When I tell people I teach vinyasa yoga, I'm surprised at how many of them assume that means a superintense form of yoga that can't be done by beginners or seniors or anyone else not up for a butt-kicking workout. But in fact, when done with awareness, even a quiet seated pose like Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana (Revolved Head-of-the-Knee Pose), which is a deep side stretch and happens to be a great pose for relieving back pain, can be a true experience of vinyasa.
These days, "vinyasa" has commonly come to mean a style of yogic sequencing that involves dynamic movements coordinated with rhythmic breathing. For example, in a Sun Salutation: Inhale, arms up; exhale, fold forward; inhale, lengthen your spine; exhale, fold again.
But the Sanskrit word vinyasa translates as "to place in a special way." If we stick with that definition, we realize that everything is a vinyasa; all of life is placed in a special way. Every day dawns, peaks at noon, and fades into dusk and becomes night. Each aspect of life flows into the next. Every breath we take is a vinyasa. When we follow our natural, unmanipulated breathing pattern, there is an organic drawing in of oxygen, a slight gap in activity, then a letting go of breath that feeds back into the ocean of air around us.
Like our breath, any vinyasa sequence, or any pose, can be thought of as having three essential parts: arising, abiding, and dissolving. Each part of the process is equally important, and together they make up the full experience of the pose.
In Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana, there are three main actions: Inhale as you lift tall out of your seat; exhale as you bend to the side; and inhale as you lift back up to a vertical spine. Moving through these three actions with awareness is vinyasa just as much as a vigorous Sun Salutation.
Many smaller, subtle actions also make up the pose, and these too are part of the vinyasa. Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana is complex. It's a seated pose, a hip opener, a sidebend, a twist, and a shoulder opener all at once. It offers the experience of working with a challenge—sidebending while twisting—from a seated base that is comfortable and easy for most people to access. The twist rejuvenates the spine, and the intense side stretch of all the muscles of the rib cage can enhance breathing capacity. It is a good counterpose for people who sit in chairs all day because it opens tight hips, can unlock the lower back and side waist, and can help relieve low-back pain.
When you coordinate all parts of the pose within the three-step framework of vinyasa, you can experience a sense of aliveness while staying grounded in a seated, stable position.
- Relieves low-back pain
- Stretches the spine, hips, and hamstrings
- Expands the rib cage, improving breathing capacity
- Improves digestion
- Relieves headache and neck pain
- Pulled hamstring
- Herniated disk
Let's begin by sitting in Dandasana (Staff Pose). All standing poses are built on Tadasana (Mountain Pose), and all seated poses are built on Dandasana, the seated version of Tadasana. Dandasana alignment requires strong legs. Start by pressing out through the heels until your feet feel energized and alive. Keep the sitting bones firmly planted to support an uplifted spine. Like standing poses, seated poses require a strongly grounded lower body from which the torso can lift.
Now you're ready to move into the next phase of your seated vinyasa. Place your index fingers inside your knee creases. Inhale as you lift your inner knees up, and then exhale as you open them out into a loose Baddha Konasana (Bound Angle Pose). On your next inhalation, open your legs into a wide straddle, taking Upavistha Konasana (Wide-Angle Seated Forward Bend), and then exhale fully as you complete the movement.
Press down into your sitting bones to lift up your spine, sitting as tall as you can in this position. Reach strongly out through your heels and check in with your legs. Make sure your knees and toes are facing directly upright, rolling neither inward nor outward.
Now, fold in your right leg, pressing the heel into the groin. Keep your left leg extended. Inhale, again sitting tall, and, as you exhale, twist your torso to the right. The twist will come from your waist and get its leverage from your grounded, stable pelvis and legs. As you inhale, reach your left arm out to the left, at shoulder height, inner elbow facing the ceiling. As you exhale, bend your torso to the left, keeping your chest facing forward rather than rolling toward the floor. Place your left forearm on the floor to the inside of your left leg, and take hold of your left foot. If your arm doesn't come to the floor, that's OK. In the next section, you will learn how to support your practice with props.
Next, inhale and extend your right arm straight up toward the ceiling. On the next exhalation, turn the inner arm and elbow to face your ear, and take the arm overhead toward the left, reaching toward your left toes. Maybe you will touch your left foot today, and maybe you will touch it next year. But instead of letting your mind go into the future, can you stay present and notice the experience of abiding in the pose right now? You may be feeling deep stretching through your side waist and hip, which can help unlock tightness and pain in your back.
You may find that you can go deeper into your experience of the pose if you remember to practice vinyasa: On each in-breath, you can lengthen your spine and reengage your legs and arms. On each out-breath, you might twist just a tiny bit more and fold a tad further to the side.
As you reach your right hand toward your left foot, note whether your chest feels expansive. If it does, you can use your arms to deepen the twist. Inhale and lengthen the spine; exhale and bend your elbows away from each other. This arm-bending action will create some give for your spine to twist further and for your chest to turn toward the ceiling. If you feel your chest closing in on itself, work with the prop instructions in the next section. If you are comfortable, stay here for several more deep breaths. Concentrate on breathing into the side ribs and chest. Coming out of the pose is the third part of the vinyasa. Exhale and press down with your thighs and sitting bones. From this earthward movement, let your next inhalation lift you back upright.
Sit quietly for a moment and observe the effects of your practice so far. Did you notice that as you exited Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana, the pose dissolved and you entered a new position? Take a moment to experience that fully. Then repeat the whole thing to the other side, trying to stay engaged in the process as it unfolds—arising, abiding, and dissolving. This is truly vinyasa practice: being present with change and embodying impermanence.
You've probably noticed that this big sidebend can sometimes be a real...stretch! If your body isn't ready to go over that far, you may be better able to experience this pose with the support of props.
For one thing, you may have discovered while working on Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana that you don't feel very uplifted when sitting on the floor with your legs in a straddle. Your pelvis may be tucking under, which tends to send your sacrum backward and to require a lot of back and lower abdominal effort. To remedy this, try sitting up on a cushion, folded blanket, or yoga block. Place it just under your sitting bones, allowing the pelvis to slightly tilt forward. Use enough padding and support so that you have a perched feeling that is comfortable and effortless. If your knees are high off the ground, you can place a rolled-up blanket under them to prevent straining the backs of the knees.
If your forearm did not touch the floor on the inside of your leg when you bent to one side, no problem! Place your trusty yoga block along the inside of your thigh so it becomes the perfect shelf for your forearm. This helps support the expansion of the chest, so that you can keep bending to the side without rolling the chest toward the floor. The top side of the ribs should feel expansive, inviting the breath to fill the lungs. If you can't feel any movement in the bottom ribs as you breathe, the block will help to create more space there.
Whether your arm is on a block or on the floor, you might not be able to reach your foot. If that's the case, wrap a yoga strap around your foot and hold on to it with your bottom hand as you lean to the side. This will give you some leverage to deepen your sidebend with every exhalation, and eventually you might crawl your fingers up the belt closer to your feet. For now, explore the little movements that can happen with each inhalation and exhalation; think of each breath cycle as a tiny vinyasa.
Finally, you might find your chest rolling toward the floor as though it wants to come into a forward bend. To avoid that, bend your top arm and place your hand behind your head. This will help you tuck your shoulder blades into your back and open the chest. From here, you can turn your face to look up toward your elbow, creating a delicious twisting and opening.
To come out of this supported variation, begin by grounding into the legs with an exhalation. On an inhalation, reach your top arm up toward the ceiling, let go of the belt, and come upright—dissolving Parivrtta Janu Sirsasana as a tall seated Upavistha Konasana arises. Now try the supported version on the other side.
You are starting to get the idea that anything and everything can be considered a vinyasa, even something as simple as getting up to go to the kitchen for a cold drink. Of course, if you're like me, sometimes you find yourself getting up off the couch, walking to the refrigerator, wondering why you went there, and going back to the couch. Does that sound familiar? We all zone out like that sometimes. But you don't have to do everyday tasks like a zombie. All the small experiences of your day can become a yoga vinyasa when you bring awareness to them. You can begin to consciously experience your actions as part of the natural process of life, of the organic sequencing of all things, of which we are a part.
Perhaps you can understand vinyasa as a way of purposefully moving through space, seeing that every action has a result, that everything is interdependent and everything matters. So here's your homework: Think of three vinyasas that you do every day without noticing. Can you engage with those moments "in a special way"? Why not try it here and now, in the middle of your one precious life?
Cyndi Lee is an author, artist, and yoga teacher, and the founder of OM Yoga Center.