My first Yin Yoga Class was at an ashram in Northern India. The teacher got us to hang passively in a standing forward bend, for 7 minutes. I remember feeling challenged, overwhelmed and somewhat angry. I could feel my face making wincing expressions as I suffered through 7 minutes of excruciating sensation in my lower back and hamstrings. The next few poses that followed were extreme hip openers and seated forward bends, again without props with the instruction of “allow your body to sink deeper into the pose”. My mind was overwhelmed by the ever-increasing sensations in my body, I did not feel supported or safe; and as much as the teacher commanded us to “relax”, I could feel my nervous system rebelling.
The irony is, I loved it! I loved the challenge I experienced in this first, rather intense Yin class. Like many “sensation junkies” it was the intensity of the poses that initially got me hooked to the practice. After all, “no pain no gain” right? I felt like I was really doing something in Yin Yoga!
Since that first Yin class, I have spent a lot of time with this passive style of yoga and my understanding has matured. I have come to realize that pushing to end range of motion without support is a very Yang way to practice Yin Yoga! When we meet Yin Yoga with a “no pain no gain” attitude, we not only miss out on many of the physiological benefits of passive stretching, we are also promoting a subtle attitude of aggression and discontentment with ourselves. This attitude of self-improvement is the opposite mind state that Yin Yoga intends to foster. After years of resisting props, I now fully embrace them especially when it comes to Yin Yoga. Here is why:
Props allow us to be Passive
Because the intention in Yin Yoga is to passively stretch, one of the first instructions given in a Yin class is to “relax”. The problem is our conscious mind does not have total control over the nervous system. One of the main jobs of our muscles is to keep our joints safe during movement; like the brakes to a car, they contract when they feel a joint may be threatened. For most people, many Yin Yoga poses taught without props will leave joints and bones hanging in a space that the nervous system deems vulnerable. It doesn’t matter how many times a teacher commands us to “relax”, if there is a bone hanging in space un-supported it may never actually achieve a truly passive state.
On the other hand, when a prop is holding up the bones, the muscles don’t have to fight against the pull of gravity. The nervous system registers this feeling of support and safety and we can actually be passive, rather than fatiguing our muscles through a long held pose.
Health, not Performance
Most people are drawn to yoga with hopes that it will make them more flexible. Being able to move functionally in a variety of different ranges of motion important, but how much flexibility do we actually need?
For many yogis, being able to “palm the floor” is a must for practice. Biomechanist Jules Mitchell pointed out to me last month that palming the floor is actually one of the tests used on the Beighton’s score to diagnose hypermobility syndrome. I think it is important to continually question your intention for practice. Why do we need to palm the floor, other than for Yoga performance? And is it really necessary to passively “sink deeper” into a Yin pose, when we are not training our muscles to be functional at that range of motion? While passive stretching may increase our range of motion over time (Kubo 2001), it is not the only benefit Yin Yoga offers.
My teacher Sarah Powers suggests that, like acupuncture, passive stretching stimulates the circulation of “chi” (Prana or energy) that flows throughout our fasciae planes. While there is no scientific literature that directly supports the existence of “chi flow”, Dr. Helene Langevin’s work suggests that both passive stretching for a long period of time, as well as acupuncture promotes changes to the internal shape of our fibroblast cells (the cells that lay down collagen and secrete enzymes). Her research done on rats (2012) also indicates that passive stretching can help mitigate inflammation. Whether you call it “chi flow”, or cellular signalling, passive stretching impacts the health of our tissues, which is far more valuable (I think) than simply becoming more flexible.
I will also add that in Dr. Langevin’s research, most of her (rodent) test subjects are held in a passive stretch at submaximal strain, and yet significant cellular changes were observed. To me, this suggests that we can still receive the benefits of a passive stretch without pushing to our end range of motion!
To Be or to Become, that is the question…
When we place ourselves in a Yin pose with the barrier of a prop, it not only tells our nervous system to relax, it can also hold our attention in a space of willingness to receive the moment, rather than a willfulness to change it.
What I mean is this: the quality of Yin fosters an attitude of being, while the energy of Yang represents an attitude of becoming. To become, is to grow, to achieve, and to change. This isn’t a bad thing, as we need the yang energy to help inspire our practice, to reach our goals and to make positive changes in our lives.The problem is that we can get stuck in this willful mind-state and we can miss the opportunity to really be– to soak up the present moment. When we are in the mind state of becoming, (like moving further into a pose) the present moment is diminished to something we are passing through in order to arrive at some imagined future. The tragedy is that this imagined future is only a mirage that puts us on a conveyer belt of continuous striving. After all, will there ever be a perfect reality? And if there is, how long will it last?
When we are in a Yin pose held within the support of a prop, there is nowhere to go and there is nothing to become. We can relax the need to be more flexible and meditate on the sensations in the body, emotional feeling tones and mind states as they pass by. Holding a Yin pose statically with the support of props allows us to simply watch our experience without the need to claim it, to tell it is wrong, to tell the moment “no, you shouldn’t be this way”. To me, this is the ultimate Yin; to let go of the need to control, push further or go anywhere, and to know at the deepest level that we have already arrived.
The Buddha said: “Do not lose yourself in the future…looking deeply at life as it is in the very here and now the practitioner dwells in stability and freedom”(Moffitt 1992). While there is never a perfect present moment, there only ever is a present moment. Landing our attention in a state of being we are willing to allow the present moment to bloom in all its imperfections; to be intimate with the layers that are unseen in our body and in our psyche. In my experience, a Yin practice that embodies this attitude takes on a richer, more powerful flavour that leads to insight and wellbeing.
Corey SM, Vizzard MA, Bouffard NA, Badger GJ, Langevin HM (2012) Stretching of the Back Improves Gait, Mechanical Sensitivity and Connective Tissue Inflammation in a Rodent Model. PLoS ONE
Keitaro Kubo, Hiroaki Kanehisa, Yasuo Kawakami, Tetsuo Fukunaga, (2001) Influence of static stretching on viscoelastic properties of human tendon structures in vivo
Lengevin H., (2013) The Science of Stretch: The study of connective tissue is shedding light on pain and providing new explanations for alternative medicine
Moffitt, P., (1992) Dancing With Life: Buddhist Insights for Finding Meaning and Joy in the Face of Suffering
Powers, Sarah (2013) Lecture at Won Dharma Centre, NY.