A Little Background
In October of 1995 I gave a workshop to introduce local teachers involved in the Mid Atlantic Yoga Association with White Lotus flow yoga. This was the flow series developed by Ganga White and Tracy Rich of the White Lotus Foundation. Ganga White was a very experienced teacher who had spent many years with the Sivananda organization, before branching off. He had worked with and hosted at his center both BKS Iyangar and Sri K Patthabi Jois.
At this time there were American teachers who had been studying the vinyasa style, but it was not yet widely known. 1995 was the year Beryl Birch published 'Power Yoga', but she points out in her introduction that she had been working on the book since the early 1980s, and that her teacher had gone to India and stumbled upon the teachings of Patthabi Jois a decade before that, and had talked him into taking him as a student. But the power/flow/vinyasa style so prevalent today was not as widely practiced (at least in my part of the world) as was other forms, like Iyangar. And yoga was only beginning to be a normal part of the offerings of the corner Health Club. Of course today vinyasa style is one of the most common styles taught in the U.S. In addition to classical Ashtanga Vinyasa, there are quite a number of flow style schools, and many teachers who teach their own varients of that style.
Patthabi Jois is given the rightful place as father of modern vinyasa yoga. He called his form 'Ashtanga Vinyasa'. But it is important to remember his teacher (and it is part of yoga training to remember and honor your lineage, and your teachers), who also taught Desikachar, and Iyangar, and Indra Devi, was Krishnamacharya. Krishnamacharya was probably the most seminal teacher of the early 20th century. One of the things I find interesting is that if you attended his classes at the Palace at Mysore (he was under the protection of the Maharaja) you might also be working out in weight training classes, or doing European style gymnastics, or going to sun salutation practice. In some ways we think of the Indian practice of yoga coming to the west and new fusions being created here, but before it got here Indian teachers were both rediscovering the roots of their tradition, and creating new forms themselves. And the western students who went to study with Patthabi Jois, and their students who continue to teach the forms that have evolved from that form, continue a fluid, creative process whose roots are hundreds of years old.
What Makes the Practice Different?
Flow, or vinyasa yoga is marked by having held postures bound together by a repeated series of postures which are not held. Typically the breath moves in sequence with the postures. So, for example: plank would be an exhale, followed by cobra with an inhale, followed by down dog with an exhale, and so on. The repeating of the range of motion about the joints, the use of breath, and the building of heat all help deepen the postures which are held. The original six series of Patthabi Jois have been joined by hundreds of variants and new flows. For example, the one time guru of Kripalu, Amrit Desai actually did a kind of flow where instead of having a preset series, you would move with breath and a meditative state allowing the postures to arise naturally out of what felt right at that moment. Hot yoga, like the Baptiste style, is another example. The flow style is so popular that Yoga Journal publishes new ones as a regular feature. One can link whatever postures one likes, though there are some principles which help make the flow work more effectively. For example, rather than doing two backbends in a row you might move from a back bend to a forward bend. The basic principles of sequencing tend to follow in flow, as in much of yoga, though I think as long as the practice is done in a way that does not harm it speaks to the human quality of curiosity and play not to see the guidelines as written in stone.
What is it that makes the Practice Appealing?
I believe flow echoes, or perhaps participates in, a fundamental commonality of human physiology and of the multidimensional space and time we inhabit, and it is that synergy that gives the practice its pull.
The living human body a large number of processes each of which has a pattern or flow. The most obvious is the heart beat. You can scan and record the heart beat and mark recurring points (the QRS complex, for example), like recurring postures with flow between. The release of certain hormones, peristalsis, ….. there are numerous flows going on inside our bodies all the times. Think of the shift between sympathetic system (when we are angry, or excited, or otherwise aroused. I blogged on this before) and parasympathetic (when the markers of arousal, such as increases in cortisol level, heart rate, sweating, respiration, decrease). We flow at need (hopefully) between arousal and release, just as in our flow we reach up, and bend over, or open the chest, and then curl inward. The most central of these flows, or perhaps, the most outwardly obvious one is breath. Inhale flowing to exhale is the rhythm of life. Physiologically it is both simple and complex: breath dominance shifting at regular intervals (about 1 to 6 hours in most people, though it can fade with age) from left to right, rate of breath increasing with mental or physical arousal, and decreasing as the arousal fades....
These flows, these waves define the human condition. It is sitting still that goes against the grain. They also show our commonality with the world in which we live. The seasons we experience are a repeating flow that follows the flow of the planet we inhabit. The regular pulsation of an atom, the flow of light... That which is too small to see, that which is too large to grasp, and us in the middle... we are all part of a continuously pulsing dance. Flow is the essence of what is. It is the synthetic a priori. It is the pattern of life. It is the wave upon which our boat moves. And our yoga, in finding and using the flows of pranayama and/or asana give us a window to understand, as well as a tool to steer our boats.