yin yoga Q & A

After reading this post, Anonymous asked:

“How can it be a good thing to stretch ligaments? Fascia, I understand; I learned a lot about it in anatomy courses & totally get why it needs to be flexible. But I’m not clear on ligaments: don’t they hold bones in place, as in joints? Don’t people have problems with hyperextending in, for example, knees & ankles, when the ligaments are too stretched out & the bones “wiggle” all over the place? If stretching can cause this, can’t yoga also? Thanks for any clarification you can bring to this issue.”

Good questions, Anonymous, I will try to answer.

Your first misconception is that somehow ligaments are different from fascia. No; for the purpose of yin yoga “connective tissue” refers to ligaments and fascia, i.e, the broad bands of connective tissue that even extends into the innermost parts of each cell. I direct your attention to the website of the First International Fascia Research Conference that took place in 2007. My teacher, Paul Grilley, was invited to speak at this conference but did not attend. He believes that once this fascia research gets into the “mainstream” medical community, it will revolutionize medicine. From the fascia research website:

“Fascia, or dense fibrous connective tissues, nevertheless potentially plays a major and still poorly understood role in joint stability, in general movement coordination, as well as in back pain and many other pathologies. One reason why fascia has not received adequate scientific attention in the past decades is that this tissue is so pervasive and interconnected that it easily frustrates the common ambition of researchers to divide it into a discrete number of subunits which can be classified and separately described. In anatomic displays the fascia is generally removed, so the viewer can see the organs nerves and vessels but fails to appreciate the fascia which connects, and separates, these structures.”

In other words, Anonymous, don’t believe everything in your anatomy courses. Medical books sometimes are not updated for 20 years. Why? Too expensive.

“Don’t people have problems with hyperextending?”

If Mark Spitz could not hyperextend his knees by about 30 degrees, he would not have won 7 Olympic gold medals for swimming. If Michael Phelps could not hyperextend his joints, he would not have beaten Spitz’s record. If contortionists could not hyperextend their joints, there would be no Cirque de Soleil. You are believing an anatomical cultural myth that somehow hyperextension of joints is always inherently dangerous, and that’s just not true.

“when the ligaments are too stretched out…”

Your second misconception is that somehow a ligament is “inert”, that once “stretched” it will not return to it’s usual length. Many anatomists, doctors, and medical researchers still believe that connective tissue is not “alive” in the same sense that a muscle is “alive.” This is simply not true. It IS true that injured ligaments take a longer time to heal but that is not because they are “too stretched out”; it’s because they have less blood supply than, for example, a muscle.

So I would ask you, if ligaments get “too stretched out”, then why do people get so stiff in their old age? Stiff hips, stiff backs, stiff knees? Would that not suggest that the connective tissue is NOT inert, that it actually does continually lengthen and shorten, and in old age it can literally shrink wrap the joints if not therapeutically stressed as one therapeutically stresses their heart doing aerobics or the way you therapeutically stress your muscles when you lift weights? But don’t believe me — go ask an 85 year old in a nursing home how flexible they feel.

Here is an excerpt from the chapter “Isn’t Stretching the Joints Bad?” from Paul Grilley’s book, Yin Yoga: A Quiet Practice:

“Moderately stretching the joints is not injuring them any more than lifting a barbell is injuring the muscles. Both forms of exercise can be done recklessly but neither one is innately wrong or dangerous. Of course, if someone bounces into their joints they will hurt themselves sooner or later, but that is Yang activity and Yin connective tissue shouldn’t be trained that way.

Yin forms of exercise seem new to our way of thinking. People accept the fact that muscle tissue shrinks or grows in rsponse to exercise, but imagine that the connective tissue of the body is insert and unchanging. This is not true. All the tissues of our body are changing and adapting to the stresses put upon them, even our bones.

If we didn’t exercise them, our muscles would atrophy and weaken and as a consequence so would our bones. Not as obvious to us but just as undesirable is the slow shortening and stiffening of connective tissue throughout our body due to injuries, neglect and aging. If we never bend our knees or stretch our spines, then the connective tissue is going to slowly shorten to the minimum length needed to accommodate our activities. If we want to maintain our joint flexibilities, we must exercise them, but we cannot exercise them like muscles, we must exercise them Yin fashion.”

“If stretching can cause this, can’t yoga also?”

Anonymous, you must first understand the difference between yin yoga and other forms of yoga which are considered yang.

The fundamental difference between yin yoga and astanga or vinyasa, for example, which are “yang” forms of yoga, is that the poses in yin yoga are done on the floor and held for 3 to 5 minutes minimum (poses like pigeon, child’s pose, cobbler’s pose, forward fold, among others.) Connective tissue does not respond to rhythmical stretches the way muscles do, in fact, you would injure your CT if you worked CT like muscles. Connective tissue is tough and fibrous and stretches best when pulled like taffy, slowly and gently.

A football player tears his ACL because his knee snaps — that’s a yang movement, that is a hard and fast movement that certainly injures connective tissue.

Holding yin yoga postures for a few minutes with moderate stress is not going to pull the connective tissue to the breaking point. The CT is only going to stretch minutely and if you are consistent with a yin yoga practice, the body responds by growing CT a little longer and thicker, which is what you want for the health of your joints.

Thanks for reading this blog and for asking your question.

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4 thoughts on “yin yoga Q & A

  1. I’m curious about yin yoga. I have a couple of books on my wishlist (including the Paul Grilley one), but are there any vidoes you can recommend?


  2. both Paul and Sarah Powers have yin yoga videos. go to paulgrilley.com and sarahpowers.com Sarah’s video is called Insight Yoga and her new book of the same title just came out.Sarah studied with Paul and I study with both of them when they come to Chicago. I swear I should get a commission for plugging their books and videos. I guess I should be satisfied with good karma….;)Thanks for reading this blog.


  3. Hi Linda, A great post! I'm finally planning a US trip (2010) in order to study with Paul (and several others). I've recently done some training here with a well-respected and long established yoga school, and guess what? The message about not hyperextending joints was driven home to the point of inciting fear lest become fatal(!). As a person with a hypermobile elbow joint, who's been involved in sports, fitness and yoga for her entire life (41 years), I'm yet to sustain any injury as a result of hyperextending my elbow. What does concern me more is that many people when cooling down from jogging or even prior to Body Pump classes still bounce whilst stretching. I am wondering if it is this potentially dangerous practice, where bouncing turns off the golgi tendon organ that sends messages to the brain to prevent overstretching of muscles, that many yoga schools are confusing with hyperextension based upon anatomical individuality & Yin Yoga.Just a thought.


  4. AAARGH!!!! BOUNCING WHILE STRETCHING!!!!I used to be a fitness instructor (for a short time) and I would see that all the time. I can’t figure out why anyone would think that’s a good thing! I don’t understand it. and I love seeing people “stretch” in a gym before they work out — they do a lunge for 30 seconds on one side, then switch. Or they are standing up and they bend their knee, reach back and hold their foot to “stretch” their quad for 10 seconds. yeah, right, like that’s really going to do anything.HELLO!


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