The New Year marks a New Beginning, a time for Mindful New Years Reflections
This is a great time for mindful new years’ reflections on where we are, where we have been, and where we are going. While setting aspirations for the New Year can inspire us to be the best version of ourselves, it can be easy to get stuck on feeling never good enough, and disappointed when we do not reach our goals.
The Buddha said that what we notice begins to GROW.
So instead of noting our failures of 2019 consider making a list of new years validations! This is a shortlist of your accomplishments. These are mindful new years’ reflections.
Make a note of all the ways in which you have triumphed, transcended, withstood or survived the past year.
Notice the ways, however small or large you have lived and loved well.
Make a point to highlight the occasions when you held to your truth, set boundaries, and make new choices. Remember the times you got back up after difficulties or failures. Honor those that have supported you, believed in you, and loved you along the way.
Although Yin Yoga and meditation have endless benefits, one of the main points I want to discuss today is how yin yoga improves your relationship with your body.
“What we cannot hold, we cannot process.
What we cannot process, we cannot transform.
What we cannot transform haunts us.”
– Joseph Bobrow
Our past lives in our bodies. And to the ancient Qigong masters, all physical and mental diseases arise from unseen, unprocessed and dormant emotions hidden in our tissues.
Those energies stuffed down will haunt us as chronic pain, sickness, and even cancer. Like the dust-bunny left upswept from below our bed, the longer we avoid them, the bigger they grow.
So many of us in our modem world stay disassociated from our bodies because we are afraid to feel. We stay in the conceptualization of disease, rather than dive into the felt sense of its root cause. We walk around like a head on a pole, hoping that someone will fix our body, as though it were a machine that has failed us.
It is not wrong to be afraid.
Staying in our head is easier because it provides the illusion that we are in control. When we journey into the body, we quickly realize we are out of control because the body is a part of nature.
The body is wild.
It doesn’t lie; it doesn’t know how.
It doesn’t weave complex narratives to justify feeling.
The body simply feels.
Practicing Yin Yoga Improves Your Relationship with Your Body
The practice of yin yoga is about re-establishing a relationship with your body – a relationship that doesn’t objectify or establish dominance, but one that is truly caring and helps to renew our intuitive capacities.
Unlike hatha yoga, whose modern version focuses on enhancing seamless postures and flexibility,
Yin Yoga’s Sole purpose is to Awaken Inner Listening (Interoception)
And also to allow energy to flow through the forgotten channels of the body.
The Taoists say that the human body is a microcosm of the universe; every organ has its own unique wisdom, intelligence and spirits that mirror the intelligence of heaven and earth. When we listen to our body, we listen to the elements of earth, the virtues of heaven, and the wisdom that is expressed in all beings ever created. This knowledge is far more vast and rich than the cut-off, top-down approach of a head-centered life. It is said that the ancient yogis had awakened feeling in every patch of skin, and every organ of their body, even their brain.
If we are truly interested in awakening, we must let consciousness infiltrate every inch of our body, including the dark corners.
When we first begin practicing, it is not uncommon to be met by the realities of how we have abandoned our body.
Aches and pains, unprocessed memories and emotions are likely to surface.
Yin yoga gives us the container to hold what arises.
To feel it, process it, and transform it. Patience and skillful teachers and therapists can help us navigate this terrain. Over time though, the terrain evens out, and the clarity emerges from the depth of this wilderness is more robust than the thin floor of avoidance we had been tiptoeing along for so many years.
What we feared becomes our refuge; a wisdom space that reminds us of our inherent belonging and timeless connection.
Practicing Yin Yoga improves your relationship with your body. When we practice Yin Yoga, we can become more powerful, more resourceful, more full versions of ourselves.
For those of you who are interested in deepening your practice, I teach Yin Yoga Teacher Trainings, Level 1 and 2, so you can learn more about this intensely intimate practice.
Yin Yoga is not a self-improvement project. So, what is Yin Yoga?
Our Yin Yoga practice is a time where we practice being mindful.
To be mindful simply means being where we are, exactly as we are, in the most minimal and uncomplicated way.
Mindfulness is not a state of mind we are trying to achieve, but rather an ability to host all states – whether they are joyful, restless, anxious or apathetic.
Yin is where we have time to integrate all the aspects of our fragmented selves:
the undigested experiences,
the tight places of our body,
and the dark corners of our hearts.
While we may aspire towards a calmer mind and a more flexible body, we cannot grow these ambitions if we don’t start where we are and take time to honor each part of ourselves which needs care and attention.
So, what is Yin Yoga?
Yin Yoga is the act of mindfulness. It is the act of bringing more clarity and freedom into your life.
My next Yin training coming up at the end of January will focus on seeing our experience through a beginner’s mind- as this is the very essence of mindfulness.
This first module (Level 1) of the 70-hour Yin Yoga Teacher Training program will provide you with the foundations to teach a yin yoga class with confidence and a thorough understanding of the physical body and mindfulness meditation. To further extend your studies, I also offer a Level 2 Yin Yoga Teacher Training.
We will be covering the basics of mindfulness meditation, and Chinese energy medicine as concepts to help heal our body, heart, and mind.
While we will cover how to sequence and teach a yin class, my programs are experiential.
This means that the training is open to anyone who simply wants to learn more about the practice of Mindfulness.
In our time together, we will talk about how to cultivate this quality of curiosity in our practice and how that attitude can open to many possibilities.
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!