Up until the other day, my yoga practice has been one I’d call fairly active. My yoga experience began under a hatha vinyasa teacher. When I had to go to Makati for part-time consultancy in late 2007, I tried ashtanga with Yoga Manila because the shala was just a stone’s throw away from my office building. And now that I’m doing home practice more than attending yoga classes due to my hectic schedule, I’ve reverted back to vinyasa yoga.
A long hiatus from yoga though, during intense months of consultancy, affected my practice significantly. Inflexibility set in once again. And in one of my yoga practices, I pulled my right hamstring.
That was several months ago. You’d think that by now, that hamstring would have healed and stretched. But no. It still feels tight. And I always need to modify my poses when the right leg is outstretched. Sometimes it is a source of frustration that asanas I could do before are once more challenging to me. And I have to keep reminding myself to be patient, patient, patient.
Then a yogini friend Claudine messages me on Facebook that she thinks doing a yin yoga class would do me good. I never heard of yin yoga so I half-absorbed her message. Soon after, a blogger friend Ria messaged me that she had began to take yoga classes after discovering the shala was just minutes from her home. And….it was yin yoga.
The universe does speak and you can hear it if you attune your senses to it.
I became curious and decided that if yin yoga was calling out to me, the least I could do was respond. So I decided to attend a class with Dona Tumacder-Esteban, a certified yin yoga teacher.
Dona began class with a background on the theory of yin yoga. As I listened to her, I began to realize that I only knew the half of what yoga actually was. I began to realize that the yin-yang was not just a Chinese concept but that it is the essence of just about everything that exists in our world.
What are Yin and Yang?
The easiest way to differentiate the two is through adjectives:
Yang is active; yin is passive.
Yang is hard; yin is soft.
Yang is movement; yin is stillness.
Yang is expansion and lengthening; yin is contraction.
Yang is male; yin is female.
Yang is the sun; yin is the moon.
Yang is logical; yin is intuitive.
They co-exist and complement. One is not inferior to the other. They are not opposing facets but partners.
What happens in Yin Yoga?
In yin yoga classes, there are 3 things to remember:
1. All poses are executed with relaxed muscles.
2. One stays in the pose in stillness. Movement is allowed only if one is in pain or you need to move to go deeper into the pose.
3. Each pose is held for 3 to 5 minutes.
Target Areas of Yin Yoga
Dona explained that the target areas of yin yoga are not the muscles, as is the case with traditional yang yoga styles, but rather the connective tissues. In yang yoga styles, you do yoga for several months and you see your arms getting cuts (toned) and you bulk up. With yin yoga, no matter how long you practice, you won’t see muscles getting toned. Instead, you will find your connective tissues being stretched and strengthened.
The importance of relaxed muscles was demonstrated by her to us. She made us point with the pointer finger in a relaxed way. Then we pulled the pointer finger. We could feel the joint move forward, a sign that there was space in the joint. Then Dona made us stiffen the same finger and try to pull. This time, my finger did not move at the joint. This explains why doing yin yoga with relaxed muscles are more effective in stretching connective tissues, creating spaces and stretching the joints.
I found out that our entire body is wrapped in a very thin lining called fascia, a layer of fibrous tissue. Fascia is a connective tissue that looks like cobwebs or a thin film of plastic wrap. Since fascia wraps muscles as well, yoga that affects muscles by lengthening and strengthening them can only be effective if the “wrapper”, the fascia, is stretched as well.
Dona said that many have not given much thought to fascia before but recent scientific studies show that there appear to be electrical impulses that run through the fascia. In this Yoga Journal article, it states that “…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.”
Here’s a YouTube video by Paul Grilley which explains a bit about the theories behind yin yoga:
My Yin Yoga Experience
As we were led through different yin yoga asanas, I noted that the same poses I was familiar with were called by different names. For example, the Pigeon pose was called the Swan. Dona said it’s because there is yin and yang in every pose and what differentiates a pose as yin or yang is how you come into the pose. if you engage muscles, it is yang; and if you do the pose with completely relaxed muscles, it is yin.
Wow, this really hit me as I realized that yin-yang is truly present in everything. I couldn’t help it as my mind began to wander. Even us humans, whether we are a man or woman, have both yin and yang in us. And for us to be a whole person, we need to be able to tap into both those sides as the occasion calls for it. Men, intrinsically logical and left-brained, need to learn to tap into their yin (feminine, creative, sensitive) side; likewise, women who are intrinsically nurturing and feminine need to learn to tap into their yang (logical, systematic, problem-solving) side as well.
As I held each of the poses for 3-5 minutes, I could really feel the stretch going in the area targeted by the asana. It’s this loooong, still stretch that works on connective tissues, creating spaces in joints and slowly bringing back flexibility.
The entire class stretched beyond 2 hours but I did not feel it at all. I was enjoying listening to Dona explain the concepts of yin yoga and enjoying the slow, deliberate stretches. There were poses where I felt the problem with my right hamstring. I could not sink completely to the floor in the Saddle and a yoga block had to be placed on my back.
The Straddle was a complete challenge for me even if this was a pose I could already do before.
But if there’s one thing I’m learning through my injury, inflexibility and tight hamstrings…it’s PATIENCE, PATIENCE, PATIENCE. And yes, patience is YIN.
This first yin yoga class was an eye-opener for me in some ways. First, I got to try the gentler, softer half of my yoga practice, something I didn’t know existed. Second, it gave me another chance to heal my tight, injured hamstring using the yin approach instead of my usual vinyasa practice. Something tells me it’s these long stretches in stillness that will eventually do the trick. And third, I am now learning another type of yoga that I could alternate with vinyasa. On days when I need restorative, healing yoga, there’s yin. When I need energy, there’s vinyasa. When I want to fall asleep faster, it’s yin; when I’m lethargic and need more “fuel”, it’s vinyasa.
Have you ever tried yin yoga? If not, come…give it a try. It will show you another, complementary side of your practice. Dona T. Esteban can be reached at email@example.com