Yin Yoga Introduction
Yin Yoga Introduction
Every meditator knows the pain of stiff knees and an aching back. By stretching theconnective tissue, Yin Yoga can condition you to sit longer— and more comfortably.
By Paul Grilley
Conventional yoga wisdom holds that nothing prepares your body for hours of seatedmeditation as well as regular asana practice. But when I began to explore more intensivemeditation sessions, I discovered to my chagrin that years of sweaty vinyasa and masteryof fairly advanced poses hadn't made me immune to the creaky knees, sore back, andaching hips that can accompany long hours of sitting practice.
Fortunately, by the time I got serious about meditation, I'd already been introduced to theconcepts of Taoist Yoga, which helped me understand my difficulties in sitting. I found thatwith some simple additions to my yoga practice, I could sit in meditation with ease, freefrom physical distractions. Taoist Yoga also helped me see that we can combine Westernscientific thought with ancient Indian and Chinese energy maps of the body to gain deeperunderstanding of how and why yoga works.
The Tao of Yoga
Through deep meditation, the ancient spiritual adepts won insight into the energy systemof the body. In India, yogis called this energy prana and its pathways nadis; in China,the Taoists called it qi (pronounced chee) and founded the science of acupuncture, whichdescribes the flow of qi through pathways called meridians. The exercises of tai chi chuanand qi gong were developed to harmonize this qi flow; the Indian yogis developed theirsystem of bodily postures to do the same.
Western medicine has been skeptical about the traditional energy maps of acupuncture, taichi, and yoga, since no one had ever found physical evidence of nadis and meridians. Butin recent years researchers, led by Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama in Japan and Dr. James Oschmanin the United States, have explored the possibility that the connective tissue runningthroughout the body provides pathways for the energy flows described by the ancients.
Drawing on Motoyama's research, Taoist Yoga weds the insights gained by thousands ofyears of acupuncture practice to the wisdom of yoga. To understand this marriage—and touse it to help us sit with more ease in meditation—we must familiarize ourselves with theconcepts of yin and yang. opposing forces in taoist thought, the terms yin and yang candescribe any phenomenon. Yin is the stable, unmoving, hidden aspect of things; yang is thechanging, moving, revealing aspect. Other yin-yang polarities include cold-hot, down-up,calm-excited.
Yin and yang are relative terms, not absolutes; any phenomenon can only be yin or yangby comparison with something else. We can't point to the moon and say, "The moon isyin." Compared to the sun, the moon is yin: It's cooler and less bright. But compared to theEarth (at least from our perspective), the moon is yang: brighter, higher, and more mobile.
In addition to being relative, a yin-yang comparison of any two objects depends on the traitbeing compared. For example, when considering location, the heart is yin compared to thebreastbone because the heart is more hidden. But when considering substance, the heart isyang compared to the breastbone because the heart is softer, more mobile, more elastic.
Analyzing various yoga techniques from the perspective of yin and yang, the most relevantaspect is the elasticity of the tissues involved. Yang tissues like muscles are more fluid-filled, soft, and elastic; yin tissues like connective tissue (ligaments, tendons, and fascia)and bones are dryer, harder, and stiffer. By extension, exercise that focuses on muscletissue is yang; exercise that focuses on connective tissue is yin.
It's certainly true that whenever we move and bend our joints in yoga postures, bothmuscle and connective tissues are challenged. But from a Taoist perspective, much of theyoga now practiced in the West is yang practice—active practice that primarily focuses onmovement and muscular contraction. Many yoga students like to warm up with asanas thatinfuse the muscles with blood, like standing poses, Sun Salutations, or inversions. Thisstrategy makes sense for stretching and strengthening muscles; much like a sponge, theelasticity of a muscle varies dramatically with its fluid content. If a sponge is dry, it may notstretch at all without tearing, but if a sponge is wet, it can twist and stretch a great deal.Similarly, once the muscles fill with blood, they become much easier to stretch.
Yang yoga provides enormous benefits for physical and emotional health, especially forthose living a sedentary modern lifestyle. Taoists would say yang practice removes qistagnation as it cleanses and strengthens our bodies and our minds. But the practice ofyang yoga, by itself, may not adequately prepare the body for a yin activity such as seatedmeditation. Seated meditation is a yin activity, not just because it is still but because itdepends on the flexibility of the connective tissue.
The Joint Stretch
The idea of stretching connective tissue around the joints seems at odds with virtually allthe rules of modern exercise. Whether we're lifting weights, skiing, or doing aerobics oryoga, we're taught that safety in movement primarily means to move so you don't strainyour joints. And this is sage counsel. If you stretch connective tissue back and forth at theedge of its range of motion or if you suddenly apply a lot of force, sooner or later you willhurt yourself.
So why would Yin Yoga advocate stretching connective tissue? Because the principle ofall exercise is to stress tissue so the body will respond by strengthening it. Moderatelystressing the joints does not injure them any more than lifting a barbell injures muscles.Both forms of training can be done recklessly, but neither one is innately wrong. Wemust remember that connective tissue is different from muscle and needs to be exerciseddifferently. Instead of the rhythmic contraction and release that best stretches muscle,connective tissue responds best to a slow, steady load. If you gently stretch connectivetissue by holding a yin pose for a long time, the body will respond by making them a littlelonger and stronger—which is exactly what you want.
Although connective tissue is found in every bone, muscle, and organ, it's most concentrated at the joints. In fact, if you don't use your full range of joint flexibility, theconnective tissue will slowly shorten to the minimum length needed to accommodate youractivities. If you try to flex your knees or arch your back after years of underuse, you'lldiscover that your joints have been "shrink-wrapped" by shortened connective tissue.
When most people are introduced to the ideas of YinYoga, they shudder at the thoughtof stretching connective tissue. That's no surprise: Most of us have been aware of ourconnective tissues only when we've sprained an ankle, strained our lower backs, or blownout a knee. But yin practice isn't a call to stretch all connective tissue or strain vulnerablejoints. Yin Yoga, for example, would never stretch the knee side to side; it simply isn'tdesigned to bend that way. Although yin work with the knee would seek full flexion andextension (bending and straightening), it would never aggressively stretch this extremelyvulnerable joint. In general, a yin approach works to promote flexibility in areas oftenperceived as nonmalleable, especially the hips, pelvis, and lower spine.
Of course, you can overdo yin practice, just as you can overdo any exercise. Since yinpractice is new to many yogis, the indications of overwork may also be unfamiliar. Becauseyin practice isn't muscularly strenuous, it seldom leads to sore muscles. If you've reallypushed too far, a joint may feel sensitive or even mildly sprained. More subtle signalsinclude muscular gripping or spasm or a sense of soreness or misalignment—in chiropracticterms, being out of adjustment—especially in your neck or sacroiliac joints. If a pose causessymptoms like these, stop practicing it for a while. Or, at the very least, back way outof your maximum stretch and focus on developing sensitivity to much more subtle cues.Proceed cautiously, only gradually extending the depth of poses and the length of time youspend in them.
The Yin Difference
There are two principles that differentiate yin practice from more yang approaches to yoga:holding poses for at least several minutes and stretching the connective tissue around ajoint. To do the latter, the overlying muscles must be relaxed. If the muscles are tense,the connective tissue won't receive the proper stress. You can demonstrate this by gentlypulling on your right middle finger, first with your right hand tensed and then with the handrelaxed. When the hand is relaxed, you will feel a stretch in the joint where the finger joinsthe palm; the connective tissue that knits the bones together is stretching. When the handis tensed, there will be little or no movement across this joint, but you will feel the musclesstraining against the pull.
It's not necessary—or even possible—for all the muscles to be relaxed when you're doingsome Yin Yoga postures. In a seated forward bend, for example, you can gently pull withyour arms to increase the stretch on the connective tissues of your spine. But in order forthese connective tissues to be affected, you must relax the muscles around the spine itself.Because Yin Yoga requires that the muscles be relaxed around the connective tissue youwant to stretch, not all yoga poses can be done effectively—or safely—as yin poses.
Standing poses, arm balances, and inversions—poses that require muscular action toprotect the structural integrity of the body—can't be done as yin poses. Also, althoughmany yin poses are based on classic yoga asanas, the emphasis on releasing muscles rather than on contracting them means that the shape of poses and the techniques employed inthem may be slightly different than you're accustomed to. To help my students keep thesedistinctions in mind, I usually refer to yin poses by different names than their more familiaryang cousins.
The One Seat
All seated meditation postures aim at one thing: holding the back upright without strainor slouching so that energy can run freely up and down the spine. The fundamental factorthat affects this upright posture is the tilt of the sacrum and pelvis. When you sink back ina chair so that the lower spine rounds, the pelvis tilts back. When you "sit up straight," youare bringing the pelvis to a vertical alignment or a slight forward tilt. This alignment is whatyou want for seated meditation. The placement of the upper body takes care of itself if thepelvis is properly adjusted.
A basic yin practice to facilitate seated meditation should incorporate forward bends, hipopeners, backbends, and twists. Forward bends include not just the basic two-legged seatedforward bend but also poses that combine forward bending and hip opening, like Butterfly(a yin version of Baddha Konasana), Half Butterfly (a yin version of Janu Sirsasana), HalfFrog Pose (a yin adaptation of Trianga Mukhaikapada Paschimottanasana), Dragonfly (a yinversion of Upavistha Konasana), and Snail (a yin version of Halasana). All of the forwardbends stretch the ligaments along the back side of the spine and help decompress the lowerspinal discs. The straight-legged forward bends stretch the fascia and muscles along thebacks of the legs.
This is the pathway of the bladder meridians in Chinese medicine, which Motoyama hasidentified with the ida and pingala nadis so important in yogic anatomy. Snail Pose alsostretches the whole back body but places more emphasis on the upper spine and neck.Poses like Butterfly, Half Butterfly, Half Frog, and Dragonfly stretch not only the back of thespine but also the groins and the fascia that crosses the ilio-sacral region. Shoelace Pose (ayin forward bend in the Gomukhasana leg position) and Square Pose (a yin forward bendin the Sukhasana leg position) stretch the tensor fascie latae, the thick bands of connectivetissue that run up the outer thighs, and Sleeping Swan (a yin forward-bending version ofEka Pada Rajakapotasana) stretches all the tissues that can interfere with the external thighrotation you need for cross-legged sitting postures.
To balance these forward bends, use poses like Seal (a yin Bhujangasana), Dragon (a yinRunner's Lunge), and Saddle (a yin variation of Supta Vajrasana or Supta Virasana). SaddlePose is the most effective way I know to realign the sacrum and lower spine, re-establishingthe natural lumbar curve that gets lost through years of sitting in chairs. Seal also helps re-establish this curve. Dragon, a somewhat more yang pose, stretches the ilio-psoas musclesof the front hip and thigh and helps prepare you to sit by establishing an easy forward tiltto the pelvis. Before Savasana (Corpse Pose), it's good to round out your practice witha Cross-Legged Reclining Spinal Twist, a yin version of Jathara Parivartanasana whichstretches the ligaments and muscles of the hips and lower spine and provides an effectivecounterpose for both backbends and forward bends.
The Flow of Qi
Even if you only spend a few minutes a couple times a week practicing several of theseposes, you'll be pleasantly surprised at how different you feel when you sit to meditate. Butthat improved ease may not be the only or even the most important benefit of Yin Yoga. IfHiroshi Motoyama and other researchers are right—if the network of connective tissue doescorrespond with the meridians of acupuncture and the nadis of yoga—strengthening andstretching connective tissue may be critical for your long-term health.
Chinese medical practitioners and yogis have insisted that blocks to the flow of vital energythroughout our body eventually manifest in physical problems that would seem, on thesurface, to have nothing to do with weak knees or a stiff back. Much research is still neededto explore the possibility that science can confirm the insights of yoga and TraditionalChinese Medicine. But if yoga postures really do help us reach down into the body andgently stimulate the flow of qi and prana through the connective tissue, Yin Yoga serves asa unique tool for helping you get the greatest possible benefit from yoga practice.
Paul Grilley taught yoga for 13 years in Los Angeles, CA and now lives in Ashland, OR. Hehas studied Yin Yoga in Japan with Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama.