The phrase vinyāsa yoga is only slightly more specific than just saying yoga, but what’s in a word? It turns out a lot, especially when that word is a Sanskrit word. Many words have more than one meaning or use in language. When the language is as old as Sanskrit and has survived in various forms through multiple cultures, the meaning of words morphs and changes.
If we keep the context to yoga, then a commonly heard definition of vinyāsa is something like this one from Yoga Journal: “arranging something in a special way.” You might also have heard something similar to “a coordination of breath and movement.” I’m not going to debate the validity of those definitions, but I would like to expand on them.
The variety of uses for vinyāsa in yoga
The word vinyāsa is the combination of vi and nyāsa (nyasa). Some definitions of “vi” are: to go, move, the act of going, or motion. And, some definitions of “nyasa” are placing, putting down or upon, or planting. The list of possible meanings goes on depending on context. You’re welcome to traverse that rabbit hole as deep as you like.
But for us, the context of vinyāsa lives in the practice of yoga asana. Contemporary postural yoga can probably trace the idea of vinyāsa yoga to Krishnamacharya and his vinyāsa krama yoga. With Krishnamacharya’s influence, the uses of the word vinyāsa within the context of yoga expanded and changed further. It was likely from Krishnamacharya that the term vinyāsa was used to mean a connected series of movements used between postures. According to A.G. Mohan, Krishnamacharya’s long-time student, he also counted the vinyāsas out loud, in effect assigning a rhythm and pace to the specific choreography of the series of postures he was teaching.
Like many practitioners, I start my practice with sun salutations which can be seen as a ritualistic practice and arguably the epitome of what it means to utilize vinyāsa in one’s own practice regardless of style. Check out my series on sun salutations where I discuss the ritualistic nature of these movements including the mantra that goes along with the movements. What we learn about the concept of vinyāsa from the sun salutation is that there is a set series of movements. Your breath is coordinated with a series of movements that take you in and out of forward fold, chaturanga, upward dog (sometimes cobra), down dog, and samasthiti.
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What does vinyāsa mean in Ashtanga yoga?
The flowing style of Ashtanga yoga taught by Pattabhi Jois, which evolved from Krishnamacharya’s vinyāsa krama, continued in the vein of that practice style by connecting the whole practice with vinyāsas. Styles of yoga also further evolved from Ashtanga which all utilize a flowing sequence of poses, rather than longer holds in static postures. And those styles are generally called vinyāsa yoga.
What is the vinyāsa count?
In the Ashtanga yoga system, Pattabhi Jois also continued Krishnamacharya’s way of counting the vinyāsas. Pattabhi Jois labeled movements in and out of poses in the sequences that he taught with numbers. In Ashtanga, each individual posture, as well as each movement into and out of a pose, has an assigned inhale or exhale. Additionally, there is a specific choreography that dictates an ideal number of breaths for entering and leaving each pose. That choreography is called the vinyāsa count.
When we start to look at a numbered count, we are talking about using a number to describe the movement of the body from position A to position B. Neither A or B is the vinyāsa. The movement from A to B is the vinyāsa and it is either associated with an inhalation or an exhalation. Arguably then, if you did the same exact poses in the same order two days in a row, and held each pose for the same amount of breaths, then you would take the same number of breaths in your yoga practice on both days. Again, this is an ideal. Practically speaking, it’s nearly impossible to actually achieve this for an entire practice.
An example of the vinyāsa count
For instance, if we take sun salutation A as an example, when we inhale and raise our arms, that is the first vinyāsa. When we exhale and fold forward, that is the second vinyāsa. Then we inhale and look up for the third vinyāsa. Then we exhale and step or jump back into chaturanga for the fourth vinyāsa. That’s followed by moving into upward dog on an inhale, which is the fifth vinyāsa. Then we transition into downward dog while exhaling for the sixth vinyāsa.
In this version of the sun salutation, we hold downward dog for five breaths, which we don’t count as part of the vinyāsa numbers because we consider downward dog to be the state of the asana. The state of the asana is not part of our count even though it is part of the sun salutation. (You can see how this could get confusing!)
On the seventh vinyāsa we inhale to step or jump forward to the front of our mat and on the eighth vinyāsa we exhale and fold forward. With our next inhale we raise our arms again for the ninth vinyāsa, then exhale to bring our arms back down to our sides for samasthiti, which doesn’t have a number assigned to it. So the “official” count for sun salutation A in the Ashtanga practice is nine vinyāsas.
Why use a vinyāsa count?
I often tell students that the important part of learning the count in Ashtanga yoga is not just memorizing a numbering system. What we take away from practicing with the vinyāsa count is much more important. We account for every inhalation and exhalation, but we don’t associate every inhalation or exhalation with a number. As a result, it can be confusing to learn the “correct” vinyāsa count. Instead, I focus on the result of what we create by knowing the count or at least, where the inhalations and exhalations are supposed to be.
Control your breathing
Using a count in your practice makes you accountable for every breath you take. As a result, this means that you are taking control of your breath and matching it to movement. If you need many more breaths than are assigned by the count, then that’s a place where you might want to look closer at why. If you find that you struggle with moving at the pace of the vinyāsa count on many poses, then it might be worth putting some more effort into smoothing and relaxing your breath in order to maintain something closer to the count without ending up with a deficit of breath. Practicing this way helps you create efficiency in your breath and movement practice.
Object of concentration
The vinyāsa count is also an object of concentration. It’s a place to focus your attention. Using the vinyāsa count focuses the mind on the breath and/or the count itself. Less distraction is good! If you’re holding your attention internally on which count you are on, then you’re not allowing your mind to drift off. When you start thinking about what you’ll have for breakfast or what you’re doing at work later in the day, you can bring your attention back to the vinyāsa count.
Can we ever practice perfectly with “the count?”
It’s important to remember that the vinyāsa count is an ideal in Ashtanga yoga, not something we may ever perfect. There may be good reasons why we need extra breaths in addition to the prescribed count to get into or out of a pose. You may need to take more time to safely and intelligently get into or out of some postures. Half-lotus is a great example where issues with your knees may dictate that you need to move more slowly.