I thought I’d write a concise little piece about putting vinyasas together, but it ballooned somehow, and we’ll do this in two parts for the sake of brevity.
There are all kinds of yoga, some of which rely on holding static poses for extended periods of time, some that are based on continuous, flowing sequences, and some that blend the two. From a purely physical point of view, vinyasas – those sinuous chains of movement – provide cardiovascular stimulation, balance and coordination challenges, and opportunities to apply all of the alignment training that we do in individual asanas. Holding a single asana for an extended period of time before moving on to the next is also beneficial; it takes time for a muscle being stretched to “release,” and it’s at this point that we really begin to make progress in our flexibility. Everyone varies somewhat as to how long a static stretch must be held before the “release” occurs, but a (very) general rule is thirty seconds to a minute.
A lovely aspect of free-form styles of yoga (those that permit changes in the sequence of asanas from class to class) is that you can experiment. Perhaps you want to combine a given set of poses: Cobbler (baddha konasana), Wide-angle Forward Bend (upavistha konasana), and Staff (dandasana). You could begin by moving through these poses relatively quickly, repeating the combination a number of times. This would demand increased respiration and heart-rate, generating heat in the body. Heat is – for the most part – a good thing in yoga practice. Consider your muscles to be complex elastic bands; if you were to leave an elastic in the freezer and then try to stretch it, it would break. When you bring it to room temperature, it regains flexibility, and the more that you heat it, the more pliable it becomes. I’ll save a brewing digression on the value of moderated versus artificial heat in yoga for another post.
In any case, after having used the asanas in vinyasa form to warm the body up and give the involved muscles an idea of what you want to accomplish, you can then hold each pose individually for extended periods of time. The purpose of organizing your sadhana this way is to give your body adequate preparation for an extended hold of specific poses in order to develop targeted flexibility in the engaged muscles. It is much easier and more comfortable to hold poses for longer periods if the muscle is warm and has had a few preliminary rounds of related stretching.
On the other hand, if you’re reasonably warm already, you can begin with individual poses and then move into linking them in a vinyasa. The benefit of this approach is that it prepares your body for the poses that it will be doing dynamically. If you’re working with asanas that are particularly challenging for you, or ones that are new to you, this is a smart approach – it will give you a controlled, unhurried way to ensure that your posture is correct. You’ll also have a chance to determine how far into the pose you can venture with calm breath, which is the ultimate yogic indicator of correct levels of exertion. The more comfortable that you become with these indicators, the less likely you are to perform the asana in a way that could lead to injury when you incorporate it into more energetic sequences.
The essential idea here is that poses, both of themselves and in sequence with others, can help us to achieve a variety of ends when used in different ways. This emphasizes a critical understanding raised previously: asanas are tools, not necessarily end-goals. The key when creating a masterpiece, of course, is knowing what you want to achieve. So saying, there are several factors beyond experimentation that can help us to form solid, steady practices. Next post, we’ll discuss some anatomical facts that influence balance in vinyasas. I hope that this will be the beginning of your forays into “creative yogic empiricism!”