Why do yin yoga?

Following up on my recent posts about yin yoga (what is is, what to expect in a yin class, and some typical yin poses) and in honour of teaching yin yoga at Body Harmony for the first time today, here’s why I do yin yoga.

The physical benefits of yin yoga are elongated myofascial tissue (a fancy name for muscles and the fascia or connective tissue that surrounds them) and increased mobility through joints, which can prevent degeneration.

My hips feel more mobile after a yin yoga practice… sort of like I could salsa dance out of class! Being in dragon pose for a few minutes, like I’m doing in the photo to the right, is particularly good at getting my hips to salsa – although actually holding dragon often makes me feel more like swearing than dancing 🙂

Yin yoga mostly accesses the body between the knees and shoulders (lots of stretching through the thighs, hips, and spine and wonderful compression and release through the back), but I’ve also found that a yin practice often releases tension in my neck and shoulders. Forward bending postures, like dangling, work wonders for making my neck and shoulders feel looser and more relaxed.

I find the psychological benefits of yin yoga are even more impactful than the physical ones. In addition to the sense relaxation that comes from hanging out in poses for a few minutes, I’ve also found that settling into that Goldilocks place in a posture, which can be a bit uncomfortable, has helped me settle into discomfort in the rest of my life when I really can’t change the situation.

The philosophy of finding a balance of relaxation and intensity in a posture has aided me in looking for balance in the rest of my life. I find myself asking;

  • “Can I make this more comfortable?” – the yoga equivalent of adding props
  • “Is this focusing on something I want or need?” – the yoga equivalent of identifying the target area
  • “Can I let go of some tension or holding?” – the yoga equivalent of relaxing the target area
  • “Is there anything gained by fretting or being frantic – can I just be?” – the yoga equivalent of settling into a pose, breathing, and letting thoughts go

Perhaps that last question is most important. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to let go of worrying or letting my mind spin, but at least I can be conscious about it.

If you want to experience the benefits of yin yoga for yourself, join me for classes at Body Harmony on Saturdays at 4:30pm and at Bound Lotus on Mondays at 1pm, Tuesdays at 8:15pm, and Fridays at 6:30pm.

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What’s wrong with a little vanity?

The current 40-Day Meditation Challenge at Bound Lotus focuses on the third chakra (physically centred somewhere between the navel and solar plexus) and involves a fair amount of contracting the abdominal muscles. One of the teachers leading the meditation was half-joking about measuring her waist at the start of the 40 days and then again at the end to see if all that ab work meant a tauter tummy. She then sheepishly apologized for her vanity.

Laura's vanity shot - looking like a movie star

But what’s so wrong with a little vanity?

Following the assumption that we’re biologically programed to reproduce and keep the human race going, we’re hardwired to want to be attractive. There have been all kinds of studies showing that conventionally attractive people make more money and are more likely to be considered successful.

For better or for worse, we exist in social groupings and we’re happiest in those groups when we fit in and feel valued. Being sensibly vain demonstrates a normal human need to be accepted by others and flourish within our social groups.

There’s certainly a difference between a little vanity and becoming self-absorbed and shallow… but there’s no need to apologize for wanting to be attractive and accepted.

The photo I’ve included with this post shows off my own vanity. I think I look like a movie star 🙂

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Core connection

Tonight I teach my first mixed levels hatha and core class at Body Harmony Yoga Studio. I’m excited to be teaching at a new studio, but a little daunted as I’ve gotten used to teaching slower-paced yin yoga classes over the last couple of months.

In preparation for the new challenge of teaching a flowing hatha class with lots of poses to strengthen the core muscles, I’ve done several classes at Body Harmony over the past weeks. My fellow teachers have been wonderfully inspiring and I’m feeling reved up to teach 🙂

Holding plank pose (as I’m doing in the photo on the right) is a great way to build strength through the deep muscles of the lumbar spine, pelvis, and abdomen – although it’s not always as fun as it looks! Thankfully, the other teachers at Body Harmony have given me some great ideas for making the class light-hearted and enjoyable – and keeping it a yoga practice instead of a gym session full of crunches and push-ups.

I’m also teaching at Body Harmony on Thursday evenings and leading a lovely Yin Yoga class on Saturday afternoons. Check my schedule to see all classes I’m teaching.


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The forgotten quads

In my previous post on yin poses, I somehow completely left off ones that target the quadricep muscles at the front of the thigh. It is possible to stretch the quads in some of the postures I listed (like dragon and swan from the hip openers group and sleeping swan and thread the needle from the outer-thigh and butt stretches), but there are a few yin yoga poses that really access the top of the thighs.

So with my apologies to the fronts of my thighs, here are a few more poses that should have been part of Strike a (yin) pose.

Quadricep stretches

Known as rock pose or seiza, sitting on your heels is an uncomplicated way to stretch into the quads. Some yin teachers start their classes with a short meditation in rock pose; others use it as a recovery pose after forward or backward bends; I like it in both contexts and as a quad stretch on it’s own.

Taking rock pose and lowering the back down to the mat turns it into saddle pose. Keeping one leg straight along the mat turns it into half saddle pose and often introduces a bit of a twist into the low back.

Coming out of half saddle is often a bit of a challenge; I like rolling onto my side and hugging my knees to my chest in fetal pose for a few seconds before flattening out on my back for a rest.

 

No list of yin yoga poses would be complete without targeting all the large muscle groups of the lower body! Hopefully my quads will forgive my original omission of quad stretching postures 😉

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Meditating on authenticity

Today marks day 40 (the last day!) of the second meditation challenge of 2012 at Bound Lotus Meditation & Yoga Centre. While I didn’t partake in the meditation challenge this time around, I did get to lead the Friday evening sessions.

Leading meditation sessions was a unique opportunity for me as all the Bound Lotus meditation challenges use Kundalini meditations (which tend to be quite active and can be pretty complex) and I’m not a trained Kundalini yoga teacher.

The meditation was focused on the second chakra and involved chanting the mantra “Har hare haree – Wahe guru” for 11 minutes while holding guyan mudra and performing arm gestures. It celebrates the creative spirit and a loose translation of the mantra is “Hallelujah for the creativity of the universe!” Guyan mudra is the hand gesture of wisdom and the arm gestures are meant to gather creative energy into the second chakra (roughly at the level of the tailbone).

I was a little nervous before leading my first meditation a few weeks ago – luckily a few friends were willing to let me use them as guinea pigs beforehand! After leading a practice meditation session with friends, I knew I could do it for real at Bound Lotus.

The five Friday evening meditations I led went well, but I didn’t feel quite settled for them. While students assured me that I was doing fine and seemed quite comfortable, something felt awkward to me.

Maybe it was wearing the full whites of a Kundalini teacher but not being trained in that tradition; maybe it was not partaking in the whole 40 days of meditation; maybe it was just too far out of my comfort zone. Wherever the disconnect was, I wasn’t confident leading the meditations.

The contrast between how I feel teaching yoga classes (awesome! empowering! satisfied!) and the unease I experienced for each meditation session underscored my unsuitability for leading Kundalini meditations.

I was asked to continue leading the Friday evening sessions for the next meditation challenge, but felt too inauthentic doing the second chakra ones to carry on with the third chakra cycle. I feel like a great version of myself when I teach yoga classes or do a Kundalini practice, but I felt like a fraudulent version of myself while leading the meditation sessions.

I’m happy to have led Kundalini meditations and I’m grateful for the experience (particularly the students’ support!) but I’m also happy to discover how much I value teaching with authenticity and confidence. Mostly, I’m happy to be able to say ‘no’ to situations where I don’t feel like a great version of myself.

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Great expectations

I re-read my post about What is Yin Yoga? and realized that it’s too abstract to be very useful to someone who hasn’t practiced yin yoga before and wonders what a class would be like. Here’s a more concrete overview of my approach to a yin yoga class and what to expect.

Of course, I’m only speaking for myself and my own experiences with yin yoga. Every teacher and every student will be different and here are lots of ways to practice any form of yoga!

Intent

Yin yoga classes are meditative in nature and typically involve students holding poses for several minutes with shorter recovery or rebound poses to break up the long holds. The focus is mostly from the knees to upper back as the lower body and spine tend to stiffen more and are better suited (e.g. less flexible) to longer holds.

My goal with a yin yoga class is to help students settle into postures and quiet their minds. I focus a lot on breathing and encourage students to use their breath to target areas of tension and exhale it away. “We’re here for three more breaths” is how I signal the coming end of most holds and it’s probably the most over-used phrase in my teaching repertoire!

I want students to identify where they feel the stretch in a posture most and then attempt to relax those muscles and any muscles not needed to hold a pose. No posture should be painful (it’s very hard to relax when you’re in pain!) and I encourage using as many props (blankets, bolsters, blocks, etc.) as desired to get comfortable.

Class sequence

Laura sitting in easy pose on the Great Wall in ChinaI start my yin yoga classes with a short meditation and gentle movement exercises to warm up the neck and spine. This often involves sitting in easy pose (although it’s often not that easy!), pictured at right.

The class then moves into longer holds (generally two to five minutes, sometimes more) broken up by shorter recovery postures, which allow students to feel the impact of the holds, and more active poses to get blood and energy flowing.

I’ve outlined some typical yin yoga poses I use in my classes in another post.

I like to conclude my yin yoga classes with at least 10 minutes of relaxation, re-awakening, and closing meditation. I usually do a guided relaxation (also called yoga nidra), where I lead students through relaxing each part of their bodies.

And then it’s time to emerge from the yoga studio and go back into the real world!

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Strike a (yin) pose

I tend to think of the yin yoga poses I teach and practice in loose groupings based on their purpose within a practice and which areas of the body they primarily affect. These groupings are not absolute and students all feel postures in different ways. A pose that one person feels very intensely in one area, someone else might not feel there at all.

There are many ways to modify these postures to increase or lessen their intensity and, of course, many other possible postures to use in a yin yoga practice; these are just a sampling.

Most yin yoga poses have equivalents in other forms of yoga, but the yin versions are intended to be static, allow the muscles to relax, and exercise the joints to their full range of motion.

The neat stick figure drawings come from Yoga with Amey.

Backward bends

These are helpful to counteract all of the forward bending most people do throughout the day – hunching over a desk or a steering wheel. The target areas are generally the spine (anywhere from the sacrum up to the neck) and chest.

Typical backward bending poses are sphinx (shown at right) and seal.

Back bends can also be wonderful chest openers. I like using a supported fish or bridge (shown at left) to stretch the chest muscles, open the shoulders, and bring some compression into the back. I’ve previously posted detailed information on supported fish if you’d like to know more about that pose.

Forward bends

These are great for stretching the spine and releasing tension along the spinal column and through the shoulders. Standing forward fold (or dangling as I usually call it), pictured at right, is one of my favourite ways to release tension across the upper back and shoulders and stretch the hamstring muscles at the back of the thighs.

Caterpillar, pictured at left, is a seated forward fold that targets similar areas as dangling, although it can also be good for stretching the muscles of the buttocks (or glutes) depending on the tilt of the pelvis.

If you want to get a gentle stretch through the back of your legs, but are worried about the impact of dangling or caterpillar on your back, legs up the wall, pictured at right, is a great option. This is one of my go-to poses (as I detailed in a previous post) and is fabulous for people with lower back issues. 

Other forward folds like butterfly and half butterfly (shown at left) are good for stretching into the hamstrings as well and can also target the glutes (muscles in the buttocks), inner thighs, and spine.

Groin stretches

The inner thigh or groin area can be difficult to stretch; thankfully, there are a couple of yin yoga poses that are good for targeting this area. Dragonfly, pictured at right, and frog are the two postures I use most often. Both poses are easy to modify depending on the tilt of the pelvis and width of the legs and it’s also easy to use props to make them comfortable.

Holding a squatting pose (shown at left) for a minute or more and gently pressing the knees apart can also be an effective groin stretch, although some people feel the stretch more through their thighs or buttock muscles.

Hamstring stretches

In addition to accessing the backs of the thighs by holding forward bending postures, happy baby (shown at right) is another good way to stretch the hamstring muscles. I sometimes jokingly call the pose ‘angry baby’ as the compression in my hips brings out all kinds of rage and frustration!

Hip openers

Most people I know complain of having tight hips. Generally they mean that their hip flexors (the group of muscles used to pull the knee upwards) feel stiff, stuck, or inflexible.

The single greatest yoga pose I know to target the hip flexors is a modified lunge (pictured at right) known as dragon. Dropping the back knee to the ground in dragon, as opposed to holding it up in a lunge, means that students can stay in the pose for a few minutes. Dragons can also target other areas and make people angry as I outlined in a previous post.

Swan, shown below in the section on outer-thigh stretches, can be another wonderful opener for the hip flexors.

Resting

In between more intense yin yoga holds, there are many wonderful postures to come into for a rest. Simply standing in mountain, shown at right, or lying flat on the mat, allows students to feel the impact of the previous hold.

Child’s pose, pictured at left, or fetal pose are great to counter backward bends and can help move through feelings of frailty that may arise after intense long-held postures.

In order to get blood and energy moving through the body again after poses that compress the knees or ankles, I frequently have students move their knees in windshield wipers or drum their feet and legs against the ground.

And then there’s savasana or corpse pose, the ultimate posture of relaxation!

Outer-thigh and butt stretches

Runners in particular often struggle with tightness in their outer-thighs, specifically the IT tract, which is the band of fascia that extends from the hip to the knee. Tightness in the outer-thighs generally goes hand-in-hand with unhappily tight butt muscles (also known as the glutes), which are some of the most powerful muscles in the body.

Square, shoelace, and sleeping swan (a yin version of the pigeon pose pictured at right) are all effective at targeting the muscles and fascia in the IT tract and buttocks. Lowering the chest towards the mat in these postures elongates the glutes and outer-thighs.

Threading the needle is another posture that can have profound impact on the IT tract and butt muscles. It’s one of my favourite poses and is particularly great to do against a wall.

Twists

Gentle spinal twists like cat stretch, shown at right, and two knee twist really illustrate the idea of a yin practice. Reclining twists are quite simple and it’s easy to think they’re not doing anything, but the deep stretch can be incredibly profound after a long hold.

Twisted roots, pictured at left, involves crossing one leg over the other in a reclined twist and targets the glutes and IT band as well as gently compressing the spine.

All twists can also help open the chest and stretch throughout the hips and legs.

 

There are lots of other possible yin yoga poses and many more postures I regularly draw on in my classes. These are a few of the basics that give a sense of what kind of poses to expect in a yin yoga class. I’ve also done a post on what to expect more generally in a yin yoga class and what my idea of yin yoga is.

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What is yin yoga?

Child's pose is a great yin yoga posture

My basic definition of yin yoga is: A series of yoga postures held for longer than in a usual practice. But that’s a really short explanation that leaves a lot of room for expansion.

In yin yoga, the postures tend to be relatively easy ones (not balancing or strength poses) and the hold times are generally between two and five minutes. I like to find the middle ground in a yin yoga pose, which I often describe in Goldilocks terms; it’s not painful (like burning your mouth on really hot porridge), but it’s more than nothing (like sinking too far into a ridiculously cushy bed) – it’s that perfect balance. Enough of a stretch to feel it, but not so much that your muscles tense up and fight against relaxation.

My intent in a yin practice is to relax and gently stretch, as well as mentally settle into stillness. Holding a posture for two to five minutes (or even more) tends to be a mental test, far more than a physical one. The commitment to being in the moment -letting go of thinking, planning, and doing- is a challenge for most people.

Spending last week with Paul & Suzee Grilley really got me thinking about how I define yin yoga. It’s not a trademark or a specific limited number of postures; it’s not proscribed sequence or a meticulous list of dos and don’ts. I think it’s an attitude.

My new working description of yin yoga is: The desire to be still in a yoga practice and the intent to affect parts of the body beyond muscles through long-held postures.

Of course, if that definition fails, I can always fall back on my favourite tongue-in-cheek way to describe a yin yoga class: Lazy yoga 😉

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March rush

March has swept by in a blur. Thankfully, it’s been a pretty wonderful blur 🙂

Photo of Suzee & Paul Grilley from www.paulgrilley.com

I spent the last seven days in an amazing workshop on yoga anatomy at Semperviva Yoga on Granville Island with Paul & Suzee Grilley. Paul and Suzee have been mainstays in my yoga practice for years through their Yin Yoga DVD and it was incredible to meet them. They are fantastic presenters and the week-long workshop contained so many mind-blowing moments.

One of the huge highlights was a lovely sun-warmed practice yesterday afternoon where Suzee led us through the infant series. I’d done the infant series from their Yin Yoga DVD many times before, but, of course, it’s always better in person!

March has also been wonderful in terms of new opportunities with Vancouver Corporate Yoga and Body Harmony Yoga. I’ll be teaching a regular private class with Vancouver Corporate starting in April and will be taking on three (!) classes a week with Body Harmony. I’ve updated my schedule to show all the classes I’ll be teaching.

The Vancouver Corporate classes aren’t open to the public, so if you’re interested in bringing yoga into your workplace, contact Sunny to arrange sessions.

Given that the last Friday of the month is just a few days away, I’m starting to think about the long relaxation session I do in my 6:30pm yin yoga class at Bound Lotus on the last Friday of every month. If this rain keeps up, we might be visualizing sunshine stretching through our bodies during that yoga nidra!

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Healing from the heart

I have a couple friends whose mothers are going in for surgery today… and I’m thinking of them.

Loved ones with health problems are one of the many circumstances where we feel powerless to have any kind of impact. We can worry all we want but deep down we “know that worrying is as effective as trying to solve an algebra equation by chewing bubblegum,” to quote Baz Luhrmann in Everybody’s Free.

I’ve started using meditation to channel my energies towards whoever is having health issues and away from my own fretting. I like doing the Kundalini healing meditation, which uses the Ramadasa mantra and an easy mudra (hand or body position).

The mantra is Ra ma da sa; Sa say so hung and all you do is repeat it. There are lots of recordings to chant along with, my favourite is by Snatam Kaur, and I usually chant for 11 or 31 minutes.

To come into the mudra, sit cross-legged (or in easy pose) and bend your elbows into your body; let your forearms fall open over your thighs, with your inner arms facing up. Your palms are flat and facing upwards with your fingers together and thumbs stretched outwards. The mudra is a gesture of receiving.

KundaliniYoga.org has full instructions if you want more details, including an illustration of the position.

I did Ramadasa as a 31 minute meditation with my dad when he was in atrial fibrillation (a-fib), which is persistently elevated heart rate. He had been in a-fib for a few days and medication was not helping his heart convert to its normal rhythm.

I was thrilled that he was open to meditating together, although immeditately after we were done his heart rate was even higher. While I was on my way home from my parents’ place a couple hours later, though, dad called to let me know that his heart had converted back to a normal rhythm and the a-fib had passed.

I’m hesitant to say that the meditation is the reason my dad’s heart reverted to its normal rhythm, but I don’t think it hurt! And at least it made me feel like I was doing something and let dad know that I love him.

So today I’ll send the love and energy from my Ramasada meditation to my friends and their moms… letting them know that I love them ♥

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