We all struggle to some degree with stress and its effects on our lives. It aggravates and will not let us relax. It keeps us from sleeping well and breathing fully. You might even find yourself stressed out while hurrying off to something you enjoy! Stress unattended can result in headaches, anxiety, depression, and even physical degeneration. Sure, it is part of the human condition, but in our crazy world where demands on our time seem endless, it can feel like there is no escape from the constancy of a stressed out mind and body… Or is there?
Thankfully, there is yoga.
Yoga, in essence, has benefit in countering the effects of stress on the body and mind. The nature of connecting breathing with postures and movement has beneficial results for our ability to deal with numerous mental and physical issues including depression and anxiety.
Personally, I love the feeling after a good vinyasa yoga practice when I’m feeling like a crumpled sweaty towel on the floor after class. I love to feel a sense of release, strength, and exhaustion combined. However, for me as a very Type A, anxiety-prone personality, I also need to slow down and face all the creepy irritants of my mind in order to really get beyond the frantic clamor. In general, although extraordinarily helpful, most dynamic practices of yoga don’t address this deeper need.
And in comes Yin Yoga…..
Looking like a calm, stately queen comfortable in her shadow powers of regeneration, she is able to take you to new places within yourself.
Yin is a form of twentieth century yoga that is built upon the research of Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama from Japan and Dr. James Oschman from the US. These guys explored the possibility that the connective tissues of the body, found in the organs, bones, muscles and joints, create pathways for energy to move throughout the whole of the human system. Combining the knowledge and traditions of acupuncture and yoga, a new form of yoga emerged. Yin Yoga, a term coined by Sarah Powers, explores the flow of energy throughout the body concentrating on the slow stretching of the connective tissues. This energy flow, also known as chi or prana, runs like a current through the body, but can become blocked or stagnant thus needing to find the ability to move freely again.
Yin is unique.
Yin is a slow, steady practice with a sense of softness and surrender. The main principles include moving into the chosen posture or shape and then coming to the “edge” or place of challenge within the posture. Remaining non-aggressive and slow, you move to a place that is not comfortable, but not painful either. In that in between place of comfortable discomfort, you find some stillness. Allowing the breath to remain slow and unlabored, you follow the sensations in your body with your breath and allow the extraneous thinking of the mind to come and go. Just noticing the thoughts without judgment or mental discourse creates a break for the mind. Not attaching to the “thinking” helps you to move into a meditative space, continually returning to breathing through the sensations that arise within the body. And here you stay for 3-5 minutes.
After each held posture, I like to have several transitional movements to release the pose and circulate the energy flow before moving on to the next yin posture. It’s like a dance of hold and release, steady, rhythmic, settle in, breathe, flow… and where does the mind go? Most all of the postures are practiced close to the ground and have great benefits for the spine and hips. Yin is actually surprisingly challenging in its simplicity!
Like rock overcomes scissors in the game played by children, Yin overcomes stress.
In the stillness, and challenge of the postures, opportunity to relax into awareness without fighting the mind, and just watching thoughts without getting involved with them is part of the practice. It teaches you a lot about yourself. Hopefully, you will even learn to laugh at your odd idiosyncrasies and develop a gentle sense of self compassion and humor toward your mind. After all, you are not your mind and you can’t believe everything you think! When you know this, then you are freer to choose your responses differently.
Slowing down, practicing mindfulness, breathing fully and stretching deeply all work together synergistically to decrease the stress response within the body. Practiced regularly, they have lasting effects.
Additionally, the physical benefits are plentiful. These benefits help you overcome stress by releasing stagnation in the body.
Yin benefits your health in the following ways:
Strengthens and maintains health of the joints
Prevents degeneration, low bone mass, osteopenia
Prevents stiffness and provides hydration to the joints
Regulates energy in body
Creates greater stamina
Helps with TMJ, headaches and hip and back problems
Balance is the key.
A good and practical balance of various exercise, including a regular dynamic practice of yoga as well as a yin practice are necessary for our best health. The Taoist symbol for the yin and yang illustrate this balance. In our hyper-competitive, driven world we sometimes forget the value of going inward and listening. What is counterintuitive may indeed lead us to a more calm, focused and centered place. A place where stress comes by and visits, but does not hang around or bother us in the same way as it did before.
Ellyn Bell teaches yin and vinyasa yoga classes at Ocean Yoga in Pacifica, CA. She’s been teaching yoga for 7 years, and practicing regularly for almost 20. A high school teacher, dancer, and a social worker, she is also co-author of the book, Singing with the Sirens, Overcoming the Long Term Effects of Childhood Sexual Exploitation. Visit her new blog site, www.beautifulunconquerablesoul.com.