Yin Yoga: How the Body Releases Stress and Promotes Healing

Sweat trickles down the back of my neck in the midday sun. My leg starts to tremble. I can’t have been here for more than 2 minutes but it feels like an eternity. The sensation in the front of my right thigh has grown from small ember to throbbing blaze and my mind is screaming stop stop stop. My nostrils flare up until I am on the edge of snorting fire. The sound of gentle sobbing fills the air and gently knocks on my own floodgates. The fire burns through my body, bringing whatever was stuck to boiling point and expelling it in a stream now running down my face. This Dragon is powerful.

Such is a typical class on my Yin Yoga teacher training programme.

We bring ourselves into these postures that look easy and gentle on the outside, and then watch whatever arises within. Some days it’s a gentle breeze, other days it’s a violent storm. Our job is simply to watch, as one might watch a soap drama unfold on television. Even in the largest hurricane there is calm at its centre, and this is what we are looking for: the silence, the still point, the vantage point from which we can see more clearly. If you can stay centred after 5 minutes in the toe-breaker, surely you can stay centred anywhere.

Our teacher has been living in an ashram since she was 12 and is a humble bundle of wisdom. She makes it clear that we don’t need to go wading through the rubbish bin to understand what kind of shit is in there, we just need to throw it out. She doesn’t ask me why I’m crying. She doesn’t ask me if I’m okay after class. She doesn’t ask me to fill out a mental health questionnaire or to talk about my relationship with my mother. In fact, she is wholly uninterested in what is going on for me. I am surprised by how empowering this is; she has absolute and unwavering faith in the natural intelligence of the body and it’s innate capacity for healing.

This capacity for healing is what the practice of yin yoga is targeting.

We move slowly into postures only as far as your body naturally allows, find stillness, and then hold that stillness for time. You ‘advance’ in the practice not by mastering ever more challenging postures, but by increasing the length of time that you can bear your own silence. When you stop all of the emails, the selfies, the delicious gooey chocolate bars, the glasses of wine, the dreaming up of your perfect holiday or man or manicure, the going over that argument you had 7 years ago with someone you don’t even talk to anymore – what lies in the void beyond all of this distraction? I turn towards it, look it dead in the eyes, and listen.

It is far from silent. Maybe the first minute is okay, but by the second minute my mind is jumping up and down making all sorts of proclamations. ‘I don’t want to do this, I can’t do this, why is she making me do this? This yoga is stupid, this yoga hurts, I want it to stop, when will it be over? It’s too hard, I just want to curl up in a ball’. And still, I resolve to my stillness. I watch my mind do its little dance. And I resolve to stillness.

The tendency to avoid and resist problems is the primary basis for mental illness, according to psychiatrist Scott Peck. He says “since most of us have this tendency to a greater or lesser degree, most of us are mentally ill”(1). The mat is a safe arena to practice overcoming this tendency in small, yet radical ways. As I watch my little toddler mind throw its little toddler tantrum, I realise I don’t have to buy into it. Eventually, the toddler gets tired; she lies down and says ‘Okay, I give up. Maybe the pain is not that bad. I surrender’. We retreat into our little sanctuary of silence.

This surrender is not a passive, submissive, sign of weakness. This surrender sets you free.

When you fully accept that life is painful and difficult, it somehow loses its power over you. That doesn’t mean you stop fighting injustice, turn masochistic, or stay in a pose to the point or injury. It means you stop creating additional pain for yourself by resisting that which can’t be changed. As Jesus once said “if you know how to suffer, you have the power not to suffer”. Yin yoga is one way of putting this ancient wisdom into practice, to hone the skill of surrender and increase our tolerance for discomfort and therefore growth.  It sets us up on the journey towards mental wealth and abundance, wherever our starting point.

The Dragon is a particularly challenging pose for me. It’s a deep lunge that targets the area at the front of the hip. This is the area that tightens when you when spend your whole life sat in a chair (or worse, a bike saddle). It’s the area that tightens when your body is preparing to leg it or kick some ass. Our fight or flight response gets stimulated not just by angry lions but also angry bosses, angry newspapers, angry music and angry emails. Even a not so angry friend commenting on my new haircut could set it off.

Running away or kicking ass is not the most appropriate response to modern day stress.

What happens to all that energy though? It sits there, with me, in my chair, raising my blood pressure and tying my connective tissue in knots. Our bodies are clever; they hold on to things we can’t deal with at that exact moment in time for whatever reason. But they also keep the score, and if we don’t come back later to settle it then a painful accumulation of debt can result. Yin yoga can help to wipe the bank balance clean.

One of the main holding vaults for stress seems to be a typE of connective tissue called fascia. If you removed all of the cells from your body you would be left with a ghost-like replica of your former self made of a gooey, fibrous material that looks a lot like the spidery web escaping from Peter Parker’s wrists. That’s fascia; the sticky chewing gum that holds us together.

Fascia is like someone who is decidedly stubborn and stuck in their ways. It remembers how we move, sit, stand, walk and keeps us stuck in those patterns because that’s how it’s always been and always will be. Yoga is like the young kid on the block who introduces Grandma to the Internet and stirs up all her old habits. Yoga is coming unstuck; a process of unraveling so that something new can emerge.

Does fascia have emotional memory too?

We all know how relieving it can feel when someone digs their thumbs into the gristle of our shoulders. Many generations of body-workers, yoga practitioners and acupuncturists have first hand experience of the emotional release that sometimes accompanies their work. The recognition of psychosomatic disorders – illnesses that stem from emotional rather than physical causes – is growing in modern medicine. It’s been known for 30 years that emotional stress changes the chemical structure of the fascia (2), and yin yoga also affects this same process (3).

However, the exact mechanism for how fascia holds emotional patterns is not yet understood (4). Does emotional release in yin yoga work through affecting the energy flow in the body as the Daoists of ancient China proposed – be it from photons, protons, or magnetic fields – or is it a purely biochemical process? The scientific jury is still out. The truth is that the mind-body connections are complex, and modern science is only just beginning to scratch the surface.

Do you have to fully understand a therapy before you use it?

Do drug companies wait until they understand the causal pathway for a new drug before releasing it on the market? No, they focus on the outcome, ensure its safety and worry about the mechanism later. Similarly, just because we don’t understand exactly how emotions are leased in yin yoga, it doesn’t stop us from benefitting fully from the practice, as long as it is used with appropriate attention and care. So far, yin is proving a promising method for reducing both the physical and psychological signs of stress (5).

Indeed, after 2 weeks of fully immersing myself in this practice I feel like a new human. I arrived with my barriers up, ready to fight off any insurgency of reality with great resistance. Slowly, I am learning to soften. I am learning not just how to bear my own silence, but how to use it as a sanctuary; a place of rest where I can gently soothe the inner toddler who is scared and afraid. I am learning that when I surrender to this silence, my body takes care of much of the healing for me. What a beautiful and powerful thing.

All I need to do is stop getting in my own way. 

References:

1 Peck, S. (1978). The Road Less Travelled.

2 Heine. (1990)

3 Clark, B. (2011). The Complete Guide to Yin Yoga.

4 Tozzi, P. (2014). Does fascia hold memories?

5 Daukantaitė D, Tellhed U, Maddux RE, Svensson T, Melander O (2018) Five-week yin yoga-based interventions decreased plasma adrenomedullin and increased psychological health in stressed adults: A randomized controlled trial.

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