I have a love/hate relationship with vinyasa yoga because it really is a double edged sword.
On one hand, you can use it to learn how to control and regulate your brain’s responses. The actual movement practice seems to contradict the whole point of yoga because it works to activate your sympathetic nervous system. The tricky part is that it’s up to your breath work to activate your parasympathetic nervous system and slow you down. Simply put, while your body sends your brain into fight or flight, your breath reclaims your brain and tells it to rest and digest. It can be powerful to learn to control and regulate your own body that way in a yoga class setting— a skill you can then take with you in the real world.
But, on the other hand, it can be really challenging and triggering while you’re learning or if it’s not done right. A lot of students and teachers often manipulate vinyasa yoga to serve as a workout, forgetting its true purpose.
In my home practice I tend to mesh the Ashtanga Primary series with a free flow practice. The asanas I gravitate towards are usually at the challenging level of a vinyasa class, but my natural pacing is that of a more moderate class with longer holds of 3-5 breaths. I decided to start going to a studio vinyasa class every once in awhile to reap the invigorating, energy-boosting benefits, but I quickly found that such a class could be pretty hit or miss. Last week I actually left the studio in a worse condition, physically and mentally, than I came (which is so not the goal of yoga).
I have to tell you that where I’m at right now in my relationship with my body and movement, working out is not really an option, unless it is on my own terms. The other day in a vinyasa yoga class, however, I felt blindsided by my teacher’s inclusion of planks and crunches. Chair poses and long lunge holds started to feel like routinized squats instead of the yoga practice I was after. Not only was it physically strenuous, but emotionally I had feelings coming up on my mat that overwhelmed my ability to cope (some would say that that’s the result of trauma).
So it’s no surprise that throughout the class I kept feeling myself start to panic: my brain flying into action, heart beating fast, muscles quivering. In that moment I could not separate the physical threat (tired muscles signaling the heart to pump more blood faster) from the mental threat (trauma held from a past experience of over-exercising), which is a great example of the danger of vinyasa yoga.
The class was obviously triggering, but I surprised myself with how ready I was to handle it. I had to fight to listen to my body, to remain present despite the panic, and remind myself of the tools I have to cope. I had to remove any obligations I felt towards the teacher or the class and focus solely on what I needed, physically and mentally, in that moment.
Sometimes that meant opting for mountain pose over chair, or letting myself be okay with taking a child’s pose whenever I realized I needed to slow down my heart rate and lengthen my short breaths.
I’m grateful for my experience in that class. But I write this to caution any teachers who are teetering the line between a “workout” and a true yogic vinyasa flow. It’s a tricky space to navigate, especially when you never know the background of your students.
It makes me think of the “assist” and “no hands assist” cards available in some yoga classes nowadays. Students can quietly turn their cards to make their preferences known to the teacher. The reality is that while touch may be perfectly okay for some people, it can be really scary or boundary-crossing for others. The therapeutics and benefits of yoga should be accessible to all, and many yoga teachers now recognize that trauma from abuse should not have to inhibit a student’s experience.
But the same goes for any trauma. Students with anxiety and eating disorders especially may have a similar experience as I did in a vinyasa yoga class. But the double edged sword is this: it can be oh so powerful and rewarding for these same vulnerable students when done right. That’s because in vinyasa yoga, we consciously move our bodies from a state of stress to a state of calm.
As teachers, we should seek to use our classes to create a safe space for all people, being mindful of the effects of our sequencing and breathing cues (or lack thereof). Yoga is and should always remain a space to learn and practice wellness tools and coping mechanisms.
If you have a story to share, I’d love to hear and learn from you! Don’t be shy, contact me(: