In my practice and my teaching, alignment-based yoga and vinyasa-style yoga coexist well. Sometimes I blend them together in a class or workshop, and at other times I keep them distinct. However, while these methodologies do work well together, it is useful to treat them as unique and separate, if only to more deeply appreciate their respective traits and identities. To me, alignment yoga is like sushi and vinyasa yoga is like curry.*
Alignment Yoga (aka Sushi)
In making sushi, a limited number of ingredients and specific techniques are used so that the presentation and taste of each roll is recognizable and unmistakably singular. Similarly, with alignment yoga, I want to make sure that each pose, action, and muscular activation is distinct. I want to focus awareness in ways that spotlight detail and specificity. Just as each bite of sushi may reveal a different flavor or sensation, in alignment yoga, I want each breath in a pose to reveal greater levels of complexity and articulation.
Yoga, in general, is an endeavor toward becoming ever more conscious, more present, and more skillful on more levels of our being. To that end, I advise leaving out anything in a sequence that doesn’t serve those goals: no filler, fluff, or automatic inclusions. There will probably be many fewer poses than in your vinyasa sequencing. The negative space in your sequence is important, as it illumines what you leave in: It’s the darkness of the night sky that lets you see the stars.
Teachers, think of the elements that are mostly or always part of your sequences. When was the last time you taught a class in which movements weren’t synced with breath? When was the last time you taught a class without cat/cow, sun salutations, lunges, or any of the other movements that have become de rigueur—not just in vinyasa classes, but in modern postural yoga in general?
If you removed all of those elements, what would be left? What would you replace them with? Each pose should have at least one purpose, and if you cannot articulate why a pose is in your sequence, it probably doesn’t need to be there.
There is great comfort in the familiar and predictable, and it can be scary to teach without that lifeline. But I think we reduce yoga’s potency if we hew only to what is comfortable and predictable. As practitioners and teachers, we need to be mindful not to overly limit our range by doing and/or teaching the same, or similar, patterns over and over and over again.
We reduce yoga’s potency if we hew only to what is comfortable and predictable.
Furthermore, it’s important to ditch the script. Each sentence needs to be essential in the moment; each word needs to be intentional. Word salads are as unhelpful as autopilot instructions. For example, think of this when you give breath instructions: When does the breath actually enforce the alignment in that pose, and when are we simply saying “inhale… exhale” by rote, without any connection to how the body leverages the breath? When are breath cues just noise, and when do they add value to the experience? Students will breathe even if you don’t tell them to.
So get out of the habit body: No autopilot for the teacher means no autopilot for students. When you, the teacher, are clear and present in your teaching, your students will be clear and present in their practice.
The staccato tempo of an alignment-based class is a conscious choice to bring full awareness to the experience of a pose: Start (do the pose), stop (come watch a demo of the pose), start (do the pose with a particular focus), stop (watch an even more specific demo and/or prop drill), start again…stop again.
In an alignment-based class, I use a lot of props, including the wall. I frequently rearrange the mats so that the room is not always set up the same way. I consciously try not to blend movements together or smooth out the experience. If you just did a standing pose, and the next pose is supine, a few seconds and a few words (“Please lie down”) will affect the transition.
Vinyasa Flow (aka Curry)
In vinyasa flow yoga, individual ingredients (i.e., poses) are less and less distinct from the experience of the sequence as a whole. Many spices have melded together to create that curry, and it would take a very refined palette to separate out the turmeric from the garlic from the cinnamon from the cardamom.
One pose flows into another, into another, into another. And the space or transition between poses is yet another pose. You are always in a pose. To put it another way: You are never not in a pose.
When it comes to vinyasa flow, I will make sequencing choices much more for reasons of choreography than for those of anatomy, kinesiology, or biomechanics. I will also frequently pair movements with breath, as a sommelier might pair a different wine with each course of a meal, so that body and awareness and feeling are synced with the rhythm of the breath to create an experience of simultaneity and fluency—what might be called a “flow state.”
Just as the previous example, say that you’ve just done a standing pose, and the next major pose begins in a supine position. In vinyasa flow, I will choreograph each movement necessary to get from point A (standing) to point B (supine), pairing each with breath, so that the students’ experience is as continuous and unbroken as possible. This frequently means that it will take longer and require more movements to get to the floor than it would in an alignment-based class—in which I could just say, “Make your way to the floor.”
Many of the poses I would edit out of an alignment-based sequence I could easily include in a vinyasa sequence. And overall, there will be many more poses (including repetitions) in a vinyasa sequence. Some poses will be more difficult, and some will be easier: Easier poses are meant to provide some rest and recovery between harder poses. To a large degree, vinyasa sequencing is much more of a full spectrum or potpourri experience.
Certain poses are more important to the goal of the sequence—think peak-pose vinyasa sequencing—while others are automatically included, often with a high frequency of repetition, for no reason other than their traditional use in vinyasa. I have heard vinyasa teachers use the phrase “Take your vinyasa” to mean chaturanga, upward facing dog, and downward facing dog. Using sun salutations to transition between poses is often associated with vinyasa.
As the teacher, I know which poses are integral to the postural direction of the sequence, and which I am including for the choreography, but students are probably much less aware of this because their experience is meant to be continuous and seamless. I endeavor to be more predictable in my vinyasa sequencing, using repetition, repetition, repetition.
If we want students to have an experience they might describe as a flow state, it follows that most of our sequencing should be familiar and predictable to them. If we are teaching (or learning) totally new choreography, it will probably involve much more stop/start/stop/start, and it won’t feel like flow to us or our students until it’s been broken down into smaller pieces and put back together in a repetitious and progressive practice.
I make conscious choices when teaching vinyasa in order to minimize interruptions or disruptions to the experience of a fluid somatic awareness and breath rhythm. When I do stop the class to demonstrate, I will often:
1. Time the demo to correspond with a position that is choreographically convenient to pause in (mountain pose or kneeling and sitting up from downward facing dog), have students watch something briefly from their mats, and then restart the flow;
2. peak the waves of the sequence in such a way that a short pause is a welcome respite from the demands of the practice;
3. keep students in a pose and give them a shoulder stretch to do while they are watching; or
4. maintain breath awareness and rhythm—if you are demoing in vinyasa and breathing with the movements, have your students breathe with you while they watch you, and it will seem as if they themselves are doing the movements.
I frequently utilize props in vinyasa, although I limit the options to what can be conveniently accessed without disrupting the choreography of the sequence. Often this means one or two blocks per student (anything more can get too involved). Also, vinyasa is often taught in a warm room, and/or the dynamic nature of the practice creates heat, which causes people to sweat. Even if we could choreograph blankets and/or bolsters into the sequence, I really don’t want students to put those props in a puddle of their own sweat and then put them back in the prop cabinet (yuck).
On one occasion in a training, a participant raised his hand as we were discussing prop use in vinyasa and said, “If you use props, then it is not vinyasa.” While I think I understand and can appreciate where this sentiment comes from, I asked him the obvious question (obvious to me): “Do you use a mat? A Mysore rug/towel on your mat?” He answered yes, and I made the observation that those too are props.
Undoubtedly, you can see how these different approaches to practice and pedagogy can be woven together and complement each other in any one class. While I create alignment plus vinyasa classes, it wasn’t until I really pulled those methodologies apart that I developed many more skills and appreciation for each.
Life is rich and varied, and it follows predictable and recursive patterns. It is also unpredictable. It upsets our expectations, shakes us out of our habits, and may even rock our world. Inevitably it reminds us that there is always more. Why not take that into our practice and teaching? After all, yoga mimics life.
*Disclaimer: I am not a chef and make no claim to be authentically representing these culinary traditions.