At Yandara, we feel that Yin Yoga is an important addition to modern yoga practices.
Yin Yoga is becoming an increasingly popular yoga for the health of the joints and connective tissues. Rather than focusing on the musculature system, Yin Yoga is about creating length and space in the connective tissues of the joints, and requires that all unnecessary muscular use be relaxed. The health benefits of Yin Yoga include increased range of motion and increased flow of vital energies. Yin Yoga teacher training is an integral part of our Yandara Yoga teacher training programs.
Before we can understand Yin Yoga, it will help to understand the theory of exercise.
What is yoga? Yoga is very simple. It is any safe movement or engagement of the body in a state of presence. This may seem oversimplified, so let's elaborate. At a basic level, we are an adapting and evolving species of animal. The underlying essence of being an animal is governed by one simple biological concept; if you don't use it, you lose it. You don't have a tail anymore because it became useless to you in your daily life; you didn't use it for so long that your tail disappeared entirely. Now, imagine that all you did was lift boxes all day with your arms... heavy boxes, over and over, what would happen? Well, because you never use your legs, you would develop large arms and your legs would atrophy.
As we age, over time we tend to stop using the lumbar spine, and then without movement to generate our life force, we lose the ability to move the lumbar spine entirely and the bones fuse together. This is quite common as people grow older. Movement is required to maintain bodily health. All it takes is movement and the body creates a life force that initiates growth and strength in that area. The body responds to movement by strengthening or adapting the area being moved. It can be dynamic movement as in Vinyasa flow and Ashtanga, or static poses or positions held stationary for a long time as in Bikram and Iyengar. I was taught many years ago that there are 84,000 Hatha yoga positions. That pretty much covers every position the body could be in. There are many ways to move the body in order to create life force. Some forms are more efficient than others, but movement/engagement is essentially all that is required.
As living beings we have the 'use it or lose it' principle, however this concept doesn't apply to inanimate objects. At first this statement seems obvious, maybe even irrelevant. Living beings respond differently than non-living things. But if you think about it, this is a fascinating difference, and one that is of vital importance to the benefits of yoga. My inspiration for these ideas came from the work of Paul Grilley, and I will touch on some of his insights here, but I also highly recommend that any aspiring yoga teacher become well versed in all Paul Grilley has to teach.
This following example illustrates the difference between the way living beings and non-living things respond.
If you take a walking stick and walk for a long time along the pavement, after a period of time, you'll start to wear down the bottom of the stick. As you continue to walk, the stick wears out more and more and eventually there would be nothing left of it. Everyone can understand this concept. On the other hand, if you're walking along on your bare feet for that same period of time, as long as you build up to it slowly and don't over-stress yourself, the walking will have a positive effect on your body. Of course, if you do it too fast, you will damage your feet, just like the walking stick. This example demonstrates a fundamental point in understanding healthy body movement. If you walked slowly and with gradually increasing intensity over a period of months, the soles of your feet would calcify and develop and change - they would actually become stronger! Unlike the stick that would have long ago worn out, your feet would be stronger and more capable of walking long distances. This is the beautiful phenomenon of all living beings. When you stop to really think about this difference you can't help but say, "What? That's amazing! How in the world can that be? This phenomenon is something that the ancient yogis from India and China have known for millennia; when you move, you create something called prana, chi or piezoelectric energy. This is the name given to that life force that allows living organisms to adapt.
Here is an example of this life force.
If you drag your feet along g a rug, you will create an electrical charge within yourself that produces a shock when you touch the door knob, this is energy. Imagine prana or chi or piezoelectric energy as a slight electric charge. What happens is that the positive and negative forces, interacting against one another through movement, create a little charge. That little charge of electricity runs along a circuit in the body which is made of hyaluronic acid (this corresponds to the meridians or nadis, which will be explained later). Studies have been done by orthopedic physicians to show that movement along this circuit creates an electric charge which stimulates growth in cells, improves overall health, and allows the ability of the organism to regenerate. This fact has become more thoroughly understood in western medicine by physical therapists, especially in the last 30 years. In physical therapy, if you want to rehabilitate a leg injury, you move it. You do not let it sit there. This is the same with back injuries. In the past, the western medicine approach has been to immobilize injured body parts to allow them to heal. Western medicine and modern physical therapy have recently begun to understand what the ancient yogis have been saying all along; movement heals. That's the whole premise here. A little electrical charge is created, and that little charge powers life.
Movement, this includes static engagement, generates life force. This life force (piezoelectric energy) moves through a condensed area of hyaluronic acid that looks like a circuit running all around the body. This circuit also corresponds to the ancient nadis or the meridians of the body. If you laid a map of the hyaluronic acid pathways, found through Western scientific research, over a map of the ancient yogis' nadis and meridians, they would look exactly the same. Both systems can agree that there is some sort of flow happening along those pathways.
When you walk, you are rhythmically engaging and releasing, or contracting and relaxing musculature. Walking immediately creates a life force that runs along these energy pathways and regenerates the body by allowing life force to flow along these meridians, this creates incredible physical health by bringing a revitalizing energy to all parts of the body. This concept is now just as scientifically clear from the energetic standpoint as it has been from the physical standpoint (blood pumping and efferent and afferent nerve signals from the brain maintaining balance, etc.) What Hatha yoga endeavors to do is to move different parts of the body to generate and direct this life force.
Yin Yoga is a practice that creates this vital life force through a system of static poses.
Static implies that each position is held for some period of time, yet the movement is connected to a cooling yin energy, the opposite of a yang, dynamic movement type of yoga. Yin Yoga concentrates on the joints and connective tissues, instead of the musculature. It is about creating length and space in the connective tissues of the joints, and it requires that all unnecessary muscular use be relaxed. This technique is also very old in the yoga tradition, as yogis would often instruct their students to hold poses for much longer periods of time; two to eight minute intervals are common time frames for yin poses.
Now, as you can imagine, traditional exercise therapists might turn their eyebrows up at the thought of staying still in a position for 2 to 5 minutes with minimum muscle engagement. Where is the "exercise?” they might say. The benefits of Yin Yoga have been cause for great debate. The science that explains the usefulness of this practice lies once again in the time required for certain tissues of the body to release and relax. The connective tissues surrounding joints are strong and with little elasticity. Traditional exercise has yet to address the fact that these tissues can be lengthened to relieve joint stress, improve posture and increase mobility; yin static movement does just that. Yin poses are held anywhere from two to five minutes because that is how long it takes for the fibers of the connective tissues in a joint to release and lengthen. For the first two minutes of any pose, the body is trying to maintain integrity of shape through muscular effort. After a certain period of time, relaxing all muscular use, the connective tissues in a joint let loose and open. These openings stimulate more hydration, synovial fluid, within joint capsules; they rejuvenate the joints themselves and stimulate regeneration. While the physical aspect of this practice is not challenging for the muscles, as in traditional yoga, Yin Yoga challenges the mind of its practitioners to learn how to relax deeply and let go into their sensations. Through this practice, the openings created around the large joints in the body are fundamental to alleviating back pain, improving posture and increasing joint health.
Joints need exercise just as much as muscles, even more so on an energetic level.
By bringing movement into a joint capsule, you are actually increasing the amount of synovial fluid in that joint, kind of like putting oil on a rusty hinge. Increasing the amount of synovial fluid or lubrication in the joint increases the amount of hyaluronic acid, which is the conducting substance for piezoelectric (life force) energy to flow through. You're actually increasing the space in the joint capsule of whatever joint you're moving and allowing more opportunity for life force to flow, but this can only happen if all muscular effort is relaxed. Yin Yoga is all about releasing all unnecessary muscular use to create length in the connective tissue of joints. Yin Yoga does have the potential to be a harmful way of opening your body if you do it mindlessly or without respect for your body's limits. Yin Yoga is slow; super slow. It is about moving slowly and respectfully as you reach your body's edge and breathing there until you feel a release at the ligamentous level. These are powerful openings in the body that will bring about great physical and energetic change.
Each joint capsule is surrounded by ligaments, which are some of the strongest connective tissues in the body. Some people think of ligaments as rigid, like bones, but they are not. Think of people who sprain their ankles very badly. They dramatically lengthen the ligaments on one side of their ankle joints, tightening the other, and the result is an unstable joint. The important thing to realize here is that ligaments can be lengthened without causing damage or pain or without being the result of an injury. It just takes time. With time, the ligaments will separate slowly and the joint will increase the release of synovial fluid so it has more flexibility and use. This is what is absolutely crucial for people looking to improve the health of their spine. The health of the spine relates directly to the amount of space and fluid generated at each of the vertebrae. Without movement, these joints will dry up, stiffen up and fuse together, eventually becoming totally immobile. Most of our nerves pass through the spine and there is an energy flowing along that column that is vital to the health of our whole body. The health of the spine is the central column upon which yoga rests its basic principles.
Yin yoga improves the body in a variety of ways. These may include:
- - Feeling calm and balanced
- - Regulated energy levels (chi)
- - Greater strength
- - Improved health
- - Stress levels lowered
- - Greater stamina
- - Flexibility of the body's connective tissues and joints
- - Slowed signs of aging
- - Improved meditation
- - Deeper relaxation
- - Improved practice of yang yoga
Yin yoga works deeply into the connective tissues (ligaments, tendons, cartilage and fascia), in order to heal joints and increase flexibility through slow, gentle and sustained traction. When you look at the elderly or injuries in athletes you will often see that the degeneration lies within the joints. Yin yoga focuses on slowly stretching the connective tissues around joints, which in turn also helps to strengthen them.