What do people need to know about their connective tissue? What is the relationship between connective tissue and yin yoga?
Usually the only time people think about their connective tissue — which includes our tendons, ligaments, and fascia that surrounds and intermingles with our muscles — is when we injure it, like a sprained ankle. However, what people do not realize is that the connective tissue of our bodies is all about our flexibility; our muscles are all about strength. The health of our joints is related to the health of our connective tissue. What will give us a sense of ease and comfort in our old age is not how much weight we can lift, but our flexibility and the health of our joints, like our hips, pelvis, and spine. People do not realize that if our connective tissue is not therapeutically stressed on a daily basis, that is, stretched in slow, long-held floor poses such as what is done in yin yoga, our connective tissue will literally shrink wrap our joints. This should be of great concern to women because the spine is surrounded by about seven layers of connective tissue and when, not if, the connective tissue begins to stiffen due to lack of movement, it can literally crush already thinning vertebra and thereby contribute to that “old lady’s hump”. It is not so much osteoporosis that causes the rounding of the back, it is the connective tissue of the spine shrink wrapping the vertebra. That is why forward folds with a rounded back and back bends are so important for the health of the spine. Doing paschimottanasana with a more rounded back helps to stretch the spine more, rather than doing it with a flat back.
In yin yoga the connective tissue of the hips, pelvis, and spine is worked slowly in a “yin” way. Other forms of yoga are more muscular and therefore more “yang”, that is, moving and rhythmic. The only way connective tissue is stretched is by relaxing the muscles and holding the floor yin poses for three to five minutes minimum. Again, flexibility has nothing to do with our muscles, it has everything to do with our connective tissue.
I believe that the ability to stay still for five minutes at a time has a lot more to do with our minds than our bodies. This is why yin yoga is also mind training, we train ourselves to be still in a world that is rushing out of control, and not that we can control it anyway. If someone values the quality of how they are living each moment, giving themselves time to turn off the movie that constantly plays in their mind and do some yin yoga, then they will begin to find more space in their life.
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I’ve been interviewed for an article for the health and fitness magazine supplement to my local newspaper that will come out in January. I thought I would post some of the questions and my answers.
How does yin yoga balance the mind, body, and spirit?
Yoga was never meant to be a purely physical practice — the ancient yogis (the sramanas) knew this when they went into the forests thousands of years ago to use their own bodies and minds and nervous systems as laboratories for experiments in personal transformation. We are not just our physical bodies so whatever type of yoga is practiced will balance the mind-body-spirit.
All yoga styles work the energy body, however, I feel that yin yoga is in a sense a deeper practice because the emphasis is solely on the connective tissues, not the muscles. Both the ancient Indian yogis and the Chinese yogis (the Taoists) believed that the connective tissue houses energy pathways, called nadis by the Indians and meridians by the Chinese. These energy pathways contain our life force, prana as the Indian yogis called it, chi as the Chinese yogis called it. Our energy body (the total of all these energy pathways) tends to become dense or stagnate when we do not move our bodies outside of our habitual ranges of motion. This is why we do yoga. But by coming into a pose in a slow yin way and staying for many minutes at a time helps us get deeper within our natural ranges of motion in the joints of the hips, pelvis, and lower back.
Chi stagnation is what acupuncturists deal with so that is why yin yoga is also called “needleless acupuncture” because you can move and balance your chi via yin yoga postures by stretching and pressuring the connective tissues that house the meridians. Modern life is very yang, lots of movement, rushing around, no stillness — this causes stress and burn out. Yin yoga is a way of slowing down and going inward. Life is always about balance, the yin and the yang. Too much yang and you burn out; too much yin and you become a couch potato. Think of all the physical ailments that people have from too much stress and burn-out.
Because of my own personal yoga and meditation practice, I truly believe that combining a yin practice with a yang practice (such as a strong vinyasa or astanga practice) offers a complete yoga practice not only on the physical level but more importantly on the psychic level. I believe that working on these deeper levels is what what leads or our own personal transformation and that the changes we make to our soft tissue have a profound influence on the emotional, mental, and energetic levels. My own yoga practice deepened in a very potent way when I began to move away from an alignment-based, precision-obsessed practice.
There is also a whole psychosomatic level to balancing the energy body. Strong and flowing prana (or chi) is important because it affects the way we feel and the way we think. Blending the physical with the emotional levels expands our possibilities within a complete yoga practice.
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