What is Vinyasa Yoga? A Beginners Guide

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Trying yoga for the first time can be a bit overwhelming and confusing. Imagine being a new student, mustering up the nerve to find a studio, going on their website to see what they offer, and feeling like everything is essentially written in another language. 

Vinyasa yoga, hatha yoga, Ashtanga yoga…how do we know which one is for us? How do we even know which yoga is which? Will it be okay for beginners? How will I know it’s right for me?

Let us break down what vinyasa yoga is and what benefits you could potentially gain from it.

So…What Is Vinyasa?

The different styles and varieties of yoga can sometimes be very confusing – even to the most experienced practitioner – because they can overlap. Especially the term “vinyasa” yoga, which can take on a few different meanings – including what makes a yoga class a “vinyasa” yoga class.

The word “Vinyasa”

While some people believe vinyasa means “movement with breath”, vinyasa actually is sanskrit for “to place in a special way”.

The word predates yoga as a physical practice. You could “vinyasa” anything, from how you completed a project to how you hiked a certain path. Vinyasa was about mindfulness in the movements and decisions you made. (1)

Vinyasa Yoga

Vinyasa yoga, in short, is characterized by continuous movement linked with the breath. It is in a Vinyasa class where you’ll most likely see things like Sun Salutations and “flowing”.

Flowing

A “flow” is usually defined as “breath with movement.” For example, you might be in a seated position and instructed to inhale your arms up, then exhale your arms down, repeating this for a few breaths. This movement is a type of “flow”.

Vinyasa Flow

Sometimes teachers will tell their students to “do a vinyasa flow”. This is typically shorthand for a specific and connected set of movements. Sometimes this vinyasa flow looks like a variation of a push-up, a variation of a backbend, and a type of “neutral” pose.

This could take the shape of:

  • Chataranga Pose, into Upward Facing Dog Pose, into Downward Facing Dog pose. To see these postures in action, please watch the video below.

"Chaturanga to Upward Facing Dog"

  • Knees-Chin-Chest Pose, into Cobra Pose, into Downward Facing Dog Pose. To see these postures in action, please watch the video below.

"Knees, Chin, Chest"

Many instructors – myself included – call this varied set of movements “lower, rise, and rest.” What version you do will depend greatly on what works for your body.

It is important to note that not all vinyasa classes will necessary have a “vinyasa flow”.

A Brief History of Vinyasa Yoga

Vinyasa yoga started in the early 20th century first as Ashtanga yoga, created by Sri K. Pattabhi Jois in India. Since then, it has evolved and expanded across the globe and into many different styles and varieties.

​While Ashtanga (also known as Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga) is known for very strict rules and guidelines, general vinyasa classes can be a little more free-form. Ashtanga yoga has set pose sequences (known as “series”) that does not change. However, vinyasa yoga can be varied and change up what poses are done when, if at all. (2)

You do not have to take an Ashtanga class in order to experience vinyasa yoga. Most of the time, a vinyasa class is simply labeled “vinyasa yoga”. However, many yoga styles – from Power Yoga to Jivamukti Yoga – consider themselves branches of vinyasa yoga. (3

“Ashtanga Primary Series”

How Vinyasa Yoga is Different Than Other Styles of Yoga

In vinyasa yoga, emphasis is placed not just on the poses themselves, but the transitions into and out of each posture. Also, you typically do not stay in the poses for long in a vinyasa yoga class. Vinyasa yoga is considerably more movement based than practices like hatha yoga and yin yoga.

Is Vinyasa Yoga a Good Exercise?

With its constant movement, vinyasa can be seen as the most “cardio” of the yoga styles. Depending on your weight, you could burn between 300 and 500 calories in an one-hour power vinyasa yoga session. (4)

It’s important to remember, though, vinyasa yoga is varied. What level of intensity your class is and what you are comfortable challenging yourself with will be huge contributing factors.

However, vinyasa yoga can be a great way to get the heart pumping and the body sweating.

Is It Good for Stress Relief?

Vinyasa is incredible for stress relief. With constant movement linked with breath, you can get the blood flowing and achieve a little bit of that “moving meditation.”

Countless studies have shown that yoga of any style will help relieve stress and anxiety. For example, yoga has been proven to help reduce blood pressure as well as the levels of cortisol (a hormone linked with stress) in the body (5).

Particularly, practices that incorporate a “moving meditation” have a profound and positive impact on your emotional and mental stress (6).

“Vinyasa Yoga for Stress Relief”

Vinyasa Yoga: Difficult or Easy?

This will completely depend on the type of class you are taking. As a student, you can pick the focus and the difficulty of your vinyasa class based on various factors. 

Some classes will have a strength-building element while others will be more cardio-based. Likewise, some classes will incorporate more “advanced” poses while others will stick to the basics.

Another thing to consider is what your body is telling you. This means listening to your body and moving in ways that are beneficial – not moving in ways you think you are supposed to be moving. Yoga in general should never hurt. Likewise, healthy movement and alignment is more important than the speed of the flow.

In my personal opinion, the only difficult thing about vinyasa is the fact that, since it is faster-paced, it can be harder to take the time to check in with your body and with the pose’s alignment.

Vinyasa Yoga & Injuries

Ironically, people do the movements of a “vinyasa flow” without really following the definition of vinyasa. Yes, they’ve lowered down into chaturanga, pushed up into upward facing dog, and transitioned back into downward facing dog, but they’ve pushed their bodies through it without much thought – or they intentionally ignored what their body was telling them in order to do “one more vinyasa flow.

”Listening to your body in a vinyasa flow is key: shoulder injuries are incredibly common in yoga, and most of them happen because of improper chaturanga, or pushing your body through what you think is a “vinyasa flow” when it wasn’t what your body needed. (7)

The key is in remembering that this is your body and your practice, and we all should work towards making the movement deliberate, constructive, and appropriate.

Is Vinyasa Yoga Beginner Friendly?

While “flowing” usually requires at least some basic knowledge of the yoga poses, vinyasa yoga can still be great for beginners. There are plenty of beginners’ vinyasa yoga classes and workshops available in studios and online.

Many yoga instructors will help a newcomer to yoga by explaining the poses, the transitions, and alignment as thoroughly as possible.

Is Vinyasa Yoga Right for You?

There really is only one way to know: take a class. Whether you find videos online or instructors in your area, the only way you’ll know if vinyasa is a good fit is if you try it firsthand.

There are many different varieties of vinyasa yoga. Here are some questions you can ask yourself before finding a class:

  • Am I still learning the postures and their alignments?
  • Do I want to move quickly or slowly?
  • Do I want something gentle or something vigorous?
  • Do I want an instructor who gives very specific instructions, or would I prefer an instructor who allows a bit of freedom?

All classes - whether online or at a studio - typically have a class description that will tell you what you can expect. You can use the class descriptions - plus the answers to the previous questions - to help find a class that is right for you.

Remember: Not only are there so many different styles of vinyasa yoga, there are so many different styles of yoga in general. If something doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean you are not “right” for yoga. It simply means that particular style isn’t right for you.

Keep at it, and I look forward to seeing you on the mat!

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