To define Yin Yoga one must first have an understanding of Yang Yoga. That’s usually how it goes; two opposites come together like perfectly matched puzzle pieces to create a seamless and well balanced whole. A Yang Yoga practice is characterized by vigorous heat building sequences and a strong focal point, usually the sensation of the breath and body moving together. There are many other words used to define this approach including, vinyasa, flow, power and hot yoga. The majority of the classes I offer at Taj Yoga in the Crown Hill neighborhood of Seattle, Washington fall into the yang category. LauraNidra Yoga marries the Ashtanga and Universal traditions of Yoga to generate heat or intensity (tapas) in body and mind. Though I do offer weekly Yin Yoga and Yoga Nidra classes, it makes sense that majority of the classes follow the yang model; we spend so much time in our head that it can take a physically challenging class to bring awareness to the body. The body is an excellent place to start, however, as it is lovely window to the more subtle layers of our being, energetic, emotional and intellectual.
When practicing Yoga of any form there is always an opportunity to notice the subtle and sometimes obvious ways in which the body embodies all of our experiences, physical, mental, emotional, energetic and even chemical (i.e. what you put in the body). Have you ever been practicing a pose, say pigeon, and suddenly been overwhelmed with the urge to cry right then and there in the middle of class for no apparent reason? This is what I’m talking about. A teacher that graced my study of Yoga for a short period once shared that the physical body is in the shape of the energetic body. The energetic body is not limited to the breath but is a coalescence of every experience you have ever had right up until the eternal moment of now. The physical body is a living map of this history and we each vibrate, or AUM if you will, at a unique frequency.
In a perfect world we would have ample time to process and integrate each experience physically, energetically and often emotionally. Unfortunately, we don’t often have or make the time for this important work and the body, in effort to compensate and perhaps protect, forges alliances that don’t always serve us. For example, long after the physical body has healed from a particular trauma it may still hold onto the past in a way that manifests as physical guarding, stiffness or pain. Note that physical injury not required and this can happen with the occurrence of emotional or psychological trauma alone. Left unattended for several years this can start to interfere with the life we desire to live, physically and energetically, and can create serious dis-ease. I’m not criticizing. We haven’t the built in ‘shake it off’ system discussed by Peter Levine in his book ‘Waking the Tiger;’ an animal instinct literally hardwired into a dear, for example, after narrowly escaping the hypnotizing spell of headlights. Dr. Holly Hochstadt of Inner Brilliance Chiropractic once shared that these areas of discomfort are stored potential, energy and brilliance. I agree and this knowing encourages me to safely inquire into the parts of my body that whisper and sometimes yell at me for attention. The body is wise and the light that lives within in it shines brighter when we listen and welcome it just as it is.
If Yang Yoga helps us to establish an awareness of the multidimensionality of our physical presence, Yin Yoga helps us to reinforce it. In my practice I have found that Yin Yoga can be just as intense as its more dynamic counterpart, if not more so. I have also found that constant movement, like music, can be a distraction or a tool for avoiding the proverbial skeletons in our hips, shoulders, bellies and jaws. Yin Yoga is a quite and contemplative practice done low to the ground using a receptive field of awareness. Holding poses for an extended period of time is one of the signature characteristics of a yin practice. What starts out as a juicy and delightful stretch can quickly turn into an agitating and anxiety-provoking trap. My Ashtanga and Yin teacher, Troy Lucero, is always careful to note the difference between agitation and true-violence or suffering and injury. Usually, if I am honest with myself, my desire to leap out of the pose, screaming, crying or sometimes both, is a result of the former. And so with no other choice, I go deep into the heart of the sensation.
Remember the lyrics to the childhood song, ‘Going on a Lion Hunt?’
Going on a lion hunt. I’m not afraid. Look, what’s ahead? Yikes, fill in the blank! Can’t go over it. Can’t go under it. Can’t go around it. Gotta go through it.
This is the passive-active process my Yoga Nidra teacher Richard Miller calls welcoming. Richard also shares that every sensation, emotion, thought and belief points in the direction of our True Nature. So, it seems, that it is in our best interest to welcome the full spectrum of sensation in order to meet Rumi in his non-dualistic field beyond right-doing and wrong-doing.
If you’ve read this far and you’re still looking for hard facts regarding the physical benefits of a Yin Yoga practice, I suggest you read Paul Grilley’s “Yin Yoga.” Grilley shares that Yang Yoga focus on the muscles through rhythmic movements while Yin Yoga focus on the connective tissue through slow moderate stretching. Muscles are filled with fluids, mostly water, and become soft and elastic during all forms of yang exercise. Connective tissue (truly all pervasive in the body but for Grilley’s purposes refer to ligaments and fascia), on the other hand, lack the fluidity of muscles and, as a result, are naturally stiff and inelastic. Grilley states, “Connective tissue doesn’t respond to rhythmical stretches the way muscles do. Connective tissues are tough and fibrous and stretch best when pulled like taffy (i.e. slow and steady)…Further, in order to stretch the connective tissue, the muscles must be relaxed.” Grilley continues, “As important as it is to our physical and mental well-being to be strong it is not muscular strength that gives us the feeling of ease and lightness in the body, it is the flexibility of the joints, of the connective tissue.” He cites that it is joint pain not muscular injury that causes old people to hobble around and professional athletes to retire. In the end, Yin and Yang Yoga compliment each other as well as the ancient symbol but Yin Yoga specifically, through gentle stretching, rehabilitates the connective tissues that form our joints and leave us feeling an incredible lightness of being.
If nothing more, practices such as Yoga Nidra and Yin Yoga are excellent opportunities to rest in stillness and restore the nervous system. I know I am constantly going, teaching, working, organizing and doing. I spend a lot of time in the sympathetic nervous system and, as a result, in a perpetual shade of flight or flight. The one or two times a week that I intentionally come to a full stop are rich and rewarding on so many levels. Taking time to surrender and let go is vital if we are to be able to harness the full power of our sympathetic nervous system in times of true emergency. We all know what happens to the Shepard boy who cried wolf. Quite practices such as these move the body deep into the parasympathetic nervous system allowing the adrenaline and cortisol valves to turn off and the feel good, healing hormones such as serotonin to flood the body. This immediately lowers stress, reduces heart rate and blood pressure, strengthens the immune system and lifts overall mood. This is the post-savasana bliss we all know and love!! Finally, an addiction we can feel good about. After an hour of sympathetic nervous system based Yang Yoga the body is primed and ready to sink deep into relaxation. Conversely, an hour of Yin Yoga can prepare the mental and energetic bodies for an even more profoundly present moving meditation or Yang style class. The Yin and the Yang are truly inseparable; where there’s a Yin there’s always a Yang.