Introduction to Vinyasa Flow Yoga

The Popular Yoga Style Links Movement and Breath

Vinyasa, also called flow because of the smooth way that the poses run together, is one of the most popular contemporary styles of yoga. It's a broad classification that encompasses many different types of yoga, including ashtanga and power yoga.

In contemporary yoga parlance, vinyasa stands in opposition to hatha. Hatha classes tend to focus on one pose at a time with rest in between. In contrast, flow classes string poses together to make a sequence. The sequence may be fixed, as in ashtanga in which the poses are always done in the same order, but most of the time vinyasa teachers have the discretion to arrange the progression of poses in their own ways.

In vinyasa yoga, each movement is synchronized to a breath. The breath is given primacy, acting as an anchor as you move from one pose to the next. A cat-cow stretch is an example of a very simple vinyasa. The spine is arched on an inhale and rounded on an exhale. A sun salutation sequence is a more complex vinyasa. Each movement in the series is cued by an inhalation or an exhalation of the breath.

The literal translation of vinyasa from Sanskrit is "connection," according to Ellen Stansell, Ph.D., RYT, and scholar of yogic literature. In terms of yoga asana, we can interpret this as a connection between movement and breath or as the connection between poses in a flowing sequence.

What to Expect

Vinyasa allows for a lot of variety, but will almost always include sun salutations. Expect to move, sometimes vigorously, from pose to pose. Whether the class is fast or slow, includes advanced poses, or is very alignment-oriented will depend on the individual teacher and the particular style in which he or she is trained.

Some classes include some warm-up stretches at the beginning while others launch straight into standing poses. Some very popular yoga styles fall under the vinyasa umbrella, including Jivamukti, CorePower, Baptiste Power Vinyasa, and Modo. If a class is simply identified as vinyasa, it may use of aspects of several different traditions. The one thing you can be sure if is the flow between poses. The rest is up to the teacher, but you can expect to go through any combination of the poses below.

Going Through Your Vinyasa

Young woman practicing vinyasa yoga
Oana Szekely/Getty Images

When vinyasa is used as a noun, it describes a series of three poses that are done as part of a sun salutation sequence. When the teacher says, "go through the vinyasa at your own pace," she means to do a plankchaturanga, and upward facing dog (or their equivalent variations) using your breath to measure when to move on to the next pose.

If you start to get tired and this affects the quality of your poses, it's very acceptable to skip the vinyasa and wait for the class in downward facing dog.

The beginner's version of the vinyasa is plank → knees, chest, chin → cobra → downward facing dog.

The advanced version is plank → chaturanga dandasana → upward facing dog → downward facing dog.

Let's look a closer look at the beginners' sequence first and then on to the more advanced sequence.

Beginners Version: Plank Pose

Plank Pose
Ben Goldstein

Begin in a plank position. This is usually arrived at by stepping or jumping back from the front of your mat. If plank is too much for you, you can always drop your knees to the floor. Just make sure to keep your elbows aligned under your shoulders.

Lower to Knees, Chest, and Chin

Knees, Chest, and Chin
Ann Pizer

Exhale to lower your knees, chest, and chin to your mat. Your butt stays high in the air and your elbows point straight back along your sides. This pose is a good warm up for backbends and helps you develop arm strength.

Cobra Pose

Ann Pizer

Inhale and slide forward to a low cobra pose. Don't move your arms. As you lower your hips to the floor, your chest will come forward and lift up off the ground.

Try to make this lift come from the strength of your back, not pushing down into your hands. Keep little to no weight in your hands while you anchor your pelvis and the tops of your feet to the mat.

Downward Facing Dog

Downward Facing Dog - Adho Mukha Svanasana
Ann Pizer

Exhale and curl your toes under as your straighten your arms to push back to downward facing dog. You can come through all fours or a child's pose in transition if you want to.

Advanced Version: Back to Plank Pose

Plank Pose
Ann Pizer

Now let's take a look at the advanced version, which also begins with plank pose. During a sun salutation flow, advanced students will sometimes jump back from utanasana straight into chaturanga. In that case, skip the plank pose.

To prepare to lower from plank, shift forward onto your tip toes.

Chaturanga Dandasana

Chaturanga Dandasana
Ann Pizer

Exhale and bend your elbows straight back to lower to chaturanga dandasana. Your body is in one straight line and your shoulders should be no lower than your elbows. It's a tough position to hold but try not to rush on to the next pose.

Upward Facing Dog

Upward Facing Dog - Urdhva Mukha Svanasana
Ann Pizer

Inhale and straighten your arms, drop your hips, and roll over the toes to the tops of your feet into upward facing dog. You can flip the feet one at a time if that works better for you. Press into your hands and feet to keep your thighs lifted off the floor. Keep your shoulders moving away from your ears.

Downward Facing Dog

Downward Facing Dog - Adho Mukha Svanasana
Ann Pizer

Exhale, roll over the toes and shift your hips up and back to downward facing dog.

Do the version of the vinyasa that you are most comfortable with. Even if you have a very competent chaturanga, it's nice to warm up with a few rounds of knees. chest, chin at the beginning to class.

Some flow classes have a lot of vinyasas. If you get tired and your form starts to slip, go back to the beginners' version or skip the vinyasa altogether. You can stay in plank or downward facing dog while you wait. Chaturanga is a tricky pose and injuries are more likely to happen when you're tired, so play it safe.

Is Flow Yoga for You?

Vinyasa’s strength is in its diversity. If you appreciate having things a little loose and unpredictable and like to keep moving, this style is definitely worth a try.

In most cases, there is no single philosophy, rulebook, or sequence that teachers must follow, so there is a lot of room for individual personalities and quirks to come through. This makes it essential that you find a teacher you enjoy and can relate to. If your first flow class doesn’t rock your world, keep trying different teachers until you find one that's a better fit.

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