Have Niche Yoga Styles Taken It Too Far?
What does yoga look like when no one is looking?
The answer to the question depends on who we are watching. What yoga looks like can vary widely, especially because there are 4 main kinds of yoga: The yoga of intelligence (jnana), the yoga of devotion (bhakti), the yoga of service (karma), and hatha yoga which is the one we think of when we see people doing downward dog. Yoga for one person may look like studying scripture and attending dharma talks. While for someone else, it’s doing service to their community without expectation of getting anything in return.
For another individual, yoga is chanting and repeating the same kriya for an hour every single day. Someone doing an hour-long physical yoga class, breathing, resting at the end, and saying “OM” might be more of what we’ve come to recognize yoga as today. So whether sitting silently on a cushion for hours or doing plank while drinking a microbrew, we can technically call it yoga.
If you ask someone in the East, someone in the West, someone today, and someone from the past, their answers can vary as widely as the styles of yoga offered. So is any of the yoga we see taking it too far?
Exploring the Yogic Path
Is ‘fun and done’ yoga still yoga?
People have short attention spans. Multi-tasking is the norm. We are accustomed to 15-second commercials, next day delivery, 18-minute educational Ted Talks, and seven-minute workouts. We want things quickly and we want results now. Oh, dopamine! We want to click on one tab to bring us to another and then we get lost down a rabbit hole on the internet, rather than complete one task, we get lost in the shuffle. This spastic and brain-draining way of using our attention lacks depth, true focus, and the willingness to delay gratification. Delaying gratification comes with a number of benefits. That is why a lifelong practice of yoga can be ultimately gratifying with dedication over a lifespan. So is there value in the ‘fun and done’ niche yoga world?
The short attention span culture we live in craves a constant stream of entertainment and novelty. We want things catered to our exact interests and we want it now. More than 36 million Americans are practicing yoga (source: Harvard Health Publishing). Because we are used to being consumers in this strange new world, we can expect there to be yoga to meet our exact demands. Therefore, it makes sense that we provide many kinds of yoga that feel fun, trendy, and Insta-worthy. But if we cannot take these experiences for fun and then integrate them into a regular yoga practice, then perhaps we are taking it too far. On the other hand, if we can draw new people into yoga, bring joy and provide much needed in-person socialization, culture, and entertainment, we are providing a tremendous value that people are willing to show up for it.
I have to admit I have scoffed at goat yoga and rolled my eyes at beer yoga. These new trends in yoga popped up after others that have been around and once seemed unconventional.
SUP yoga is yoga on paddleboards, yoga-pilates fusion combines two forms of exercise and is less meditative and more exercise-focused, and chair yoga allows people to do poses while supported by chairs. These different offerings became the norm to give athletes, the elderly, and everyone in between an entry point into yoga. They have become fixtures in our modern yoga world. And now, niche classes such as yoga at art museums and breweries get people’s attention and match their interests. These special event yoga classes are the SUP and vinyasa yoga of today, drawing huge crowds, big money, and hopefully helping people.
Individuals that may otherwise skip yoga are drawn to these classes. Some of the attendees may be newcomers to yoga. These trending classes may also attract regular yogis that typically go to the same classes with the same instructors, reinvigorating their enthusiasm for yoga and connecting them to others. Perhaps the novelty keeps it feeling fresh and new while giving practitioners a way to socialize face-to-face.
The end result of all these offerings is people experiencing yoga. And if it brings them into themselves, facilitating a march down a healing path, even if it isn’t traditional, then there is a benefit. The caveat being that the new yogi also goes beyond the fun to truly experience yoga as it is designed. If people are only coming to yoga for the fun, then it is being stripped down to an unrecognizable form. After all, the poses being taught at these events are only one of 8 limbs of the yoga path, and hatha yoga is only one of the 4 pillars of yoga. There is more to experience and more to study.
How to Stay True to Yoga at a Specialty Class:
Connect to your needs and meet them on the mat.
Remember to breathe.
Pause to experience gratitude.
Feel your body.
Notice your surroundings.
Relish in a quiet moment of prayerful meditation.
Thank your teacher.
Intro to The Limbs of Yoga
Everyone Has a Specialty
As more and more people become certified to teach yoga, the business model of teaching studio classes can not pay the bills for everyone. For economic reasons newcomers and veterans teachers alike have been forced to think outside the box. They want to cater to people’s lifestyles and interests. Therefore yoga at museums, on hotel poolsides, and on surfboards makes financial sense.
There is a desire to tailor yoga to instructor expertise. As a result of more people attending yoga trainings, different specialities are popping up based on the professional and academic backgrounds of graduates that seem to create something entirely new. Therefore, with a combination of a wide variety of practitioner interest and ability, an economic need for novel class offerings, and the diverse expertise of instructors, we can continue to expect new yoga fusion cocktails to be mixed up. And should we drink them up?
It is a personal decision for each yogi to make regarding the style, frequency, and commitment we make to yoga. Power to the people that enjoy teaching or attending large public classes on a farm or in a microbrewery. Still, the shift we seek from yoga will only happen from regular, dedicated practice of integrity. Yoga can look like a lot of things. We can choose from such a wide variety of yoga. So then the question must shift from, ‘has yoga gone too far? to ‘how do we want to feel as a result of our practice?’It is then we can make an informed decision. It is then we can be empowered by choice.
What is Vinyasa Yoga?
The first yoga class I ever took was listed on the schedule as “Vinyasa Flow.” Even then, with little to no understanding of what the word vinyasa meant, I remember feeling charmed by its sound. As I continued going to classes, I heard this term used in myriad ways and eventually came away with the lay understanding that vinyasa described a sequence of physical poses linked together with breath. It wasn’t until much later, during my first Yoga teacher training, that I became aware of the semantic interpretations of vinyasa. The following cursory introduction, akin to a page from the dictionary, still left much to be desired.
nyasa (v.) to place
vi (prefix) in a special way
vinyas (v.) to put down, deposit, place or lay on, fix in, turn or direct towards
vinyasa (n.) a series; an arrangement, a collection, an arrangement of distinct movements
As objective definitions, these words served me well as an entry point, but the potency of vinyasa did not begin to unfold until I found myself under the tutelage of Tantric devotee, Shiva Rea and Indo-philologist, Christopher Tompkins. Through their personal commitment to source texts, I have come to understand that vinyasa has but a single meaning:
vinyasa (n.) a series of actions performed with clear intention, in purposeful order, to illuminate conscious awareness
Like many Sanskrit sounds and words, any attempt to bring the term vinyasa to life using a foreign language is inevitably deficient; a purely etymological approach will always fall short, not because it is inaccurate, but because it lacks the inherent intimacy of the practice: the layered understanding of vinyasa is experiential and inextricably linked to the vibratory consciousness it describes. Vinyasa is a vehicle of Yoga, a practice of uniting mind, body and spirit through the art of attention and intelligent progression. Before we venture into the “how” and the “why” however, let us first consider the origins of Vinyasa Yoga that support this embodied practice.
Vinyasa Yoga: The Heart of Modern Postural Practice
The Tantric Origins of Vinyasa
Tantra refers to the body-positive spiritual lineage that recognizes universal divinity extant within the individual. Moreover, this divinity is expressed through complementary qualities of Shiva and Shakti, namely latent consciousness and creative flow. In Tantric philosophy, the realization of this absolute truth: that we are divine intelligence, can be attained through embodiment and direct experience, not merely through strict adherence to prescribed restraints and observances.
“Tantra teaches us that there is a unifying continuity between our physical bodies, the activities of our mind and emotions, and all forms of interior awareness.”
When referring to a source text, the word tantra also calls to mind what Lorin Roche eloquently calls, “a tapestry of knowledge weaving together threads of yoga technique.” In his Radiance Sutras, Roche offers the more direct translation as well, “a manual of practices.” It is not clear when the earliest Tantras were written, although this lineage thrived between the 9^th^ and 12^th^ centuries. And from it, some believe, Vinyasa Yoga also emerged.
Mining for Wisdom
As a Sanskrit philologist and Tantric scholar, Christopher Tompkins has spent the better part of the last decade mining source texts for the wisdom of vinyasa and embodied practice; a pilgrimage requested of him by his father who experienced the transformational power of Yoga while battling cancer. Tompkins has methodically uncovered the roots of vinyasa imbued in the earliest Tantras and is now teaching them with poetic clarity for the edification of the global Yoga community. Tompkins has found, universally across an expansive corpus of source texts, a common, innovative sadhana (practice) that, despite changing shape from one lineage to the next, is life-affirming, not life-renouncing. He also describes in an interview with Sutra Journal, “the operative word in the Tantras for this sadhana is usually ‘sequence’ (vinyasa), wherein the ritual liturgy of ‘rites’ (kramas) are the yoga practices comprising it, which must be performed in a specific order.” Vinyasa is at the heart of the earliest postural Yoga practices.
Born of Source Texts
As co-creator of the ‘History of Yoga’ course, curated with Shiva Rea, Tompkins takes painstaking care to distinguish in his teaching between source texts and reference texts. In doing so, he explains that many of the canonical Hatha Yoga texts, such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, are in actuality, reference materials that draw upon earlier Tantric wisdom. Compiled during a time when the sacred feminine was experiencing the first hints of social renunciation, these popularized reference texts omitted or distorted the inherently fluid and feminine Tantric essence of vinyasa, leaving it buried in byzantine source texts which were far more intricate and less immediately accessible. As a result, Vinyasa Yoga appeared to materialize in the age of Krishnamacharya, around the 30’s and 40’s, seemingly unsubstantiated by ancient yogic tradition.
A Corrected Timeline: Closing the Gap between Ancient and Modern Practice
In the absence of a complete examination of innumerable Tantric verses, there have been recent claims suggesting the Vinyasa Yoga practiced by many Westerners was developed not roughly a thousand years ago with the advent of yogic tradition, but much later in the 20th century by Krishnamacharya, supposedly influenced by modern movement modalities like gymnastics. Tompkins rightly disputes this claim with new discoveries of postural sequences and rituals buried inside the early Vinyasa Yoga practiced today.
This is good news for modern Vinyasa Yoga practitioners because it validates our devotion to a “divinely transmitted” and thousand-year vetted practice. With his devout scholarship, Christopher Tompkins has essentially joined the first appearance of vinyasa in Tantric rituals from a thousand years ago to modern Yoga practice.
Vinyasa Yoga: Sacred Cycle and Intelligent Order
How You Do Anything is How You Do Everything
Empirical vinyasa is available to us at all times, from the mundane completion of household chores to the exquisite embrace of someone we love. Our lifetimes are a growing a collection of nows and the way we utilize each gifted moment inexorably shapes our reality. How we do anything is how we do everything, so why not do it in a special way? This is living vinyasa. A process of unifying the outer state with the inner state by completing any sequence of activities in such a way that we experience awareness and connection to source Self. The art of vinyasa is to unearth its potential in our everyday rhythm, be it breathing, speaking, working, eating or sleeping. Below are a few examples of disengaging the all too familiar autopilot and participating in the vinyasa of daily life:
- When you wake up, acknowledge the natural light you see and focus your gaze intentionally on something comforting, a photograph, a plant or someone sleeping beside you. Enjoy a long slow inhale and exhale before rising to a seat at the side of your bed. Cultivate gratitude by silently calling to mind something for which you are thankful. Placing both feet on the floor, feel the support of the ground as you stand. Whisper to yourself, “may I awaken to infinite potential.”
- In preparing a meal, try not to let your mind wander, feel the texture of your food and inhale the aromas. Contemplate the innovative and industrious beings that made this meal possible. Eat slowly while sitting down, avoiding the temptation to multitask. Instead, receive both physical and emotional sustenance by invoking the mantra, “may I be nourished,” throughout your meal.
Order Matters: The Sacred Arc of Vinyasa
“The idea of vinyasa, begin from where you are, go to a point, and come back to where you have to be.”
Vinyasa describes a sequential order of actions that progress according to the three rhythms in nature. That is, the organic arc of vinyasa proceeds from the beginning, through the middle and to the end. Consider, for example, the typical morning vinyasa of bathing and getting dressed. You wouldn’t put on your clothes before getting into the shower just like you wouldn’t towel off while the water was still running. The order is so implicit, we likely don’t even know it exists and yet, the order matters greatly.
Any sequence in life can evoke the qualities of vinyasa when we honor these cyclical rhythms. In the context of Vinyasa Yoga, both on and off the mat, these rhythms are:
- Shrishti (emanation): This is the igniting energy of beginnings and sets the foundation upon which to build any sequence of actions. Critical to initiating any vinyasa is the ability to observe and evaluate where we are at any given moment. Only then can we proceed in the way that best suits our needs, considering where we are starting from and the desired end result. Any time you feel yourself resisting a particular sequence of tasks, consider the mantra, “just begin.” After all, you can’t finish something you haven’t started.
- Sthiti (maintenance): After building momentum, this is the peak of any sequence, the fullest expression of actions. This phase of the cycle yields the sustaining energy that promotes growth and continuous expansion beyond the present cycle. When in this rhythm, I suggest using the mantra taught to me by Chuck Miller, “don’t stop, but don’t struggle.”
- Samhara (resorption): Completion is perhaps the most important rhythm in vinyasa and it is often the easiest to forget. In a culture of urgency, time scarcity and chronic hurry, we often neglect the skillful completion of tasks because we are too eager to move on. By honoring the completing energy of vinyasa, we retain what we need to support subsequent actions and dissolve any residue that might become a hindrance. Invite the mantra, “I surrender and start anew.”
Synchronize with Spanda
One of the most emotive definitions of vinyasa, and the one that resonates with me personally, comes from Shiva Rea’s “Tending the Heart Fire.”
“Vinyasa in its original meaning from early Tantras is understood as the “sequence of consciousness,” or how life unfolds from spanda: the creative pulse of life.”
Vinyasa requires a willingness to co-create with the universe within the parinama (continually transforming) nature of reality. It is the ultimate ability to “go with the flow,” without losing direction or aim. Vinyasa embodies the water-like quality of adapting to the path of least resistance, responding to obstacles rather than resisting them. In this way, Vinyasa Yoga is what Shiva Rea also describes as an “open system.” This will be covered in more detail in part II of this article, but in summary, it means vinyasa intuits order and action according to organic need.
Vinyasa Yoga: Life Practice
Just as Yoga is more than simply creating shapes with the body, vinyasa is much more than the order in which we place those shapes. From the instantaneous cycle of a single breath to the year-long circumnavigation of the Earth around the Sun, vinyasa permeates all rhythms of the universe, within and without. My hope in sharing this article is that we might first appreciate Vinyasa Yoga from a vantage point off the mat to bring greater awareness to the intrinsic intelligence available in physical practice.