I’ve been meditating for over six years now, and I can say with certainty that the practice has changed my life in so many ways. I’m better at managing stress, I’m less intensely goal oriented, I have cultivated more virtues like patience, compassion, and forgiveness, and I have a better appreciation for everyday life.
But even as someone who has been studying and practicing meditation for about an hour per day with good consistency for over a half dozen years, I am no stranger to sore knees, aching hips, and a stiff back. Like most people who meditate, I can say that uncomfortable sensations are just part and parcel with the whole meditation process. So if you ever say ‘oosh’ after sitting in seiza for an extended period of time, you’re not alone.
That said, I have found yin yoga to be a wonderful complement to my practice of meditation, simply because it has helped me to stretch the connective tissues in my body and thereby allowed me to sit for meditation longer, more comfortably, and with less physical distractions.
Why All Meditators Need Yin Yoga
Yin yoga has a different effect on the body with regards to preparation for seated meditation practice, as opposed to regular sweat dripping vinyasa. While vinyasa may be a wonderful approach to keeping our bodies in good physical fitness — a helpful precursor to meditation — yin yoga may have an even stronger influence on how we feel during meditation.
It all boils down to an understanding of chinese medicine, rooted in the notion of yin and yang.
As people, we are naturally more prone to that which is more tangible (yang), but as we advance in our exploration of life we may find ourselves more and more drawn to that which is more subtle and hidden (yin). We can think of yin yoga as that intermediary between the more tangible exercises that most of us start with and the more subtle practice of meditation that becomes more and more relevant as our practice evolves.
Whereas yang tends to associate with phenomenon like the sun which are active, changing, hot, soft, fast, and excited, yin tends to associate with phenomenon like the moon which are passive, stable, cool, hard, slow, and calm.
So in this way, yin yoga practice promotes many qualities that are more complementary and preparatory to long periods of sitting and settling into a fixed position that makes us more aware of our joints and bones.
Whereas the yang yoga practices involve swift movements, frequent changing of postures, and the elevation of our body temperature, yin yoga practice requires holding postures for longer durations, transitioning between postures slowly, and keeping our bodies cool.
But as with all types of exercise, proper care must be taken to prevent injury and promote beneficial results. Our joints and bones, the targets of yin practice, must be treated very differently when exercised, as compared with the muscles we utilize during yang practice.
During Yang Yoga We Stretch Tissues, During Yin Yoga We Stress Them
When we study the assortment of yoga techniques based on this understanding of yin and yang, we realize that the flexibility of the tissues is the most prominent feature.
Yang exercises focus primarily on the muscle tissues, whereas yin exercises focus primarily on the connective tissue.
Yang tissues, such as muscle tissue (deltoids, biceps, quadriceps), are:
Yin tissues, such as connective tissue (ligaments and tendons), are by contrast:
Given these differences, we shouldn’t go about exercising each of these types of tissues in the same way. When we practice yang yoga, we are exercising in a way that stretches the tissue; whereas when we practice yin yoga, we are exercising in a way that stresses the tissue.
When we practice yin yoga, we must apply gentle pressure such that we bring our bones and joints into new positions very gradually over time, in much the same way that we might wear braces and receive slightly uncomfortable periodic adjustments to eventually bring our teeth into a more desirable alignment.
The following are a series of yin postures, in no particular order, that will help the body achieve a more comfortable alignment that prepares us for meditation. Try holding each of these postures for at least 3-5 minutes and for as long as 20 minutes if so desired.
In this pose, plant your feet firmly on the matt. The heels should touch the matt if possible, even it it requires that you point your feet more horizontally to the left and right. Skinnier people with vata constitutions may find that they need they need to spread their legs out wider whereas stockier people with kapha constitutions may find themselves able to point their feet more directly forward. Do what feels best for you, as the bones and joints in all bodies are made differently!
Once your feet are in position, adopt a prayer gesture with the hands and use your elbows to help push your thighs outwards. You should really feel this posture in the hips and knees!
This is a classic yin pose introduced frequently at the beginning of yang yoga classes and recommended by instructors as a resting position between yang poses.
Begin the pose by bringing your legs and knees together in parallel alignment with the tops of your feet and your knees planted firmly on the ground. For a modification, consider spreading your knees further apart (as shown above). Next, lower your back and elongate your arms, allowing your chest to sink lower and hands move further over time.
You’ll feel this in your hips and shoulders especially.
This is a difficult pose that you can modify by using your forearms for support in order to relieve pressure from your knees and lower back. In either case, you will feel a rather intense pressure on your knees and lower back.
To start, plant the front of your legs and knees and tops of your feet flat on the ground. Then, gradually and carefully, lower and extend your back and arms backwards. In phase one, you will use your forearms for support. In phase two, you will allow your hands to reach as far back as possible and your back to fall as flat on the ground as possible as you gaze into the ceiling or sky. You can apply a gentle pressure with legs and arms as your remain outstretched.
In this pose, begin flat on your back and raise your right knee and leg so that it rests at the opposite side of your body. Use your hand to hold the knee against the ground (if possible) and try to keep both your shoulders flat against the floor. From there, you can twist your left leg backwards so that you can grab it with your right hand, or you can leave it vertical (a modified position). Hold the posture for as long as desired, then switch sides.
This is another good posture for gently stressing your knees and hips whilst also twisting your spine.
One of the more essential exercises of any yin practice, this posture will really work all the joints in your knees, hips, and shoulders. To perform this pose, sweep your left leg underneath the front side of your body, keeping your right leg and arms fully outstretched. Allow your chest to sink as low as possible and your legs to stretch as far forward as possible. Hold the posture for as long as desired, then switch sides.
As you feel ready, you can experiment with gradually raising the position of your shin and allowing it to align more with your chest than your stomach. As always, choose the position or edge that you can comfortably maintain over a reasonable length of time.
This posture is very simple and relaxing. It works both your hamstrings, and the bones and joints in your lower back and shoulders. To practice this posture, widen your legs and hips as far as comfortable and allow your chest to sink forward. Surrender to the pose and see how your hands can reach further and further over time!
This is a great posture to help improve posture by contributing to a straighter more elongated spine. Over time, you can improve the posture by spreading your legs further apart.
To start, plant the sole of your right foot firmly on the front of your mat, allowing your left leg to remain stretched. Then wrap your right arm around the outside of your right leg and plant the right hand flat against the floor with the left hand positioned the same on the opposite side. Hold the posture for as long as desired, then switch sides.
An essential exercise for the end of any yoga class, yin or yang, this posture allows us to fully surrender to our experience and incorporate all the gifts we have received throughout our practice. It helps us activate the parasympathetic nervous system and feel more relaxed.
This is the simplest pose of all, but you may consider the following modification: Place a foam roller or rolled blanket underneath you back. This will put a gentle pressure on many of the bones and joints in your upper body and you sink deeper into a position of profound relaxation.