Yoga: The Art Of Stillness In Movement and Movement In Stillness
Vinyasa is a curious word. Translated from the Sanskrit, it can be defined as "putting together," "connection," "order" or "movement." In the yoga world, vinyasa is used in a variety of different and often slightly confusing ways. It is commonly used to describe breath-coordinated transitionary movements into and out of static asanas, the asanas chaturanga dandasana, urdhva mukha svanasana and adho mukha svanasana done sequentially, a linking of asanas in a specific order to create a flowing sequence, or finally, as an umbrella term used to describe any style of yoga or yoga-esque movement that includes some or all of the elements listed above.
As a system of yoga, vinyasa is unique in both its requirement of synchronized breath and movement, and its emphasis on a systematic -- and often difficult – entry into and exit from static postures. Through vinyasa, we’re able to take what would be a collection of postures performed in near-stillness and weave them into a rhythmic process that places equal measure on both movement and stillness. This synchronized breathing and movement is claimed to have benefits on both the physical and psychological level, everything from purificatory sweating to meditative states.
Two particularly insightful comments on the practice and refinement of vinyasa come from an Ashtanga teacher named David Garrigues, via the miracle that is Youtube. The first is an offhand comment David made during an informal talk that was recorded. David was referring to the execution of a particular transition, and said, “The direction you are moving is forward.” The words he uttered as an afterthought hit me like a ton of bricks, and have colored every breath and movement I’ve taken on my yoga mat since. It was not just that one particular transition in question that is a forward movement, but practically every movement in the vinyasa system.
To “jump through” from down dog to a seated position you must jump forward (not up.) To “jump back” from a seated position to chaturanga dandasana you must again move forward. In forward folds, the spine lengthens forwards and upwards, in backward bends the buttock bones lengthen forwards and downwards. Finally, to lift or jump into inversions and arm balances, you don’t move upwards, but instead move forward. This simple shift in perspective of where you are going makes all the difference in the execution and refinement of the ever increasingly difficult vinyasas of Ashtanga Yoga.
What is perhaps even more interesting and peculiar about this constant forward movement is the mental attitude it cultivates. By some miracle of mind-body connection, the repetitive act of forward physical movement allows you to mentally move forward and beyond the things that have held you back in the past. I have often thought that my Ashtanga practice resembles a hamster wheel, since I spend hours endlessly jumping through and jumping back, but never actually get anywhere. The movement and energy is tremendous, but I always end up in the same place, samasthiti, feet planted in the prints they’ve ironed into the threadbare rubber of my sticky mat.
My Iyengar Yoga teacher, Joseph Satlak, once told me that asanas, when done expertly, are not actually static. Looking at the yoga practitioner from the outside, you see the pose as perfect stillness, but inside the practitioner's body there is constant, powerful, and subtle movement: a balancing of opposing muscular contractions so fast and precise they no longer resemble movement from A to B, but instead take on a quality of vibration. This could be described as movement in stillness.
Which brings me to David Garrigues’ second comment. In a talk on learning the third series of Ashtanga Yoga, David advocates really slowing down and refining all of the transitional postures (vinyasas), but especially chaturanga dandasana. He states that the ability to maintain proper alignment and a steady pace of breathing as you progress to more advanced asanas and vinyasas is the difference between maintaining your practice and growing stronger.
For example, during the first few repetitions of Sun Salutation A, it is not terribly difficult to execute a proper and slow chaturanga dandasana, but how about after five rounds of navasana – then what does chaturanga look and feel like? Or entering chaturanaga dandasana from a handstand, or from a legs-behind-the-head pose? Does the alignment start to break down? Does the breathing become fast and jagged? Instead of letting every chaturanga, up dog and down dog blur into one another, can we create a moment of stillness in each? Can each breath have a distinct beginning, middle and end? And can each movement mirror the breath in this way? At the very end of the exhale, as we reach the full expression of our chaturanga, can there be a slight pause?
I don’t know exactly how many times I take chaturanga dandasana in my daily practice. My guess is more than 50 and less than 100. But if I slow each one down by just one second, one extra second of pause in each and every chaturanga, due to sheer repetition the seconds start to add up. For ease of math, lets say that equals 60 extra seconds of chaturanga, one extra minute in chaturanga per practice, per day. That’s close to an extra half an hour a month and almost six hours per year. Do this for a few decades and now we’re talking about whole extra days worth of time spent in chaturanga dandasana. This is the difference between creating proficiency and achieving mastery.
In my mind, Joseph and David were describing two sides of the same coin. Joseph’s insight was on the “static” portion of asana practice, the poses we hold for an extended period of time. David’s insight was on the vinyasas, the transitional movements between the asanas that are only held for the duration of one breath. Joseph was speaking towards bringing movement and life into an area of practice where we often see practitioners become lax, spacey, or lethargic. David was speaking towards bringing stillness and calm into an area of practice we often see practitioners rush through, move mechanically within and generally lose their poise throughout.
Like most things in yoga, this brings me back to the concept of creating balance in life. As our lives settle into structure and routine, how do we prevent ourselves from becoming too content, bored, or lazy? And on the contrary, as life transitions and becomes turbulent, how do we maintain our equilibrium and stay composed? Can our yoga practice teach us to find movement in stillness and stillness in movement, both on the mat and in daily life?
Simon Borg-Olivier Asana Demonstration
Simon Borg-Olivier is an Australian based physical therapist and yoga teacher. Simon’s asana practice is by far and away the most graceful, and beautiful I’ve ever seen. This video is an amazing example of a master performing his art. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ViH9taNDO4o