The word “vinyasa” is derived from the Sanskrit term nyasa, which means “to place,” and the prefix vi, “in a special way” — as in the arrangement of notes in a raga, the steps along a path to the top of a mountain, or the linking of one asana to the next. In the yoga world the most common understanding of vinyasa is as a flowing sequence of specific asanas coordinated with the movements of the breath. The six series of Pattabhi Jois’s Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga are by far the best known and most influential.
Jois’s own teacher, the great South Indian master Krishnamacharya, championed the vinyasa approach as central to the transformative process of yoga. But Krishnamacharya had a broader vision of the meaning of vinyasa than most Western students realize. He not only taught specific asana sequences like those of Jois’s system, but he also saw vinyasa as a method that could be applied to all the aspects of yoga. In Krishnamacharya’s teachings, the vinyasa method included assessing the needs of the individual student (or group) and then building a complementary, step-by-step practice to meet those needs. Beyond this, Krishnamacharya also emphasized vinyasa as an artful approach to living, a way of applying the skill and awareness of yoga to all the rhythms and sequences of life, including self-care, relationships, work, and personal evolution.
Desikachar, Krishnamacharya’s son, an author and renowned teacher in his own right, has written, “Vinyasa is, I believe, one of the richest concepts to emerge from yoga for the successful conduct of our actions and relationships.” In his book Health, Healing, and Beyond, he gives a subtle yet powerful example of how his father attended to the vinyasa of teaching yoga. Krishnamacharya, to the amazement of his private students, would always greet them at the gate of his center, guide them through their practice, and then honor the completion of their time together by escorting them back to the gate.
The way he honored every phase of their session—initiating the work, sustaining it and then building to a peak, and completing and integrating it—illustrates two of the primary teachings of the vinyasa method: Each of these phases has its own lessons to impart, and each relies on the work of the previous phase. Just as we can’t frame a house without a proper foundation, we can’t build a good yoga practice unless we pay attention to how we begin. And just as a house is flawed if the workmen don’t finish the roof properly, we have to bring our actions to completion in order to receive yoga’s full benefits. Vinyasa yoga requires that we cultivate an awareness that links each action to the next—one breath at a time.