Form or flow. Flow or form.
It seems sometimes like the whole of modern yoga is divided up into form-based practice and flow-based practice, and we, as students, should identify ourselves as being a follower of one or the other. I find myself frequently fielding questions and conversing about the two practice styles, and often times in an almost defensive tone as if I need to substantiate my choice with sound reason. An all-too-typical conversation for me is one in which I tell somebody I teach yoga, they get real excited and tell me how they just love their vinyasa flow class (or that they really enjoyed that one semester they took in college), and then ask me what kind of yoga I teach. As soon as I mention the words "form" or "alignment" their eyes glaze over, and I can see they have lost interest in what I'm saying. Of course it's not just "flow yogis" not understanding "form yogis"; disparateness easily goes both ways. From either perspective, it can feel almost like being on differing sides of a political issue; as if there is no common ground or relatability.
To form or to flow has become a yogi's question. But what does it even mean to call some yoga "form" and some other yoga "flow"? What are they? And are they as different as they're made out to be? I propose that they are in fact in some ways distinct entities; two components of a singular intention. That is to say, form and flow are two means of a single end: the practice of yoga. But rather than being unrelated communities peering at the other from across the uncrossable railroad tracks, they are instead each a vital aspect of a kind of yoga co-op; a circle or a cycle in which flow follows form follows flow and so on. I'll explain, but first a tiny bit of history.
Form and Flow are just two (not the only) ways of distinguishing practice styles. Yogic lineages are more complex than that, but for simplicity's sake let's stick with just the two. Form-based yoga is often credited to B.K.S. Iyengar. Young Iyengar was sick and weak, and his yoga practice was a means of turning his chronic disease into sustainable fitness. In the early stages, his physical condition didn't allow for robust athleticism or rapid, high-impact aerobics. His body needed time to learn proper mechanics and functionality. He needed to reinforce his entire musculoskeletal system, invigorate his nervous system, and nurture practically non-existent physical and psychological stamina. Therefore the yoga he practiced, and subsequently taught, was slow, even seemingly static, and meticulous. His starting point was just shy of crippled; anything more demanding than a thoroughly thought-out and well-executed single pose at a time would have been impractical and even dangerous.
Modern form-based practice uses those same intentions of teaching the body proper mechanics and functionality even when the starting point is less diseased than Mr Iyengar's. The idea is the same, though: reinforce the musculoskeletal system, invigorate the nervous system, and nurture stamina. Through critical analysis and precision of action, the body performs the pose in the most optimal and accessible way (given its unique structures and capacities).
Alternatively, flow-based yoga is often credited to K. Pattabhi Jois, founder of Ashtanga Yoga. Nearly every modern interpretation of flow-style practice can be traced back to Mr Jois. Young Jois was healthy, active, energetic, and athletic; his practice was a means of employing and enhancing his existing vitality. Neither his musculoskeletal nor nervous systems were impaired; he had strength and stamina. His health and safety weren't as vulnerable, and therefore weren't as compromised by less-fastidious, more-vigorous activities. The yoga he practiced, and subsequently taught, focused less on thinking and more on simply doing.
Modern flow-based practice typically assumes a starting point of at least basic physical and physiological health and vitality, and that strong, fast actions won't compromise one's safety. That kind of activity creates optimization and accessibility also, but from a kind of meditation in motion. That is not to say that one or the other style is safer or less risky than the other. It is not to say that flow practices lack concern for proper alignment or can't be used therapeutically. And neither is it to say that form practices lack vigor or breath-coordinated transitions. They both include risks, the need for thoughtfulness, and the support of proper respiration because that is how anatomy and kinetics work, and in that way they are inherently interrelated. And it is all the more reason to view form and flow as belonging to a cycle rather than as rivals on separate sides of the track. (Also, these comments are not at all directed specifically toward "Iyengar Yoga" or "Ashtanga Yoga" which are two very distinct brands of practice which cannot be simplified into merely being of one method or another; I am speaking only very broadly in regards to form and flow style practices.)
What, Why, and How
I think the best yoga practices are centered around a comprehensive understanding of what, why, and how. The right question is not Is the best kind of yoga form or flow?, rather the question is actually three-fold: What is yoga, why is yoga, how is yoga? And the answers are (1) Form (here the word "form" is referring to basic shape, not the style of practice known as "form-based"), (2) Function, and (3) Refined Form. Together they make Flow.
From form follows function, which is the why: why am I doing it, why is that a good choice? Answering why provides purpose. Why do I practice Down-dog? Because it stretches the shoulders, opens the upper-back, and lengthens the legs. Why do I need to do those things? There are multiple ways to answer that particular question, but often Down-dog is used as an immediate counter-pose to a back bend or series of them. Within a traditional Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar), for instance, Down-dog follows Up-dog. And if you look for Down-dog within Light on Yoga, you will see that it comes immediately after a series of belly-down back bends (100-111). Poses like Upward-dog (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana 109), Locust (Salabhasana 100), and Bow (Dhanurasana 102) contract the muscles of the shoulders, spine, and legs. As a direct counter to those contracting actions, Down-dog provides a stretching and an opening to those same body parts. Therefore, understanding that Down-dog's function is to stretch the whole back body tells you to practice it after belly-down back bends.
The how is form (what) revisited and refined: how do I accomplish that, how do I turn theory into practice and basics into nuances? How do I do it well? It is like "advanced form" or "form with skill." Knowing that Down-dog's form is an inverted-V whose function is to counter-act back bends does not tell you how best to use that form to create that desired function. After acquiring a theory of shape (form/what) and an understanding of purpose (function/why) you can properly apply anatomic mechanics into optimal combinations of stability and mobility which in turn become a good yoga pose. In other words, refined form is the means by which you create actual substance and structure.
Although knowing the answers to what and why does not explicitly explain how (because that comes from good instruction, practice, and experience), it does take both of the first two questions to answer the third. Jumping from form (what) straight to refined form (how) without function (why) can lead to a pose not adequately suited for your intentions. We can see that by answering Down-dog's why question differently.
Instead of a counter-pose to Up-dog as we were using in the previous example, imagine you are in Down-dog preparing to hop forward into Standing Forward bend (Uttanasana 93) as is typical in a "vinyasa flow." How would you refine your form, how would you position bones and engage muscles to achieve a safe and graceful hop forward? Look again at the full side-view picture of Down-dog.
This is the version of Down-dog best suited to stretching your shoulders, spine, and legs after back bending because of the deep opening of the shoulders and upper-back, the length of the legs, and the fact that the head is literally on the ground. The function of this pose is to restore and rejuvenate. It is a fantastic pose! But it clearly does not have the power and focus necessary for hopping into Uttanasana. In fact, here is the picture of the first stage of Uttanasana next to the picture of Handstand (Adho Mukha Vrksasana 287); see any similarities?
Look closely at the arms, upper-back, and head.
The basic form of Uttanasana is much more closely related to that of Handstand than it is to the version of Down-dog pictured above, right? If you want to hop forward into Uttanasana, it makes sense to power up your arms and legs and look forward, which is not unlike what you would do to lift into Handstand.
There isn't a right way or a better or best way to perform Down-dog; it's about context and intention. Function informs refinements. The Down-dog whose function is to stretch you after back bends does not use the same skillful actions as the Down-dog whose function is to propel you from the back of your mat to the front. They share a common basic form (i.e. the inverted-V) which can deceive you into thinking they are one in the same pose when in fact they serve different functions and therefore utilize different refined forms. If you find yourself in Down-dog, and you haven't asked yourself why you are there, how can you be properly skillful?
The picture below is two different expressions of a similar basic form: hands down, arms straight, hips above heart. But their functions, and therefore their refinements, are very different.
What am I doing? Why am I doing it? How am I going to do it well?
It's all form and it's all flow.
The shape of the pose is important. The purpose of the pose is important. And the skillful actions of the pose are important. When the what, why, and how of any given pose come together and serve each other, and the pose is otherwise performed (relatively) singularly and statically, therein lays what is often referred to as "form-based practice." In other words, the what, why, and how focus primarily on getting you into and out of just that individual pose. But the thoughtful and skillful manner in which that is accomplished has its own inherent grace, fluidity, momentum, and therefore flow. Just because you return to Mountain (Tadasana 61) in between each standing pose does not mean it lacks flow. You move in coordination with your breath, you move with elegance, you flow smoothly from one pose to another. In that way, it is all flow practice.
What is thought of more commonly as traditional "flow-based practice" occurs when the what, why,and how are expanded to include more seamless (and often creative) transitions and (relatively) constant movement between two or more poses. The fact that the movement is continuous does not by any means negate the importance of answering all three questions, however. In fact, in some ways it makes it even more imperative because the pace is faster, the time to analyze is reduced, and details will surely be left out. If you are in a flow and you haven't considered what, why, and how, you may be sabotaging your intentions or, worse, setting yourself up for injury. The individual poses need to be understood very well before they are linked together with other poses. Not only that, but the transitions themselves have their own what, why, and how. By that I mean that you master the form, function, and refinement of Pose A, and then you repeat that process for Pose B, and then you repeat it again in order to master the transition which links Pose A to Pose B. Then you master Pose C, followed by whatever it is that links Pose B to Pose C, and then whatever links Pose C back to Pose A, etc. And in that way, it is all form practice.
There will always exist differences -- different lineages, different methodologies, different philosophies, different focal points, different intentions, and on, and on. Conversations about what it is or what it isn't can go on ad nauseam. Rather than perpetually standing across from something seemingly different from you in separation from it, yoga can teach you how to step across the divide into relationship. When you ask the right questions, the answers lead you to clarity and continuity. And the question, remember, is not Is the best kind of yoga form or flow? The question is What is yoga, why is yoga, how is yoga? And then you practice. It is always one pose at a time. And it is always one pose after another after another after another.
Form. Function. Refined form. Flow.
And repeat. Always repeat.
Image of Sutra: Yoga Sutra I.33 as translated by Chip Hartranft, 2003.
All other images and page numbers: Iyengar, B.K.S., Light on Yoga. New York: Schocken Books, 1979. Print.