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YOGA: ARTICLE YOGA FOR YOUR JOINTS
Head, Shoulders, Knees, and the Rest of It
The yoga practice that takes care of it all
Everyone has panic-ridden moments when a life coach, therapist, masseuse, and acupuncturist rolled into one—for free—could really come in handy. Thinking that sounds like an implausible saint? Look in the mirror and think again. If you can find 3 minutes, you can be your own uber-expert. Yin yoga, characterized by long-held, passive poses that work your connective tissues and train your mind rather than muscles, manages to squeeze the benefits of all of those highly-paid professionals into one powerfully recharging practice. Cardio addicts, workaholics, and anyone else in need of a break, listen up. A few minutes in the morning or before bed in a yin pose or two can rejuvenate your mind, fool your joints into thinking they're years younger, and teach you some valuable life skills—all at once. Think of it as investing in yourself without spending a dime on a professional or even a yoga class. Popularized by West-Coast instructors Paul Grilley and Sarah Powers, yin yoga is taken from Taoist yoga, as opposed to today's more popular styles, which come from the Hindu tradition. Taoism, in short, describes everything in terms of yin and yang. The black and white circle—often associated with other Chinese practices like Tai Chi—comes to mind, representing the opposing natures of all things. In the case of yoga, yang describes other hatha styles you may be familiar with, your Anusara, ashtanga, Bikram, what have you. These practices are more physically active and focused on building strength in the muscles and bones. Whereas this passive style of yoga, focused on nourishing the connective tissues of the joints can be described as yin. Joint Responsibility Most people go through life without ever thinking about exercising their ligaments and fascia. But given that these are the source of both our stability and flexibility, it does seem that they should get a little love too. As we age and keep up our active hobbies—running, biking, swimming, sports, vinyasa yoga—building up our muscles and bones (which is healthy), the ligaments and fascia "slowly shorten to the minimum length needed to accommodate our activities," Grilley explains in his book Yin Yoga. He compares the after-effect to shrink-wrapped joints. Basically, the stronger bones and muscles intersect at the joints crowding them and limiting mobility. But what good are pumped-up body parts if you can't use them? It's like how one glass of wine can help you relax around your in-laws but a few more can backfire—making you too paranoid to open your mouth or too oblivious to know when you've said too much. And who can argue with Grilley's theory when the most regimented of athletes are frequently benched by an injury to the knee or shoulder? The good news is that flexibility and agility can be maintained—or restored—by working the connective tissues in addition to working the muscles, he says. But this has to be done in a specific way. "Connective tissue doesn't respond to brief, rhythmical stretches the way muscles do," Grilley says. "Connective tissues are tough and fibrous and stretch best when pulled slowly like taffy." Which is why yin poses are held for several minutes at a time—and mostly done sitting or lying down with the muscles relaxed to ensure the joints take the stress, not the muscles. Think your teacher is torturing you with 45 seconds in revolved chair pose? Try 5 minutes in saddle pose. In fact it's not uncommon for an advanced practitioner to hold a yin pose for as long as 10, 20, or even 25 minutes. Don't worry, you can start with 1 minute. It's around the 3-minute mark, though, that synovial fluid, our joints' natural lube, is stimulated and released into the connective tissues being worked, making them more supple and agile, yin teacher Dina Amsterdam explains. It's the natural decrease of synovial fluid as we get older that makes us stiff in the morning and causes our joints to crack. Lengthening and compressing the connective tissues regularly, which ends up lubricating them, is just like oiling a squeaky wheel. All-in-One Poses Yin yogis also believe that the long holds propagate more than healthy joints by stimulating the body's meridians, or energy channels. Traditionally known as nadis in yoga, these energy pathways running throughout the body, are said to be concentrated in the hips and lower back region—the two areas that yin yoga focuses on primarily. That's why Amsterdam likens a yin practice to giving yourself acupuncture while exercising your joints and meditating. "The sensations in the body are very intense," she says. "In order to get those physiological and energetic benefits, you really have to learn to be with yourself and relax amidst the discomfort of the physical body and also the reactions the mind and the emotional body have toward that discomfort." You've heard something like that on the mat before probably, but most of us have never had to keep it up for more than a minute. You know the deep sensations that a pose like pigeon triggers? As you relax and stay there beyond the typical 45-second mark, gravity keeps tugging at the connective tissues of your hips, slowly lengthening them, and the feeling becomes more and more acute. Sarah Powers incorporates Buddhist philosophy into her yin yoga. And it's not hard to see how it fits if you know a little about the religion and the so-called Four Noble Truths at its core. In a single yin posture you'll experience all of them: the truth of suffering (your hips don't lie—ask Shakira); the truth of the cause of suffering (gravity yanking on your connective tissues); the truth of the end of suffering (can 5 minutes really last forever?); and the truth of the path that leads to the end of suffering. There's the toughie. But the same tricks you use to make it through 30 seconds of warrior III can work here too, and there's not even any alignment or right or wrong to worry about. Amsterdam, who comes from an Iyengar yoga and Buddhist background and learned yin from Powers over a decade ago, also melds mindfulness into her yin practice. And why not? Research has shown mindfulness meditation has a multitude of benefits, from helping people gain better control over their thought processes to reducing stress, depression, neuroticism, binge-eating tendencies, and pain, to increasing compassion, preventing burnout and even lowering blood pressure. And it's not as complicated as it sounds. Amsterdam simply encourages her students to focus on their breath or awareness while in yin poses. For her tips on how to do this, see the yin sequence. "To me it's all about the relationship you cultivate with yourself," she explains. "I would imagine that the marathon race gets really difficult during the last quarter, when your physical body has given out. You just have to go on will at a certain point—no matter how hard you've trained. You get to a certain point of exhaustion and you have to figure out how to move beyond the exhaustion. And learning how to be as deeply relaxed as possible inside discomfort in yin yoga would translate directly into how you can be in a relationship with yourself when you're running—or doing anything else." Under the Western Radar While yin yoga, born in the 1980s, is still gaining notoriety this side of the glob, Amsterdam, named the "Best Classic Yoga Teacher in San Francisco" by San Francisco magazine last year, is using her popularity to help make yin mainstream. In addition to teaching yin-specific workshops across the country, she incorporates yin poses into the beginning of all of her packed Flow classes to help her students connect with themselves and the sensations in their bodies. "People naturally have a bit of resistance when they're first exposed to yin," Amsterdam says. "But 98 percent of them end up loving it." She adds that coming from the alignment-focused Iyengar mentality, she questioned the safety of the passive poses at first herself. Now she sees their value. "One of the things that's really brilliant about yin yoga is that it teaches students how to listen more closely to the sensations of their bodies," she says. "So that they know the difference between a positive sense of discomfort, like an ache, and the moment that moves into a realm that feels unsafe." She adds that she is constantly reminding her students to back off of poses as soon as a sensation feels sharp, electric or "scary" in any way. "Each yin yoga pose is like a simulation of life experience," Amsterdam says. "Life is uncomfortable, and [in yin yoga] you have the opportunity to pay attention in slow motion to your internal reaction to your own discomfort. That's something that this culture does not ask us or teach us how to do." Maybe you've had a yoga teacher ask you to "find your edge". In yin, you find your edge, fall off of it maybe, and keep hanging on anyway. The idea is to train your mind not to react to any of that—just to watch it all happen.
Perhaps that's why the practice makes such a natural complement to the inherently yang nature of our modern Western world that has us racing to work, lunch, the dry cleaners, and soccer practice. Always living in fast forward leaves us little time to evaluate if the things we're doing are as good for us as we think they are. A yin practice can teach you to slow down, listen to your body, gain control over your mind, and relax—all at the same time. Put that way, maybe it does fit right into our culture after all: It's yoga's ultimate multi-tasker. Get the yin sequence.
Last updated: May 6, 2009 Issue date:
You can find this article online at: www.WomensHealthMag.com/yoga/yoga-for-your-joints