To most of us, Yin yoga is somewhat of a mystery. If you are anything like me, I initially categorized Yin Yoga right along with taking a nap or lying on the couch. I really just didn’t see the value! I always felt well rested and peaceful after a Yin class, but then again, I got the same effects from a vigorous Vinyasa practice. So I never fully engaged in my Yin practice because I really never understood what the point of the practice was.
Fast forward a few years later. After researching the practice and training under some great Yin masters, I know can fully admit that I was 100% wrong about Yin! Yin, as defined by Wikipedia is, “a slow-paced style of yoga with postures, or asanas, that are held for longer periods of time”. This definition is very fundamental, but still doesn’t explain why we would ever want to hold these very uncomfortable postures for long durations.
The reason behind these long holds is the type of tissue that we are working in our Yin practice. That tissue is known as Fascia. Fascia is Latin for “bandage” and literally can be thought of as the Connective Tissue that surrounds our muscles and our joints. It can more literally be thought of as the “glue that holds us all together”. This tissue is much harder to stretch than muscle. Our muscles stretch similar to rubber bands. They’re very elastic, and after stretching, the rubber band/our muscles, return back to their original shape and form. Fascia on the other hand, is more similar to a thin plastic in its structural makeup. It is possible to bend and reform plastic, but it takes longer, and requires much more stress to the material to have any effect. But once stressed, plastic materials retain the new shape we have stressed them into. When you look at the deep holds from this perspective, Yin can be very useful to someone who is looking to increase their mobility. It makes much more sense to stress Fascia, rather than muscle, if your goal is to ultimately improve your range of motion.
One of the most common misconceptions about Yin is that we are working on stressing/stretching the muscle. And when we cyclically stretch or stress a muscle, we are making it longer, which is what is increasing our flexibility over time. Research suggests that we actually do not lengthen a muscle at all when stretch. We can eventually move deeper into poses because over time, the brain starts to relax the Nervous System’s response to the stretch. Your body adapts, the muscles relax, and you eventually are able to move deeper. It’s that plastic tissue, Fascia surrounding and interconnecting the muscle that we need to stress if we want to improve our flexibility. When we stress these fibers, we are sending communication throughout the body telling it that we use these cells and that they should leave them alone. The body is very smart in that it will reabsorb old, worn out, or unused cells. This makes sense, given that overtime we tend to see a decrease in flexibility as we age. If you only use your body for particular movements, the fibers are rearranging themselves to support that movement, and being reabsorbed from the areas that the body does not experience movement. This is one of the reasons we see the common problem of tight hips in our society. Several of us go from sitting in the car, to sitting at a desk, back to sitting in a car, and then sitting in a chair at home. Overtime, the Fascia surrounding the joints can become so tight in the hips from this form of limited movement that it’s difficult to even sit cross-legged. It’s important to remember this process is gradual. This tightness does not show up overnight, so we can’t expect it to leave us overnight.
There are several other more scientific explanations to the full physiological benefits of Yin that would need to be discussed in much further detail. I cover a lot of these in my Yin Teacher’s trainings because while we can all appreciate the energetic and spiritual benefits of Yoga, I think it’s extremely important to be educated on what is actually happening in our bodies.
Looking past the physiological benefit of Yin, there is also the mindfulness component that it cultivates. While it’s very easy to get lost in the moment during our more dynamic practices, Yin forces us into a state of full awareness to the present moment. It’s easy to ignore tiny sensations when we’re fluidly flowing through a Vinyasa class. It’s not until we take these long asana holds (5+ minutes), that we become fully aware of the mind, breath, and body. By remaining still in a state of stressing the joints and Connective Tissue, we start to notice all sensation and how easy it is for us to naturally react to the pain/stress rather than reflect on it. I always say that how we react to stillness in our Yin asanas, directly reflects how we typically react to stress off the mat. Do we run away, suffer through as a victim, constantly try and change without acceptance, or see the present moment for what it is and fully accept it (mindfulness). For most of us, our mind is on autopilot. We have no idea how we’re actually feeling or which thoughts or actions of ours are cultivating our bad or good moods. When we slow down to these essentially, series of mini meditations, we take the time to sort out our internal dialogue. It’s only then, that we can start to work through issues from a state of clarity.
There’s no denying this practice is a struggle for many people. Mostly, because it is so opposite from the Yang energy that encompasses our lives. Yang energy is very active, masculine, and fiery. It’s that energy that keeps us motivated, which can be a good thing. The problem arises when we don’t know how to turn it off. For many of us, the 3 to 4 of stillness in Savasana are extremely difficult. Our thoughts are used to racing and our bodies used to moving. Our bodies and minds need more of the nourishing, allowing, accepting energy of Yin. Very simply summarized, “in an age of movement, nothing is more critical than stillness”-Ram Dass.
International Yoga Trainer,