As a former ballerina, what I love most about vinyasa (flow) yoga is the creative sequencing and the steady pulse of practice. Starting in tadasana (mountain pose), we lift the inner arches of the feet to draw up Earth energy through the inseams of the legs deep into the core of the belly. We inhale to stretch the arms overhead, gathering Sky energy that will carry us through a methodical dance that generates internal heat, muscular strength and flexibility. We match movement and breath with rhythmic beats. We engage, we hold, we try harder, we seek change.
Nevertheless, I arrived at a point when I felt like something was missing. It might be more accurate to say that it felt like I was spinning in my tracks, not moving backward but not moving anywhere else either. That’s not to say that my practice was devoid of benefit. It just didn’t feel whole. By the time I had lived through pregnancy and childbirth, I was feeling downright hollow about practicing vinyasa. It was just too much. Too much movement, too much emphasis on flexibility and contortions, too many postures for the sake of ticking them off an imaginary checklist. What I desperately needed was stillness and a shift in focus.
It makes sense. From Taoism, we have the concept of seeking a balance between our yin and yang energies. Embodied in the Taijitu (the yin-yang symbol) is the essence of this teaching. The white represents yang, the active forces in life that propel change. Yang is the sun, lighting the path for transformation. Yin, represented by black, is our shadow nature. Yin is quiet and still. Pregnancy, birth and new motherhood are periods of tremendous growth and even a bit of upheaval, very yang. It’s no surprise that I needed to radically downshift my practice if I was to practice at all.
And not practicing was where I was headed. Before my daughter was born, I had a flexible schedule and could drop in on yoga classes whenever I wanted. Everything changed when I became a mom. And even though I’d been teaching for around five years, I didn’t know how to help myself at home because I only knew yang methods of practice.
Then I discovered Yin Yoga.
Referred to as “The Quiet Practice” by its innovator Paul Grilley, Yin Yoga offers a framework for attending to the forgotten inner realms. The simple, floor-based postures that we hold for several minutes provide a unique opportunity to ease and release deeply held tension in the physical body, unleash stagnant or blocked energy, and cultivate peacefulness in the heart and mind.
For me, the allure of Yin Yoga was the stillness and the opportunity to train up mindfulness. I needed a method that would help me to reawaken my sense of self. After studying Yin Yoga with Sarah Powers, one of its other pioneers, for the past five years, I have come to see Yin Yoga as a comprehensive, three-part system of self-care.
Rejuvenate Connective Tissue
For the physical body, the long-held holds enable us to penetrate through muscle fibers to target the connective tissues that surround them. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, these are considered yin areas of the body, and conventional yoga methods overlook them. When we “exercise” the connective tissue with gentle stretches or moments of compression, we encourage these tissues to strengthen while also stimulating the production of lubricating fluids that are vital for the variety of graceful movements so unique to humans.
Strong and supple connective tissues maintain a bounce in our step and keep us feeling young. I had lost this sense of buoyancy after ten months of pregnancy and slow postpartum recovery. I remember one afternoon, my husband and I took our toddler on a hike along the Billygoat Trail, so named for a few patches of rock hopping over little crevasses. It was a favorite place to hike for its scenic views over the Potomac River, and we had done it many times. On this particular afternoon, I felt very challenged by the terrain. I lacked a sense of footing, as if I had lost my proprioception. When I’d land a hop, I’d feel the impact rattle through my bones up and down my body.
I would later come to understand that the inactivity of pregnancy had reorganized my connective tissue into a felt-like formation that diminishes its capacity to bear the usual loads of an active body. And because our connective tissue houses the greatest number of sensory nerves in our body, well-formed connective tissue is key to body awareness. That feeling of not trusting my feet to go where I wanted them to was real.
I credit my Yin Yoga practice with helping to restore my sense of physical vitality. The gentle pressures and tugs on the connective tissue in Yin Yoga is one way to grow healthy and hydrated tissue, enabling us to move with comfort and ease.
An Energetic System for Personalized Practice
When considering the energetic domain of yoga, Yin is especially effective for enhancing and invigorating our life force energy (prana/chi). Some believe that chi flows within meridians that are housed in the connective tissues. When we stimulate the connective tissues with Yin Yoga, we are also working with the meridians to release blocked or stagnant energy. When our chi flows freely, we feel more balanced, and our systems function more harmoniously.
The meridians are grouped by yin and yang pairs. Each pair relates to different physical, emotional and mental qualities and they are affected by various aspects of our life including diet, work-life balance, exercise habits, stress levels, and interpersonal relationships. Because the meridians map to specific areas of the body, we can match them up with yoga poses and target them with our practice. By monitoring our physical and internal states, we can craft Yin Yoga sequences for our very personal, day-to-day needs.
If I am feeling run down, I incorporate more backbends in my practice to target the kidney and bladder pair. If I am feeling irritable, I make sure to practice poses for my liver and gall bladder. Lately, I’ve been working with an acupuncturist who says both my kidney and spleen chi are depleted, so I have been incorporating more poses for those meridians. You can also zoom out and match your practice to the seasons, which I find helpful when I’m not experiencing any dominant concerns.
Using the meridians as a blueprint opened the door to a very enriching personal practice that is fine-tuned to exactly what I need. There is an element of empowerment here that I never had when attending other teacher’s classes — no one else can give you exactly what you need in a group class. This approach has unhooked me from one of the biggest challenges to yoga practitioners, which is getting to class in the first place. I practice on my own time when I need it. Some days I do a bit of meditation, and maybe a single Yin pose. Other times, I meditate, do a few Yin poses, and then a full-bodied vinyasa practice. Whatever my practice is, it’s my own.
Yoga Infused with Mindfulness
Mindfulness both supports and is nourished by a Yin practice. We can use the mindfulness methods to maintain a continuity of presence and soften the intensity of being in the poses for several minutes. The postures themselves offer clear anchor points for the present moment, making wakefulness more accessible. I find that together they train up the capacity to meet life as it unfolds.
We can think of being in Yin poses as mini-meditation sessions and as opportunities to plug mindful moments into our daily life, especially if we take advantage of moments of downtime. We don’t have to wait until we have a full hour to connect with our self.
I also attribute my Yin practice as being the gateway to my sustainable, daily meditation practice. Because Yin poses are not neutral and can evoke a lot of sensation and emotional content, my Yin practice helped me build up resilience that, well honestly, made a formal sitting practice seem easy in comparison. As a person with chronic back pain, this was revolutionary. Not only do the Yin poses alleviate some of my pain, but the mindfulness methods layered on top of the practice have helped me reframe my relationship to the pain. Sensations, even challenging ones, arise and fall like all phenomena, something we can witness in every Yin Yoga practice.
Ease in the three realms of Yin Yoga (physical, energetic and psychological) unlocks a door to compassion and a more mature way of relating to our self and one another. We gain an opportunity to wake up to what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “interbeing,” the recognition that everything is interconnected. If we are struggling with dis-ease in any one of these areas, then the path to understanding and connection is cloaked in fog.
This is the promise of all yoga, and it’s right there in the opening lines of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. Yet, how often do we move beyond asana to touch the other pieces of the puzzle? Yin Yoga filled in what was missing in my practice, and it was more than just down time. Some of it I didn‘t even know I needed. As my teacher Sarah has noted, this method provides an opportunity to cultivate our spirit body for “ever growing, deep knowing.”
Hi! I’m Jennifer O’Sullivan (Sati Yoga). I write about yoga, meditation, stress management, functional anatomy, and bit of this and that about living a healthy life. I teach yoga classes and workshops in the Washington, DC area, and you can find me online at Facebook or www.sati.yoga.
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