What is Yin Yoga: Part II
When I was a kid my parents would occasionally take my sister and I camping or for hikes in the woods. I remember making up stories in my head about the various places we’d see; a clearing, many dead or dying trees, an overlook or valley. The stories would include fairies or elves or thieves. Creatures who made their homes in the woods, depended on nature for their survival and had epic parties around camp fires. I’d always run ahead to see what that clearing would look like but was often disappointed when I got there since it just looked like more of the same. I associate the forest even still with a a sense of excitement and yet also boredom and a little fear.
In my home in Nebraska, my husband and I often compell our children to go for hikes in the woods with us as well. We experience the full fury and force of 4 seasons here and I find that the forest never looks the same. Ever changing, it’s the most graceful example I can think of to describe the role of time, or duration in a Yin practice. Once the idea of coolness has been established, the next most important component of Yin is duration.
Because we are targeting the deeper connective tissue, movement that is fast or flowing is not ideal in Yin. We don’t need a huge range of postures either. We have about two dozen unique poses that each serves a purpose in the repertoire, and we hold those poses in a very specific way for a while. Pose duration in my classes typically ranges 3-5 minutes.
Every pose in a Yin practice has a life cycle.
First StageInitially as you come into the pose there is a moment of pleasure. I think the first moments, of which there are many in a typical practice, are the most auspicious. It’s when you are the most tuned in to the body and the mind is more reliably quiet and still. This first stage is enhanced by careful placement of the limbs. How you come into the pose is how you will be in the pose. As you sink in, those first body sensations can be intense, but should be still quite mild.
Second StageIn the second stage in the life of a pose we hold, and wait. The initial honeymoon fades and we get to the real work of Yin. Sensations become harrowing, and the mind begins to spin up stories. We find that we are distracted even irritable. Students tell me that they get bored or that their thoughts drive them crazy. This is the part of the practice when we remember the first tenant, coolness. If sensations are mild but persistent you are in the perfect place. If there is pain you come out of the pose, no exceptions. The “work” is in remaining still, objective and curious here. To be in a pose gritting your teeth, counting the seconds or just barely holding on is not Yin. It takes some practice, but to truly embody Yin is to be so quiet.
The first stage is like skipping ahead to the next landmark in the forest, the second is arriving and remaining perfectly still instead of looking for the next place to go. If you close your eyes and take a seat in the forest you’ll hear many things, first the sound of the wind blowing through the trees nearby or even miles away. You”ll hear the creaking of the branches, the sounds of birds and other animals. You’ll smell the greenness and the decay. You know instinctively that all of these things are happening now around you and have been happening since before you got there, and will continue for long after you are gone.
Rather than trying to get deeper into the pose or reach some arbitrary position, or landmark, your obligation here is to cultivate sensitivity and awareness. There is no end to the input you can perceive here. Everything from the temperature of the room, to how the pose feels in the hip or the big toe, to how the thoughts move in the mind.
You’ll never get to practice in the same body twice. It’s so dynamic, so interdependent on environment, lifestyle, emotions. Sensations are constantly evolving.The forest is a place with a great deal of mystery. If you see it from above, maybe from an airplane window, you think you’ve seen the forest. You have seen it. But the second you step in among the trees you realize you haven’t seen it at all. If you plopped yourself down right there and watched and listened and felt for hours, you could say you’d seen the forest. But walk ten more steps and you’d again find that you hadn’t seen it at all. The body is this way too I’ve found. You’ll never get to practice in the same body twice. It’s so dynamic, so interdependent on environment, lifestyle, emotions. Sensations are constantly evolving.
I tell my students that if they are bored in Yin, they must not be paying attention. It’s at least as exciting as that game on your phone. Boredom is a very real factor in Yin poses though, and not to be underestimated. To contend with it, is a sign that you are on the right path. How is it possible that we should embark on a duration practice, one where we have only time and sensation, and not at times struggle with the mind? Like the forest, the body/mind is mysterious, marvelous and sometimes… kinda boring. A wandering mind is not something to be conquered. Rather, we acknowledge it, and come back again and again to the present moment and the stimuli that is contained in it.
Third StageThe final stage in a Yin pose does not always occur, and if it does, it’s rarely by accident. It’s a feeling of release, of letting go. It’s the result of very skillful work getting into the pose and then holding the pose. It feels like an unexpected softening of gripping and defenses. Imagine that you are folding over your right leg in the half butterfly. You’ve been patient, tuned in but objective, you’ve held with a light stress on the hamstrings. Suddenly you find that you are folding much deeper, deeper than you expected, you just … sink. Sink to the bottom which is again indicated by another light stress.
Our minds work in patterns just like all things in nature. As Newton says “ For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”. This law, we will not escape. In the forest it manifests as symmetry. It’s lovely and confounding. So too with the body/mind. We compare and contrast, remember and anticipate. Our brains are designed to categorize information, to develop hierarchies, to operate in the best interest of the body in which it has command based on previous experience.
Sometimes we get an opening; the third stage in the life cycle of the pose. The doors fly open and we saunter in like we own the place.If we were attached to always feeling that bliss of the first or third stage our practice would be very imbalanced. We would lack symmetry. Likewise, some students seem hell bent on always having deep sensation. They feel that the discomfort is somehow synonymous with progress. This too will disturb the balance of the practice. To accept the natural law of the Universe, that equal and opposite will always reign, that nothing is ever permanent is to really practice Yin well. To fold within each second a year or a decade is where coolness and duration meet and make beautiful Yin babies. If only we could approach other moments or even life cycles like this, with the wisdom of the forest.
In Japan “Forest Bathing” is a well accepted form of therapy. No special activity is required in the forest. Only time, light walking and easy regular breathing is needed to boost the immune system, improve mood and accelerate recovery from illness as well as many other benefits which are well cited in scientific literature. Advocates recommend that one should rest periodically to sit and simply take in the forest. I’ve been in many forests all over the USA. They all have a familiar feeling. The first time I ever traveled to another country, I found myself in Costa Rica. One day we went into the mountains and went for a light hike in the forest. I was amazed and am still (honestly) amazed that even there, the forest felt the same, familiar. The plants, animals, soil were all entirely different. And yet I recognized the coolness, the smell of decay, the feeling of aliveness and growth. To be in nature is to return to a part of yourself I think. It’s like being a small child that knows she is safe and ironically that fundamentally, she has no control, so her only option is to surrender. In the forest you are part of something bigger and grander than yourself, mysterious yet comforting.