By Valerie Faneco
Yoga practice can be described as a sequence of steps arranged in a certain order to produce certain effects, with the added benefit of preparing and compensating one another to keep the person safe. The Sanskrit word that encapsulates this idea is vinyasa-krama (a sequence of steps). The most famous sequence of steps in yoga is the sun salutation (Surya Namaskar), originally a complex Indian ritual involving not only postures but also breath and chanting accompanied by gestures.
It is interesting to note that no information about sequencing is found in any ancient yoga text. So where does the need for sequencing come from? Who championed the idea of sequencing and the famous series of postures known around the world today?
It was none other than a five-foot Brahman from South India, Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, who is now widely acknowledged as the grandfather of modern yoga*. In the 1940s, around the time Krishnamacharya came back from the Himalayas where he had spent seven years studying with his master, yoga as a healing system had declined and been replaced by the western approach to medicine that came along with the British Raj.
Krishnamacharya began the work of teaching and promoting yoga by giving free lectures and presentations to demonstrate the power of yoga as a holistic method to maintain health and encourage healing. It is highly likely that sequences of postures were taught prior to his time in various forms, but Krishnamacharya structured them and added indications about how to combine the postures with the breath in a way that made them safe and efficient.
So the series commonly known today as vinyasa flow derive largely from the way Krishnamacharya used to teach children and young adults during the 1940s to give them a strong foundation in this discipline. Many adepts of yoga are familiar with the word vinyasa. It is worth pointing out that in ancient times it was used in a military context to refer to the placement of troops on the battlefield: a special (vi) arrangement (nyasa). Therefore the word (vinyasa-krama) refers to a sequence of steps carefully arranged in a specific order. It is one of the highlights of Krishnamacharya’s teaching method.
Let us go back to the sun salutation: Krishnamacharya used to teach this classical sequence as the basis for taking all yoga postures, standing, seated, supine, prone and inverted, as long as the student was capable of following this method. Starting in the standing position (Samasthiti) one would go through a series of postures with attention to all the breathing phases until one would arrive in the main posture, remain in it for some time, counting the number of breaths and perhaps even measuring the duration of each breathing phase (inhalation, hold, exhalation, hold again). Then one would usually come out of this goal posture by repeating the same sequence of postures in reverse order.
For example, to do the shoulder stand (Sarvangasana) one starts in the standing position, follows the steps all the way to the shoulder stand, remains in it for some time and then comes back to the standing position by doing the same postures and breathing phases in the other direction. Those who were taught to practice like this in ancient times were young people with no physical limitations and no job or responsibilities. They had plenty of time to perfect their yoga practice… But we must remember that Krishnamacharya also developed modifications and adaptations to make it safe for those who were more limited.
Another crucial aspect of his method is the synchronisation of movement and breath: each movement is performed during the active phases of inhalation or exhalation, or in some cases whilst suspending the breath after exhalation, such as when jumping is involved between two postures (shown as HOLD in the diagrams below). It is the breath that leads the movement, not the other way around. A movement fits within the duration of the inhalation or exhalation phase. To do this for almost every single movement in every single posture requires strength and stamina but also great concentration and a good deal of self-control!
It implies that the student is not only capable of staying in the chosen goal posture, but also knows how to take it and come out of it mindfully. The way to breathe into the posture and out of it depends on the previous position, amongst other things.
Why is it beneficial to do it this way? The main advantage is that each step in the progression becomes an important verification before moving on to the next one. We can link this idea with the Sanskrit word atha (as in atha yoga anushasanam, the first aphorism in Patanjali’s Yogasutra), an auspicious word that marks a beginning. It also means “now”. How do I feel now, physically and mentally? Am I ready to do the next posture or take the next breath? If the body is shaking or shows any other signs of instability (angamejayatva, Yogasutra I.31), I am not ready. If the breath is short or irregular (shvasa-prashvasa, I.31), I am not ready. If the body is steady and comfortable in the posture (sthira-sukha, II.46), if the breath is long and smooth (dirgha-sukshma, II.50), then I can proceed to the next step (krama), the next position, the next breath.
Physical and mental strength are both necessary if we are to perform yoga postures in this manner. Aside from that we also remain a constant witness of our connection with the practice. This self-enquiry (svadhyaya, II.1) is a cornerstone of our practice. It helps to give the word asana its true meaning in the Sanskrit language: a complete attitude of the entire being. It elevates yoga-asana above and beyond simple gymnastics. The mind is clear, focused, and the sensory functions are channelled. In short, the practice of yoga postures becomes (as it is sometimes said) a meditation in action (samyama, Yogasutra chapter III). Yet we must keep in mind that this should never be regarded as a goal in itself but merely as a step towards liberation from suffering (kaivalyam), the ultimate goal of yoga. The effort is endless, the work ongoing.
Suffering is a concept that is thoroughly examined in the yoga tradition. It is expressed by the Sanskrit word duhkham, which means tightness, constriction, as if we were squeezed from all sides… It has many faces and many degrees of intensity: the grief of loss, a disease, the momentary pain caused by a speck of dust in the eye… or the long term anxiety we feel in a job we dislike, the bitterness of an unhappy relationship. Life is paved with potential causes of suffering which have to be identified and avoided, as much as possible.
To sum it up let us say that certain elements are of vital importance in sequencing a yoga practice: as far as the physical posture is concerned each step (krama) is a reminder to cultivate the dual quality of steadiness and comfort (sthira-sukha, II.46: “the posture is firm and comfortable”). These two aspects, stability (sthira) and comfort (sukha) reinforce each other and should be equally present.
As far as the breath in concerned, each step is a reminder to cultivate another dual quality, length and smoothness (dirgha-sukshma, II.50: “the breath is long and smooth”). Here also both complement each other: the breath is long, to a certain extent, because it is smooth; smooth, to a certain extent, because it is long. If we are to apply these principles in our practice we must be prepared to see ourselves as we are, but also to recognize the need to modify it in case we are not ready for the next step.
Professor Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888 – 1989) revolutionised yoga in the 20th Century and made it accessible to everyone. BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois and Indra Devi were his students at some point in their life, as well as his own son TKV Desikachar who studied under his guidance for more than three decades.
The Sanskrit words are quoted from Patanjali’s Yogasutra, circa 200 BCE. The chapter number (I to IV) is followed by the sutra number, e.g I.31 is chapter I, sutra 31.