I love spending a few minutes before and after class chatting with my students about ‘things and stuff’ and every now and then, a discussion is shared about life’s challenges. The challenge of work and home, family and friends, trying to be everything to everyone, the challenge of finding time for you. The resolving theme to these challenges is invariably with the need to find balance. In the next few posts I will share ways you can work towards finding balance. Today we will check in with finding our balance in the physical body through Yin Yoga.
Ever heard of the poses frog, sleeping swan, shoelace, butterfly or dragon but have never know what it refers to? These are a few of the poses that make up the practice of yin yoga. At first glance they look like a regular stretch though when practiced in a yin way the results are very different. Let’s learn a bit about the concept of yin yoga.
After a yin class I am calm, emotionally balanced and have a sense of rejuvenation to face my usual hectic day. My body feels supple, taller and I have greater freedom in movement. I am ready to take on all that is thrown at me with a few handstands in between. When I practice yin in the evening I melt into my bed sheets and sleep a thousand nights in one. Naturally, I practice yin weekly to complement my yang practice.
So, what is the difference between yin and yang?
Yin and yang is a Taoist concept where the two must coexist together: yin cannot coexist without yang and yang cannot exist without yin. Yin is stable, while yang is changing and revealing. Yin is the calm and yang is the excited. Yin is the moon and yang is the sun. They are binary opposites, and compliment each other. Both aspects are always in flux and one needs the other to be present.
Think of a seesaw. When two people of similar size sit on each end what becomes after a few moments is a gentle swaying motion and balance is created. If one person were to jump off the seesaw this end would catapult into the heavens, while the other person is dropped to the earth. For there to be balance, it requires both people and both aspects. To be in balance is to have both aspects of yin and yang. When our body is experiencing too much of one element, perhaps a deficiency or an excess, the cure is to apply the opposite. Quite often we fail to recognise this or action to remedy it, and we end up suffering a lot harder for it. I see this a lot with my students who tend to ‘burn’ themselves to the point of fatigue instead of taking time to rest before getting to this point. In simple terms, our body is designed to be the happiest when in a state of wholeness and health. If you would like to learn more head over to yin yoga.
How does yin work within the body?
To keep the body functioning at its optimal there are ways to incorporate yin and yang movements in exercise regimes by taking a look at the tissues being targeted. Put simply:
- Yang exercise is dynamic and muscular and is characterised by repetition and rhythm. Yang targets our muscles, blood and skin; and increasing blood circulation and heat within the body. Through lengthening and contracting our muscles they become larger and stronger.
- Yin exercise is passive and soft, poses are held for longer durations of time. Yin targets the connective tissue such as the fascia, ligaments and bones of the body. Likened to plastic, the qualities of connective tissue are still and inelastic and require a gentle traction to stretch and rehabilitate. Perhaps you are familiar with ligaments, the strong, fibrous connective tissue attaching bone-to-bone, perhaps not so familiar with fascia. Fascia can be thought of as a three dimensional web, expanding from head to toe, surrounding and infusing every muscle, muscle fibre, blood vessel, nerve and organ in our body. Fascia is jelly like and performs its best when it is hydrated and juicy. One way to prevent our fascia from becoming dehydrated, stiff, weak and stuck is by targeting the fascia network through the practice of long, steady holds, incorporating breath work and relaxation, this is yin yoga.
Some other reasons to incorporate the practice of Yin:
Mentally conditions you to stay with intense sensations
Physically it helps to detoxify the deep tissues of our body
Promotes flexibility and range of motion
Regulates energy in the body
How does yin practice work?
Yin is characterised by gentle traction, stretching the connective tissue around the joints and holding a pose for several minutes. Connective tissue slowly changes when a moderate stress is maintained for 3 – 5 minutes. We do this to initiate a ‘phase change’ within the fluids of the connective tissue. Imagine the connective tissue as sponge completely filled with butter. When the butter is stiff it is hard to bend but as it softens it becomes easier to stretch and twist the sponge. When in the pose find a point where you are experiencing a slow and sustained pressure, if it is too much the muscle will contract and you are no longer targeting the connective tissue, instead the muscle is stretching and can cause tears, strains and consequent muscle soreness.
A yin practice is characterised by stillness of the body, mind and breath. Holding a pose for a longer duration of time trains you to become more comfortable with discomfort instead of being alarmed. The breath is calm, even and quiet. This allows a greater flow of prana (energy) through the tissues, promoting wellness and healing.
Immediately after the exercise the joint will feel fragile and vulnerable, this is yin. At this point respect the youthfulness of your body and know this will pass within 1-2 minutes. You may find it useful to practice a counter pose, a movement in the opposite direction helping the body return to neutral. Be sure to breath normally and relax on your back to feel the rebound.
Most significantly, the muscles in the target area need to be relaxed to stress the connective tissue. Yin yoga generally targets the area associated with the hips, pelvis and lower spine.
Are you familiar with the feeling of fatigue or burnout?
This can mean there is too much yang in your life.
Invite the cooling and calming effects of yin into your routine.
Try this now…
To recognise the different roles the muscles and ligaments play, try this exercise. Hold the right middle finger with the left hand, tense all the muscles in this middle finger and gently try to pull it away from the knuckle. Notice there is no movement. It is the role of the muscle to protect the joint and limit the range of movement. Give the hand a shake and repeat the exercise with the muscles of the middle finger passive. On this occasion, when you gently pull the middle finger of the hand, feel for the stretch at the joint nearest to the palm. Perhaps you will notice the space you have created? With relaxed muscles the stress is moved to the ligaments holding the joint together. In the first exercise we experienced yang like exercise and the second demonstrated how we target yin tissue.
Who is yin for?
- Athletes on their rest day receive the benefits of stretching without exhausting themselves.
- People who want to ‘get off the grid’, learn to calm the mind and turn inwards (in my next blog post we will look at this in more detail).
- Anyone trying to move towards the stillness of meditation.
Donna Zaffino was born to be upside down, enjoying her view of life from a different perspective to most. As a gymnast she understood her body’s kinaesthesia from a young age. This passion for body movement transferred into a Bachelor of Physical Health and Education and a Diploma of Education at The University of Western Australia. Yoga and meditation was a natural choice when confronted with the isolation of living remote. Her inquiry into yoga was great enough for Donna to study and be accredited within the ISHTA system and Yoga Australia. Within the last five years this practice has transformed her daily life from surviving to thriving.
Let her share more at The Roofless Shala and follow her on instagram @throoflessshala