Before I knew anything about yoga, I was into rock climbing. Aside from getting outside and doing something physically challenging, what impressed me was how “in the zone” I’d feel working on a route. I didn’t have the vocabulary for what was happening, but I’d tell everyone who asked, “nothing quiets my mind like trying not to die.”
And a busy, troubled mind I had. I’ve struggled off and on with anxiety and depression since I was a teenager. I’d been to a reasonable amount of therapy, and I was aware that my negative self-talk could spin me into a dark place. While knowing is half the battle, I didn’t know how to silence the chatter.
A therapist once told me that exercise helps, but it seemed my capacity for brooding was too big for just any fitness program to overcome. Apparently, I needed to be in a dangerous and precarious situation to find inner peace.
This is, of course, unsustainable. As soon as I was out of danger, my mind jumped back in, “So, as I was saying…”
After a couple of years hanging out at the rock gym, I built up the nerve to attend their Wednesday night yoga class. The teacher offered a style of yoga that can best be described as “meditation in motion.” We would roll around on the floor, pay attention to our breathing, and she would encourage us to feel our experience every step of the way.
It was a mesmerizing, new experience for me, and it hooked me instantly. Not only did I briefly tame my mind, but I started to relate to myself differently. I wasn’t just experiencing peace; I was learning to create it.
What I know now is that movement and exercise are tremendously beneficial for training up a self-directed mind, but they only work if you pay attention to what is happening while doing them. If you mindlessly go through motions or use that time to plan your next staff meeting, it doesn’t work. It’s important, especially in the beginning, to find an activity that is engaging enough to hold your attention without being so challenging that it causes frustration (see Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s theory of Flow). These days, I can be fully present while doing all kinds of things, but I had to work up to that.
Eventually, I started to see a more formalized meditation practice as “the next level” of my personal development. Could I release myself from the need to be engaged in creative movement — there is only so far you can take that — and train up a more disciplined mind?
Like a lot of people, I struggled to establish a seated meditation practice. My breath, a common focal point during meditation, was sometimes elusive. My body often ached while I sat, and I’d struggle with restlessness. I realized that to develop a daily, seated meditation practice, I needed an interim step between movement and stillness.
Enter Yin Yoga.
I was pretty reliant on movement as a present-moment anchor. Creative vinyasa sequences were my favorite. There were plenty of times when I could sit quietly with myself after an engaging class, but that was a crutch, and I needed to ween myself off of it.
Yin Yoga poses may look easy, but they are not neutral by design. The (sometimes intense) sensations that arise from the shapes are useful and accessible “events” upon which to rest your attention. These feelings may not be as entertaining as vinyasa, but they are hard to ignore.
I sometimes start my meditation practice with a Yin pose as a way of collecting myself before I switch to a subtler method. Most of the Yin postures target the lower abdomen or adjacent areas, and many wisdom traditions believe that the lower abdomen is the body’s center of consciousness. In Hatha yoga, this is the realm of the third chakra, the solar plexus. The Taoists call this area the lower dantian.
When we direct our attention to the center of our physical body, we pool our energy into this nexus. This has the effect of reducing the amount of energy at the periphery, making it easier to be quiet and still. In this way, Yin Yoga can help diminish restlessness in the body as well as the mind.
Pain and discomfort are also significant obstacles to sustaining a meditation practice. When I teach meditation, I spend a good bit of time helping people work through different options for getting comfortable. Even long-time yogis can struggle to sit in meditation without distracting discomfort.
While we don’t exactly know why, many people find that a regular Yin Yoga practice reduces pain, particularly in the areas of the body that complain during a meditation practice, namely the low back and hips.
I believe it is because Yin Yoga targets connective tissue, which is the largest sensory organ in our body and plays a significant role in proprioception (awareness of the body’s position in space) and interoception (awareness of our internal processes). When we emphasize physical awareness and inner listening, as we often do in Yin Yoga, we increase and refine our sensing capabilities. Preliminary studies have shown an inverse relationship between pain and proprioception.
Marinating in sensation-rich postures also trains up the capacity to host a wider bandwidth of sensations. Often these feelings fade if we just give them a bit of time. If aches intensify into pain, then make a very deliberate choice to change position. The choice is the key here: we can use this technique to learn to be more responsive and less reactive.
I’m not suggesting that we should ignore what we feel in the Yin Yoga postures, but every ache or physical distraction does not need to be met with an immediate reaction. I once asked my teacher why it was a problem to scratch an itch, especially if it’s easier to stay focused when it’s gone. She responded by asking me a question, “what if you didn’t have the choice to do something about it?”
Finally, I also take those quiet moments in Yin Yoga to practice other mindfulness methods whether it’s tracking my feelings or cultivating compassion. Most of us don’t have a lot of time to dedicate to our inner life. So, combining a physical practice with a mindfulness practice is not only tremendously beneficial but also efficient.
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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