By AnaLouise Keating
Stress, sedentary lifestyles, and our electronic devices wreak havoc on our bodies, weakening our immune systems, compromising our mobility, stiffening our muscles, and ruining our posture (among other things). A regular yin yoga practice helps to address these issues and others. Yin yoga is a gentle but rigorous yoga practice, consisting almost entirely of seated and reclined poses. Yin yoga is gentle because the poses typically don’t require muscular effort but instead relax the muscles in order to access the deeper tissue and other overlooked areas of the body. And yet, yin yoga is also rigorous because we hold each pose for approximately one to six minutes, putting moderate amounts of pressure on these overlooked tissues.
Unlike the more commonly practiced forms of yoga (power yoga, ashtanga yoga, vinyassa yoga, etc.) that focus primarily on the muscles, yin yoga encourages the muscles to be still so that the poses can address the body’s connective tissue–the tendons, ligaments, and especially the fascia. Until fairly recently, scientists overlooked the fascia’s important role in our bodies–treating it instead as a type of packing material to be cut through in order to access the bones, organs, nerves, and so on.
However, fascia is incredibly important. Composed primarily of collagen, fascia is ubiquitous throughout our bodies; it’s a single, sentient organ that wraps around nerves, muscle layers, organs, etc. As Dr. Robert Schleip, a leading expert on fascia, notes, "the fascial net is one continuous structure throughout the body. So, imagine a silvery-white material, flexible and sturdy in equal measure—a substrate that surrounds and penetrates every muscle, coats every bone, covers every organ, and envelops every nerve. Fascia keeps everything separate yet interconnected at the same time.” Because it holds cellular waste and emotional residue, our facia can become stiff, thus limiting our mobility, flexibility, and more. Yin yoga helps to lubricate and rejuvenate the fascia, thus enhancing our physical, emotional, and energetic health.
Yin yoga offers a healthy way to deal with stress, teaching us to use our breath as a vehicle for attention to what’s going on in the body. When I’m in a yin pose, I take my attention into my body, to the areas impacted by the pose, and I simply observe: I notice the energetic changes and slight movements, as the connective tissue very slowly reacts to the pose, starting at the points of pressure but then energetically resonating elsewhere in the body. This resonance happens because the connective tissue is a single organ that literally connects everything in our body to everything else. I envision fascia as a three-dimensional weblike structure that links together every part of our bodies.
Yin yoga can also increase mental focus and persistence. Holding a pose like Toe Squat (one of my favorites!) for three minutes or a pose like Caterpillar (another favorite of mine) for six minutes can bring up discomfort. Yin conditions us to stay with the intense sensations that arise, rather than quickly moving into the next pose. As Sarah Powers, a leading yin yoga teacher, explains, yin yoga “trains you to become more comfortable with discomfort instead of becoming alarmed.” We take this training off the mat, meeting discomfort in more areas of our life with careful attention, rather than alarm, stress, anger, and so on. By so doing, we become more effective problem-solvers.
I’ve practiced yin yoga regularly for over three years.; it’s the perfect complement to my more yang-like power yoga practice. My yin yoga practice has given me increased flexibility, balance, and range of motion. Because fascia is the body’s brain, as I become more aware of the tiny shifts and changes in my fascia, I experience increased ability to move gracefully through space. (I’ve always been very clumsy, knocking into doors and walls, dropping stuff, and so on. My daily yin practice is slowly changing this.) A regular yin yoga practice has also enhanced my internal awareness and my intuition. I can more often and more clearly hear my body’s messages. I lead a yin yoga practice at Authentic Yoga Life on Thursdays from 7 to 8 p.m. and would love to introduce you to the benefits of yin.