What is yin yoga?
The Intention of Yin Yoga:
Yin Yoga is unique to all other systems of yoga and exercise because the intention of our Yin practice is to stress our joints. Stressing our joints means to place gentle stress on the ligaments (connecting bone- to- bone) and the connective tissue- the fascia- surrounding our joints. Yikes! That sounds intense! In order to understand how this is a safe and beneficial thing to do, we must first understand the Theory of Exercise…
The Theory of Exercise:
Put simply, the theory of exercise states that: all living tissues in our bodies must be stressed. We know and understand this when we think of working our muscles: we know that if we work out, either by going to the gym or playing a sport or doing any physical activity, that our muscles become stronger and healthier. This need to work our ligaments is true too, we just need to work them in a different way. Think of orthodontics: to repeatedly wiggle a tooth back and forth will eventually result in injuring the tooth to the point that it falls out. This would be a yang way of exercising a yin tissue. Rather, the most effective way to change the tissues of the teeth and jaw bone is with braces i.e gentle traction over an extended period of time; this is exactly what we do in our Yin Yoga practice. For a long time (and still today in some circles) it is considered dangerous and injurious to stress our ligaments. This comes from the outdated notion that ligaments are inert and that to stress a ligament is to damage it. In fact, our ligaments lengthen and contract everyday; they are very much alive. And just like our muscles, if they are not stressed, they will atrophy. Over a period of time of being unused, they will contract and this contracture will ultimately lead to a joint becoming immobilised. When this happens, all the tissues around the joint will degenerate. Immobilisation has huge ramifications for our physical and mental well- being. The theory of exercise, then, reminds us to: “Use it or lose it”.
How Can We Safely Stress our Ligaments?
Yin Yoga is founded on the Daoist principle of complementary opposites: dark/ light, cold/ hot, passive/ active… YIN/ YANG. For the Daoists, these contrasting elements (that can be found in all aspects of our lives, and, indeed, the Universe) must be in balance for health and harmony to be created. Yin and Yang always require context- what is yin in one context, will be yang in another. For the context of our bodies and our yoga practice, our living tissues can be divided into Yin and Yang:
Yang tissues: muscles, blood, skin.
Yin tissues: ligaments, bones and joints.
Our Yang tissues are akin to elastic: they respond well to dynamic exercise, i.e. rhythm and repetition.
Our Yin tissues are akin to plastic: they respond well to stasis (being still) and time (traction).
It will generally be a bad idea to treat elastic tissues as if they were plastic and vice versa. It is because we tend to think of exercise in its yang form- rhythm and repetition- that we think we should not exercise a joint.
How to Practice Yin Yoga:
There are 3 principles to observe in Yin Yoga to practice it safely and effectively:
Find your edge:
Bernie Clark, one of the leading teachers of Yin Yoga, calls this “The Goldilocks Position” that sweet spot, where we have not pushed ourselves so far that we are in pain, but equally that we are not so tentative that we don’t feel anything at all. I would describe the sweet spot as feeling mildly uncomfortable, or “sweet discomfort” if I want to sound all yoga teacher-y about it. It can be strong, but not so strong that you can’t bear it, and never so strong that you are in pain.
2) Remain still:
Once we have found our edge, we choose to be still. I have emphasised the fact that this is a choice, because it is often here that we are met with the activity of our minds, the little voice that encourages you to shift around, that you’ve had enough, that you’ve been doing this long enough and you should just come out. In this way, the challenge of the practice often isn’t due to the physical body, but with meeting our busy minds. For many, we are at the mercy of our thoughts, we don’t necessarily know that we can simply observe the thoughts without acting on them. Yin is an antidote to Yang. Our high energy, dynamic and, arguably, over stimulating modern lifestyles mean that we are increasingly unfamiliar and perhaps uncomfortable, with being still with ourselves, free from distractions, for an extended period of time. Sometimes we choose to fill our lives and keep ourselves busy exactly so that we never have to experience this stillness. In the beginning, a 5 minute hold can feel like an eternity. Resisting the urge to fidget may be the biggest challenge you face in the beginning of your Yin Yoga practice. This is normal. But with practice, it can help us to access the place of The Witness; each Yin pose becomes an opportunity for a mini meditation.
3) Hold for Time:
In Yin Yoga, we hold our postures for anything between 2- 10 minutes (sometimes longer). Again, this goes back to our understanding of the Theory of Exercise: in order to stimulate and strengthen our yin tissues, they must be stressed, statically, for minutes at a time.
It is time, not intensity that is the magic ingredient in Yin Yoga.