I have been spending the month of August exploring the style of yoga known as Viniyoga. I was first introduced to this method through the work of T.K.V. Desikachar. As the son of one of the greatest yogis, Krishnamacharya, Desikachar has carried down his father’s teachings in a very comprehensive yet practical manner.
In his book, “The Heart of Yoga“, Desikachar addresses the importance of adaptation and customization in yoga. The fundamental principle of the Viniyoga tradition is that an individual should begin from his/her own starting point. From there, a student is directed to develop a practice with techniques designed to promote self-awareness.
Focusing on the Breath
Viniyoga’s main position is that the breath and movement should be linked. While many forms of hatha yoga reference the breath, it is the repetition and rhythm of coordinating the movement and breath that is key to Viniyoga. In Desikachar’s words, “The breath is the link between the outer and inner body. If we are distracted, we lose control of our breathing. It is only by bringing body, breath and mind into unison that we realize the true quality of an asana.”
By tuning into a specific variation of a pose, one can achieve a distinct awareness and create a personal objective for the posture. For instance, in Uttanasana or Standing Forward Bend, if you want to stretch the backs of the legs, simply keep your knees straight in the pose. If you wish to go deeper, elevate your toes and the ball mounds of the feet. Conversely, if you feel some sensitivity in the lower back or want to work on lengthening the back muscles, perform the pose with bent knees. You can also choose to do Ardha Uttanasana (Half Uttanasana) and avoid folding all the way down to fully extend the back body.
Altering the Tempo
The pace of a pose can be influenced by how quickly or slowly you move in or out of it. For example, the Seated Forward Bend, Pashimottanasana, can either be performed as one single movement of folding over during exhalation. Or, it can be broken down into several parts:
- Inhale & lift the arms and torso upwards.
- Exhale into the forward bend.
- Inhale & lengthen halfway up.
- Hold the half lift and the breath (if appropriate).
- Exhale and extend back into the full forward movement.
- Inhale back to the original starting point.
Switching Your Attention
For the advanced practitioner, it is useful to be able to shift your awareness from one area of the body to another. Again, let’s use the example of Pashimottanasana or Seated Forward Bend. On Monday, as you fold forward, you may want to draw your attention to the lift in your chest and length of your torso. Repeating the posture on Wednesday, it’s possible to switch your focus entirely by connecting with the downward movement of the hips and legs to ground and stabilize.
By customizing the breath, form, tempo and attention in a particular posture, you can create an individualized practice that has more meaning and value to you.
I hope you will incorporate some of Viniyoga’s principles into your own practice. Whether you are a beginning or advanced student, self-observation is what defines the system of yoga. It teaches us to provide what is appropriate for our bodies at specific moments in time.
“There is the practice of yoga of the body, mind and atma- always fruitful, and it gives to each through practice what he seeks.” -Krishnamacharya
In addition to the “Heart of Yoga”, there is a wealth of information on the practice of Viniyoga in Gary Kraftsow’s “Yoga for Wellness” and, for more details on the physical aspects, try Leslie Kaminoff’s book, “Yoga Anatomy“.