Physical and psychological health may decline if constant chaos governs our lives and depletes vital energy. The answer is Yin.
Yin Yoga teacher from Byron Bay, Tara Fitzgibbon, says everyone – absolutely everyone – needs more rest. It’s difficult to argue that point. After all, the kind query of how one has been is often mindlessly met with the half-hearted response; ‘oh, really busy … but good, thanks’. Ah, yes – that old chestnut! Why is breathlessly busy ‘good’, anyway? Of course, a degree of busyness is essential, but physical and psychological health may decline if constant chaos governs our lives and depletes vital energy. This also applies to our yoga practice; we all need to balance strength and sweat with softness and stillness, integrate mindfulness of yin with movement of yang.
“Life is about balance. We are always striving for this. The scale tips left and right, goes up and down. Yin is the restorative yoga that got left behind when hot, power yang yoga became popular 15 years ago. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for us to realise we need to practice both,” says Fitzgibbon.
For thousands of years, Eastern cultures have believed optimal health relies on free-flowing energy circulating the body via invisible vessel-like pathways; forming the basis for modalities like acupuncture, tai chi and yoga. Yogic philosophy calls this energetic life-force ‘prana’, flowing throughout 72,000 ‘nadis’. Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) considers it ‘chi’, which comprises two vital forces of yin and yang that circulate via ‘meridians’. Largely pioneered by Japanese Scholar, Dr Hiroshi Motoyama, scientific research has begun supporting intuitive wisdom of these complex networks. Researchers at Seoul National University recently provided visible evidence that meridians exist by injecting dye into acupuncture points; a major breakthrough following scepticism from western medicine.
Balancing Yin and Yang
While the cool, passive characteristics of yin and hot, active aspects of yang are essentially opposing energies, they are also complementary; one cannot exist without the other. In The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga (White Cloud Press, 2011), Bernie Clark contemplates the popular yin-yang symbol; even within the darkness of yin, there is lightness of yang and vice-versa. Clark reminds us that even within active yang yoga practices, yin aspects may be present; like mindfully monitoring the breath throughout a Vinyasa flow. Yin and yang practices both have merits that cement their union.
“Yang practices are beneficial for mitigating accumulated stress. We would be much healthier if we could physically act out frustrations, but this would cause social chaos. Being mature means channelling and controlling emotional expressions; but this inevitably requires us to suppress some of them. Yang activities enable us to release physical consequences of suppression. Without yang, we are likely to slowly lose willpower and lapse into dull habits of action and response,” explains acclaimed Californian Yin Yoga teacher, Paul Grilley.
Contrastingly, yin yoga practices are less dynamic and more introspective. They involve fewer postures – predominantly floor-based – that are sustained for extended durations with no muscle engagement. Props like bolsters and blankets alleviate pressure, allowing full body weight to relax completely to the earth and mindfully rest in the raw honesty of stillness.
“Yin poses allow us time to look around and feel things we normally ignore, and monitor how subtle changes in muscle tension, emotional resistance or mental attitude alter our response to them. Once this skill has been learned, hopefully we can apply it effectively during our yang activities as well,” adds Grilley.
Releasing issues in the tissues
Physical and energetic vitality is tightly interwoven. TCM attributes each organ to a corresponding meridian; meaning energy obstruction contributes to organ dysfunction. On the upside, it also means certain yin postures may be implemented to nourish specific meridians. For example; three main meridians running through inner thigh region – kidney, liver and spleen meridians – are affected during hip-abduction in poses like butterfly (baddha konasana).
“Meridians run through the water-rich phase of connective tissue called fascia. When we stretch or compress fascia, we have direct impact on whether chi is flowing smoothly through meridians or not. Chi is best conducted in water, so where there is lots of water in the body, such as joints, chi pools in a healthy way or unhealthily stagnates. Yin yoga is an amazing opportunity to stimulate chi,” explains Sydney-based founder of The Yin Space, Mel McLaughlin.
According to Insight Yoga teacher, Sarah Owen, yang practices build strength by exercising musculature of the body. Yin promotes suppleness by addressing internalised tissues like fascia, tendons, ligaments and bones. “As cells and tissues renew and rejuvenate, we develop greater flexibility – not through force, but by repeatedly bringing our bodies into furthest range of motion mindfully and compassionately. When we release from a pose, it is easy to detect energetic ‘rebound’ – rushing of energy towards the targeted site after being stimulated for several minutes,” explains Owen.
In Insight Yoga (Shambhala Publications, 2008), Sarah Powers reiterates three principles of effective yin practice; the first being sensitively coming into the pose to an appropriate edge to establish tolerable depth. Secondly, resolving to remain still and muscularly soft. Lastly, postures should be held for a considerable time; ideally one to three minutes, perhaps five.
“Each pose needs to be held for at least two minutes to be really effective. For example; we may initially only feel hamstrings stretching during a forward-bend. Two minutes in, we feel gentle pulling apart of fascia’s strong fibres as the whole back body releases,” says McLaughlin.
Breathe and let go
One of the biggest inhibitors of chi is stress, which is rife as demands of modern living frequently push the panic button. Ah, but relax – the good news is that yin yoga may effectively re-set fight-and-flight to rest-and-digest.
“Dr Motoyama claimed that the nervous system and meridian system are yin and yang to each other. Placing yourself in a mildly stressful pose and learning to calmly observe it without tensing against it slowly develops our ability to tone down our nervous system and enjoy being calm,” says Grilley.
Common yin postures could be deemed ‘simple’, but let’s be honest; silent observation of self throughout extended stillness isn’t necessarily easy, as waves of internal dialogue come crashing in. The breath, however, can gently soothe this mental whirlpool; an imperative tool, considering energy flows where the mind goes!
“Part of yin’s meditation practice is allowing the conceptual mind to rest. The conceptual mind likes to know the ins-and-outs; the ‘how long will I be here?’ part of the mind. We ask it to step aside and engage with the witnessing mind, which notices when the conceptual mind is restless or relaxed,” says Owen.
“A gentle pranayama (enhancing breath) can help calm the mind. As we develop our practice, we can adopt a more yin approach to breath work; anapanasati involves mindfully observing the breath’s resting state without wilfully altering it,” she adds.
Fitzgibbon defines a yin approach to Ujjayi pranayama; often called ocean breath, denoting the sound surging in the throat. “Ujjayi pranayama practiced quietly and slowly is an effective yin practice. Actively listening to the breath keeps us present and clears blockages in the body, as the mind follows and guides the breath to areas that are stuck. Breath by breath, layer by layer, the body unravels deep tension with little effort. All the yogi needs to do is breathe, rest, and give permission to let go,” she says.
Letting go is needed to counterbalance ‘go-go-go’. McLaughlin believes many of us predominantly live in fast-forward, ‘achieve’ mode. By favouring the ‘doing’, we forget the beauty of ‘being’; when really, six of yin and half a dozen of yang makes the perfect blend for balanced well-being.
Check out www.terrafirmayoga.com for Tara Fitzgibbon’s free 45 minute yin class.