My therapy practice is centered around the fascial and nervous systems. So most of my work is done calming the system down and encouraging the restrictions to release, creating more freedom and less pain.
Yin yoga is one of my absolute favorite modalities to use for people to achieve a calmer mind-body and to help keep or increase the gains we make in our sessions. It’s a slow practice, one that holds the postures for usually three to five minutes (sound familiar?) and its focus is to help encourage opening the connective tissue in areas that tend to be restricted and stiff, primarily the hips. But this slower practice also helps to still the mind. It gives our mind a project (a stretching area of our body to focus on and feel), but also begs us to find a place of calm, relaxed stillness. Essentially, yin yoga is a great way to prepare us to move more deeply into meditation, and lets us touch into that state in slow, bite-sized pieces.
But what happens if a yogi is already naturally quite flexible? Due to the fluid and acrobatic nature of yoga, it tends to attract dancers and gymnasts and lithe, flexible people, because they can “succeed” in performing the yoga postures rather quickly. The practice fits into their natural abilities to bend and stretch and contort. And in general, these yogis are praised and encouraged to push it to their already astounding limits of mobility. The gumby-yogi has areas of their bodies that are chronically stiff—their fascial system is trying to hold them together. So these yogis stretch their always-tight-feeling hamstrings and hips, hoping that someday they will start to feel better. Their classes give them a temporary release, but they have to go back again and again to maintain a status quo of mild or moderate discomfort.
Luckily, there are more and more teachers spreading the gospel of the need for stability to precede mobility, encouraging people to back off of some of these beyond-end-range postures, and even some poignant stories of injury and rehab due to being overly flexible and pushing into that flexibility repeatedly. (Thank you Jill, for sharing that story).
Because yin yoga is by nature a longer passive hold geared to open up the deep layers of fascia surrounding the joints, this type of yoga can be especially risky for a flexible student. But the practice is SO GOOD on so many other levels and most of us could use more moments of stillness and a slow, connected relationship to parts of our bodies that we usually just ignore or brush past.
I’ve compiled a few tips for these bendy types to take with them into a yin class. You might not look like the “star”, but you will feel good, and I think that might be more important.
· Use props: Just because the class is marketed as a yin class, if certain poses create discomfort (or worse, hurt your body after you come out), turn some of the poses into restorative ones through use of props—bolsters, blankets or blocks.
· Move into and out of the poses slowly and through each layer of your restriction rather than just folding into the end-range pose. Again, this isn’t typically Yin, but it slows you down and lets you release those many layers of guarded protection that your body has been holding without stressing the dense fascia that your body NEEDS at the joints. For example: If you are doing a yin snail (paschimottanasana), sit up tall and slowly lower your head until you feel a mild stretch in your spine. Allow yourself to slowly move into each new sensation, folding little by little and waiting for each area to release rather than just moving all the way to the end of the pose. If you spend the five minutes doing that, you’ll be amazed at how much you can open up, and you likely won’t hurt when you come out.
· Make sure you feel the opening in your fascia and muscle and not in the joint. Swan (Pigeon) is a great example to use for this one—instead of having your shin parallel to the front of the mat, perhaps bend the knee more so you feel it in your glutes instead. Then you can slowly move your body around to find those micro-restrictions instead of stressing the joint.
· Try exploring more 3-Dimensionally. Though the classic yoga poses have us bending forward or back, right or left, our bodies (and fascial restrictions) don’t move in those exact planes of motion. So try exploring by making micro-movements with your head or your arms or your trunk. Roll your hip in or out a little. Search around within a not-so-end-range part of the pose until you feel something interesting. Again, wiggling isn’t generally encouraged in a yin class, as the stillness and hold is traditionally what this practice offers, but you can wiggle and search, then find stillness there. Then as it releases, search again and settle in. Just because it’s not traditional, doesn’t mean it’s incorrect for you. Try it and see.
· Be brave enough to come out of the pose. If something doesn’t feel good, come out. Adapt it so it does, or find a different pose that works for you. Child’s pose or savasana are always good, safe choices to use to find stillness without harming yourself.
· Talk to the teacher. Let the teacher know you’re hypermobile and that yin classes can hurt you if you don’t use adaptations. When you have open communication with your teacher, you not only keep yourself in a safe container, you also may get to educate the teacher that there are other ways to approach some of these poses and (s)he may be able to pass it along to other bendy students.
Have fun playing in your yin classes and love yourself enough to stay safe and to feel good!