The poem I am reading in class this week and posted below, speaks to the fundamental reason why we practice: to STOP and listen.
In our modern world, we can get so swept away by the routine and pace of our life, that we fail to take the time to stop. Even if our actions are wholesome and aligned with our deepest intentions, sometimes the mind can get a little clouded or “mucky”. It is sort of like driving down a gravel road- dust gets churned up. Meditation and Yoga are like stopping on the dirt road and letting all the dust settle so you can see clearly. Then you have time to look around, re-route, re-evaluate, and perhaps re-direct.
by Martha Postlewaite
Do not try to save the whole world or do anything grandiose. Instead, create a clearing in the dense forest of your life and wait there patiently, until the song that is your life falls into your own cupped hands and you recognize and greet it.
Only then will you know how to give yourself to this world so worth of rescue.
How to create a clearing:
1: Take 5
Stop whatever you are doing. Get up from the computer, turn off your device. Light a candle. Lay on your bed or take a walk outside.
2: Come into your body
In Chinese energetic medicine, intelligence does not come from the brain, rather, from our body, through the energy and spirit of our organs. Because Chi (energy) follows attention, if we drop our attention into our body, our Chi flows there, and we have access to their wisdom. After a yoga session, students often come up to me and say that they have found a solution to their problem, or have a new great idea for a project. Meditation teacher and Psychotherapist also speaks beautifully to this concept of body intelligence:
“The more we come home to our bodies, the more access we have to our creativity & intelligence- we stay up in our minds because we actually think it’s going to take us to better places. But if we can stay at home in our body our thoughts actually spring forth in a more rich and fresh way- thoughts become more creative and useful.”
Excercise, Yoga, meditation, can be an excellent way to come from the head and into the body. Feeling the hands, face, feet and inside the mouth, in particular, helps drop the mind into the body, as these areas have the most neural tissue.
3: The Sacred “No”
The sacred “no” is about taking a break from the endless internal dialogue that creates so much noise in our mind. Thinking is not bad, but it takes energy. To create a clearing, we want to take a break from discursive thinking. In Tibet, there is a saying that “meditation is a holiday for the heart”. Saying no to thinking does not mean thoughts won’t come to the mind. It just means we are not feeding the storyline with our energy.
There are various meditation techniques that can help with this. I have included a simple “counting” meditation that I find helpful to create a clearing in my life. So If you can’t make it to class, take 5 min to stop and recharge.
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!
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.
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!
“Yin Yoga” seems to be the new buzz in the yoga community. What exactly is Yin Yoga and why practice it? Studying this style of yoga for many years, I have formulated a rather lengthy definition, which I will only begin in my first post. The definition of Yin Yoga is continually changing and deepening for me. Over a series of blog posts I hope to unpack some of the unique theories, concepts and benefits that Yin Yoga has to offer.
Yin Yoga is Exercise
On the coarsest level, Yin Yoga is the practice of long held floor poses practiced with the intention of passively exercising our tissues. A passive, relaxing activity like Yin Yoga doesn’t usually pop into mind when we think of the word “exercise”. When think of the word “exercise” we often pair it with the word “exertion” and have a picture in our mind of a bulky guy at the gym, or a sweaty girl on a treadmill. But exercise does not always take this form.
The theory of exercise states that we must apply moderate stress on our tissues, followed by adequate recovery, in order to maintain their strength and health. The bulky guy at the gym, for an example, places dynamic rhythmic stress on his body through lifting weights, and after appropriate recovery his muscles will grow back stronger (and perhaps to his hopes, bigger). Yin Yoga works in a similar way, but the means, process and benefits are different.
The Yin Yoga Model
The Yin Yoga Model, proposed by Paul Grilley and expanded upon by Sarah Powers and Bernie Clark, suggest that some tissues in our body are more “yang” in nature, such as our muscle fibers, which have a high moisture content and are more elastic, while others are more “yin” in nature, such as our fascial and connective tissue, which are dryer and more plastic. Our “yang” tissues, respond best toexercise that is more yang in nature, such as exercises that are dynamic and rhythmic, while our Yin tissues respond best to slow static stress.
In Yin Yoga, the long held poses are intended to apply a static stress on the ligaments, bones, joints and fascia sheets. When we practice passive stretching and hold for an extended length of time, collagen fibers become stronger, better organized, and more lubricated after recovery. So although Yin Yoga is intended to bring about a mood of relaxation and contemplation, we are still “exercising” our tissues when performing Yin Yoga poses.
Both Paul Grilly and Bernie Clark insist that Yin Yoga is not meant to exist on it’s own, but rather, work in partnership with dynamic “yang” practices of asana, or other strengthening activities, so that both Yang (muscles) and Yin (connective tissue) aspects of our physical body are exercised.
Over several years of practicing, teaching, and studying Yin Yoga, I can’t help but question some aspects of this model. Although separating our tissues into Yin and Yang categories helps us understand what we are doing to our connective tissue in a passive pose, and even more importantly, how to keep our joints safe in an active pose, the oversimplified explanation that “yin exercise is for our yin tissues, and yang exercise is for our yang tissues” departs from the underlying truth that our body is an interconnected entity.
The Yin and Yang symbol reminds us that nothing is ever all Yin or all Yang, rather the two energies are continually at play to formulate a functional whole. While Yin is represented as the black swirl and the yang is the white, the black dot in the white space reveals that Yin exists within Yang, and the white dot in the black space shows that Yang exists within Yin. In our body, this same principal applies. No tissues are entirely Yin, and no tissues are entirely Yang, and most importantly, they are part of an interconnected whole.
While some tissues may be more moist and elastic (yang) and some more dry and plastic (yin) whatever exercise you are performing regardless of the intent, stress is applied on the whole system. Muscle fibers, for an example, grow within facial tissue, and while the intent is not to strengthen them in a yin practice, you are inevitably putting stress upon them (I believe that more research needs to be done on the affect passive stretching has on our muscle fibres) Similarly, in an active yoga class, you are applying load on the whole system during your sun salutations, including your joints, fascia and bones. So my question is this: Is the difference between active (yang) and passive (yin) yoga less about what we are exercising and more in how we are exercising? The body adapts to the kind of stress that is placed upon it. A Yang Yoga practice adapts our tissues to become strong in a dynamic way, training our body to be functional and strong within different ranges of motion. Performing dynamic exercises, trains all of our tissues to withstand load in a dynamic and active way; we earn how to access our strength and breath more effectively and efficiently.
On the other hand, Yin yoga trains the fabric of our body to withstand load over longer periods of time, enhancing the lubrication and moisture content in our tissues, particularly around joint sites. As well, Yin exercise trains our muscles to relax within different ranges of motion, engaging with our parasympathetic nervous system. It gives us time to feel and explore the inner environment of our body and mind. One of the greatest benefits of Yin Yoga is that we are given time to contemplate, breathe and feel the physical, energetic, and mental layers of our being. I will entertain these benefits in my next post on Yin Yoga!
To take a Yin class with me, please visit my schedule. I hope to see you on your mat!