Viniyoga 101 | History, Lineage & Theory

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The spirit of Viniyoga is starting from where one finds oneself. As everybody is different and changes from time to time, there can be no starting point, and ready-made answers are useless. The present situation must be examined and the habitually established status must be reexamined.”

TKV Desikachar

In this article we will explore:

  • What is Viniyoga 
  • Lineage of Viniyoga
  • Benefits of Viniyoga
  • 4 Principles of Viniyoga
  • Viniyoga the Accessible Yoga
  • Viniyoga Today 
  • Supporting You Through Viniyoga
a woman doing a forward fold on a blue yoga mat

What Is Viniyoga?

Viniyoga is a comprehensive and authentic transmission of the teachings of yoga including āsanaprāṇāyāmabandha, sound, chanting, meditation, personal ritual and study of texts. Viniyoga (prefixes vi and ni plus yoga) is an ancient Sanskrit term that implies differentiationadaptation, and appropriate application.

American Viniyoga Institute

There is a guide for yoga practitioners to understand the aim and development of a yoga practice called the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali, in which the concept of Viniyoga can be found. 

The specific sutra that holds the concept of Viniyoga is located in chapter three, verse six, in the Vibuti Pada of the book of supernatural powers and is dedicated to the mind’s ability to manifest. 

In Sanskrit, the Sutra is expressed as tasya bhutnisu viniyogah. When roughly translated to English, it means to apply the tools step by step when developing a yoga practice. 

Another Explanation of this sutra is, “It must be applied stage by stage.”

This example is shared in the book, How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali by Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood.

This particular aphorism helps the yoga practitioner realize that to truly benefit from the yoga practice, the journey must be approached in stages and developed gradually over time. 

In order to grow, all things in life need a sturdy foundation.

The theory of Viniyoga expresses that groundwork and also conveys the importance of adapting yoga to the individual’s needs. 

Four principles of Viniyoga:

There are four principles that are followed to develop a Viniyoga practice or sequence. 

#1: Repetition and Stay

Moving in and out of a posture prepares the body to hold the pose. Through the movement phase, the practitioner can identify habitual patterns and develop new ones that are more supportive. 

#2: Function Over Form

Viniyoga’s theory focuses on adapting the postures to achieve different results for the individual yogi.

Exploring different variations rather than perfecting form prevents injuries and allows an opportunity for the student to honor their whole being. 

#3: Breath and Adaptation

“Master your breath, let the self be in bliss, contemplate on the sublime within you.”

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya

In a Viniyoga practice, the breath intimates the movement. Learning to understand and manipulate the breath creates a deeper awareness of how to move. 

a woman practicing breathwork

#4: Art and Science of Viniyoga Sequencing

In Yoga for Wellness by Gary Kraftsow, he outlines the art and science of Viniyoga sequencing. 

He shares the general steps and considerations for designing a Viniyoga sequence:

  • Intention
  • Efficiency
  • Breath
  • Transition
  • Cumulative Stress
  • Risk 
  • Rest

The theory behind these Viniyoga principles is that following this guidance will lead to a comprehensive and accessible yoga practice. 

What is your life like? What do you do the majority of the day? What time of year is it? 

The answers to these questions lay the foundation for the next steps. It expands the notion that no two yoga practices are alike and builds on the intention of a yoga sequence to create harmony between the mind, body, and soul.

Viniyoga asks you to look at the whole picture when designing a yoga practice for yourself or others. 

This connection is an intimate experience. 

a woman practicing chair yoga

Benefits of Viniyoga

There are so many benefits of a Viniyoga practice. 

With its adaptive approach, it supports practitioners of all ages and experiences. Personalized sequencing welcomes those with varying flexibility, range of motion, strength, or stamina.  

Viniyoga supports the numerous demands of life and the stress put on the body and mind. One great benefit of a Viniyoga practice is that it can be accessible and started at any stage of life. 

The components of the practice are not solely focused on the asana (yoga postures).

The physical sequencing can be a gentle yoga practice or more invigorating, depending on the day. 

The Lineage of Viniyoga 

The origins of Viniyoga can be said to be traced back to Nathamuni, a ninth-century South Indian Vaishnava Saint.

Nathamuni composed the Yoga-Rahasya text, and within these writings, the great significance of adapting yoga and therapeutic yoga was revealed. The Yoga-Rahasya was the first book focused on the diversity of the practitioner and inspired the Viniyoga we know today. 

The Yoga-Rahasya text became lost of over time. 

It wasn’t until the the early twentieth century that the teachings were rediscovered by a young boy. 

The Tale of a Young Viniyoga Yogi

There is a story of a very young yoga student named Tirumalai Krishnamacharya

This young yogi had a great desire to study yogic scripture. He was also known to be a direct descendant of the Saint Nathamuni. 

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya decided to take a pilgrimage to the Alvar Tirunagari Temple in Alwar Thirunagari, India where Nathamuni had resided.

When he arrived at the temple looking for Nathamuni, he was greeted by an older man. The man directed the young boy to first take a plunge in the river and then go to the mango grove where he could find Nathamuni. 

Krishnamacharya did as he was instructed, but after he came out of the river he laid upon the bank and fell asleep. It is said that there he received the Yoga-Rahasya directly from Nathamuni in the form of a dream.

a black and white photo of Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, founder of viniyoga
Tirumalai Krishnamacharya

Viniyoga the Accessible Yoga

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya (1888-1989) went on to bridge the gap within yoga, making it accessible to anyone who showed dedication regardless of gender, caste, age, or religion. 

Throughout many years, Krishnamacharya dedicated his time to adapting traditional yogasana to support the individual needs of his students. 

He connected the value of these ancient tools and methods and helped his students apply them to everyday life.

Tirumalai Krishnamacharya had many students he shared this theory of Viniyoga with, including BKS Iyengar, Pattabhi Jois, Indra Devi, and his son Tirumalai Krishnamacharya Venkata Desikachar. 

A Son Brings his Fathers Life’s Work of Viniyoga to Light 

Around the 1970s, Krishnamacharya’s son T.K.V. Desikachar (1938-2016), a student of his father for more than 30 years, began to share the application and the word Viniyoga to practitioners in the West.

With a similar vision to his father’s, Desikachar desired to make yoga more accessible. Not only the asana (yoga postures) but the theory as well. 

Derived from the concept explained in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, Vibuti Pada verse six, Desikachar started to call his therapeutic approach Viniyoga.

T.K.V. Desikachar became one of the most influential yoga therapists of our time. He helped many people heal through the application of Viniyoga or yoga therapy. 

He also taught other yoga teachers his father Krishnamacharya’s methods. 

T. K. V. Desikachar, founder of viniyoga
T. K. V. Desikachar

Desikachar, Shares Viniyoga

Years later, Gary Kraftsow, a 19-year-old religion major from Colgate University in the United States, traveled to Madras, India, to deepen his studies. While there, he met T.K.V. Desikachar and had the opportunity to study with him and learn more about the concepts of Viniyoga.

Kraftsow returned back to Madras after graduating in 1976, and by that time, T.K.V. Desikachar had founded the Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram center in Madras, India, in honor of his father. 

The center became a place to expand the studies of Viniyoga through asana, pranayama, chanting, and traditional yogic scripture. 

In 1983, Gary Kraftsow was given permission to impart others with the lineage of Viniyoga and went on to be the founder of the American Viniyoga Institute. 

Viniyoga Today

Throughout time Viniyoga developed into its own style and marketable brand. 

Yoga teachers began calling the therapeutic teachings learned from Desikachar Viniyoga, and it started to be used more often than the word yoga.

There does appear to be some controversy about whether Desikachar was supportive of the commercialization of Viniyoga. 

His students state that it was not his intention to replace the word “yoga” with “Viniyoga” but to emphasize the concept of Viniyoga inspired by the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali. 

Viniyoga Yoga as a Style

The style of Viniyoga is one of an individualized practice.

The practice is founded upon the concepts of asana, pranayama, and chanting. It brings forth the foundational approach as outlined in the translation of tasya bhūmiṣu viniyogaḥ.

Viniyoga is approached from a therapeutic perspective. It is most beneficial when practiced in a 1:1 teacher-student ratio.

This customized approach creates an environment to focus purely on the individual yogi to develop a practice to support their needs. 

Supporting you through Viniyoga

Allowing yoga to work for you rather than you working for the yoga transforms the practice.

This intention allows you to see who you truly are. 

Viniyoga creates a relationship with all aspects of the self, as well as an understanding of your physical being, your emotions, and your beliefs. 

The sequencing lends knowledge to how these layers relate to the world around you. This awareness invokes balance and harmony through the cultivation of love, compassion, and forgiveness. 

Viniyoga lays a foundation to grow.

For information on implementing Viniyoga in your practice, check out Healing with The Timeless Teachings Of Viniyoga, Yoga For Wellness by Gary Kraftsow. 

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Willow Marcotte is a Yoga Alliance 500 hour E-RYT with expertise in Yoga Nidra, Restorative Yoga, and alignment as taught by BKS Iyengar. Her journey in yoga began while studying Tibetan Buddhism and Meditation. A long-standing appreciation for philosophy and ancient texts, she found the path of yoga a welcoming, and natural progression of her personal interests. Willow invites students to dive into themselves, embracing balance not only on the mat, but in the yoga of life as well.

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