notes toward vinyasa as a meditation practice

May 26, 2013 in buddhism, meditation, yoga

Vinyasa yoga, where we flow between poses (asana) synchronizing movement with breath, is sometimes described as a “moving meditation”, and many people are drawn to the physical practice of yoga partly because they find that flowing through a vinyasa class is an easier way to relax and quiet the mind than traditional sitting meditation. I think this is one of the reasons why asana-based yoga is so popular right now, as much as any of its other health and fitness benefits. My own classes certainly emphasize this aspect of asana, linking movement with breath in such as way as to cultivate states of energetic clarity, brightness, relaxation, and ease similar to those cultivated in stillness. But the practices of movement-oriented and stillness-oriented meditations are still quite different, and the differences haven’t been precisely defined to my satisfaction, nor the possible differences in the mindbody states that result. What specific elements makes an asana practice meditation? And does asana-as-meditation hold the potential for inner transformation the way traditional meditation does?

Neither classical nor tantric yoga texts are much help for us here. Classical yogas like those of Patañjali, the Buddha, and the Bhagavad Gita all emphasize stillness-oriented meditation practices, with movement acknowledged (like the walking meditation alluded to in the Foundations of Mindfulness sutta, in the section on mindfulness of the body in postures) but clearly presented as secondary to sitting. If these classical texts are our guide, especially Patañjali’s Yoga Sutra – which is still used as the core text for many modern yogis who descend from Krishnamacharya’s lineage (AshtangaViniyoga, and Iyengar styles) — we can assert that asana is meditation only because asana refers literally to the seated meditation posture, which is assumed to be still. So they don’t help us in our desire to call our practice of vinyasa a meditation.

The later hatha yoga texts that begin to include other postures besides sitting, like the 17th century Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Gheranda Samhita also do not include instructions on moving through asana, and most of the postures are seated variations intended to serve the practice of mudra (esoteric/energetic gestures) and bandha (energetic engagement points in the body). In original hatha yoga, the goal of physical practice is purification of the body and opening of the energetic channels (nadi) in order to awaken and impel (hatha literally means “force”) kundalini shakti, the “coiled” energy that sleeps in the pelvis, to move upward into the central channel (sushumna) of the body, ascending through the chakras to the crown of the head and back down. This energetic goal is associated with success in meditation (raja yoga), and the practices that cause it are mostly performed in stillness.

Movement through asana first appears in a form we might recognize in the work of the great yoga innovator Krishnamacharya of Mysore, and can be seen in his 1934 text, Yoga Makaranda, which refers to multiple vinyasa for every asana, which describe both the pathways in and out of each pose and linking poses that can be strung together in sequence. This linking then manifests in very different ways in the teaching of his students Pattabhi Jois (in the Ashtanga series’) and TKV Desikachar (Viniyoga), who uses vinyasa to refer to using the breath to move into and out of any given pose. In my class we do these “one-breath vinyasa” often, and I gratefully source my use of them to my teacher Alice Joanou, and her teaching of vinyasa krama. Krishnamacharya sourced these vinyasa to his Tibetan teacher, Ramamohana Brahmachari, and to two probably non-existent texts, the Yoga Korunta and Yoga Rahasya, products of Krishnamacharya’s imagination. As Mark Singleton’s scholarship in The Yoga Body makes abundantly clear, flowing vinyasa as the basis for the Astanga Yoga system and thus our modern vinyasa styles was essentially Krishnamacharya’s invention.

Krishnamacharya’s vinyasa are fabulous, but we’re still not at a fully-realized vinyasa-as-meditation practice. So like him, and many of the innovators of modern yoga, we are essentially on our own here, creating a new hybrid practice that serves our spiritual, emotional, and physical needs. What I want to offer, because practice like this seems to serve my students and myself (postmodern American middle-class urban yogis) very well, is a coherent understanding of how a yogi can use a series of practices in the context of a flowing asana style to focus the mind, cultivate a bright, clear awareness, and balance and increase available energy. These three goals are synonymous with three broad types of meditation we find in the yoga traditions: unification of mind (samatha or samadhi), mindfulness (vipassana or inquiry), and subtle body (sukshma rupa) or energy-oriented (kundalini or pranayama) meditations.

After a recent retreat (the final retreat in the Spirit Rock Mindfulness Yoga and Meditation Training program), I jotted down a series of steps or aspects of practice that I use to bring a full meditative approach to asana. It’s a possible map for a single (very full!) practice but also just a list of methods and contemplations to bring in to your yoga practice in whatever way works for you. The stages go back and forth between physical and mental actions, and this weaving back and forth between body and mind is central to mindful or meditative vinyasa.

Asana as meditation

0. Arriving

  • Grounding attention in the body
  • Deepening full-body breath: viloma, ujjayi, and sama vrtti pranayama
  • Opening the mandala: chanting, remembering intention (sankalpa)

The opening to practice (sadhana), whether at home or in class, is as important as the poses and techniques we do “in” the practice. Set up a clean, clear space, with everything you need nearby — clock, props, water, clothes, music — so that you can drop fully into the zone. Turn off the phone! I love the ritual chants that open a mandala of practice. (Here’s the chants I use – mostly from the Śaiva yoga tradition with one Buddhist homage added in. Feel free to use or modify.) Again and again they remind me that we are engaged in something real, something that touches the spirit deeply, not just stretching and strengthening the body. For me, the ritual of chanting sets the whole practice in motion, and even a single OM is good. Om. Here I am. I am here. I am (the great mantra Aham: “I am”).

From here, moving into a flow of poses. This list isn’t about what poses we do in what order, but a series of contemplations to bring into any pose or sequence of poses. My own vinyasa practice is slow and steady, emphasizing breath awareness and fullness over complexity of physical shape, and brings these foci into play:

1. Safety-oriented alignment

  • Organize the limbs for joint safety and stability
  • Feel the whole body in the pose

2. Steadiness of breath

  • Pranayama oriented toward full-body breathing
  • Amplify and lengthen the breath
  • Feel the beginning, middle, and end of each breath
  • Continuity of breath awareness

In a way, these first two steps are enough! The main purpose of alignment in a meditative flow is to protect the body from injury. We bring the body into a shape in a way that feels stable and sustainable, not creating extra stress — particularly on joints, and then can attend to other aspects of the experience once we know we’re safe in the pose. This release of concern is only possible when we know basic alignment guidelines well enough that we can trust ourselves to take the pose confidently, knowing that we can handle whatever variation we’re choosing to attempt. Exploring new and risky poses is fun but at these first stages will take us out of the specific meditative flow I’m describing.

Once alignment is good enough for safety, we let breath rise to foreground in awareness, and use a full breath to bring energy and attention into the whole body. Amplification of the breath, tracking the full cycle of the breath, and continuity of awareness are the first skillful means (upaya) here.

3. Refining alignment

  • Alignment that supports a fuller breath
  • Alignment that opens energetic channels (nadi/cakra)
  • Bringing awareness to sensation at alignment points
  • Deepening in stretch or strength only if breath is full and continuous

4. Refining breath

  • Awareness of length, depth, and effort being applied with each breath
  • Sending breath to specific (sticky, dark, hungry, ready, joyous, spacious…) parts of the body
  • Balancing the effort being applied in the pose, with breath as guide — not too much force, not too little
  • Full-body breathing: feel the whole form, all at once, breathing
  • Extending continuity of breath awareness — feel many breaths in a row without distraction

These two are refinements of the first two. Basically: move through poses with a relaxed, bright mind, and a full, steady breath. Keep the mind in feeling contact with the breathing body. Breath so that you can feel the whole body all at once, not as parts. Let your movements be graceful and steady. These first four steps emphasize the meditative practice of integration, or concentration (dharana, the preparation for samadhi) as we endeavor to settle the mind using the full-body breath as primary focus.

5. Feel the whole body

  • Sensing the body as one unified field, rather than as parts
  • Continuity of awareness through movement “transitions”
  • (There are no “transitions”. Every movement is part of the pose.)
  • Seeing the flow of poses as revealing impermanence (anicca/anitya) or constant change
  • Notice that the perception of the body as “parts” often arises when there’s strong sensation
  • Feeling pleasant, neutral, and unpleasant sensations (vedana), and noting preference (grasping/resisting)
  • Bringing in any Dharma inquiry as a lens through which to experience the moving body

6. Breath, energy, and awareness move together

  • Orienting breath around the central channel (sushumna)
  • Working with breath and awareness to cultivate and direct energy (shakti) through the whole body
  • Breath awareness in vinyasa easily gives rise to pranayama and bandha
  • Orient toward subtle pleasure (sukha) in both body and mind

These two steps contain the heart of asana practice as meditation for me. Using the flow of poses to both increase and channel energy — the traditional hatha yoga focus — AND steady the mind (dharana) through continuous breath awareness (pranayama). When both of these are bright, the mind can turn toward mindfulness – seeing change (anicca), stress (dukkha) in the play of preferences (how vedana leads to tanha), the nature of the body as elements (tattva), sense-impressions (indriya), or any other meditative inquiry. The key to being able to engage in this kind of inquiry is in the vinyasa style itself: the mind must be able to attend primarily to other things besides the arranging of the body in space. The repetitive nature of vinyasa flows, containing less hyper-detailed alignment exploration, the absence of demonstrations, partner poses, and other social activities in class, and the emphasis on breath continuity over acrobatics all will support a meditative flow — even at a fast or vigorous pace.

I want to acknowledge that the inclusion of mindfulness or inquiry here is a mashup, bringing a Buddhist orientation to a hatha yoga practice descended from tantra, which had somewhat different aims. Most of the Indian yogic schools describe the cultivation of states of integrated awareness and energy that lead to power or malleability of the mind, seeing clearly, and freedom from suffering/stress (dukkha), though they describe these qualities using many different frameworks. Beyond that roughly common purpose, many schools arose presenting variations on how this freedom is to be sought, and variations on what the result of practice looks and feels like. The hatha yoga texts emphasized the purification of energy channels (nadi) and the arousing of subtle energy (kundalini) over inquiry into the causes of suffering, recognizing that powerful energy in the bodymind itself can open the yogi into states of ease and clarity from which the work of clear seeing can unfold. Buddhist and classical yoga texts, on the other hand, emphasized training the mind in concentration (samadhi) and awareness (sati, mindfulness), and then turning that powerful mind toward the causes of suffering in order to uproot them. This process always releases energy in the body (called piti, “rapture”, in the Pali Buddhist texts), but that energy was seen as secondary to the processes of unification of mind and inquiry.

Many teachers, as I do, now use a hybrid Buddhist-hatha framework in yoga instead of a fully hatha/kundalini orientation because the practice of mindfulness is a more accessible and valuable tool for postmodern western laypeople than the intensive energetic process demanded by medieval hatha yoga. Of course, these aren’t the only approaches to asana out there, and my focus is maybe too text and tradition nitpicky! Most yoga classes I’ve taken, around the Bay Area scene at least, seem to hold as their philosophical orientation full engagement with the physical body in a way that is life-affirming and personal growth-oriented, with emotional and energetic opening invoked as an important part of the process. I hear little talk of liberation, renunciation, equanimity, or concentration, and more of self-acceptance, love, playfulness, vitality, strength, and physical facility. Though I critique modern posture-based yoga for orienting too little toward the traditional fruits of practice, like liberation, and wonder how deep the benefits of our asana practice go, I do see that the practice as we’ve developed it has wonderful results for many people, and I still happily teach it. Really, it’s the same in any wisdom tradition. A few inspired nuns, monks, and laypeople do intensive practice and deeply clarify the heartmind, and almost everyone else does devotional (bhakti) practice, gives donations (dana), uses the community as a social and family support, and generally keeps the religious culture flowing. This appropriate social balance is true in our yoga communities as well.

So… once the practitioner is established in vinyasa as a meditation such that they’re comfortable with steps 6 and 7, there’s the possibility to bring in any other contemplations. Psychological inquiry has a place here, including investigations of self-worth, self-love, and judgment, and many traditional Dharma contemplations, like those in the Foundations of Mindfulness: the body as nature, movement, elements, sense-impressions, impermanence/death, feeling and preference, mind states, hindrances, Factors of Awakening, Noble Truths, or any of the core reflections of a yoga system, either classical or tantric. Once the mind/heart is steady, the body in movement is a rich and available field for Dharma inquiry. These further steps then integrate the breath and awareness focus with the energetic cultivation central to the hatha yoga system, and turn the practice inward toward stillness and traditional sitting meditation.

7. Flowing between movement and stillness

  • Stillness (kaya sthiram) between sequences to feel energy, vibration, presence, mind states
  • Applying Wise Effort (samma-vayama) in the flow to balance energy, mindfulness, and concentration
  • Continuity of awareness between stillness and movement

8. Deepen or complicate asana only with full, steady breath

  • Bringing in kriya or strongly vigorous asana for deeper energetic arousal
  • Steadiness of breath as the requirement for introducing advanced or acrobatic asana
  • Focusing on the energetic qualities of asana with emphasis on nadi and cakra

9. Turning toward stillness

  • In longer holds, bringing concentration, pranayama or inquiry to the foreground
  • Deep release of muscular effort in asana, whether moving or still
  • Softening the breath and releasing effort
  • As desired: longer holds, restoratives, and savasana as doorways to stillness

This kind of meditative vinyasa prepares us very well for deeper pranayama and meditation, and often when we take stillness after a practice that focuses on breath and awareness in movement in this way, the steadiness in the room is tremendous. Pranayama that tends toward stillness, particularly kumbhaka with bandha, is particularly juicy to bring in at this point, as is simple sitting meditation, either single-object (dharana/ekagrata) or changing-object (sati, mindfulness) practices.

Vinyasa as meditation still, in my own practice, is not a replacement for sitting in stillness. The states of inward-focus (pratyahara) and integration (samadhi) that I find possible in moving asana are nowhere near as calm or steady as those I can find in sitting, though the energy flow in my body is generally greater, and the stillness often more dramatic. What I do find is that meditative vinyasa gives rise to states of very substantial inner stillness that are immediately palpable when I stop moving. This is why pausing in the flow is so important for this style of practice. The extraordinary brightness that arises in the bodymind through steady vinyasa, when taken into sitting meditation or formal pranayama can be a very accessible doorway to sustained meditation in stillness.

After all that… we return to stillness.

*

Asana-focused yogis, if you play with these suggestions, let me know what you find! Is it different from your usual yoga? What’s the result of attending in these different ways? Meditation-focused yogis, does this framework invite you into movement-based practice in a way that supports you to continue cultivating the states you know from stillness? How are they different when approached through movement in this way?

These notes describe many of the themes my own classes work with, and aren’t original to me but a compilation of techniques and orientations I’ve found helpful from my teachers in many traditions. They are born out of the same desires that seem to have motivated yogis for thousands of years: the desire to be happy in this life, and to find methods of practice that lead to that happiness and the deepest liberation possible. If you find them useful, bring these guidelines into your practice, and refine them for yourself as you explore. Vinyasa as yoga practice is less than 100 years old, and in our own lifetimes and studios has received much of its development. In the absence of historical validation for its efficacy, it is up to those of us who love it to find our own way. May we each find that which gives rise to the deepest clarity and peace, and cultivate it to its fullest potential.