November 21, 2012

9 Things I’ve Learned about Yin Yoga.

Everybody these days wants a bit of Yin.

You know that this downbeat practice is in fashion now that Oprah Winfrey, the queen-bee of mainstream culture, has endorsed it in her magazine.

So what it is the hype all about?

When I lived in Vancouver two years ago, I felt like a spoiled yogi in yoga wonderland. The yoga studio I subscribed to had 150 classes a week on their bountiful menu. This was a considerable change from my humble beginnings in London. There, I practiced yoga at my local gym with only two classes of yoga a day to choose from.

My initial euphoria in Canada barely faded for the six months we lived there. Like a gluttonous little mouse on a French cheese platter, I tried a slice of all kinds of yoga styles and schools: Vinyasa Flow, Iyengar, Ana Forrest, Kundalini, Anusara, restorative, you name it.

On a snowy Sunday evening, I went to Bernie Clark’s Yin class. The studio, with a capacity of 100 people, was mobbed. Even movies don’t gather such crowds these days. This seemed to be the hottest date in town. Somehow it was: in Vancouver, Sunday evening is when Yinsters congregate.

Yogis were preparing bolsters and blankets, candle flames were flickering around the dim room. I started to worry a bit, as most yogis still had their socks on minutes before the class started. Vancouverites, I discovered, love a good pair of comfy socks, to me at that point, wooly socks and yoga just didn’t mix. As the uptight dedicated Ashtangi that I was then, I really felt a bit out of place. I started to dread that I had accidentally ended up in one of ‘those classes’: the cringeworthy type where frustration builds up so much that the only mental escape is cynicism.

The class started and Bernie spelt out the three tattvas or principles of Yin yoga: “playing our edges,” “remaining still” and “holding a pose for time.” When I realised I had to stay in the same postures for a few minutes without moving, my heart sunk a little, and already I felt stuck. Sitting still doing nothing isn’t precisely part of my temperament.

This didn’t bode too well, at all.

Bernie went on giving us sensible advice on how to find our edge, listen to our body, let go of the monkey mind. He also brought in some science, some psychology and spirituality keeping us entertained while we were ‘marinating’ in a hip-opener or a deep backbend.

As I came out, I felt that even if I hadn’t ‘done anything’ or broken a sweat, some deep work had been done: my hips had been stretched beyond their usual range and my mind felt nourished and clear at the same time. For the next six months, I wouldn’t miss a Sunday Yin class and I also invested in a good pair of wooly socks.

When I read Bernie Clark’s Complete Guide to Yin Yoga, I found the same special blend of science, anatomy, Eastern philosophy and wisdom. All is presented in a very engaging and accessible style, topped with some fine jokes and efficient similes, which keep heavier concepts highly digestible. Like in Bernie’s classes, the reader will find different degrees of reading.

So, whether you are just interested in the technical aspects of the practice or if you want to dig further into the anatomical, energetic and emotional aspects of it, abundant knowledge is available to you. If you are naturally allergic to anything scientific, Bernie’s strategic use of analogies might help you overcome your aversion. In his book, fascia becomes a pack of shrinkwrapped sausages and cells are a bag of soup.

Here are a few things, I’ve learned from Bernie’s book—recently reviewed by my colleague Jay Winston—and from my Yin Yoga practice:

1. It don’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that Yin.

“If you have been doing yoga for a while now, you might be experiencing only half of the practice and just some benefits that are available to you. Yin Yoga is the other half.”

In our active, Yang-like lifestyles, one of the most difficult things to do is to stop and sit still. However, if we ride the Yang train for too long, physical and mental exhaustion  ensues. This can manifest itself in either breakdown and/or injury, ironically forcing us to embrace more Yin-like activities.

The practice of Yin Yoga trains us in the habit of slowing down, paying attention and listening. Listening to our body, to our mind, to the soothing sound of the Ocean breath. Yin goes hand in hand with the practice of mindfulness and helps to fine-tune the various skills that bring us back to the here and now.

2. Turn into a Yin potato: take it to the floor.

There are books that you read slouching nonchalantly on the best armchair or sofa of the house. The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga is not one of them. From the introduction, the author invites us to take it to the floor.

“Get off your couch, get out of your chair, place a cushion on the floor and begin reading while sitting or lying on the ground. Move around all you want, but stay on the floor for as along as you need. You are already beginning the practice.”

This illustrates one of the great advantages of the Yin yoga practice: it’s very portable. You don’t always need a mat. A cushion, a pillow, a bolster if you have one handy, are often the only prop you will find helpful when integrating a bit of Yin in your daily routine.

There are many Yin poses that can be held during activities where you tend to have a bad posture: reading, watching TV or working on the computer. I personally like switching from one seated pose to the other: Square, Deer, Butterfly, Toe Squat (not for long!) and Shoelace. Living on the floor will also find you in the companies of other creatures who crawl and stretch around it: the cat, the dog, the baby and your husband’s socks.

3. Stay with the drama.

When sitting in a sometimes uncomfortable asana for a few minutes, it’s hard to ignore the constant churning of the mind.

“During our Yin Yoga practice, when the drama reaches a peak, when we really want to come out, by paying attention to what is happening, we notice our cravings and our aversions. We start to notice how we want something else other than what is happening right now.”

Mindfulness skills we develop in the safe environment of our Yin practice can easily transfer off the mat. When we are mentally stuck in our everyday drama (worry, rumination, frustration), we can bring the same kind of attention to the sensations in our body, observe thoughts and reactions and deliberately stay with them until they go away.

 4. All is not lost.

Ever despaired about tight hips and hamstrings? Fret not, just be patient.

Years of sitting on chairs in front of computers take their toll and our range of movement suffers from it. However, all is not lost, it’s all a matter of time.

“We didn’t lose our hip’s normal range of movement overnight and we will not regain it quickly either. But, by applying the Yin Yoga principles to your hips, we can recover what was lost.”

Once again Bernie advises us to live on the floor, as “it will help immensely with opening the hips.”

5. Discover the Dragon.

By practicing Yin Yoga one becomes acquainted with evocatively  named asanas such as the Swan, the Dragon, the Deer, the Seal or even one of my favorite, Bananasana.

“Many of these asanas will be familiar to experienced yoga students. However, the name may be different in the yin tradition and this is deliberate. For example, the yin pose of Swan looks identical to the yang pose of Pigeon, but in the yin practice, we relax the muscles: our intention is to soak deeply into the joints and deep tissues wrapping them, not the more superficial tissues of the muscles.”

When Bernie announces the Dragon in his class a muttered grunt of apprehension fills the room. The pose is as dreaded as the mythical animal it is named after. It looks like a inoffensive low lunge, but when held for a few minutes, things become quite “juicy.” Coming out of the Dragon is one of the strongest physical sensations I’ve ever experienced in my yoga practice. Bernie reassures us that : “After a deep, long-held hip opener, it may feel like we will never be able to walk again-but be assured that the fragility will pass.”

6. Not too much and not too little: the Goldilocks’ position.

This is the allegory Bernie Clark uses to help us find our edges.

“If we apply too little stress to our tissues, they atrophy. All living things require some stress to be healthy! If we apply too much stress, however, tissues degenerate.”

Striking this physical and mental balance is to me one of Yin Yoga biggest challenges. Our mind can often be a poor judge of the body’s abilities. It can be either pushy and inattentive to the body’s signals, or it can retreat in fear and interpret any strong physical sensation as a threat.

The yin key to this dilemma is acceptance, Bernie explains.

7. Emotions are embodied.

Strong emotions can arise during the practice of Yin yoga. In a weekend workshop with Seane Corn, I found out how neglected issues could come to the surface when poses where held for longer periods. I cried a lot that weekend but when Sunday evening came, my spring cleaning had been done. A lot of toxic beliefs and feelings had been washed onto the shore on my awareness.

“‘The Daoist yogis have noticed that our emotions are embodied. Modern yogis have noticed the same thing and coined the term ‘issues in our tissues.”

This reminds me of Fight Club and how the narrator pairs up parts of the body and emotions and give them a first person voice: “I’m Jack’s raging bile duct,” “I’m Jack’s smirking revenge.”

Bernie Clark explains how in Alchemical Daoism, “Organs” host emotions and that for example: “the Liver […] is the home of anger and frustration[…]. Grief and sadness reside in the Lungs.”

To me, a long-held Dragon could easily translate into: “I’m Sophie’s hateful hips.”

8. It is not comfortable.

“Yin Yoga is not meant to be comfortable; it will take you well outside your comfort zone. Much of the benefit of the practice will come from staying in this zone of discomfort, despite the mind’s urgent pleas to leave.”

This is, in my experience, what differentiates Yin Yoga from restorative yoga. With both you wear the comfy socks, but this is where the similarity ends. In a restorative class, sensations of well-being accompany us throughout the session and after. In Yin Yoga gratitude in the body and mind rises after the practice or when coming out of a pose. A Yin teacher will accompany the practice with an engaging commentary to keep yogis focused during prolonged sittings, whereas a restorative Yoga teacher will sparingly cue into finding further comfort and relaxation.

In his latest newsletter, Bernie Clark explains how their purposes are different too:

“Restorative Yoga is a form of practice directed towards students who are injured, stressed or ill. […] [Yin Yoga] encompasses long held, static stresses of the deep connective tissues allowing them to be remodeled. […] Restorative Yoga takes an unhealthy body and brings it (hopefully) back to normal, while Yin Yoga takes a normal healthy body and brings it up to optimum.”

9. Meet your own shadow.

We spend a great deal of our life advertising our best self, and, during this campaign, we tend to bury our least flattering traits deep down. We are often ashamed or afraid of this shadow and go to great extents to avoid its tenebrous influence.

“The shadow personifies everything that the subject refuses to acknowledge about himself,” Carl Jung elucidates. “The shadow is a tight passage, a narrow door, whose painful constriction no one is spared who goes down to the deep well.”

Bernie Clark explains that the “the yin character [in Daoist writings] refers to the shady side of a hill or stream.”

We can’t systemically turn our back to our shadow, unless we aspire to be one-dimensional. As we sometimes sit in the discomfort of a Yin pose, we can observe our shadow under a kind light. In this respect, the practice of Yin Yoga helps unearthing and integrating our dark side without putting up too much of a fight. So much release comes from tolerating our shameful tendencies.

Our modern lifestyle doesn’t often offer a space or a ritual that enables this cathartic process. This might be the spiritual and psychological gap Yin yoga is filling in the modern yoga landscape.


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