How can a power vinyasa-flow addicted yogi fall in love with such a slow and still practice as yin yoga?
Why would a highly energetic human being surrender to doing only a handful of postures and holding them each for at least 3 minutes?
If you told me half a year ago that you love to do yin, I would kindly smile and think to myself that probably you were just part of the lazy crowd which enjoys a nice chill-out session in the yoga studio and calls it "doing yoga". So yes, I would judge, secretly, and hope that you wouldn't notice. And the next time I'd get on my mat to sweat to a powerful vinyasa class I'd know that for me, there was just this one style of yoga that suits me.
Until I met Jade during my advanced yoga teacher training. A powerful, intelligent and energetic yogini, hard-working, high-aiming, witty and funny. When she started to talk about yin yoga, it felt like she was talking about her latest crush: her eyes started to shine, the whole body moved into a posture of humble gratitude and the words she uttered were all about "life-changing", "magic" and "powerful". I didn't understand why a high-flying yogi would love yin yoga, but my curiosity was awakened.
And the next time I got onto my mat, I tried it. I decided to surrender to this still practice and to see for myself if I would feel the magic too. I started with Butterfly, a variation of Baddhakonasana, and applied the three principles of Yin Yoga (according to Bernie Clark):
- Play your edge: find that point where you feel a significant resistance in the body
- Stillness: resolve to remain still, avoiding any fidgeting and readjusting
- Time: Let the pose soak in
Soon I noticed that yin is simple, but not easy. Once I'd found my edge and I'd stayed still for ten seconds, my mind would start telling me "ah, this is uncomfortable. I think I should get out of the pose". But I knew that I had to apply the third principle, time, so I stayed. Tried to not only keep my body still, but also my breath and with it my mind. If worked for another ten seconds, until my mind protested louder "This hurts! Let's get out of the pose", and then, due to my inaction started to shout: "GET OUT OF THIS POSE!! NOW!!" But I resisted (hearing a little voice silently laugh at my inability to perform this "easy" style of yoga) and after some time, I felt my body release. Letting me deeper into the pose, moving my edge. Wow! But as soon as I settled into this new edge, the whole drama in my mind started over again, trying to make me move out of the pose...
Eventually, after three minutes - finally - I got out, groaning and moaning, and I felt my whole body being flushed with endorphines (the happy hormones). These were the hardest three minutes I had experienced during a yoga practice for quite some time. Harder than a series of chatturangas or a serious abs work out. Why? Because I was practicing mindfulness in a state of deep physical discomfort. I was trying to remain calm in a situation which was not at all pleasurable.
Or in short: I was learning for life. And that was the moment it caught me, the Yin Love. And I dove deep into it.
Yin and Yang - Complementary Energies
I learned about the different kinds of energies which exist in our bodies according to the Taoist tradition (an ancient Chinese philosophy):
the Yang Energy: literally "the sunny side of the mountain", characterized by movement and strength, associated with hot, light, day, fast, active, fire.
- The Yin Energy: literally "the shady side of the mountain", characterized by stillness and peace, associated with cool, hidden, slow, passive, water.
Yang seems to be the predominant energy in our lives: our everyday life is filled with yang activities (we keep running around, moving from one place to another, we get things done and are trying to be as productive as we can), and quite a few of the yoga practices such as Vinyasa Flow or Ashtanga are also full of yang energy; they're fun, they create strength and energy.
The Yin energy is associated with calmer activities, such as relaxing, cuddling, resting and sleeping. If we think of a 24 hour period, we can see the constant waning and waxing of these two energies. Chinese medicine even teaches that yin and yang are not only opposites, but they are interdependent (there can't be darkness without light) and inter-transforming (day and night continuously transform into each other).
So yin yoga, is all about balancing these two opposite energies. It's about listening to the body after a day full of movement and chores, it's about taking time instead of hassling from one appointment to the other, it's about perceiving sensations and actually staying with them instead of vinyasing out of them. It's about giving in, letting go. And that place of letting go and receiving whatever comes up is often the place where magic happens.
The Effects of Yin Yoga on Mind, Body and Soul
According to the ancient Taoist tradition, we don't only have yin and yang energies in our bodies, but the tissues in the bodies can also be classified as either yin or yang.
Muscles are yang tissues. In order to be strengthened, they need yang activities which are full of rhythmical and repetitive movements such as sun salutations, cycling, running, crossfit etc...
Yin tissues are bones, joints, connective tissue and fascia. As connective tissue we label the tissue that's made up of fibers which form a framework to support structure for body tissues and organs. Fascia is a continuous web of tissue that weaves in and around not only our muscles but also all our organs, our blood vessels, our nerves and the lymphatic system. All these yin tissues also need exercise in order to be healthy. As babies, the yin tissues are soft and smooth, but as we get older we lose mobility in our joints, our bones begin to degenerate and to become weaker, our fascia contracts making us tighter and in turn restricts our movement. This is where yin yoga comes in, it helps us to regenerate the yin tissues, to rehydrate them and to, over time, make them stronger.
According to Bernie clark, in Yin yoga it is essential to differentiate between
- Stressing a tissue: placing tension onto a tissue
- Stretching a tissue: elongating a tissue through stressing it
In yin yoga, we target ligaments and the joint capsule by stressing them. We do not try to stretch them (meaning trying to elongate them), rather we use the healing qualities of a gentle stress combines with tender loving care to allow the yin tissues to over time become slightly longer, thicker and stonger.
And the results are breath-taking. Not only does the body benefit from the gentle stresses with long holds by becoming more flexible, by feeling a boost in body awareness and a decline in stress level, mental benefits include calming sensations and an improved aptitude to relax even in difficult times (yes, relaxation can be trained too!). Moreover, practicing yin yoga can lead to a deep release of emotions held within our deepest tissues, allowing you to finally letting go of this emotional baggage. And the energetic quality of finding balance between the energies can literally feel like refinding balance in life.
Yin Yoga equals restorative yoga?
And in case you haven't noticed yet: Yin Yoga is NOT restorative yoga. In restorative yoga, you try to find comfortable positions using props, you then let gravity work for you and relax into the pose. In yin yoga, you get into uncomfortable positions and there you train your mind to stay still. Believe me, this will feel anything BUT restorative the first few times you do it. But eventually, you also learn to relax into the pose, using your breath and mindfulness as your guides. And once you get out of the pose - ooooh, that's when you feel the restoring qualities to their best, flooding your body with happy hormones.
So yes, I'm hooked. And I hope you'll give yin a try as well the next time you get on your mat (or into the studio).
PS: And what about my judging thoughts of yinners? When nowadays someone tells me that they love to do yin, instead of judging them I really feel connected. Because I know that we both dare to sit through difficult times. That we turn towards uneasy feeling instead of vinyasing-out of them. So yes, Yin Yoga is where transformation takes place. Where judgment turns into connectedness. Be it of unpleasant sensations in the body, of persons or of difficult situations in life. So this is a disclaimer: embarking on Yin Yoga might change your life!