*This article was originally posted on the now defunct bentoutofshape.com in 2012. It has been re-posted here with no changes or edits*
It seems to be the case that Sanskrit words lose much of their original meaning when they fall into common usage. Words like Karma, which have a very specific meaning, come to be used in much more broad, and often incorrect, ways. I’ll give you examples of the misuse of karma in a later post… lest I get distracted and go off on a little rant.
Not like that ever happens...
Others, like namaste, are given additional implications like “the divine light in me bows to the divine light in you” that historically were never part of the word. Its literal translation is “bow,” from the verb namah and “to you” from te. Hence, its literal definition is “I bow to you”.
Perhaps the most dramatic example is the misuse of the word hatha. It has come to mean a slow type of physical yoga practice. The “hatha” yoga classes littered in modern studios are often gentle and relaxing. The Sanskrit dictionary definition of the word “hatha” however, describes the meaning as “forceful”--quite a bit different from its modern use. The word forceful made sense when it traditionally referred to the physical nature of posture-based yoga and distinguished it from other kinds of yoga like kria or bhakti, which are based on meditation or devotional practices. The term hatha includes all of the various styles of yoga that predominantly use postures, physical exercises, and breathing techniques. So, approximately 95% of the yoga practiced in the west is hatha yoga. Ashtanga, Iyengar, Power Yoga, Moksha yoga, Anusara, Yin Yoga, etc.--are all hatha.
Hatha is only one of many words that have been distorted or incorrectly used in the west. Many yoga students may be surprised to discover that another word commonly used in a way different from its original meaning is the word vinyasa.
In the vastly varied world of western yoga practices, in which it seems that anyone can create a new brand of yoga (Hip-hop Vinyasa Yogalaties Flow, anyone?), the word vinyasa has become a word that is carelessly thrown about. It appears to the casual observer that vinyasa now means any yoga practice with an emphasis on flowing movement. This is in part because vinyasa was/is a term used to describe the sequences of poses that are used in the flow of the Ashtanga sequences, as taught by Sri T. Krishnamacharia (1888-1989) and his student Sri K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009). The association of the word vinyasa and the flowing nature of the Ashtanga practice led to the modern definition of vinyasa as the linking together of breath and movement. One could argue that this definition is superficially correct as Ashtanga is indeed a practice in which those two things are linked systematically. However, the Sanskrit dictionary definition reveals a very different meaning.
One text defines vinyasa as “putting or placing down in the correct order” (Monier-Williams, 2005, p. 972), and another text delineates it as “a sequential assemblage” (Apte, 1973, p. 514) Taking these definitions into consideration, we can infer that when it’s used in the context of the Ashtanga practice, vinyasa refers to the step-by-step nature of the posture sequences. As Chuck Miller recently described it, “each pose is a stepping-stone to the next, gradually opening and preparing the body.”
When Ashtanga vinyasa yoga is practiced under the guidance of a qualified teacher, students are often stopped when they reach a pose that they cannot yet achieve. The teacher is not, as it may seem, interested in some arbitrary physical accomplishment (As long as it’s not a yoga journal photo shoot…). When a student does not yet understand the actions and internal workings of the posture, it's best to wait, be patient, and practice until intelligent understanding is demonstrated. We must be cautious in not allowing the ego to drive the practice and push us to move beyond what we are ready for. This ego-driven practice is often how yoga injuries happen.
Students sometimes feel that spending time working on the standing poses is not challenging or advanced enough. They want to be doing second series, or arm balances or something that appears to be more demanding and fun. The vinyasa (step-by-step) nature of the practice strongly emphasizes that there is value in firmly establishing our practice in foundational elements. The standing poses prepare us for the rest of the practice that is to follow. For instance, the hip actions in standing poses like trikonasana and parsvakonasana are the preparatory actions that develop the external rotation needed for half-lotus later in the primary series. The deeper external rotation in the half lotus poses prepare us for the leg-behind-the-head rotations of second series, which in turn prepare us for even more advanced asanas. Without solid groundwork in the standing poses, students limit their ability to progress. If you are skipping challenging poses, or ignoring an area of difficulty and modifying so heavily that the body never changes, then you are letting your ego be in charge and skipping the vinyasa part of Ashtanga vinyasa yoga. The final version of the pose is far less important than the slow, patient, methodical process of getting there. One instruction that Pattabhi Jois often gave was, "why rush ahead? You go back!" Or, put another way, don't be in a hurry for your practice to look a certain way or get into a particular pose. Often the truly deep work happens in what looks externally like very simple postures.
In Ashtanga each position is given a "vinyasa count," i.e., a step-by-step plan to move from samasthithi (equal standing) down into the asana and then back out to samasthithi. Equal standing pose is both the beginning and the end of every posture; the origin and the result. When you are in a class and the teacher uses the word vinyasa as a noun by saying, "take a vinyasa,” he/she is instructing you to move along from the pose you are currently in to the next one, using this step-by-step methodical technique.
Just as every pose has a result on the body that prepares it for the poses to come, each position and movement used to enter and exit the pose also will affect the body in important ways. These effects can be positive or negative depending on how the positions are performed. For example, low plank (chaturanga dandasana) done repetitively with the shoulders collapsed forward sets up a deep, ingrained pattern that makes it more likely for the shoulder to collapse into the same pattern in subsequent poses—a situation that will almost certainly result in a rotator-cuff injury. Moving the shoulders into a correct position in low plank or methodically working with modifications of the posture (which you can learn from a qualified teacher) will have the opposite effect and prevent harm and injury.
Let’s take this understanding of vinyasa a bit further and apply it to the process of moving the body into poses. As you move your body into a new position, there will often be areas of resistance, parts with tension, and muscles acting in unhelpful ways. When we are interested solely in the end product of what we think the pose should look like, we will often avoid those challenging areas in order to more quickly accomplish that end product. We let strong muscles work in place of weak ones, and overstretch areas already open rather than bringing space to an area that's closed off. A strong argument could be made to practice moving very slowly and mindfully into each pose, pausing when you discover a challenge, and then taking the time to address it. Working in this way, clearing out the obstacles to the pose over time in a gradual (vinyasa) method will, I believe, provide more benefit than throwing yourself as far as you can into an arbitrary shape so that you can “achieve” the pose or “progress” to the next one.
I do not expect that we can ever really get the word vinyasa back. Like so any other terms, the meaning has been used in a different way for so long that it is perhaps a battle already lost. The traditional definition of the term, however, carries significant meaning for those of us who do a vinyasa practice. I think much can be learned by understanding our yoga as a gradual, methodical, patient, step-by-step process rather than just a mindless "flow."
As with much of everything I have come to understand, the source is always from the many teachers I have had the privilege to study with. In my evolving understanding of vinyasa, much has come from Chuck Miller, as well as from John Scott and Swami Nityamuktananda, all errors and omissions, however, are my own. A big thanks goes out to them. If you are interested, links to their websites can be found on The Shala’s Web resource page.
Until next time, keep practicing!
“We are all beginners, it just takes some of us longer to realize it” - Chuck Miller
Monier-Williams, M. (2005). A Sanskrit English dictionary.
Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers PVT LTD.
V. S. Apte (1970). The Student’s Sanskrit-English dictionary.
Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers PVT LTD.
Note: Chuck Miller is one of a very small group of Master teachers in the Ashtanga tradition, with over 40 years of experience he is unquestionably an authority on the practice.