This practice is designed to help you sit longer, and more comfortably, in meditation by stretching connective tissue around the joints (mainly the knees, pelvis, sacrum, and spine). A passive practice, Yin Yoga involves variations of seated and supine poses typically held for 3 to 5 minutes, accessing deeper layers of fascia. Yin Yoga was originally introduced by Paulie Zink.
Conventional yoga wisdom holds that nothing prepares your body for hours of seated meditation as well as regular asana practice. But when I began to explore more intensive meditation sessions, I discovered to my chagrin that years of sweaty vinyasa and mastery of fairly advanced poses hadn’t made me immune to the creaky knees, sore back, and aching hips that can accompany long hours of sitting practice. Enter Yin Yoga.
Fortunately, by the time I got serious about meditation, I’d already been introduced to the concepts of Taoist Yoga, which helped me understand my difficulties in sitting. I found that with some simple additions to my yoga practice, I could sit in meditation with ease, free from physical distractions. Taoist Yoga also helped me see that we can combine Western scientific thought with ancient Indian and Chinese energy maps of the body to gain deeper understanding of how and why yoga works.
Taoist Yoga Roots
Through deep meditation, the ancient spiritual adepts won insight into the energy system of the body. In India, yogis called this energy prana and its pathways nadis; in China, the Taoists called it qi (pronounced chee) and founded the science of acupuncture, which describes the flow of qi through pathways called meridians. The exercises of tai chi chuan and qi gong were developed to harmonize this qi flow; the Indian yogis developed their system of bodily postures to do the same.
Western medicine has been skeptical about the traditional energy maps of acupuncture, tai chi, and yoga, since no one had ever found physical evidence of nadis and meridians. But in recent years researchers, led by Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama in Japan and Dr. James Oschman in the United States, have explored the possibility that the connective tissue running throughout the body provides pathways for the energy flows described by the ancients.
Taoist Yoga weds the insights gained by thousands of years of acupuncture practice to the wisdom of yoga.
Drawing on Motoyama’s research, Taoist Yoga weds the insights gained by thousands of years of acupuncture practice to the wisdom of yoga. To understand this marriage—and to use it to help us sit with more ease in meditation—we must familiarize ourselves with the concepts of yin and yang. Opposing forces in taoist thought, the terms yin and yang can describe any phenomenon. Yin is the stable, unmoving, hidden aspect of things; yang is the changing, moving, revealing aspect. Other yin-yang polarities include cold-hot, down-up, calm-excited.
Yin and yang are relative terms, not absolutes; any phenomenon can only be yin or yang by comparison with something else. We can’t point to the moon and say, “The moon is yin.” Compared to the sun, the moon is yin: It’s cooler and less bright. But compared to the Earth (at least from our perspective), the moon is yang: brighter, higher, and more mobile. In addition to being relative, a yin-yang comparison of any two objects depends on the trait being compared. For example, when considering location, the heart is yin compared to the breastbone because the heart is more hidden. But when considering substance, the heart is yang compared to the breastbone because the heart is softer, more mobile, more elastic.
Analyzing various yoga techniques from the perspective of yin and yang, the most relevant aspect is the elasticity of the tissues involved. Yang tissues like muscles are more fluid-filled, soft, and elastic; yin tissues like connective tissue (ligaments, tendons, and fascia) and bones are dryer, harder, and stiffer. By extension, exercise that focuses on muscle tissue is yang; exercise that focuses on connective tissue is yin.
Taoists would say yang practice removes qi stagnation as it cleanses and strengthens our bodies and our minds. But the practice of yang yoga, by itself, may not adequately prepare the body for a yin activity such as seated meditation.
It’s certainly true that whenever we move and bend our joints in yoga postures, both muscle and connective tissues are challenged. But from a Taoist perspective, much of the yoga now practiced in the West is yang practice—active practice that primarily focuses on movement and muscular contraction. Many yoga students like to warm up with asanas that infuse the muscles with blood, like standing poses, Sun Salutations, or inversions. This strategy makes sense for stretching and strengthening muscles; much like a sponge, the elasticity of a muscle varies dramatically with its fluid content. If a sponge is dry, it may not stretch at all without tearing, but if a sponge is wet, it can twist and stretch a great deal. Similarly, once the muscles fill with blood, they become much easier to stretch.
Yang yoga provides enormous benefits for physical and emotional health, especially for those living a sedentary modern lifestyle. Taoists would say yang practice removes qi stagnation as it cleanses and strengthens our bodies and our minds. But the practice of yang yoga, by itself, may not adequately prepare the body for a yin activity such as seated meditation. Seated meditation is a yin activity, not just because it is still but because it depends on the flexibility of the connective tissue.
The Yin Yoga Perspective on “Stretching” Joints
The idea of stretching connective tissue around the joints seems at odds with virtually all the rules of modern exercise. Whether we’re lifting weights, skiing, or doing aerobics or yoga, we’re taught that safety in movement primarily means to move so you don’t strain your joints. And this is sage counsel. If you stretch connective tissue back and forth at the edge of its range of motion or if you suddenly apply a lot of force, sooner or later you will hurt yourself.
…the principle of all exercise is to stress tissue so the body will respond by strengthening it.
So why would Yin Yoga advocate stretching connective tissue? Because the principle of all exercise is to stress tissue so the body will respond by strengthening it. Moderately stressing the joints does not injure them any more than lifting a barbell injures muscles. Both forms of training can be done recklessly, but neither one is innately wrong. We must remember that connective tissue is different from muscle and needs to be exercised differently. Instead of the rhythmiccontraction and release that best stretches muscle, connective tissue responds best to a slow, steady load. If you gently stretch connective tissue by holding a yin pose for a long time, the body will respond by making them a little longer and stronger—which is exactly what you want.
Although connective tissue is found in every bone, muscle, and organ, it’s most concentrated at the joints. In fact, if you don’t use your full range of joint flexibility, the connective tissue will slowly shorten to the minimum length needed to accommodate your activities. If you try to flex your knees or arch your back after years of underuse, you’ll discover that your joints have been “shrink-wrapped” by shortened connective tissue.
In general, a yin approach works to promote flexibility in areas often perceived as nonmalleable, especially the hips, pelvis, and lower spine.
When most people are introduced to the ideas of Yin Yoga, they shudder at the thought of stretching connective tissue. That’s no surprise: Most of us have been aware of our connective tissues only when we’ve sprained an ankle, strained our lower backs, or blown out a knee. But yin practice isn’t a call to stretch all connective tissue or strain vulnerable joints. Yin Yoga, for example, would never stretch the knee side to side; it simply isn’t designed to bend that way. Although yin work with the knee would seek full flexion and extension (bending and straightening), it would never aggressively stretch this extremely vulnerable joint. In general, a yin approach works to promote flexibility in areas often perceived as nonmalleable, especially the hips, pelvis, and lower spine.
Of course, you can overdo yin practice, just as you can overdo any exercise. Since yin practice is new to many yogis, the indications of overwork may also be unfamiliar. Because yin practice isn’t muscularly strenuous, it seldom leads to sore muscles. If you’ve really pushed too far, a joint may feel sensitive or even mildly sprained. More subtle signals include muscular gripping or spasm or a sense of soreness or misalignment—in chiropractic terms, being out of adjustment—especially in your neck or sacroiliac joints. If a pose causes symptoms like these, stop practicing it for a while. Or, at the very least, back way out of your maximum stretch and focus on developing sensitivity to much more subtle cues. Proceed cautiously, only gradually extending the depth of poses and the length of time you spend in them.