Yin Yoga: Cultivating The Opposite
Yin yoga is not, contrary to what many yoga students believe, a restorative cosy, comfy yoga where you can just “hang out” in an asana. Quite the opposite actually, they foster the same growth-through-discomfort as any yan-type yoga like Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.
All yoga has the same goal. It is the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind, the slow, steady quest to transcendence through practice. Like any destination, however, there are many different paths. For most of us in the modern world, those paths manifest as different traditions of asana practice. In a way, by adopting various physical practices, we all tap into the tree of yoga through different points, accessing its sap from our own branches.
Yin Yoga is one of those branches. Meant to work in conjunction with more dynamic “yang” styles of asana practice or other exercise, Yin Yoga involves meditative, long-held postures. Also called Daoist Yoga, it is best defined in relation to it’s opposite, as part of a quest for balance between the receptivity of yin and activity of yang. For those of us in the Ashtanga yoga tradition, this is a familiar concept. Patanjali suggests the practice of “cultivation of the opposite,” or pratipaksha bhavana, in the Sadhana Pada, offering it as a means of counteracting distracting negative thoughts. Yin Yoga physicalizes this concept, cultivating cooling, passive, receptive energies to balance out the heating, active energies of more dynamic practices.
On a physical level, this means focusing on the more “yin” tissues of the body, the plastic tissues that support stabilization rather than dynamism. For many exercise professionals, targeting these tissues, including ligaments, bones, joints, and fascia, rings of blasphemy. In dynamic exercise, we purposefully avoid stressing these important tissues to prevent damage to our joints. Indeed, working these plastic tissues in the same fashion we would exercise the elastic, muscular ones would be a dangerous practice. Yin Yoga, however, is purposefully structured to apply stress to these plastic tissues in a productive, healthy way.
Different Tissues Needs Different Stimuli
All exercise is based on a theory of stress and rest, stimulating tissue and then allowing the body to recover and grow. Different tissues, however, respond better to different stresses. Unlike muscles, which respond to rhythmic, repetitive movement, yin tissues respond best to gentle stimuli held over long periods. Orthodontia is an easy way to see this concept in action. Trying to move teeth forcefully, wiggling them back and forth repeatedly, would probably leave you with an empty spot in your smile. Braces, on the other hand, apply gentle pressure over long periods of time, slowly persuading the plastic tissues of the teeth to realign.
Yin Yoga, then, is like braces for the joints. By holding simple, passive postures for anywhere from one to twenty minutes, this practice applies healthy stress to joints, ligaments and fascia. Muscles are purposefully relaxed to target plastic tissues while preventing the damage to muscles that can result from long-held contraction. Lingering in these postures, applying gentle pressure, we can exercise ligaments and foster spacious, strong joints.
Yin Yoga Is Not Equal To Restorative Yoga
It’s important to note that this is not restorative yoga. Yin Yoga poses are not meant to be comfy, cozy positions. They may not approach it from the same direction as more yang-focused vinaysa yoga practice, but Yin postures foster the same growth-through-discomfort as dynamic exercise. While the physical practice of Yin Yoga may feel foreign to Ashtanga yoga practitioners, they’ll probably find the mental and emotional sensations quite similar. Like the silent, self-confrontational practice of Ashtanga, a Yin Yoga practice brings us face-to-face with our thoughts and emotions. Sitting with ourselves on the mat, whether in dynamic or static discomfort, we are forced to look at how we handle the stimuli coming our way. Becoming intimate with ourselves in this way, we can begin the process of deeper evolution.
Awareness, after all, is the first step. Whether breathing through a headstand or easing joints into Butterfly Pose, there’s more than one way to find our way onto the path. Perhaps by combining the two, Ashtanga and Yin, we’ll find a little extra balance along the way.
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