“With its quiet atmosphere unstained by striving,the Yin practice in particular allows us to fully metabolize emotionswe often ingest but cannot completely digest”. – Sarah Powers – Insight Yoga
“Why would anyone do Yin yoga?” This is a question I asked myself over and over again during my first Yin yoga class in 2009. I was midway through a 5-minute holding of Dragon (a deep knee down lunge) and prayed for the meditation bell to ring so I could escape the uncomfortable physical and emotional experiences I was feeling in the pose. Yet, somewhere deep inside of me, I recognized that my reactivity in this moment was chalana (sanskrit term for ‘churning’) just as I had experienced in my Tantric Hath Yoga practice. By churning the body, mind, and heart, the external personae slowly soften and melt, revealing our true identities. I thought this only could occur during intense physical practice or doing lengthy sessions of pranayama. Could this happen in the “quiet practice” of Yin yoga as well?
The bell rang and I came out of the pose and a flood of energy moved through my body. It was at that moment, although I did not know it then, that I found my true yoga path. For the next five years, I went on to study with Yin pioneers Sarah Powers and Paul Grilley, completing approximately 1,000 hours of training in Yin Yoga and developing my own practice and teaching style that utilizes yin yoga, mindfulness, and psychological methods to promote healing and transformation.
The actual practice of Yin Yoga is not new. Yoga books dating back to the 1950’s describe holding poses for up to 15 minutes in a relaxed and static position. The term “Yin” was a descriptive term that was coined by my teacher, Sarah Powers, in the early 1990’s to differentiate between this gentle system of static poses and the modern vinyasa styles of yoga which are considered “Yang”. Using the terms Yin/Yang, Sarah Powers and Paul Grilley incorporated Taoist philosophy centering around the idea that Yin and Yang are relative terms, describing two sides of one coin. Yin and not exist without yang; yang cannot exist without yin. They are complements to one another, always changing, and rebalancing toward wholeness.
While Yang yoga focuses on rhythmic stretching of the muscular system (think vinyasa), yin yoga targets the connective tissue in the body. Paul Grilley describes, “every organ, muscle, and bone in our bodies is formed by a framework of sponge-like material called connective tissue”. Connective tissue includes tendons, ligaments, and fascia that covers wide areas of the muscular-skeletal system including the tissues around joints that are crucial for maintaining range of motion and flexibility. Yin yoga, with its emphasis on non-rhythmic longer holds influences the organ and energy systems of our body (sometimes described as accupucture without needles) that can create a feeling of ease and relaxation. On a psychological level, yin yoga creates an inner atmosphere of acceptance and understanding of one’s self.
There are three basic tenants or elements to practicing yin yoga. The first is to come to an appropriate edge by going into the pose in a nonaggressive manner, carefully adjusting to the sensations, allowing the breath to remain steady, and assessing whether the shape is targeting the specific area of the body intended in a safe way without injuring or going too deep into fragile tissue areas. The second element is to become still and relax muscles . In order to stress connective tissue around a joint, the muscles must be relaxed or the connective tissue simply won’t take the stress because the muscles are resisting the pull. Not all muscles can be relaxed, but the muscles in the target area must be relaxed to get the full benefit of the pose. For example, in a forward fold, you can gently pull your feet with your arms or contract your abdomen to deepen the fold, but the muscles along the spine should be relaxed or the connective tissue will not be impacted. The third element is to stay in the pose for a while. The length of time varies from person to person and pose to pose. Typically yin poses are held between 2-5 minutes to allow the connective tissue to be stressed appropriately, to allow the meridians to fully be nourished, and to have the space and time to explore the inner landscape of our feeling and emotion bodies.
As a psychologist and meditation and yoga teacher, I became fascinated with the therapeutic aspects of yin yoga. I began to explore how to incorporate mindfulness, psychological inquiry, and Buddhist and yoga philosophy while using the container of yin yoga. I started to introduce mind training activities in the pose, inviting students to engage in breath awareness throughout a pose. I used inquiry language as well, asking students to reflect on “what is happening now?” and “how is it notice that?”. I often lead specific Buddhist practices including “metta” or “loving-kindness” meditations while in different yin poses. Students report that they feel relaxed, more open, and present. More importantly, they report that they feel the benefits of the practice, later that night, the next day, or during the course of the week when they practice some of the mindfulness or psychological methods introduced in class. Yin yoga classes can be individualized to target the physical, energetic, and/or emotional body that requires healing for the yoga student. For example, a student who is feeling depleted and anxious, might benefit from a series of poses that target the kidneys and urinary bladder series. This series would include poses such as bound angle, sphinx, forward bends, and legs up on the wall. While doing these poses, the student might be instructed to engage in breath awareness and cultivate an atmosphere of kindness.
Yin yoga is not easy. The sensations can be quite intense and there is often “inevitable discomfort” as we move toward further ranges of motion. As teachers, we can help our students discern what is safe from what is risky pain (sharp, electrical, stinging, nerve pain). Staying with discomfort is a new experience for many yin students. That was my experience as well, wanting to pack up my mat and get the hell out of the class as quickly as I could. However, there was a deeper longing inside of me that allowed me to stay. If we can help our students stay: stay with the discomfort in their bodies, stay with the discomfort of sometimes painful and difficult emotions while cultivating an inner atmosphere of kindness, we are giving them the tools to become more trusting and attuned to themselves. This begins the path toward embodied presence for all seasons of life.
—–Tracey Sondik is a licensed doctoral level clinical psychologist with an expertise in neuropsychology and integrative medicine. For the past 11 years, she has served as a psychologist in an inpatient public psychiatric hospital serving both civil and forensic clients with severe and persistent mental illness and brain dysfunction. She has demonstrated a strong commitment to integrative medicine, specifically the utilization of yoga and mindfulness to treat complex mental health and behavioral problems. She developed a yoga therapy program at her hospital utilizing restorative yoga therapy for patients with extreme self-harm and aggressive behaviors and has lead mindfulness-based stress reduction programs for patients that are suffering from extreme anxiety, depression, and thought disorders. As a yoga instructor, Tracey is an E-RYT 500 hour yoga teacher and has interests in both Tantric Hatha yoga along with yin and restorative yoga. She teaches weekly yoga classes and workshops at Samadhi Yoga, a yoga studio located in Manchester, CT as well as co-directing a therapeutic meditation retreat with Marlysa Sullivan for the Center of Integrative Yoga Studies (August 2015). She has co-directed a 200-hour Yoga Alliance-registered yoga teacher training program at Samadhi studio and continue to serve as a core faculty for this training. She is now co-directing a 75-hour Yin/Meditation teacher training program in 2015 for yoga teachers and yoga therapists and mental health professionals. To find out more about this yin training visit: http://allthatmatters.com/
Dates for this Yin training are:
March 26-March 30 Immersion I: Foundations (35 hours)
April 23-April 27 Immersion 2: Integration (35 hours)
Both Yoga Alliance and counseling CEU’s available
Dates for the Therapeutic meditation retreat are August 13-16- visit http://integrativeyogastudies.com/workshops/ for more information