One of the qualities I appreciate most about Yin Yoga is that the practice is about the inner experience of one’s pose, rather than striving for some idealized “correct” or “incorrect” alignment. Yin Yoga is not about what you look like! I find that when my students know this, the practice of yin yoga takes on a softer, more all-inclusive flavour, which supports relaxation and inner exploration. In this post I am going to talk about how we find alignment in Yin Yoga based on a pose’sTarget Area and one’s Appropriate Edge. I will also discuss the intention behind Yin Yoga poses, and the reason why it is taught based on feel rather than form.
What is your intention?
When I first began teaching yoga I was keen to learn the “right way” to teach yoga asana. Over the course of many trainings, workshops and self study, I found it frustrating that every yoga teacher and tradition had a slightly different opinion on what they viewed as “right” and what they viewed as “wrong”. The more I studied, the more confused I became. When I took my first Yin training with Bernie Clark, whenever we asked him a question seeking a concrete answer he would often reply saying: “It depends. Never is never right, and always is always wrong… what is your intention?”
Intention must always be considered when determining how to align your body in asana. Is the intention of the pose to make a pretty “advanced” looking posture for your Facebook profile picture? Is your intention to access strength within the pose, and, if so, what muscle groups? Is your intention to promote relaxation? Or is your intention to therapeutically stress connective tissue, and if so, what tissues? Since intention is always changing, isn’t alignment always changing? Is there ever any “right” alignment? I would argue no, but let’s save this broader discussion on alignment for a different post! I want to stay on the topic of alignment in Yin Yoga specifically.
As discussed in my previous post, Yin Yoga is Exercise, the intention behind the shapes we make in Yin Yoga are indented to put a mild compressive and or tensile load on our tissues. In a Yin Yoga pose, we want to feel a stretch or compression, significant enough to promote change, but mild enough so the body can relax. We therefore find alignment in Yin Yoga by considering two things:
1 ) Target Area
The target area is simply the area in the body we most want to direct the stress. Let’s use swan pose, more commonly known as pigeon pose, for an example. The target area in swan pose is the lateral hip, as shown by the red dotted line in the above photo.Some of my students, however, have reported to me that they feel swan pose more in the back leg hip flexor, a “pinching” in the front leg groin line, or pain in the knee. If this is happening, I will offer them one of these variations:
The first variation is commonly known as “Dear Pose”, with the back leg brought forward. This variation will take pressure off the knee, for those of us with less external rotation in our hip. The angles of the back and front leg can be adjusted until the sensation feels right. The next two poses are the same, often called “thread the needle” or “figure 4 pose”, but one uses a wall to alleviate the work in the arms.
The poses above all look different than swan pose, but have the same intention of placing a mild tensile load on the outer hip facial plane (as indicated by the red dots). Because these variations are intended to target the same area they are all “correct alignments”.
My point is this: It does not matter if the shinbone is parallel to the top of the mat, or if the back leg is extended straight back in “alignment” with the front hip. In Yin Yoga, we are required to let go of the idea of what a pose should look like on the outside, and sink into what the pose should feel like on the inside. I encourage my students to choose any of these variations when I cue “swan pose” (or other creative innovations) that are effective in stressing their outer hip. Because all bodies are built differently, alignments are going to be unique to the person preforming the pose, depending on joint angles, personal history, or injuries.
2) Appropriate Edge
The second factor that needs to be considered when finding alignment in Yin Yoga, is what we call “the Appropriate Edge”. The Appropriate Edge means that the sensation in the target area has the following three qualities:
The sensation is mild
Less is more. When we are holding poses between 3 and 7 min, we want to start at about a 3 or 4 out of 10 in intensity (10 being most intense and 1 being no sensation). This allows the body to relax over time, making the pose more effective. I always tell my students that depth in Yin Yoga is not measured by how far you go in the pose, but on the quality of your attention, and ability to access stillness. Bernie Clark refers to this as the “goldilocks position”. Not too much, not too little, but just right.
The sensation is broad.
When we are moving into a Yin shape, it is important that the sensation is not focused over a small surface area. That is, if you can point at the sensation with the tip of your finger, I would recommend adjusting. Feeling sharp localized pain, especially close to the attachment or insertion points of a muscle or tendon, can indicate you have gone too far, chosen the wrong variation, or need more props.
The sensation is sustainable.
Yin Yoga is like a long distance race- so don’t sprint out of the blocks! In Yin Yoga we are holding poses for 3-7 minutes, (not 5 breaths) so it’s important not to go too far too soon. Yin Yoga is a practice of stillness, and if the edge you choose is too intense, it makes accessing a still body and still mind difficult. Especially if you are new to Yin Yoga, consider choosing an edge that is a 2 out of 10 on the intensity scale. You can always move deeper over time, but it is better to practice relaxing within the shape, rather than trying to grit your teeth and push through it. As well, use props! Props can help us relax into the shape and tells our nervous system we are safe.
I find that many students, who are new to the practice of Yin Yoga, are concerned whether that they are preforming the pose “right or wrong”. Almost every time I teach a yin class I get asked, “am I doing this right? “My answer to them every time is “how is does it feel?” Because at the end of the day Yin Yoga is a subjective experience that exists beyond “right” and “wrong” spheres.
I know yoga teachers and and practitioners alike who cringe when they hear that Yin Yoga throws the traditional paradigm of “correct alignment” out the window. I don’t think that Yin Yoga disregards alignment altogether, rather, the alignment is found through ones own experience of feeling into the target area and choosing an edge that is appropriate for them. The alignment is “right” if the sensation is mild, broad, and in the proposed target area. Practicing in this way honors the uniqueness of one’s body, emphasizes intention over form, and encourages an inner exploration of body and mind.
If you are interested in trying out one of my Yin classes, check out my schedule!