Flow Yoga Part 2
In the last post, I talked about some of the benefits of yoga practised as a ‘flow’, or continuous movement synchronising each movement with the breath. Now let’s look at some possible pitfalls with this approach as it’s often practised in yoga classes.
I feel this is a relevant topic as vinyasa (1) or flow style yoga, (incorporating many of the typical sun salutation movements) is a hugely popular style of contemporary yoga. This is probably because it’s often done at a faster pace and can feel more like a challenging physical ‘workout’ than other yoga styles, and fitness is a key goal for many people coming to classes. The exertion required can also help create a sense of rest and release at the end of class (sometimes a collapse into rest?). It can make you feel physically good and uplifted in mood for sure, with a release of endorphins and all the other benefits – there are good reasons for its popularity. But flowing through complex movements pretty fast, is often not so physically sustainable, and bypasses so much potential learning and connection to yourself. Is it fair to say that we do not have any more need for speed in our culture?
I sometimes feel vinyasa classes can lose the quality of reverence, and interconnection which is the heart of yoga, and also the cultivation of body awareness and compassionate self-attunement. It’s interesting to consider what pace you’re moving at in a yoga class and whether it’s supporting your ability to be fully present in your body-mind.
A faster pace where you’re constantly following a set sequence or instructions for what to do, can make it harder to feel/work out what you are doing. There is also a tendency with the familiarity and repetition to ‘zone out’ and lose some of the curiosity and attention to feeling sensations, which are crucial to develop body awareness – that felt awareness of your body and movement to then be able to make considered adjustments.
Some people prefer this feeling of ‘zoning out’ and don’t want to have to think much about what they are doing. They see it as a way of being able to literally ‘switch off’ and just get into the stress-release of movement, maybe after a long day. Absolutely I get this attraction, but along with many other teachers now, I think the movements of a typical vinyasa class (or ashtanga) are often too repetitive, complex, and unbalanced to be a great sustainable physical choice, without other movement variety in the mix (like strength training maybe).
Contemporary flow yoga has limitations in terms of actually improving physical movement patterns and capacity I would suggest.Sure it does help to both loosen up and strengthen your body, but moving at a faster pace, it’s easy to ‘hang out’ or push more into areas where you are more flexible and avoid areas where you have less mobility or strength. With the repetitive movements, it’s easier to fall into habitual patterns of movement without much progressive improvement.
Some of the fundamental movements of the popular sun salutations are complex, and can sometimes lead to repetitive strain if executed without the required understanding of the movements, and insufficient strength and range of mobility to do them in a sustainable way. Of course it depends on the person, how often they do yoga, what other things they do.
It is disheartening that I still have new people turn up to my classes experiencing rotator cuff problems or persistent low back, wrist pain, or ‘yoga butt’ after getting into very regular flow style yoga classes, and both myself and many yoga friends and fellow teachers have experienced repetitive strain issues from this kind of yoga.
This is old news in the yoga world. But it is still happening.
Usually modifications are offered in yoga flow/vinyasa classes to make movements less demanding, but these don’t always help or lead to much progression. Teachers do their best to find ways to make these movements ‘safe’ for the range of people in class, but if classes are always led through or if it is a set sequence, often people don’t know (and are not actually learning) what they are, and aren’t, currently capable of, nor how to explore or regress/progress a movement, which makes it hard to make appropriate, informed movement choices.
For example, someone might choose to do a challenging movement option, (like moving from a full plank to lowering down and transitioning into upwards facing dog), because they more or less can get into the shape, and they want to get the most out of it, without understanding the longer term impacts of very repetitively muddling through it, or how it could be regressed/progressed so much better for their body in the long term.
That’s why targeted progressive movements and flow are good to do in conjunction with each other. There are so many ways to incorporate both in your yoga routine, even into one practice. In my classes we integrate both.
So, why not flow AND practice more targeted movements?
Flow is part of my classes in two ways:
1. Finding the sense of flow with much simpler linked movements (rather than the challenging positions of chaturanga and upward facing dog). If the benefit is derived from opening and closing the body with a range of movements synchronised with breath, well, there are so many creative options that more sustainably give you all the benefits of flow. In a simple flow, you can move to support expanding the breath and then fully release it, you can focus on whole body coordination, that wonderful freeing feeling of moving in rhythm.
Here is a video of one way I like to simplify the traditional Sun Salutation A
2. The second way I bring Flow into my classes is to break down the components movements of sun salutations, explore them in isolation, and then put them back together into one movement sequence. In one sun salutation there is a whole range of movements and opportunities to learn more about your body and how it is designed to move. Targeted movements focused on, for example, shoulder stability, or spinal segmentation, reveal your current capacity and give you confidence in feeling your body and developing movement progressively, helping you choose your best options at a given point in a movement sequence.
If we spend some time working on each movement with pinpointed focus, we have the opportunity to tune in and observe something, and the possibility of moving a bit differently, to feel our capacity for change. When we know what we are working with, then the parts can be put back together into sun salutations in a much more helpfully conscious way.
It’s possible to have the sense of exertion, rhythmic focus and uplift from flowing movement while also adding in things which are necessary to move better long term. It comes down to yoga with the goal of structural balance and integrity – we can use our movement practice to bring less functional areas online (as discussed here) and support your body to work together as a complete system.
So, sometimes more flow, sometimes less, depending on what you choose to focus on.
Perhaps a more sustainable approach to yoga involves finding effective, enjoyable ways of learning about your body and keeping it functioning well, and also tapping into the mental/emotional effects of moving your body with awareness and care. It’s an overused word these days, but to me it’s about doing things which make us feel more ‘embodied’, like we are fully here and present in ourselves in a settled and responsive way, flowing with the waves of experience passing through us rather than tensed against them.
This Flow class theme for January 2021 was chosen partly because we are collectively dealing with extra fear and uncertainty, which can make us antsy and unsettled and/or demotivated and low in energy… All of this creates physical tension and contraction. Getting on your mat and not needing to think too much, to just flow through some movement you know off by heart can be an effective way to shift your energy and mood in a healthier direction.
I did many years of Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga, which kicks off with 10 rounds of sun salutations, and then linked sequences of poses, but these days I prefer to start my practice with slower, targeted movements, building up to more intensity, and then on to more whole body movements. But on days when I’m demotivated to practice, or feeling agitated, I might go with some simple flows just to get moving, followed by focusing on something in particular, or maybe do some breathwork, and then I can move into my day appreciating a sense of I grounding and calm.
What is your experience? Do you find yourself drawn to flow? What is the key appeal for you? Have you changed or experimented with how you do it in any way? Have you experienced any of the pitfalls I mention? I’m interested to hear your experiences and also how you find our classes this month focused on flow. Do report back!
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. So 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. ‘Vinyasa’ continuous counted movements are also notably used in the set sequences of the Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga system of Mysore.