As important as it is to our physical and mental wellbeing to be strong, it is not muscular strength that gives us the feeling of ease and lightness in the body. It is the flexibility of the joints at the connective tissue level (the deep, fibrous, dry, inelastic tissues that are our tendons, ligaments and fascia). I have taught many muscularly powerful adults who are physically incapacitated or uncomfortable because of joint problems. Bad ankles, backs, knees, and hips – these are the injuries that force athletes to retire and older people to shuffle around.
Think of it this way: connective tissue is to animals what cellulose is to plants, the scaffolding around which everything else is built, hung, or inserted. Plant cellulose maximizes stability, and healthy connective tissues permit more dynamic mobile stability, and our stability requires near constant maintenance. Not as obvious to us as atrophy or weakening of our muscles, but just as undesirable is the slow shortening and stiffening of connective tissues throughout our body due to injuries, abuse, neglect, and aging (beginning around the age of 30!). Shrink wrapped joints hurt. They don’t bend, and they prevent youthful stability, fluidity, and range of motion. They kill the fun!
If we want to maintain our joint flexibility, we must exercise them, but here is the rub – we cannot exercise them like muscles, we must exercise them very differently, in the Yin Yoga fashion. Why? Because connective tissue does not respond to brief or rhythmical stretches the way muscles do. Fortunately, a mindful practice of Yin Yoga (long held, muscular passive stretches), will, over time, enhance flexibility and circulation in our bound-up joints. Connective tissues must be stretched slowly and gently, like taffy. Hard, strenuous activity can injure or snap them like the familiar but dreaded ski or football injury.
The practice of Yin Yoga reaches down into one’s own body and gently stimulates the flow of chi through the meridians of the connective tissue and helps regain youthful range of motion (ROM). Yin Yoga results are first produced mainly in the shoulder, and even the ankles and wrists, depending on the choice of yin posture. When these joints become suppler, all activity becomes easier and less painful… like when we were kids.
The Yin Yoga practice is mindful, precise, and best learned under the watchful eye of a trained Yin Yoga practitioner who can guide you into “suggested shapes” safely.
3 Tenets of a Healthy Yin Yoga Practice:
- Come into the suggested shape to an appropriate and personalized, edge, depth, sensation, and intensity. Something doable and perhaps assisted by a prop.
- Build on the pose, becoming more and more still and passive. Muscle tissue must NOT be engaged or resisting. Gentle Yoga Long Breath is helpful.
- Hold for time, maintaining stillness 3-5 minutes. Yin tissues are dull and resistant, and it takes time for them to respond effectively. The sensations, depending on the pose, are strong and it is okay to back off a bit if they become sharp, searing, or raw.
- Yin Yoga is a mindful practice where mind, body, and breath learn to be present, quiet, still, and let go despite discomfort… A very transferable life skill!