“So, Vinyasa, I hear youse ain’t been doing your meditation. Is dis true?”
We modern Western yogis tend to use the term “vinyasa” to describe a sequence of linked, whole-body movements: tadasana, arms up, uttanasana, jump back to adho mukha svanasana, maybe jump to trikonasana, bend the front knee to transition to parsvakonasana, then virabhadrasana II, then virabhadrasana I, and so on. (There exist multitudinous variations.)
So “vinyasa” implies movement. But exactly what is moving, what is flowing? Is it only the gross body and its limbs, taken largely? Remember that blood flows, the breath flows, the mind flows its endless stream of thoughts, the emotions flow along sweeping “us” before them. And according to the old yoga texts, prana is forever flowing through its proper channels, the nadis.
Large fast movements blind us to most of these subtle inner workings of the body-mind, as the originators of hatha yoga already knew. The old-time way was a practice of stillness, not of movement. As far as we can tell from the old texts, traditionally the asanas were conceived of and practiced as separate, fixed postures. The practitioner would assume a posture, hold it for a while, then release that posture and take another one, hold that one for awhile, and so on. Each pose was done independently and apart from any other pose, and there was no real attempt to link them together in the modern sense.
The old-timers wanted to touch the deep, clear truth in each unique situation, in whatever plant, animal or human configuration they could imagine. This reflects their concern with the unmoving Real Self and the unchanging nature of Reality as they saw it, rather than the vagaries and accidents of history or personality. They weren’t interested in “self-expression” as we would put it (or in “evolution” or “progress”). They wanted to get at a truth that was stable and reliable. As Patanjali says (in various translations) “Yoga is the cessation of the turnings of thought. When thought ceases, the spirit stands in its true identity as observer to the world.” Or, “Yoga is to still the patterning of consciousness. Then pure awareness can abide in its very nature.”
Also, when the old yogis used the phrase vinyasa, they seem to have implied something like learning the practices in an orderly, cumulative way over a long period of time. So you would be introduced to certain ideas and practices according to your readiness and experience, asked to work with those for a while (maybe a very long while, maybe your whole life), then given further practices to add to your daily regimen, and so on, and to slowly grow in your understanding. You were learning to hold things together for years and decades at a time.
It seems to me that in its most lasting sense the word vinyasa means to unite the body, the breath, and the mind in the present, to bring them together in this very moment and to reconnect this passing body-mind with the eternal now.
We might be better off practicing our hatha yoga again, in this age-old sense, as antidote to our over-heated modern times, where we are constantly encouraged never to slow down, to confuse whim and impulse for considered judgement, and where any action no matter how ill-conceived is deemed good just because it is “doing something”.
Maybe, starting today, we could begin practicing again as a way to overcome our impulse to act, and instead remember to slow down, to become still, and at last simply to be. As we mature and ripen in our understanding, it is natural that we should begin to withdraw our ambitions from the more external pursuits and profits of youth, and begin to cultivate a quieter and deeper power. As our legs, which have carried us so far over this earth, and our arms, which have hefted so many of life’s delicious burdens, begin to lose their strength and elasticity, then, freed as well from their calamities and clamor, we might begin to hear.
Don’t wait until you’re old. Start today.