off the floor.

flow yoga

Lift the back leg so that it is parallel with the floor and open the hips, chest, and shoulders up towards the side of the mat.

Once you feel like you have the balance and are comfortable in the pose, start to take your gaze up and lift the left arm towards the ceiling.

Hold the pose for three to five breaths before returning to Warrior Two on an inhale.

On an exhale, place the hands on the floor alongside the front foot and take a Vinyasa before repeating the pose on the other side.

Once this pose is complete we will return to standing via a half Sun Salutation.

On an inhale lift the right leg up and back.

On an exhale step the right foot between the hands.

On an inhale step the left leg forward and lift the gaze.

On an exhale fold forward over the legs, keeping the knees generously bent.

On an inhale come to standing, lifting the hands over the head in a wide arc.

On an exhale return the hands to the sides.

At this point you may either finish your practice by spending a few minutes in Savasana, the final resting pose, come to the floor and cool down with a few Yin Yoga poses, or move on to another aspect of your yoga practice.

Conclusion

Vinyasa Yoga is a great way to stay in shape and bring a sense of calm and focus to the mind.

However, there are a lot of details to be learned in order to get the most out of your practice. It is highly recommended to study with a dedicated teacher who has a long-term Vinyasa Yoga practice of their own.

Our teachers have been practicing Yoga for their entire lives. By attending one of our Multi-Style Yoga Retreat and Teacher Training in India you will get the opportunity to refine your practice and gain the confidence and knowledge to share it with others.

Register today!

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