Strengthen, lengthen and hold that pose
Anyone over the age of 10 notices how simply touching our toes becomes increasingly difficult. As we age, we tend to play and dance less and this reduction in physical movement has the unfortunate effect of shortening or tightening tendons, ligaments, joint capsules, cartilage, bones and the fascial network running throughout our body.
The human body is an integrated organism in which everything is connected. Muscle tissue is more closely woven at its outer range to become tendons, tendons become ligaments, and ligaments become bone. This internal connectivity is further ensheathed by fascia, which wraps around and through our circulatory, nervous, muscular and skeletal systems, as well as our digestive tract and organs.
Often, fascia more than muscle is responsible for restricting our movement. Fascia needs to stretch to maintain health. However, it does not rebound as quickly as muscle and takes longer to release, which necessitates longer holds (three to five minutes) in yoga poses.
Herein lies the main benefit of a yin yoga practice.
Yin yoga consists of seated or supine (lying down) poses that target the denser, deeper, more plastic and less elastic connective tissues in our body. The primary focus of a yin practice is to apply moderate stress — that is prolonged stretching — to these connective tissues with the aim of increasing circulation in the joints and improving flexibility.
Unlike yang (active) yoga where muscular effort is used to express the poses, in yin, muscular effort is dropped and instead, the three following principles are adhered to:
- Softness — muscles are relaxed while you express the pose until you feel the sensation (your edge of discomfort), but not pain.
- Stillness — no moving, fidgeting or adjusting unless there’s pain or panic.
- Steadiness — passively remain still and present in the pose for three to five (or more) minutes.
Yin yoga is rarely taught to beginner practitioners who do not have stable or strong physical bodies. In addition, most beginner yogis have difficulty discriminating between discomfort and pain, which means they may move too deeply into the yin postures and potentially injure themselves.
Finally, the yin practice requires one to sit with discomfort for prolonged intervals. Being able to achieve this is a learned skill, and in a society bent on pursuing pleasure and avoiding pain, many beginners have not yet developed the mental, emotional and physical capacity to enjoy the yin practice.
For the most part, yin’s slower, more introspective style is best suited to those already physically active — athletes, martial artists and established yogis. This meditative approach to yoga is meant to complement more active physical practices, including yang yogas such as Ashtanga, Flow, Kripala, Hatha, etc., where strength requirements can round and shorten muscles and connective tissue. Yin counterbalances by relaxing and elongating these same tissues.
To create a balanced yoga practice, try a yin sequence one to two times per week accompanied by a more active yoga style two to four times weekly. The four yin poses illustrated below provide a great starting place.
Action: Take each pose using the necessary props for your body. Move only to a depth in the pose where you feel sensation you can be with for the given length of time. (Note: too much sensation creates tension that can contract muscles rather than relax and release them.) Keep your breath and awareness on one specific area of sensation. Notice any changes in your body and gently move into any new space that is created.
For more advanced practitioners, hold each pose for five to 10 minutes.
ALEXANDER TWIST (Lying-down Twist)
Begin lying on your back with your arms in a “T”. Bend your left leg and release your knee to a bolster, rolled blanket or stack of books. Add more height if needed in order to keep your shoulders evenly resting on the floor. Hold for three to five minutes. Repeat with right leg on the support.
EKA PADA GOMUKHASANA (Half Shoelace)
Begin sitting with your legs straight. Bend your left leg over your right thigh and walk your left heel toward your right hip. Eventually your left knee rests and stacks on your right knee. Sit upright and/or fold forward holding for three to five minutes. Repeat with the right leg on top.
EKA PADA RAJA KAPOTASANA (Swan)
Begin on all fours in a table-top position. Slide your left knee between your hands, positioning your left heel under your right hip. Stretch your right leg straight back. Keeping your hips level, lower your left hip onto your support unless it reaches the floor without losing the levelness in your hips. Hold for three to five minutes. Repeat with the right leg forward.
ADHO MUKHA BADDHA KONASANA (Butterfly)
Bring the soles of your feet together with your knees releasing toward the floor. Ensure the diamond shape of your inner legs allows your heels to be a fair distance away from your pubic bone. Sit upright for the first two minutes and then fold forward. Hold for three to five minutes.
Winnipeggers Helen Maupin (righttojoy.com) and Candace Propp (natureofcontentment.ca) are 500-hour certified yoga teachers and authors of the Creating Space: Yoga Actions book series. To purchase print or ebooks, see here. For yoga teacher training with them and Stacy Schroder, register at sereneyogastudio.com.