Part One, Coolness
What is Yin Yoga?
The first thing you should know about Yin is that it is a cool practice. Cool as in really happening but also cool as in temperature. In fact, much of the practice depends on the commitment the student has to not warming and lubricating the joints and tissues. When I first started practicing Yin I found this very frustrating. I thought it was hard, I didn’t understand why I couldn’t warm up my body first. I would try to get into the poses the way I was accustomed to doing but felt uncomfortable and cranky. Over time I learned that I had the wrong idea. If I was patient and allowed myself to come into the pose conservatively and over a long time, I wasn’t cranky at all. In fact, it felt really amazing! So we come to a very important point about Yin. Shed your expectations.
When we say Yin is a cool practice we differentiate it from a practice that is warm. Yin embodies the cool, dense, plastic, lunar, feminine aspect of both yoga and yogis. It’s heavy and slow, creative and nourishing. Yang style yoga is hot, light, elastic, solar and masculine. Both qualities are vital to our health and wellness, though most of us are more attracted to one or the other… Like the Chinese Yin and Yang these qualities both create and oppose each other.
To say that Yin is cool, denotes a sense of detachment. This isn’t a bad way to look at the practice really. If we can come to our practice with a sense of objectivity, a lack of expectation about the results of our actions we’d have a pretty good start. We could observe the various sensations and even the thoughts that arise and have a sense of acceptance for all of them, not just the pleasant ones. This is a wonderful quality to cultivate, in fact it’s the basis for an entire school of yoga known as Karma Yoga. The major text of Karma Yoga, the Bhagavad Gita presents an epic, literally, conundrum for the reader. In the story, the sun rises upon a battlefield. The main character, Arjuna has a choice that no human could ever really be expected to make – wipe out his kinsman by leading his side to victory or surrender and be destroyed along with his wife, children, siblings, mother and supporters. By the way there are tens of thousands of men preparing to fight for each side. As you can imagine, he falters. He tries to make no decision at all but his companion, who also happens to be God, teaches him the way of Karma Yoga. A central tenant; non-attachment. To witness the practice of Aparigraha in this way is unsettling. But the premise is actually pretty amazing; show the reader what it really means to be un-attached to the outcome by presenting a situation where either outcome is equally devastating. It’s like trying to find a way out of a dark room but bumping into a wall each time you turn and take a step. Arjuna has no good options, so he has only one course of action. Trust. He has to trust the guidance of his guru, but more than that, he has to trust that every moment of his life, his past lives and even the lives of his ancestors have led him to this moment. He has no way out so he must surrender to his circumstances. He must fight, and win the battle for his side.
This approach requires us to dedicate our actions to something larger than ourselves. To take the long view. We cultivate patience and a sense of humor. It’s wonderful, but hard to do.
Releasing claim on any expected outcome, cultivating patience and learning to trust is a practice. Imagine though that your Yin practice is a safe and warm nest.You are vulnerable, helpless even in this place, but it’s okay since you are safe. Your little experiments here have only tiny consequences and so you can tinker all you like. This nest is a place to relax, rejuvenate and educate. If we can treat our practice this way, sometimes we can get really good at practicing Yin. We have a way to re-center when life gets hard by coming to the nest.
It’s hard to do in a Yin pose, harder to do in an argument with your significant other. Learning to do it in the relatively safe nest of a yoga practice first is a good start on the way to incorporating non-attachment into more fraught areas of life.
The coolness aspect of Yin doesn’t just refer to the mental practice. It refers to the state of the physical body as well. Dynamic practices like Vinyasa or Ashtanga Yoga produce both real and metaphoric heat in the body. This kind of practice feels great, and allows us to strengthen our muscles and gain flexibility. In Yin practice we actually avoid warming up; the stiffer you are, the better! Why? Because in Yin depth is totally subordinate to process.
The muscles are considered Yang tissues. They have the quality of elasticity and changeability that Yang embodies. Yin tissues however, are plastic, more static in their composition, dryer by nature, and must be approached with a Yin sensibility. The Yin tissues are the denser tissues that we access through yoga; Bones, Ligaments, Tendons and fascia. To access Yin tissues we need to practice in a body that is not warmed up. Does it need to be cool in the room? Heavens NO! As a card carrying Vata I am vehemently opposed to cool rooms under any circumstances, especially in yoga.
Doing Yin right after a sweaty Vinyasa class or in a heated room defeats your purpose.Ideally your Yin practice will be early in the day as the body naturally warms up in the afternoon and evening hours. Doing Yin right after a sweaty Vinyasa class or in a heated room defeats your purpose. I’ve heard people say that this is their favorite time to do Yin because they can get so much deeper into the poses. I try every time not to gasp and bring my hand to my throat when students tell me this. That my heat loving friend is not Yin. It’s still Yoga, just not Yin Yoga. Yin has a different protocol. We’re trying to release tension that is very deep in the body in a mindful way. Super warmed up muscles may satisfy your ego, but they may also contribute to injury.
As this series progresses we will learn more about the process of Yin. For now we will define our objective: become aware of holding in the body. Practicing in a cool body, one that is stiff from muscle soreness or sleep is my favorite way. I call it the lowest hanging fruit. All of the sensations are there, right near the surface, ripe for the taking! If we can remain detached from any sense of outcome or accomplishment, release the ego driven desire to “go deeper” and instead reside in a very objective place which is mild, soft and compassionate we will embody our true objective. To let go.