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What is Yin Yoga? An Intro for Students and Teachers

What is Yin Yoga

Yin yoga works deeply into the connective tissues (ligaments, tendons, cartilage and fascia), in order to heal joints and increase flexibility through slow, gentle and sustained traction.  When you look at the elderly or injuries in athletes you will often see that the degeneration lies within the joints. Yin yoga focuses on slowly stretching the connective tissues around joints, which in turn also helps to strengthen them.

Yin yoga poses focuses on yin tissues (the connective tissues) as well as the meridians that end in the lower body including: the liver, gall bladder, kidney, urinary bladder, spleen and stomach meridians in order to support a balance within our subtle energies.

Though yin and yang are relative terms the practice of yin yoga has more yin like qualities. For instance, we practice with cool muscles, versus muscles that have been warmed up. This allows the focus to move from the belly of the muscles to the yin tissues around the joints as well as the fascia which is a thin spider web like tissue runming through the entire body (watch this video!). Yin yoga is also practiced slowly and quietly with a calm breath versus a more fast paced, yang yoga with more power in the breath.

How to Practice Yin Yoga

There are three main qualities to a yin yoga practice.

1. Reaching your appropriate edge

In yin yoga we are seeking to play with our edge. Finding an appropriate depth in the postures that allows for not too much sensation, but also not to little. I recommend that when you get into a posture, start out well behind your edge at a point where you are just starting to feel a sensation. Give your body a chance to relax and adjust, then allow yourself to get closer to your edge. The edge looks and feels different for everyone, as every body is unique. It is said by Bernie Clark that if you are feeling it you are doing it.

One of the most important aspects of yin is the slow and sustained pressure. When you stretch too far, too fast, the body reacts and contracts the muscles fibers. When this happens the stretch is no longer able to reach the connective tissue. Also if you keep stretching once the muscle has reacted and contracted then you are simply trying to stretch a contracted muscle and this is how we cause tears and strains that leave us feeling sore the next day. You should never be sore after practicing yin yoga. Pay close attention when you are practicing. When you are in a yin yoga posture you should feel the stretch, but there should not be any type of painful sensation. The more you practice, the more you will get to know your appropriate edge.

2. Committing to stillness

When practicing Yin Yoga, Sarah Powers teaches:

Stillness of the body…like a majestic mountain
Stillness of the breath…like a calm mountain lake
Stillness of the mind…like the deep blue of the sky

The effectiveness of yin yoga lies within a gentle and steady stretch. There is no bouncing up and down which can injure the muscles and especially the connective tissue.  When we get into our posture and find our edge we stay there. We become mindful, not only of stillness in the body, but stillness in the mind as well. If you get into a yin posture and start to fidget or drift away you will not be getting the full benefits. However, committing to stillness does not mean committing to stillness at any cost. You will find that there will be times when it is pertinent to move. For instance, you may start to move past your edge after being in a posture for a longer length of time. In which case you may need to ease off. You may also discover that after some time your body as begun to adjust and release. In this instance you can adjust yourself to go deeper and get closer to the new edge that has developed.

3. Sustaining the posture for a longer period of time

Yin tissues require reasonable amounts of time in gentle traction to respond in such away that injury does not occur and an effective stretch is practiced. This is very different compared to yang forms of yoga and exercise where movements are often quick or only help for a few breaths. Typical times for holding a yin posture are 3-5 minutes.  When you first start practicing you may find that it is easier to hold some postures for longer period of time than others. Over time you can begin to hold the posture for longer periods of time, even up to 20 minutes. By holding yin postures in a more gentle, steady manner for a longer period of time you may find that you can increase your flexibility more in that time than stretching for shorter periods of time over the span of several days. The time used in holding postures may seems slow, but you can quickly gain results.

When we get into our yin postures we go in slowly and consciously. Due to the length of time that we spend working on these specific tissues, there is a certainly level of vulnerability that is places on the tissues, so it is very important that you come out of your yin postures with the same slowness and awareness as you went into them. If you are stretching your tendons for instance and then you just “pop” out of the posture you can damage the tissue.

When to practice

Yin yoga is best practiced when the muscles are cool. The morning (even before you get out of bed) is a wonderful time to practice, as well as late at night for a calming effect. Yin yoga can be effectively practiced at any time of day, however the physical effects for your tissues will be greater in the morning and the effects for calming the mind and nervous system will be greater in the evening.  Yin postures are best practiced before more energetic yang exercises and it is a perfect balance to the demands of traveling, such as being in a static position while traveling on airplanes for long periods of time. The practice of yin yoga is also a great compliment to a woman’s moon cycle.

The Breath

The breath in yin yoga is typically calm, even and quiet. The breath can be used as a focus point for awareness. There are also times when you can deepen the breath slightly and move it to area of the body where you are feeling sensation. Once you get into your yin posture and you are feeling the right level of “not too much and not too little” sensation in targeted areas, the best thing you can do is to utilize the breath to relax and release the body around those sensations. The more relaxed the muscles are the better chance that the stretch will move into the connective tissue. One way to do this is with a conscious breath. You inhale the sensations of tension in your body and exhale release. At first you may find that the releasing exhale is only in your imagination, but with practice you can begin to become a master of physically releasing your muscles on the exhale. Not only will you benefits from this breath in your yin yoga practice, but you will find it to be a valuable tool throughout your day. Learning this breath and release technique through my yin practice and bringing it into the rest of my day as helped me cure almost two decades of back pain stemming from a childhood accident.

Asanas (Postures)

There are countless postures in the many varied yoga traditions, However there are really only about a couple of dozen (along with their variations) which are typically practiced in yin yoga. It is also important to note that many of the postures look the same as postures you may find in other forms of yoga, however they are not only given a different name, but will also have a different intention. You may practice a posture in one way in a vinyasa class for instance where the focus is on tightening and strengthening the muscle, where as in the yin form the focus is on relaxing the muscle and targeting the stretch around the joint.

Sequencing

When you prepare to practice yin yoga on your own, it is best to first decide your reason for practicing. It may be different depending upon the time of day and what you are experiencing in your body that day. Maybe you are feeling tension in your hips, or maybe you are experiencing a tightening around the muscles of your spine. Maybe you just want to calm the mind. Knowing what your intention is will be the most important step to picking which postures you will be practicing.

As far as sequencing the postures, there is no “law.” Most yin poses have a heavy focus on forward bends, back bends and spinal twists. It is best to always do a mix of all three. I often teach and practice in such a way that I alternate between forward bends and back bends, with a few spinal twists throughout or just at the end. However this is not an absolute. If I am really working on lengthening the back of my body, I may do mostly forward style bends with just one back bend and spinal twist at the end. You will learn with practice what feels right to you.

Most yoga sessions are done in 1 hour – 90 minute times blocks, however there have certainly been times at home when I only have the need or time to do one slow 5-10 minute, forward bend and one slow, 5-10 minute back bend. Don’t let lack of time stop you from practice. Yin yoga is such a portable and easy to practice form of yoga that you can do it almost anywhere at anytime!

Once you have decided why you are practicing and how long you are practicing for. Take a few moments to sit down and allow for the development of a meditative mind through breath awareness, move on to your yin flow and then end with Shavasana (or a final relaxation laying down on the back. After relaxation it is helpful to roll over onto the left side for just a minute or so to open up your yang energy channel and start to make your way back into the world. 

For more information about yin yoga as well as to find in depth trainings:

Paul Grilley’s Website / Buy the Book – Yin Yoga: Outline of a Quiet Practice / Buy the DVD Yin Yoga: The Foundations of a Quiet Practice

Sarah Powers’ Website / Buy the Book – Insight Yoga  

Bernie Clark’s Website (A great site for yin yoga postures!) / Buy the Book – YinSites: A Journey into the Philosophy & Practice of Yin Yoga / Pre order the Book: The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga coming this Fall. (I am greatly looking forward to this!)

Also check back with the Yoga of Travel next month in the Free Yoga Poses section for an extensive library of yin poses with photos and descriptions!

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Letting Go: Roll and Relax Into Release – A Yin Yoga Book

I have spent much of my life dealing with pain. Mainly back pain and foot pain for various reasons. Then after I had my now 3 year old son, I spent half of the first year of his life with my neck going out every few weeks. It was some of the worst pain I have ever had. Sometimes I couldn’t even hold my head up. Then I started taking yin yoga. I had already been practicing yoga for a decade and teaching for several years, but it wasn’t until I started practicing and teaching yin yoga that something occurred, which was nothing short of a miracle: I stopped being in pain. I started becoming a master at being able to release tension in my body at any given moment.  It has been a few years now since I started, but every single day I still have a moment when I stop and think to myself “Wow, I am not in pain today!” Yin yoga is a powerful healing modality that is accessible to most people.

With that said, I am so overjoyed to announce the appearance of a wonderful new book on Yin Yoga. Letting Go: Roll & Relax Into Release by Bella Dreizler. Not only does this book cover many yin poses, but Bella also talks in depth about how to use foam rollers, “pokey balls” and tennis balls to release areas of tightness in the body and promote self-healing.

With almost 40 years of experience as a physical therapist, Bella shares with you a high level of knowledge about releasing restrictions throughout the body. I have personally taken Bella’s yoga classes, which offer a unique blend of yoga and physical therapy techniques leaving you feeling noticeably more relaxed and free from ingrained patterns of tension.

This book is perfect for the beginning yoga student and anyone looking to release tension and heal injuries in the body. As a yoga teacher and massage therapist I highly recommend this book to other yoga teachers and body workers to further support their students and clients.

You can buy the book as a hard copy for $25 (ncluding tax and shipping). It is an 8×10, 94 page book packed with info and photos, but light enough to travel around with. You can also buy an E-Book version for $12.

The book was designed so you can easily read the text and view the photos when you lay it out on the ground next to your yoga mat or when you are practicing from your computer or other device.

Aside from Bella being AMAZING…I have to tell you…I designed this book cover to cover. So needless to say, I am pretty proud of it!

It is my first book design and as soon as it was completed,  I started working on 3 more books for other yoga teachers and a nutritionist!

Not only was I able to add a quality, passive income generating stream for both Bella and myself, I have a wonderful new skill that my clients are really excited about, which allows me to continue working as a location independent entrepreneur, doing what I love to do, for clients who are also passionate about what they do in life.

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Don’t Let Your Connective Tissue Hold You Back

I am honored to offer this guest post by Bella Dreizler, she is a certified physical therapist with over 38 years of experience as well as an amazing yoga teacher.

- The Wandering Yogi

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Consider this fact: The more we inhabit our bodies, the easier it is for us to heal. And whatever we do to deepen our relationship with the body’s movement, breath and sensation supports our health and wellbeing. Practices like yoga and dance help us become more fully embodied. But sometimes injuries or stiffness keep us away, plant us on the sidelines, away from the very movement medicine we need. Vulnerability and fear can often create paralyzing inertia.

Often the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.

The challenges that keep us from enjoying a physical practice are as varied as the bodies we inhabit: Back problems, hip tightness, recurring foot issues, neck injuries, shoulder restrictions. The list goes on! Yoga is one of the ways we work with our unique body limitations. When we come to the mat with an intention for healing, we can discover, open and soften restrictions. We can let new flexibility flow right from the practice. We can access newfound internal support for posture and alignment. 

As we age, stiffness and tightness begin to feel like the new norm. Injuries, heredity, gravity, emotional patterns and postural habits contribute to this universal condition. So much formal exercise focuses on muscles: how to strengthen and how to stretch. When we’re young, we can exercise muscles and boost power and flexibility with relative ease. As time marches on, the role of connective tissue and how it affects our flexibility becomes increasingly important. 

What is connective tissue? It includes the bones and the cartilage, the tendons attaching muscle to bone, the ligaments binding bones together and the deep fascia that binds muscles together. Collagen fibers are the building blocks of connective tissue and changes in these fibers cause ordinary stiffness. Injuries, habits and age change the collagen from pliable and elastic to rusty, short and a bit deranged. As it tightens, it draws the muscle and bone closer together. This is what creates less possibility for movement. 

Much of our tightness develops in predictable asymmetrical patterns. Breaking down these collagen changes in the connective tissue, especially tightness around the hips, spine and shoulders, is the aim of yin yoga. Change happens! 

We are living beings comprised of living tissues. When these connective tissues are stressed, they adapt and change. We already know about adaptive change from our experience following an injury. We can feel the tightness we develop in response to this type of stress. Less obvious are the restrictions that slowly develop over time because of the habitual ways we hold ourselves.

But stresses can be positive as well. Connective tissue restrictions will release when they are subjected to the right amount of tension and stresses applied in a purposefully therapeutic way. Over and over again I have seen and experienced significant structural changes by engaging in long held yin poses. 

If you are leading a typical life in this culture it may be jam-packed with productivity and activity. When we choose recreation it often has the same qualities. When we decide to fit in yoga because we heard it was good for us, we often choose active yang styles. Yin yoga is about quieting, turning inward, cultivating a peaceful receptivity.

For many of us, it is the perfect balance to an active life style. 

Learning how to release connective tissue with yin poses requires attention and patience. We need to know the specific region we are targeting in any pose and how to make adjustments so that we feel the release happening in that target place. We also need to find a way to work right on our personal edge.

 What is our personal edge? Breaking up collagen restrictions where there is tightness is usually uncomfortable. Some people refer to it as a “good hurt.” Each of us must find our personal edge and remember that it varies from day to day. We are over our edge and in danger of actually making ourselves worse when we create pain that stops the breath and makes us tense in areas other than the target. We are not quite at our edge when there is no sensation created in the target. Lack of sensation means that nothing is being stressed for adaptive change in the tissue. This edge-finding takes undivided self-focus and attention. This is not an activity to undertake while watching T.V. This is the very essence of a yoga practice: Deep awareness of the breath, undivided attention on sensation, union of body and mind.  

When you find your yin edge, the connective tissue between the bones has been stressed enough to soften. Sometimes the sensation is one of compression as structures press into each other. Sometimes it is a feeling of lengthening tension or traction as structures are being separated. These sensations are sure signs of letting go and should
dissipate during the first minute after releasing the pose. 

There is an old Chinese fable that details how to set a monkey trap: Cut an opening in a coconut the size of a monkey’s open hand, place some rice in the bottom of the hollow and place the fruit where the monkeys travel. When a curious monkey reaches in to grab the rice, his tight fisted hold will not fit back out through the opening.

The lesson is obvious. Just like the monkey, we need to learn to let go of whatever our version of the rice happens to be. Learning to let go of what is tight in our body often delivers us to deeply personal meaning about what we need to release in our own lives. We gain so much wisdom from mindful movement as we tune in to our precious body.

– Bella Dreziler bodyjoy.net