If you ask Google “what is yoga” then, at the time of writing, you get 39,000,000 results – clearly a number of views!
If you were to look at some of the first results that come up, a variety of images will catch your eye. The yogi in flowing white robes mediating serenely; the lyrca clad gymnast in a moody loft studio, concentrating on their balance or form. You may see an image of one of the gods or goddesses of yoga such as Shiva or Shakti, Lakshmi the Goddess of Abundance, Ganesha the Elephant God. Or maybe you fix on images of a yoga class in any one of thousands of school halls, church rooms and small studios the length and breadth of the country, with men and women like you and I taking part.
The word Yoga translates literally from its native Sanskrit as “join” or “union”. Sometimes “yoke”, as in yoking cattle.
Some of the earliest writing about Yoga is in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, written around 500 CE. The opening verses give us an expanded definition of yoga, “Yoga is control of thought-waves in the mind, so that man can abide in his true nature”. In the original Sanskrit this is “yoga chitta vritti nirodhah tada drastuh svarupe vasthanam“.
But what does that mean? And how does it relate to archetypes described above?
Thought waves in the mind is the stuff that distracts us and holds us back, the things that stop us fulfilling our potential as individuals – thoughts, emotions, reactions, memories, trauma, stresses. Our true nature is to understand and rise above these. Yoga helps us do so. This is the unity explicit in the word Yoga; our minds, bodies and spirit in unity.
I would re-interpret “yoga chitta vritti nirodhah tada drastuh svarupe vasthanam” as a process of wellness – releasing everything which holds us back so that we have well-being.
Release from limiting behaviour; limiting belief; a limiting relationship with the full expression of ourselves.
Release from conditioned responses to day to day events. An awareness of how and why we move, think and do.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Viktor Frankl
The key is awareness, focus and concentration. By practising with awareness, focus and concentration we start to understand and rise above the limiting behaviours and beliefs.
And how does this relate to the images I described at the start of this section? And to a typical yoga class? In all of them focus and concentration is key – concentration on mediation; concentration on movement; concentration on the ancient philosophies of Yoga.
So to me, Yoga is a process of personal wellness – physically, mentally and spiritually.
Increasingly I also interpret Yoga as a process of personal insight and understanding, reflecting that insight and understanding must be the foundation of any agenda of personal change.
I’ve no doubt that each of the google results are unique and emphasise different aspects of yoga – my thoughts above are just a vignette of these wider thoughts.
Its worth touching quickly on what Yoga isn’t.
Yoga isn’t a religion – Yoga has routes in ancient Hindu philosophy and, according to some sources, many other ancient religions and philosophical systems. It can be a spiritual practice, however it is not a religion; there is no dictation as to what you do or don’t believe, or how you interpret God, divinity and spirituality. All Yoga asks is that you approach everything in life with an open mind, including faith and belief.
Yoga isn’t physical just exercise and flexibility – it includes movement and body control, sometimes quite strongly, and it will help with fitness, but its basis is much wider.
India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, sums things up well writing for International Yoga Day:
Yoga is an invaluable gift of India’s ancient tradition. It embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfilment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well-being. It is not about exercise but to discover the sense of oneness with yourself, the world and the nature … Yoga embodies unity of mind and body; thought and action; restraint and fulfilment; harmony between man and nature; a holistic approach to health and well being”
About Yin Yoga – ‘The Quiet Practice’
As with a lot of things, the term Yin Yoga isn’t that precise, and has been interpreted in different ways by different teachers; arguably its a way of thinking and practising rather than a specific style.
In essence its a quieter, slower, more passive form of Yoga, typified by using gentler versions of common Yoga postures and holding them for a longer time than usual.
A summary of the Yin practice comes from one of the Senior Teachers in the US, Sarah Powers, “unhurried postures unstained by striving”
Unhurried postures unstained by striving
Where there is a Yin there is a Yang – the two inter depend on each other. Yang is active, moving, dynamic, expansive, outward. Yin is quiet, passive, still, calming, contracting, inwards.
Yin Yoga aims to work with Yin energies and Yin parts of the body, countering the typically Yang activity of our day to day lives. We spend all day moving, thinking and doing – all Yang things – Yin is the counter balance to this. Someone once described it to me as “A work-in rather than a work-out”.
A work-in rather than a work-out
Energetically Yin energy is a restoring, nurturing, rebuilding inward energy, as opposed the outward doing action of Yang energy.
Physically the Yin aspect of the body is the supportive, connective parts of the body – in particular fascia – as opposed to the Yang muscle and movement system.
Some teachers emphasise the physical side of Yin Yoga, and the effect on the physical body, other teachers the energetic side of Yin Yoga and its inherent restorative and balancing nature. For me it is an element of both.
Yin Yoga is an ideal counter to a busy life; to a more dynamic Vinyasa or Ashtanga yoga practice; or to active sports and leisure.
There are some key principles behind a Yin asana practice:
- Come into the pose at an appropriate depth
- Resolve to remain still and
- Hold the pose for a appropriate time
The Yinyoga.com website is a wonderful source for all things Yin.
Yin Yoga – a Technical Perspective
This section is written to provide a technical understanding of my interpretation of Yin Yoga, and is aimed at experienced yoga practitioners/teachers, bodyworkers, therapists and health professionals.
This is not intended to be a comprehensive and compete explanation of Yin Yoga, merely to expand on my personal interpretation.
One of the attractions of a Yin Yoga for me as been its non dogmatic approach, and the ability to adapt and explore in an experiential manner.
If you asked a dozen Yin Yoga teachers to explain Yin Yoga you would get a dozen different answers.
Variously, Yin Yoga can be interpreted as:
- a variation of classic Hatha Yoga, but with postures held for a longer time and mostly floor based
- a practice of intense stretching, playing edges, and with deep stretches held for an extended period, aiming to work with connective tissue, possibly with a mild element of discomfort being tolerated by the practitioner.
- a restorative type practice aimed at cultivating inward yin energy in the body.
- a practice which prepares for, and allows space to be held for, personal enquiry, sometimes known as “Insight Yoga”
My interpretation absorbs elements of all these approaches dependant on context.
It’s important to recognise that Yoga is far more than physical postures (asana). Classically asana is one of the eight limbs of Yoga in Patanjalis Yoga Sutras. In a modern context if exercise or physical therapy is a students primary aim then I feel that a purely physical discipline such as pilaties or gym based exercise are likely to be more efficient, or possibly a yoga practice with a teacher who biases more towards a physical practice.
However my observation is that many people enquiring about yoga seek something more, possibly relaxation, calming a hectic life, a non religious spiritual connection, mindfulness, or to address specific physical or psycho emotional issues therapeutically, eg back pain, IBS, anxiety. The mind body connection, relaxation and general well being is where I believe yoga, as I interpret it, excels.
I consider the energetic aspects of yoga are important. Depending on your outlook, this could be interpreted as the freeing and movement of Chi or Prana, or simply the somatic benefit of gentle movement and slow breathing. In Yin Yoga this means nurturing yin energies, broadly correlating with stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system and rest/digest response.
Physical elements of Yin Yoga: Yin Yoga is generally considered to work with connective tissue, in particular fascia, tendon and ligament, utilising slow gentle stress, with maximum muscular disengagement. This contrasts to repetitive strengthening movements which are considered to work muscular Yang aspects of the body. Classically Yin Yoga is practised with the body “cold” rather than warmed up as you may for other physical exercise, meaning the muscles are less elastic leaving more work into the connective tissue.
I believe the division between working connective tissue and working muscle can sometimes be unhelpful, partly because of connective tissue and muscle coexisting in the muscular structures of the body, and partly because muscular disengagement can be challenging for some students. I therefore prefer an approach that recognises both types of tissue are being worked, but with a transition in the posture from working muscle to working connective tissue as the student moves into the posture.
I am cautious around the language of “stretch” in yin yoga practice, recognising that aspects of connective tissue, eg tendon and ligament structures, generally would not benefit from hyper laxity. I prefer to use the term “stress” partly to suggest a more gentle approach, partly to reference the benefit in mobilising and freeing these tissues rather than stretching them. In colloquial terms I like the analogy of reshaping a woollen jumper coming out of the washing machine – it needs a stress to coax it back to intended shape, rather than a stretch to misshape it. However the subtly of this distinction may not be appropriate for all students and many want the simplicity of what they understand to be a “good stretch” with reference to muscular regions of their body, eg a student with tight legs will probably suggest they would like a hamstring or quad stretch, without a differentiation between working on muscle and fascia.
There is sometimes debate about the merits of stretching, and I am aware of the danger of over stretching. As mentioned above, I prefer “stress” to “stretch” in the context of this practice, and feel that in many cases there is little benefit to the student in pushing beyond comfortable range of motion for an extended period. I prefer to discourage “pushing” and “strife” in the Yin aspects of a yoga practice.
Hyper-mobility: It sometimes suggested that Yin Yoga isn’t suitable for all students, eg those with hyper-mobility issues. I disagree with a blanket contra indication on this basis. With appropriate awareness I believe the practice is suitable for all, however people with hyper-mobility may benefit from greater muscular awareness and assistance from props. I believe the only circumstance in which yin yoga and hyper-mobility may be contraindicated is where the practice is taught in a physical basis only as one of stressing connective tissue, and even then it needs to be recognised that hyper-mobility is not a blanket condition throughout the whole body.
Back pain or other specific conditions: I consider a yin style practice can assist with back pain or, indeed, other specific somatic ailments, with appropriate guidance to the student and, where necessary, use of props. Key to this will be understanding the students condition, and advice received from other medical and therapeutic sources.
Some conditions may benefit from an initial private class to allow the student to integrate into a general class if desired.
I recognise that strength and stability are also important in some instances, and that in general Yin yoga is best at providing release. Because of this I prefer a non dogmatic approach to practice; freeing up yin energy in the body does not have to clash with developing strength and stability, indeed although muscular work is generally considered to be yang, strength and stability are yin traits. The energetic benefits of a slower Yin style practice, and stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system, are useful in both managing pain, releasing physical tension, and in addressing psychosomatic tension.
Beginners: I consider a yin style practice is suitable for beginners, with appropriate guidance.
Yin Yoga v Restorative Yoga: the suggestion is sometimes made that these two practices are conflated. They are separate practices although there is a substantial cross over in my experience. My style of teaching Yin Yoga errs towards Restorative.
Technical Aspects of Movement: I have completed extensive training in Anatomy and Physiology, both class room and lab based working on cadaveric material. In general, whilst this technical knowledge is useful, it can be overly prescriptive in a class environment, although it educates my approach to teaching.
Therapeutic Benefits of Yoga: my approach has always erred towards therapeutic rather than exercise, reflected in my also being a Yoga Therapist
In general I err away from a reductionist approach to yoga practice, and believe in a whole person well being approach that is far more than exercise.