To answer that question we need to go right back to the beginning of yoga practice and understand what the yogis and monks who were using sets of postures were trying to do. These people were set upon a path of self-realization and worked tirelessly and dedicatedly to reach a union with a Higher Source. This was the purpose of their lives. To do this they spent much time in silent contemplation and meditation. They were praying for enlightenment – for that contact with and from God, or whatever they called that final ‘Higher Entity’. Naturally enough as they did this they found that their lower backs, hips and legs became stiff and achy. To sit cross-legged in stillness for hours requires very open and strong pelvic muscles and very limber hip and knee joints. They therefore began to devise a series of movements they could make with their bodies every day so that each part got a workout. They were concerned with keeping strength in their muscles so they did not waste away by such prolonged periods of sitting but they were also concerned with keeping their joints loose and easy. The active asanas (postures) within yoga work strongly with the muscles. Ashtanga Yoga is a great example of this. Yin Yoga works with some of these postures too – such as Pigeon or Cobra, but the focus is on holding the posture for some minutes so that the joints and connective tissue can be reached through breath and meditation in ways that are not possible when you do a Yang flow of asanas and move quickly from one to the next.
Thus they were the very first people to work with what we now call the ‘Yin’ or female aspects of the body as well as the ‘Yang’ aspects. Yin aspects of the body involve joints and connective tissue whereas Yang aspects involve muscles and skin. Yin aspects involve depth and within-ness. Yang aspects involve surface and the more obvious functions of the body. It is much easier to work with strengthening muscles than it is to work with the subtle tissues within the body and the wonderful, but secret, synovial fluid that bathes each joint and makes it possible for the bones to glide over one another as we move.
These sages and monks had to sink deep within their psyches to find their ‘god’ in their meditation practice and found that they had to sink deep within their bodies to find the places of expansion that were possible there too. There is only so far you can go with muscle strengthening and building flexibility in the Yang tissues – to go further and deeper you have to work with connective tissue and joints to help them open and ease. Think of what you do and how you feel if you have sat hunched up over a computer all day – as you move at the end of the afternoon you find yourself involuntarily groaning and trying to work movement into your joints again. That is Yin tissue telling you it needs some space and fluid to get going again.
So the end of the long story is that Yin Yoga existed in the very first yoga practices of the sages but over the years Yoga became far more about working for the muscle groups and strengthening rather than limbering and working with the subtleties of the body. Recently some wonderful yoga teachers, like Paul Grilley, Sarah Powers and Bernie Clark, have refocused on this missing aspect of yoga and reminded us that as we get older we need to be more aware of the Yin aspects of our body and practice. Our joints are stiffer as we age and we battle against the years of accumulated small injuries and toxins that settle into the connective tissue and joints.
Normal Yoga doesn’t reach down there!
Yin Yoga does and is a great addition to, and integration with, your Ashtanga or Hatha practice. Enjoy!
Author Elizabeth Morris RYT Advanced Yoga Trainer
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