Being a Yoga Innovator: Building Your Own Yoga Flow

Yoga Flow:  A Fun Way to Practice Your Own Yoga

Developing your own yoga flows can be a fun, active, and creative way to bring yourself to your yoga mat every day.  But before you do, you may want to know a little about the semantics, benefits, pitfalls, and guiding principles for working with yoga in flow.

man and instructor standing side bend xsmallWhat is a Yoga Flow?

Yoga poses strung together in certain ways are called flows, or, in Sanskrit, vinyasa (from Wikipedia, accessed July 17 2013, “nyasa” meaning “to place” and “vi” meaning “in a special way”).  I’ve always thought of vinyasas as poses joined together by the breath, but this is an oversimplification.  I like Maty Ezraty’s definition in a Yoga Journal forum for yoga teachers:

Vinyasa means a gradual progression or a step-by-step approach that systematically and appropriately takes a student from one point and safely lands them at the next point. It is sometimes described as the “breathing system,” or the union of breath and movement that make up the steps.

Key words in Maty Ezraty’s definition are “step-by-step”, “systematically”, “appropriately”, and “safely”.

I’d like to propose a simple methodology for those of you who have not spent much time flowing, and for others of you who may be looking for a fresh approach.  But before I do, let me give a little background on some of the more commonly-expounded approaches to vinyasa.

Common Yoga-Flow “Rules”

Purists typically insist on adherence to any of a number of rules when practicing vinyasa.  Over decades, and even centuries, yoga lineages have developed specific ways of working with poses in sequence.  Here are some examples of such rules:

  • A certain sequence links all new parts of a flow.  An example is the vinyasa used in Astanga yoga (power yoga) in sun salutations (surya namaskar).  Traditionally, this vinyasa includes
    • high plank,
    • low plank (chaturanga dandasana),
    • cobra (bhujangasana) or upward-facing dog (urdhva mukha svanasana) and
    • downward dog (adho mukha svanasana)
    • Specific symbols traditionally are used when moving in certain ways or endeavoring to cultivate special qualities.  Mudras, or hand gestures, are associated with specific body parts and are thought to represent particular characteristics.  An example of this is Anjali mudra, or hands-in-prayer position, which conveys a deep reverence and is thought to bring together (or “yoke”, the meaning of the root word of yoga, “yuj”) left and right, masculine and feminine, essentially denoting connection with divinity.
    • A definitive type of breath assists the practitioner in staying with the practice; amongst other things, it helps to prevent the mind from straying (boredom), twarts anticipatory thinking while moving, and encourages steadfastness while maintaining difficult postures.  The most common of these is ujjayi, or victory, breath.
    • The gaze is directed in certain ways in specific poses, this is called dristhi.  A common example is employing Nabi Chakra Drishti, or laughingly, navel-gazing, while in downward-facing dog.

An exhaustive discussion of the background and various theories of vinyasa yoga is beyond my scope; in fact, entire books have been written about it.  But, by now, you have seen that it is not as basic as many people think.

Benefits and Pitfalls of Flow Yoga

There is so much benefit to practicing in vinyasa style.  Most obviously, practicing consecutive poses builds agni, or purifying heat.  This can, but not necessarily, be translated as (semi)aerobic exercise, or even internal cleansing.  Repeating postures and progressively intensifying the variations develops strength, flexibility and endurance.  The busy mind is kept from straying and becomes more focused.  Difficult poses are approached by gradually incorporating required elements into the flow. Breathing consciously in a regular, long and deep fashion keeps the autonomic nervous system stable.  Symbolic energetic, psychological and / or spiritual gestures, sounds and imagery can be incorporated, too, bringing multiple faculties into the practice so it is even more efficacious.

But, much can go wrong in a flow practice, as well.  People with mobility issues, even as minor as tightness in hips, shoulders or wrists, may compensate inappropriately, and with repetition, injury can result.  Attention to alignment in individual positions is sacrificed to a focus on movement, breath, and possibly dristhi, mudra or mantra.  This minimal focus on alignment is of concern to a wide variety of potential practitioners, from the novice with limited body awareness to the athlete who may have developed deeply disguised compensations over the course of a number of years.  People with therapeutic concerns such as but not limited to high blood pressure, osteoporosis, or hernia, may find that it is difficult to transition smoothly from one pose to another while keeping themselves safe.  Further, practitioners may lose sight of the point of the practice, union; there can be a tendency to approach practice rotely or, in other cases, competitively.  And, although this may not concern people who are practicing for physical benefit, yogis can become habituated and even addicted to the intensity of sensation, the stability of the ujjayi breath, the continual movement.

Foundational Considerations to Building Your Own Flows

So how does one start to build one’s own yoga flow?  Remember that even in the most established of yoga traditions, someone experimented with the practice to come up with the “rules”.  After you experiment, some or all of those guidelines might stand, or you may come up with a new way to practice!  Here are some foundational considerations:

  1. Approach the practice with an attitude of respectful curiousity.  Be conscious of how you feel.  Drop judgement and see what happens.  This could be your intention for the practice:  “I courageously approach my practice with non-judgemental curiousity.”
  2. Start with a simple and accessible pose.  What are the physical qualities of this position?  Can you bring a long and slow breath to this place?  How does this pose feel energetically?  Emotionally?
  3. Before you move, decide on a guiding methodology.  You may want to start out with a plan of poses and even how you think you might get from one to the next.  But unless you have done the flow before, this is going to be an experiment.  So what method is going to guide your explorations?  Here are some options:
    1. Intuitive Exploration Intuitively, how are you being guided to move?  Perhaps the next place to be is not a different pose but a different expression of the same pose.  For example, if you are standing in tadasana or samastiti (mountain pose), perhaps you are intrigued by the thought of lifting your heels to stand on the balls of your feet.  Or your arms feel a magnet drawing them up toward the sky.
    2. Physiological Experimentation Consider physiology:  if your hip is extended right now, what would it be like to move it into flexion?  Or more extension?  What would have to stabilize in your body?  What needs to relax?
    3. Pinnacle Pose Perhaps there is a “pinnacle pose” to which you aspire.  Whether or not you achieve that pose today, from where you are now, what needs to happen in your body / mind / soul to eventually move you to that pose?  For example, if you are standing and you eventually want to do “wheel” or upward-facing bow pose (urdhva mukha dhanurasana), your front body is going to require some lengthening (including arms over the head and hip flexors stretched), your wrists some flexing, your core some stabilizing.  Cultivating heat in the body and courage in the mind likely will be of assistance.  What is the next, least difficult pose you can do that will move you in that direction?  What image and intention can you bring to your practice?
    4. Mood Management Or perhaps there is a mood or energy you want to cultivate.  If you are down or lethargic, meet your mood with gentle undulations and stretches, gradually amping up the required energy and effort over the course of your practice.  Or if you are very anxious, practice energetically with a view toward taking the practice gradually to a more grounded and calm place.
    5. Transition Innovation Maybe the focus of your flow practice today is to see how many cool ways you can invent for moving between two, three, or more of your favourite poses.  Experiment with how they feel while moving, with how prepared they leave you for the next pose, the energy they create, how well the breath flows as you transition.
    6. As you move, be present in your body.  Feel the sensations you are creating.  Breathe deeply and slowly and notice what it feels like to breathe.  Let the transition between positions be every bit as intriguing as the poses themselves.
    7. Question yourself in poses, as well as during transitions, “Am I steady?  Am I at ease?”  The balance of effort and ease is a hallmark of yoga practice.
    8. Start to notice whether the delineation between poses and transitions is as obvious as at first.  You may find that the difference starts to blur.  This is an insight, an embodied philosophical insight that may present itself to you.   Absolute gift!

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