The power of Yin yoga is time, not effort.Paul Grilley
Yin & Yang Balance
When exercising, generally, we focus on dynamic and repetitive movement. In a team sport, in the gym, running, in Pilates. In yang yoga ( we call it yang yoga for now to distinguish between the two different styles ) we move from one pose to the next with fully engaged muscles. In yang yoga, poses are typically held for 10 to 30 seconds.
While all of these forms of exercise are very good for you, they are, after all, only covering half the picture. An active, dynamic workout addresses the yang side of your connective tissues, strengthens your muscles and builds endurance. But, you also want to get the other half. The yin half. You want to apply yin stress to your connective tissues!
Connective Tissues (CT)??
So what are the connective tissues in your body exactly? As the name clearly indicates, those tissues connect body parts, parts in your skeletal and muscular systems. Some of them are more “elastic” than others. Bones are the most “plastic” of them all whereas muscles are clearly the most “elastic”.
Connective tissue 101, in very simple terms: A joint is a point of connection of 2 bones. Ligaments connect bone to bone and at our joints we find multiple ligaments. Tendons connect muscle to the bone. By definition, at our joints, therefore we have a multitude of CT ( bones, ligaments, muscles, tendons ). Fascia, a connective tissue “scaffold” covers all of the above and weaves through all of the above. 30% of what we call our muscle is actually fascia. Muscle and fascia are referred to as myofascia.
Why Stress the Connective Tissue (CT)?
Astronauts lose 15-20% of bone density while in space because of being in a weightless environment. Lucky for them of course they regain it once they are back on our beautiful planet. If bones are not stressed, in a good way, they degenerate. Joints will atrophy.
If you overstress joints, they will get injured. If we gently stress and stimulate CT, it will adapt and improve. It is an antiquated idea that ligaments don’t stretch and that they are inanimate. It used to be taught: If you stretch them 1) no success and 2) if you were successful your joint now would be destabilized. And then later in life you would end up with arthritis. Those ideas are no longer relevant.
Ligaments lengthen and contract every day. Contracture is a very slow and unnoticeable process. Soft tissues contract and become less elastic day after day after day…. so you want to stress them to keep them healthy. Over-stressing a tissue will deteriorate it, but under-stressing will limit your mobility.
Yin Yoga versus Yang Yoga
Ligaments, muscles and tendons are stabilizing the joints, protecting them from damage when we do dynamic activities. This is why, in yang yoga, we put so much emphasis on the alignment and properly engaging the muscles in our asana practice. Yang yoga is designed to not stress the joint. Yin Yoga however is specifically designed to exercise, or better, “stress” the ligaments and the joints – to regain and maintain mobility in our joints and flexibility in our bodies. The key is to mindfully and gently stress the tissues at the joints. If the muscles are warm and engaged, they tend to absorb most of the impact of the yoga pose. This is why we aim for our muscles to be relaxed and inactive in yin yoga while remaining in the pose so that the impact reaches the ligaments and the joints. Yin stresses are very modest; they are considered long, sustained therapeutic stresses. In yin yoga we mainly address the navel to knee area of our bodies. Yin poses are primarily floor poses and are held for several minutes (2-5).
The Three Elements of Yin Yoga
Come into the pose at an appropriate depth. Resolve to remain still. Hold the pose for an extended time.
Coming into the pose, you go only to the point where you feel a noticeable resistance in your body. This is defined as your “edge”. Once you have found the edge, not too deep into it or too little, you settle into the pose and commit to stillness. The edge is at about 60% of what your maximum depth/stretch would be and in most cases this will already mean a certain level of discomfort. Yin yoga is not meant to be comfortable (unlike restorative yoga) and it will take you out of your comfort zone. Much of the benefit of the practice will come from staying in this zone of discomfort, even if you urgently want to get out of the pose. This is part of the practice! Dull sensations and discomfort are to be expected. As long as you are not experiencing pain, remain! Pain is a clear signal to come out immediately, but mindfully!
The Two Fundamental Stresses of Yin Yoga: Tension and Compression
Yin poses create two different stresses in our muscular and skeletal systems. Soft tissue tension and bone compression determine how you feel in the pose and how you do the pose. Tension refers to the flexibility/extensibility in your soft tissues, in your myofascia. Compression takes place when you have reached the maximum range of motion in a joint segment, when the shape of your bones stops you from going any further. Every bone in every body is different. Even in one body there can be significant differences between the left and the right side of the skeleton; every yogi has a unique build and skeletability. There is no such thing as “a right way” of doing a yin pose. Resolving to stillness and observing sensations in the body is a guiding aspect of a yin practice.
Feel the rebound! Tension and compression momentarily inhibit the flow of prana or chi (the life force) and it is during the rebound that we experience energy flowing through our systems again. That is why in yin yoga we take the time to remain in a stretched out position, supine or prone, as we check in with our bodies.
Physical benefits of Yin Yoga Practice
- Improved range of motion in joints and flexibility.
- Bone Compression improves bone density and prevents/reduces atrophy in joints.
- Lengthened muscles through stressing the fascial bags in and around the muscles.
- Ligaments become thicker and stronger.
Energetic Benefits of Yin Yoga Practice
- Awakens, enhances, and balances prana and flow of chi
- Nourishes the organs through acupressure via compression of meridian lines
- Increases level of neurotransmitter GABA
Heart and Mind Benefits of Yin Yoga Practice
Resolving to remain still in the posture is the magic ingredient that benefits us mentally and emotionally. While finding calmness and staying in a pose, even if we desperately want to come out of it, we learn to apply the same skill in other life situations.
Practicing mindfulness in yin yoga we learn a tool for our everyday lives and also discover a means to achieving wellness.
- Turns off the Sympathetic Nervous System (fight or flight mode) and turns on the Parasympathetic Nervous System (rest and digest mode)
- Improves blood pressure and lowers heart rate
- Aids digestion
- Decreases inflammation
- Strengthens immune system
Yin Yoga is slow and deliberate, simple but challenging.
Paul Grilley ( founder of Yin Yoga ) and Bernie Clark ( leading Yin yoga teacher ) have both published numerous books and educational videos/DVDs . Much of my knowledge shared in this blog comes from these sources. Their insights and wisdom have formed a fundamental part of my Yin Yoga Teacher Training.