Today, I want to take you into my world and my breath. Follow me slowly, step by step, into the mysteries, secrets and offerings of slowing down your dynamic asana practice.
For a long time, I have been an intuitive promotor of slow movement in my practice and my teaching of Vinyasa. Maybe because it takes me time to guide each step of the flow with care and detail, fast-paced vinyasa makes me feel too tight in general. To breathe, and to talk. To see and to feel. Rushing myself and rushing others around me seems like the wrong medicine for the world in which we are living.
Slow does not equate to inefficient, boring or soft. You will see why further down.
I never knew why I had this instinct towards slowing down the dynamic practice of asana. Looking back I realize that the teachers of Vinyasa that inspired me were not very fast-paced in general, which was probably a manifestation of my natural inclination.
I felt attracted by elegance, smoothness and soft strength both in teachers and students, as much as I would feel restless or disturbed by abrupt movements and accelerated transitions when I saw them. It is not only about technique, but it is the smoothness part that I feel very inspiring, the sensation that things are floating undisturbed by the thickness of the air.
Very often I found myself in a class saying “Find your time to get into down dog” rather than “get into downdog” because I found out that this first instruction avoided the rushed movements in many students, giving them permission to explore transitions. In vinyasa asana practice, transitions have the same relevance as poses. They are the fluid that holds the elements togeher.
Though this might open a new subject, in a yoga class when the teacher indicates the next pose in a sequence should not mean that we already have to be there. It should take time to arrive at destiny! Yoga is not a military instruction, it is an invitation for movement and awareness that should awaken higher qualities in the mind and higher vitality in the body. Yoga guidance is not about stiffening the experience of the student but about allowing space and time for the authentic breath and the authentic movement to unfold in each individual.
I don´t know why rhythm should be associated with speed. Something can be rhythmic and extremely slow and vice-versa, tempo and rhythm are not the same thing. So, in an asana yoga setting, flowing should not mean rushing or running from one thing to the next one, as if we were going to miss something. That would represent a scarcity mentality. We want to practice with abundance, with wholeness. Wholeness is not about perfection, it is about including all. We will miss that wholeness if we go too fast!
I always use my metaphor of the car to explain this idea. If you were driving in a beautiful place during your holidays, would you go slowly enjoying the landscape or rushing to get to the next place? And which of these two options you believe would bring you more joy, awareness, inspiration and health? When we rush we move as if we need to grab the future, missing the life in front of our eyes. This rushed attitude settles the mind in a poor space for receptivity, learning and inquiry.
Thanks to many hours of teaching what I finally came to notice was very simple. Those people that were rushing from one pose to another in the sequence had a shorter and more abrupt breath, and when the challenging time of holding a pose came would struggle more because there was no inner stillness, no anchor to the breath. On the other side, the people that were taking the necessary time to develop and unfold the next step normally had more control over their voluntary breath (aka respiratory muscles) and would be more contented in the effort of holding poses, supported by the good tempo and quality of their breath.
With time I have found many good reasons for teaching and practicing slowly. I keep refining my skills and knowledge in this context that I have named Mindful Vinyasa. This is not a term or style that I own, it just defines my mood.
I want to highlight some of the tastiest upsides of this approach to the practice:
1. COHERENT, SMART AND WISE BREATH.
Slowing down the breath represents the conquer of body-brain communication. Voluntary breath Is a neuromuscular event that is independent of our lung capacity, flexibility and strength. It gets better when our body is healthy and spacious but it can happen under nearly any circumstance. For some people, it is a very easy and accessible practice and for other amazingly complicated, even after years of practice. Deciding for how long we are inhaling and for how long we are exhaling requires practice and intention. If we move slowly in our asana practice the movement itself can serve as a guide for the tempo of the breath. Then when we get more proficient it is the tempo of the breath that guides the movement of the body.
There is a lot to say about the anatomy and physiology of the breath and this is why I developed a 15-hour workshop on this subject. Anyway, it is just necessary to understand that slow movement will help us master slow breath and slow breath invites our heart for more coherence which has a great number of benefits. Amongst others, coherent breathing affects our physiological parameters, changing heart rate, blood pressure, brain activity and psychoemotional states. Coherent breathing involves symmetry, which means that the length of inhalation and exhalation will be the same. How long you make that breath depends on your comfort. I generally invite for a count of four seconds in and for seconds out. Some people find it tight so three in and three out is a helpful first step towards amplitude. In my practice, I sometimes slow it down to six seconds or even eight depending on my sensations and intentions.
2. ATTENTION AND MINDFULNESS
This is mainly about the idea of the car and the landscape. As we move slowly we can pay more attention to details and practice relaxed alertness in the pleasures and challenges of our asana practice. I consider slow vinyasa a luxurious context to practice mindfulness. Our asana practice should be treated and honored as a moving meditation. The integration that the mind experiences after paying full attention to movement and breath for a whole yoga class is something that we never forget, and it makes us come back to the practice. This is a reason why it can work as a motivation booster. Refined attention will give us refined awareness and clearer access to our inner power. This develops consistency and trust in ourselves, we become aware of the capacities of our mind and the power of focus.
3. EVOLUTION AND SKILL
We all want some type of progress when we are practicing a discipline. Slow movement allows us to refine the technique in our practice. Technique is about alignment but also about integrity. If we want to work with directed and intentional muscular actions for a functional approach, like the one in which I frame my teaching, having time to find the muscles and engage them is important. We also need a little time to decide how far we want to stretch a specific chain or body part. This can save us from injuries, it can help us develop long term strength and cultivate a whole-body awareness. Slow-paced flow can help us progress while avoiding habitual repetitions that keep us stuck in our practice. When we slow down we start noticing what is happening in our body and we get the chance to reconsider and correct our course when needed. Evolution is about moving back and forth with no fear of change and staying open. Skillfulness is our capacity to improve ourselves and adapt to the challenges thrown at us in our practice. In our daily life skillfulness is seen in the unfolding of inner strengths like resilience, inspiration and creativity.
Oh dear, I could go on with this list forever and ever, into details, possibilities and models. This is one of the reasons why I decided to offer a Mindful Vinyasa module for yoga teachers (for the moment only in Spanish, in Barcelona and Ibiza) because I feel that the world and the profession are ready to take this revolution further and beyond.
A slow-paced practice is reflecting us the wide landscape of the relationship with ourselves, with others and with life, and requires us to be present to many different aspects. It is healthy multitasking!
With all this, I don´t want to say that this is the best way to practice asana. I am sharing the benefits, interests and contributions of approaching our practice with these ideas in our mind. I believe that most of the approaches offer benefits and losses. It is important that we know why we are doing certain things and not just do them out of habit or imitation. Once we know the reasons why we do what we do we can start testing it to see if we can prove it valid in real life, in the long term and with enough people.
Mindful Vinyasa is whole, but not perfect. It has some downsides, I would like to talk about which ones and how to compensate them, but that will be in another post! Meanwhile, find your breath, find your body, find your mind and get them together, in the best way you can!
Yoga is the union of breath, body and mind (Desikachar). Ideally, you and I will discover our authentic way there!
* See below my last Mindful Vinyasa class in my Spanish Youtube channel. Even if you can´t catch the language you will catch my breath!