By Imogen North for Om Yoga & Lifestyle Magazine.
Come out of hibernation with yin yoga this spring.
When I ask students why they choose to practice yin yoga they tell me; being still is tricky in the modern world so yin is a great way to hone the quality of patience. Yes, it is. They tell me yin is an immediate reducer of stress for them. Yes, it is. They say they love the way in which yin can help them relax their muscles, relieving muscle tension. I agree – I love yin as it is a practice where I give myself permission to relax my muscles and nourish my nervous system through stillness.
But there is so much more to a yin practice than initially meets the eye and the more I understand about the anatomy of a yin practice, the more important a role it has played for me in my weekly routine and recovery.
Increasing flexibility and range of motion in the body is something that many of us, less ‘flexible’ yogis, continue to work towards. But what really fascinates me is the effect that a yin practice has on the body’s fascial tissue. If you haven’t come across the fascia before, the fascia is one of the body’s main connective tissues. It is a large continuous interconnected system that covers the whole body from head to toe and sits just underneath the skin. One way to think of it is like a bodysuit – holding all different parts of the body together.
Another way you can think of the fascia is like a scaffolding of sorts. A framework that sits around the muscles, holding the muscles in place. If there were no fascia the muscles would not easily stay in place and move the way they do. Not only does the fascia hold the muscles in place by wrapping around them but it also penetrates into and through the muscle fibres, transmitting force that is applied to the muscles and keeping the bones upright.
But, in my opinion, by far the cleverest aspect of the fascia is the role that it plays in our communication. The fascia houses over 250 million sensory nerves – some of which communicate with the skin by blending with the dermis providing a passageway for nerves and blood vessels to flow. Other facial sensory nerves terminate in the fascia which means it communicates with itself, feeding our motor output. So clever!
There are six times more sensory neurons in the fascia than there are in any other part of the body (except the skin). So, the fascia – as our secondary sense organ – is a great information highway! It senses messages that come from pressure put on the body, shearing or light touch and any mechanical stimulation too. It can affect how our DNA replicates and it can stimulate the formation of more connective tissues to heal and repair tissues that are damaged. So useful.
But what has all this got to do with a yin yoga practice I hear you ask? And how does this support our health?
In a yin practice, we are passively stretching, and the muscles are relaxed, so there is little or no muscle contraction at all. So what we are stretching is the connective tissues. The fascia, like all connective tissues (bones, tendons, ligaments) is a tissue that responds to demand, and stressing it is essential to keep it healthy. Because the fascia is tough and strong (containing a lot of collagen) it responds to stress that is gentle and held. In Yin Yoga we stress the fascial fibres in one of three ways, either by lengthening, compressing or applying a shearing/twisting force. When we stress the fibres in one of these three ways we stimulate the rearrangement of collagen crosslinks and elastin within the tissue. You can feel that stress of the fibres like a gentle tug underneath the skin when you are holding a yin pose.
Applying gentle stress to the fascia over time increases the pliability of the tissue making it more flexible and increasing our passive range of motion. The gentle stress also encourages hydration in the tissue. The more hydration there is, the less friction between the crosslinks of collagen fibres helping them glide over each other easily. If the fascia isn’t hydrated and gliding easily our biomechanical messengers don’t function properly, impairing tissue healing, and we are unable to resist compression, which can have an effect on our joints, our nerve transmission may become impaired, blood flow might be restricted, and joints may become inflamed.
Wow – so many reasons to practice yin! I particularly enjoy a yin practice as we transition from one season into another. It gives me a sense of calm within all the movement. At this time of year here in the northern hemisphere, the best yin poses to practice are those that stimulate the liver and gallbladder meridian lines. These are the meridian lines connected to the wood element and the wood element is said to be, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, linked to the season of Spring. The wood element is supportive of our growth and our purpose, which makes sense as we emerge out of the hibernation of the winter months.
Below are my 5 favourite poses that stimulate the liver and gallbladder meridians, so why not take some time over the next few weeks to try these poses?
If you are new to yin yoga the main three tattvas (or principles) of practicing are:
- Come into the pose at an appropriate depth (60/70% of that tug under the skin)
- Stay still – super important to encourage the rehydration of the fascia!
- Stay there for a while! I would recommend starting with short holds, perhaps 2 minutes for each pose, and then seeing if you can lengthen. This could be anywhere up to 10 minutes.
Remember it is really important that you are not engaging the muscles in these poses, so if you need to use props (any supportive household objects will do!) to place the body on then please do.
This pose was traditionally used to aid digestion, help menopause and leg swelling in pregnancy. If you have knee issues keep either foot closer to your pelvis.
This is a great pose that stimulates the connective tissues of the back, hamstrings, inner thigh and groin. If you have any lower back issues be sure to sit on a blanket or towel so the pelvis tips forward. If you have any neck problems, avoid dropping the head or use a brick to support it.
Cat Pulling Its Tail
This is a great pose to open the quads but also to stimulate the lymphatic system, freeing up the ribcage and aiding respiration. You want to sink into the armpit here to kick-start the lymphatic effects.
This is a huge inner thigh and groin opener. Hips, knees and ankles should all be at 90-degree angles. If you have pain in any of these areas use a bolster under the trunk of the body and/or take the knees further forward and the heels closer together.
Another pose where you want to be careful if you have disk or lower back issues. Be sure to sit on something to tip the pelvis forward.
Remember that our goal in life is not to become perfect but to become whole. Add a bit of yin into your yang practice, it’s vital for your internal balance and overall health. I can’t recommend it enough!