Embodying Yin : on and off the mat

Yin Yoga is a practice of mostly floor based poses held for at least 3 minutes, typically at about 60-70% of our maximum range of motion. This moderate depth that we find in each pose is often referred to as ‘finding our edge’ – the place where we meet a little resistance in the tissues of our bodies and then we settle, remaining still and embodying mindfulness. Props such as blocks, bricks, blankets and bolsters are often used to aid our ability to relax in the pose by providing support or to prevent us from collapsing.

The physical benefits are focused not on strengthening and lengthening the skeletal muscles – as we would in any form of active yoga e.g. Hatha, Vinyasa Flow, Ashtanga etc. – but instead the system of connective tissue which comprises fascia and ligaments. 

Want to better understand the connective tissue system?

Click this link to be directed to my previous blog post: Understanding Fascia – a guide to your bodies connective tissue.

I’d like to put a big shout out to the ‘Yangsters’ amongst you who have yet to experience the introspective, quiet side of Yin Yoga; those of you who love to get sweaty and move a lot in your yoga practice or other forms of exercise. Yin Yoga probably holds no appeal to you…what can be gained from ‘not doing much?’ or feeling like you haven’t ‘worked hard’ enough?’ Will you hear me when I suggest to you that Yin is a completely different challenge? That’s right, you will be challenging your mindset, your beliefs and your body when you first delve into this practice.

Let’s do less!

For optimal function of our musculoskeletal system as well as longevity for our joints, it is important not to overlook the ‘Yin’ connective tissues by only ever challenging our ‘Yang’ muscles.

Finding balance between Yin and Yang in our lives

Yang qualities : active ~ dynamic ~ warm ~ doing ~ achieving ~ loud  busy ~ hard ~ fast

If you have dominant Yang characteristics, as far as yoga classes go, you are likely drawn to Vinyasa Flow or Ashtanga as you enjoy the challenge and the heat. You are probably an over achiever and work too hard in all areas of your life. Your default state is being busy, living in your sympathetic nervous system. This is not sustainable in the long term; our bodies are clever and will find a way of slowing us down – we become ill and are forced to stop.

 Yin qualities : passive ~  still ~ cool ~ allowing ~ receiving ~ quiet ~ calm ~ soft ~ slow 

Presuming we are blessed with good health and an able body, very few of us living in developed countries manage to embrace Yin qualities sufficiently to balance out the Yang nature that is typically dominant in modern day society. It’s all about finding harmony between the two – in daily life and in our practice. 

I’m not suggesting that Yin Yoga should be a stand alone practice. For some, it may be their preferred or only yoga practice. If a person were to just practice Yin yoga after a day job of mostly sitting, then choose to live a sedentary lifestyle, this, too, would create disharmony. Whether you enjoy walking, weight training, gardening, dancing or Vinyasa Flow – keep active – but remember the importance of allowing yourself time to slow down and go within.

Ready to step outside of your comfort zone?

Here come the challenges for the Type A ‘Yangsters’. The first is this: step outside of your comfort zone and try Yin. Commit to at least three classes or a workshop or two to get a real taste of how it sits with you. As a newcomer to Yin, it may feel a little awkward, as with anything you try for the first time. That’s because you are finding your way with the postures, so the first minute or two of a five minute pose may be spent figuring out how to get comfortable and what props to use, if any, with the help of your teacher.

A pose that may look familiar to you in a Yang class will feel completely different when you practice it in the Yin way e.g. Paschimottanasana (seated, straight leg forward bend) is named Caterpillar in Yin, the legs and feet are relaxed, the mid to upper spine can be rounded and the aim is not to hold the feet or touch your forehead to your shins; thus it offers a completely different experience.

Secondly, really tune in and listen to your body. Where is ‘the edge’? Where do you meet resistance in your body? If you practice a ‘Yang’ style of yoga or play a competitive sport, or run races, Yin is going to be a challenge to you. Full stop. Are you willing to let go of striving for more by softening into doing less, without an end goal to meet? To let go of the idea that the less props you use, the more advanced a yogi you are?

As regular yoga practioners of all lineages will know – by way of their self enquiry and internal experience – yoga is much more about the shapes we make on the mat. At its core is this: what we learn about ourselves on the mat ultimately threads into our lives and leads to positive transformation.

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