By Hannah Overlock | June 2017
What do we mean by Vinyasa? Whether you are a seasoned practitioner or relatively uninitiated in the world of yoga, the term ‘Vinyasa’ probably rings a bell. It has become a popular buzz-word in contemporary yoga, a convenient catch-all for a myriad of practices as diverse as they are numerous. Sadly, like many other terms of convenience, it has worn thin from overuse and under explanation. Sometimes touted as the creative force behind the “yoga butt” or characterized as “linking movement with breath”, these drive-by definitions do an unfortunate disservice to the depth of information that the term reveals.
The word Vinyasa is a Sanskrit term, composed of two root words: Vi and Nyasa.
Richard Freeman offers his articulate and thoughtful translation of the terms Vi as, “to arrange or sanctify in a specific way in response to context or lack of context”, and Nyasa as, “to sanctify and draw one’s full attention to a meditative focus.” Resulting in a complete working definition of Vinyasa as: “focused, intentional sequence of form, thought, movement and breath that frees the mind.”
While that can seem like a tall order, I invite you to explore with this full working definition of vinyasa is a beautiful call to action and perhaps even a raison d’être of our asana (physical posture) practice; to truly see the bigger picture.
Sounds amazing, right? However, we cannot jump right to the bigger picture moment, this term Vinyasa implies a series of steps, of ‘focused, intentional’ forms of movement and thought. I learned the hard way about the pitfalls of bypassing the ‘focused, intentional sequence’ putting together Ikea furniture in college dorm rooms and first apartments. I would look over the cartoon instruction sheets and think, ‘easy’, only to later find myself taking out the pegs and screws that my cursory and haughty glances had told me were “all the same”. I did the work twice, maybe more, because I ignored the steps and was focused on barreling ahead to that big picture satisfaction without following the proper order. I’ve learned this lesson similarly on the mat through injury and setbacks.
The asanas provide an entry point to body and breath, whileVinyasa is the framework for this study. The larger notion of vinyasa can be practiced in any single pose, or any series of poses. The Sun Salute or Surya Namaskar is often a central player at the heart of any vinyasa style class. Its flowing, rhythmic repetition and the rapid succession of movement through the twelve poses of Surya Namaskar demand focus and intention to execute them with integrity (not brute force). Our goal in the Surya Namaskar is to enact Vinyasa by moving with clarity, intention and order. It’s like a puzzle you have five seconds to assemble before moving onto the next. Each puzzle in the succession is equally precious.
Skill in this advanced puzzling comes through practice and muscle memory. No one expects you to get it on your first, or even hundredth try. Gradually, we become mindful of the steps, receptive to sensation and the puzzle becomes clearer.
By moving exquisitely and rhythmically, intentionally marking each pose as clearly as the steps of a dance for the fleeting duration of the breath pattern we affirm that life is a delicate and complex phenomenon that we wish to greet with eyes wide open.
Chaturange Dandasana (4-Limbed Staff Pose)
Because we look at the 12 postures of Surya Namaskar as a rhythmic, flowing whole we sometimes forget to break them down and perform them individually, to regard them as twelve distinct, beautiful puzzles that must each be assembled flawlessly in the span in a single breath. The most disheveled urchin of all in the Surya Namaskar is often chaturanga dandasna, which seems to get lost in the shuffle and relegated to transitional, rather than its rightful place as a full-fledged pose. A successful chaturanga dandasana requires a clean line from shoulder to elbow and strong, engaged legs and feet.
Practice with props because the placement and balance of chaturanga dandasana is a little tricky and requires strength that may not yet be present I am going to offer 2 ways to practice with props.
Chaturanga Dandasana with Bolster: Lie lengthways on the bolster with palms underneath the shoulders, elbows in close to the ribs. with toes tucked under draw the thigh-bones up into the hamstings and lengthen. Allow your full body weight to settle into the bolster, feeling it squish beneath you. Engage the legs, arms and abdominals in towards the torso and draw yourself up just enough to un-squish the bolster. Repeat this squish/un-squish several times
Now that the general shape and feeling of Chaturanga Dandasana has been introduced to the body we are ready to add more of our own strength the the posture by practicing with Blocks
Chaturanga Dandasana with Blocks: Place two blocks on the medium height sideways on the mat under the thighs, the blocks should land at the top of the thigh just below the pubic bone. Allow the sharpness of the blocks to inform the action on the legs and make you engage them more strongly, spread the fingers as you press the palms down into the mat, draw the shoulders away from the floor. Keep the gaze soft and lifted, and the breath easy.