The following blog is written by Carina Terra E-YRT. She teaches at Spira Power Yoga and leads the Yin Yoga Teacher Training here in West Seattle at Spira Power Yoga.
Most forms of yoga today are very dynamic, active practices that are designed to work muscle and muscle tendon primarily (i.e. the “yang” tissues of the body), promoting strength and great physical health. If you know me, you know I’m a big proponent of fluid movement and core strengthening, especially when it comes to creative mandala flows. However, as awesome as Vinyasa is, it is important to counter-balance yang exercise with yin exercise in order to prevent the joints of the body from weakening and becoming susceptible to injury. As we age, reduced mobility in the joints increases the risk of injury and pain. When we look at the elderly or injured athletes, we will often see that the degeneration lies within the joints.
Yin Yoga specifically targets the joints and connective tissues (i.e. the “yin” tissues of the body, which includes ligaments and fascia). It is a form of yoga that works deeply into the connective tissues, strengthening the ligaments around the joints, and increasing joint lubrication and range of motion through safe, slow, gentle, and sustained traction. When practiced correctly, Yin Yoga is a great way to increase overall mobility without compromising stability.
All tissues of the body — yin and yang — must be stressed regularly, systematically, routinely, and persistently in order to stay healthy. The premise “If you don’t use it, you lose it” also applies to the joints. If the connective tissues of the joints are not used, they will atrophy. If we stress them properly (i.e. routinely and within safe limits), they will adapt and improve. However, we cannot exercise yin tissue the same way we exercise yang tissue, or we risk injuring ourselves. Yin tension is very different from yang tension. That is why we have a separate practice called Yin Yoga. Exercising the joints and the connective tissues around the joints is safe as long as it is done correctly.
Safely stressing the joints stimulates the production of Hyaluronic Acid (HA), which is a coiled molecule that is found in the connective tissues of the body and can pull 1000 to 6000 times its weight in water to itself. HA is produced in the fibroblasts, which are the most common cells that make up the connective tissues in humans and other animals. The largest concentration of HA in the body is in the eye balls. The second largest concentration is in the synovial fluid of the joints. As we age, fibroblast numbers go down. We are left with a lot of fibers but less cells generating HA. When we are young, we have a lot more cells generating HA. That is why children are usually more mobile and loose, and less prone to injuries. As we age, the cells begin to die and the density of fibroblasts decreases. We are literally drier and less elastic the older we get. Stressing the connective tissues in the joints not only increases the production of HA by the existing fibroblasts, but also increases the numbers of fibroblasts in the connective tissue.
By now, you might be wondering: “Can’t I lubricate my joints with yang exercise as well?” The answer is, yes, to a certain extent. Yang exercise does promote circulation of synovial fluid in the joints. However, engaging our muscles while practicing yang styles of yoga — although important to protect our joints from getting damaged by our yang movement — limits the access to the connective tissues that bind the joints. If the muscles are contracted, then the connective tissues of the joints will not take the stress. Yin Yoga is more efficient at lubricating joints because stressing connective tissue in a yin manner not only promotes circulation of synovial fluid, but also increases the production of HA, a key component of the synovial fluid in our joints. This is why Yin Yoga postures are PASSIVE — i.e. done with the muscles RELAXED and held for a length of time.
In contrast, during an ACTIVE yang practice most of our muscles are ENGAGED. As mentioned before, working muscles promotes strength and great physical health. However, if the muscles are too tight, they can cause nerve roots to narrow, and pain to develop. An example of this would be “false sciatica,” which originates in the contracted musculature in the buttocks, and not in the spine. As such, another real benefit of occasionally practicing Yin Yoga as a complement (not a replacement!) to your yang practice is learning to soften the muscles. This allows nerves and joints to find more space, gently relaxes muscle spasms and knots in the body, and helps prevent future spasms and knots from forming due to muscle overwork.
There are not as many yin poses as there are yang poses. Most yin poses target the joints in the lower body and spine. There is a predominance of hip openers, as well as poses that help to gently release tension in the lumbar spine and correct the misalignment of the sacrum caused by our sedentary habits. About 80% of the western world suffers from chronic back problems caused by immobilization of the lumbar spine due to sitting all day. Sitting down is four times more compressive for the lumbar spine than standing. The upper body is considered more yang in nature so yin poses for the upper body are less common. However, when relevant and appropriate, shoulder openers can be adapted to conform to yin principles.
Because Yin Yoga is done with the muscles relaxed, it is extremely important to use props in order to protect joints and ligaments from overstretching. The props replace the muscles and provide the necessary support so the body can surrender to gravity without causing any injury or pain. Once the muscles are out of the way, the connective tissues can be accessed without interference and at a deeper level, allowing them to be safely remodeled and revitalized.
Since Restorative Yoga also uses a lot of props, many people confuse the two styles of yoga. However, the intention behind Yin Yoga is very different from the intention behind Restorative Yoga. Restorative poses are not about experiencing strong sensations — the aim is to relax and soothe the central nervous system. Yin poses, on the other hand, are not restorative at all, and can actually be both physically and mentally challenging. Yin poses promote change at a very deep level, and dare the practitioner to find calm and ease while experiencing sensations in the body, which more often than not can be intense or uncomfortable at first (but safe and pain-free if the practice is done properly). Yin Yoga is an internal practice — a meditation on body sensation and/or on the thoughts and emotions that may be triggered by body sensation. It is a quiet practice that cultivates profound inner awareness, at both the physical and mental levels.
Ultimately, the reason to stress the joints and the connective tissues is more than just bio-mechanical, it is energetic. Stimulating the joints will also keep the meridian system (i.e. the energy channels of the body) healthy. It is vital to move the energy (a.k.a. chi or prana) to keep the body alive. In truth, all forms of yoga (not just Yin Yoga) stimulate the meridians of the body. However, what makes Yin Yoga unique is that its intention is to stress the joints to remove the blocks to the flow of prana in those specific areas. Yin Yoga is not better than yang forms of yoga, just different. They complement each other, and we should practice BOTH for optimal health.
Personally, I try to practice Yin Yoga once a week to supplement my regular Vinyasa practice. I have noticed over time that when I don’t skip my Yin practice, my Vinyasa practice improves quite a bit. Yin Yoga helps me to safely release tension in my tight IT bands. It also helps me to create space in my lower back and correct the misalignment in my sacrum (due to years of compression in those areas), which alleviates my sciatica in a way that no other form of yoga does. Yin Yoga has definitely improved the overall health of my joints as well, which has had a major impact on my meditation practice. I now find it a lot easier to sit in stillness for long periods of time because my hips don’t get as cranky and sore anymore.
I highly recommend one Yin Yoga class a week, or at least twice a month, as a compliment to your yang practice. If you are athletic and would like to continue to practice sports (especially running) as the years go by without having to give up your activities because of bad knees or hips, you definitely need to supplement your routine with Yin Yoga. If you are over 45 and would like to continue to stay active as you age, Yin Yoga also helps to slow down the typical dehydration and degeneration of ligaments and joints that gradually occurs over time. Make sure to try the practice for a few weeks before you make up your mind about how it affects you. It takes more than one class for you to get the hang of it and begin to experience the amazing benefits that a yin practice has to offer… so be persistent and don’t give up.
Luckily for us, Spira Power Yoga offers weekly Yin Yoga classes with the lovely Sarah Steinke on Tuesdays at 7:15pm. And if you really want to dive right in and have a better understanding of this remarkable practice, join me for the upcoming Yin Yoga training (which is open to students of all levels, not just teachers) at the end of September. It will be transformational and a lot of fun!