What is Flow in yoga and is it a good thing?
This month in class our theme is Breath and Flow. In particular, exploring sun salutations and other linked sequences of movement/breath.
Here’s my definition:
Flow in yoga is a sequence of continuous, linked movements, synchronised with the breath, usually repeated a number of times. This is sometimes called ‘vinyasa’ (1), and includes all the sun salutation variations.
There are so many sun salutation variations and infinite ways you can sequence poses together in continuous movement.
The traditional sun salutation has ancient roots as an act of reverence.
It’s a beautiful idea, don’t you think? Everyday to wake up and face towards the sun, expressing reverence and gratitude with your whole body – for the new dawn and renewal of life. A simple practice of interconnection, of your human breath and body with the earth that nourishes all living things.
As well as cultivating reverence, sun salutations are a way to move the body in a range of ways to get energy flowing through the whole physical structure, plugged into the energy source of the earth, to set you up for the day.
So, let’s look at the benefits of ‘flow’ in yoga practice in more detail
1. Training Focus
The linking of movement with breath creates a sense of rhythm and helps to focus the mind into the movement and the physical sensations in the body. It’s practising sustained focus, a good thing in our distracted times.
2. Feeling Calm and Grounding
With regular repetition, the integration of 1) movement, 2) breath and 3) directed attention, and the sense of rhythm, can lead to a quietening of mental activity, a feeling of grounding in the body, a calming and steadying effect.
This comes about partly because you have something to focus on all the time, but not too much, because the movement is familiar and repetitive. You could say it helps us to get out of our thinking heads – where modern life tends to situate us more – and into our feeling bodies, or that there is an integration of mind-body.
3. Exercising Breathing Capacity
The ‘one breath per movement’ focus can help to expand breathing capacity by exercising and strengthening all the breathing apparatus of the body (i.e. diaphragm, rib cage area, torso muscles and so much more…). With familiar, repetitive movements, thinking about what/how to do a movement becomes secondary and the primary focus can be encouraging and feeling a full expansive inhale or releasing exhale in each shape.
4. Balancing Energy Flow
With the breath focus and repetitive familiar movements, it’s also easier to focus more on the flow of energy pathways through the structure of the body. This can create a gently energising or ‘freeing’ effect in the physical body, which can also feel uplifting. The continuous movements create warmth, and this supports a sense of fluidity and grace.
5. Space for Self Exploration and Autonomy
Once you have learnt a sequence off by heart, it allows for greater autonomy and self exploration. It can create the feeling of the body as home, a familiar place in which to move and breath safely, and to reliably tune into and connect to yourself.
6. Enhancing Physical Functioning
Like all movement and yoga, of course you have all the benefits of exercising strength, flexibility, coordination, balance… your body functions better in all ways with consistent movement, and makes you feel good!
All together, these benefits explain the zealous appeal which some flow styles of yoga have developed. You might notice the above includes the balancing effect of yoga – if you feel sluggish it can gently energise and uplift, if you feel more agitated, it can encourage calming. While yoga is much more than making ourselves feel good, it’s an important part, because this sense of quiet inward connection to ourselves can be a doorway to reverence and gratitude as well. And that can be part of our motivating fire to do all the good things we are trying to do.
In class this month, we will be focusing on ways of linking simple movements into a sequence and exploring the effects. Getting to the point where some short sequences feel so familiar that it’s possible to focus more on breath and rhythm takes time and a bit of practice of course, so that’s the plan!
Here is a short 20 min practice based on a simple sun salutation variation.
Here is a video of mini flows to explore, you can also have fun getting creative and come up with your own 2 or 3 rounds of breath mini flow.
How do you find flow sequences in yoga? Do you prefer them to more targeted static movements and poses? Do you find them challenging in any way? Are there particular benefits you notice for you? I’d love to hear from you.
January classes online on zoom. You can find my weekly class schedule here
(1) ‘Vinyasa’ traditionally means a breath-by-breath often counted method of moving from one movement to the next systematically and progressively.
It is notably used in the Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga system of Mysore. It has a broader meaning than what happens in modern yoga Vinyasa Flow classes, where it has come to mean the sequence of connecting poses of lowering down from Plank called Chaturanga Dandasana, to Upward-Facing Dog to Downward-Facing Dog. ‘Taking a vinyasa’ has become shorthand for this sequence of Chaturanga-Updog-Downdog.