I had a light bulb “aha” moment whilst teaching a yin class a few weeks ago. I was contemplating what I loved so much about practicing and teaching this practice and then it hit me, Yin and Myofascial Release (MFR), a treatment technique I use daily in my practice as a Clinical Massage Therapist work in the same way and achieve similar results. Yin yoga also deepens our awareness of our bodies and my intention when working with people is to educate them in body awareness, physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually so that they are more empowered to take responsibility for their own health and wellbeing.
Physical Benefits of Yin Yoga
MFR treats the soft tissue, the fascia, of the body. Compared to other forms of bodywork MFR is gentle, slow and involves applying gentle, sustained pressure into connective tissue restrictions to eliminate pain and restore motion. MFR never forces, but rather gently waits for the body to release restrictions on its own schedule. By going slowly and waiting for the body’s natural rhythm, the fascia responds by elongating, rehydrating, and reorganizing. Just like Yin!
Fascia is both a tissue and a system, it is one continuous structure throughout the body, from tip to toe, front to back, side to side, there is no beginning and no end, it keeps everything connected and separate at the same time. It surrounds and penetrates every muscle, coats every bone, covers every organ and envelops every nerve. With over 10 times more nerve endings than muscle it has its own communication system, sending feedback to the brain and transmitting information around the body. When working optimally fascia it forms our whole structure, muscles glide smoothly, but when it is restricted, it dehydrates and becomes like glue. It not only loses its mobility, but it can also exert force on underlying structures — up to 2,000 lbs per square inch! This tension creates pain, reduces range of motion and can cause bizarre, seemingly unrelated symptoms.
In yin yoga we consciously relax the muscular tissue, which allows access to the yin like tissues: fascia. When we practice yin we access the fascia through stillness, applying the tissue with moderate stress, holding a pose for an extended length of time, in tandem with connecting to a longer, slower, deeper breath, allows the fascia, as well as tendons and ligaments to soften and release. This in turn increases the range of movement, mobility and reduces pain.
The benefits of yin yoga don’t stop at just our physical ailments, but also our mental and emotional ones too.
Mental Benefits of Yin Yoga
The majority of clients that I treat live with prolonged sympathetic nervous system (SNS) activation. The SNS is our fight and flight response, a brilliant autonomic system of the body that kicks in when we need to react quickly, ie if in danger, it’s our survival mechanism. The stress hormones that are released when this happens are meant to be re-absorbed by the body when the danger has passed, but due to our hectic lifestyles, habitual overcommitting and continually putting ourselves under excess pressure to do more and more, means the body keeps releasing these hormones which over time have a toxic impact on the body. We could find ourselves becoming anxious, depressed and have mood swings. We may suffer stomach issues, our immune system becomes compromised inhibiting our ability to fight off diseases and will eventually become overwhelmed and shut down. Even if we don’t associate it this stress on our bodies and minds causes us pain and suffering. Stress related illnesses include heart disease, arthritis, cancer, GI disorders, Fibromyalgia, Alzheimers to name a few.
The intention behind yin yoga is to slow down and allow the body’s natural and innate intelligence to achieve balance. By practicing yin yoga we slow down the sympathetic nervous system, allowing the parasympathetic nervous system, our relaxation response to activate. Yin yoga triggers the bodies relaxation response and by positively impacting the parasympathetic nervous system illness and disease may be decreased or even be prevented.
There have been a few scientific studies undertaken into the benefits of yin yoga and good news, the results were positive. A study as recent as May 2021 on the impact of a Yin Yoga and meditation intervention on pharmacy faculty and student wellbeing demonstrated a reduction in stress and anxiety levels and an increase in mindfulness after a 6 week yin yoga and meditation program.
Another five-week yin yoga-based intervention decreased plasma adrenomedullin (ADM) and increased psychological health in stressed adults. Researchers have found that ADM becomes elevated in people in the years before the onset of diseases such as strokes, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, most cancers and autoimmune diseases. The randomized controlled trial took one hundred and five adults who were randomly assigned to (1) a five-week Yin yoga intervention, (2) a five-week intervention combining Yin yoga with psychoeducation and mindfulness practice (called the YOMI program), or (3) a control group who did not practice yoga or mindfulness for five weeks.
At the end of the trial yin yoga-based interventions appeared to reduce both the physiological and psychological risk factors known to be associated with above mentioned diseases. The study suggests that incorporating Yin yoga could be an easy and low-cost method of limiting the negative health effects associated with high stress.
Emotional Benefits of Yin Yoga
When I trained as a clinical massage therapist we talked a lot by “the issue is not in the tissue”. The symptoms presented as pain in the tissues, but this is not the cause of the problem. I generally work with clients initially on 6 session treatment programs and know that if their physical pain is not improving or changing after 3-4 sessions then something else is going on, it’s not a physical problem, its an emotional one and the physical pain is the bodies way of getting our attention, letting us know that something needs to be looked at and addressed if the pain is to be resolved.
The body holds the emotions of unprocessed upset and traumas that we have encountered throughout life. These events do not need to even be big like a death of someone close, the end of a relationship or abuse, they could be a harsh word directed at us, or holding onto control and fear. The body parks them in our subconscious and then we get triggered and they show up in our bodies. We don’t always need to know the specifics, but what we do need to do is let them out if we don’t want to be in pain, create stress and dis-ease in the body.
When I initially trained as a yoga teacher I would experience some form of emotion during our morning practice. It would be triggered by something the teacher said, or I would feel emotion rising up in me as I moved into poses, especially poses that I found tricky. It usually came in the form of frustration, I would laugh uncontrollably or sometimes I would cry, no fuss was made, space was held for me to experience what I needed to and then I continued with the practice. I was aware that these needed to be released and not pushed down. I had no idea what the feelings related to but instinctively knew that I needed to experience them and let them go.
In a yin practice we are also working with the meridians of the body. These are energetic channels that run through our bodies and align with our organs and emotions. Kidney energy aligns with fear, Liver energy anger, the Heart love etc. The meridian channels run through our connective tissue, fascia (see its all connected) and flow of the channels is essential for harmonious balance. Like with fascia, if there are restrictions in the flow of chi, if the chi becomes deficient then we become unbalanced and dis-ease may occur.
Putting our bodies in positions that put pressure on, or pulls on areas, encourages the chi (and also blood) to flow and pool in these areas, increasing our healing capacity. Holding poses for extended periods of time creates space for us to witness and allow any feelings and emotions that are ready to be released to rise to the surface. This may be challenging at first as it is often uncomfortable and alien to us, fear may rear its ugly head or we may be embarrassed about emoting in front of others, but by connecting to the breath as an anchor and allowing ourselves to practice being with these feelings, we can observe them and let them go. As the saying goes “better out than in”.
Yin yoga is a holistic practice in that it looks after all aspects of self – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. It’s like giving yourself a deep tissue massage, making changes to the soft tissues of our body through sustained hold and stillness, allowing the body to naturally do what it needs to do.
When we relax muscle tissue the fascia then starts to soften and release, letting go of long held patterns of chronic tension and emotion that is stored in the body. This can all be achieved through the practice of yin yoga.
When we move into quietness and stillness and close our eyes, when we soften our tissues, and let go, allowing the ground and props to support and hold us we start to observe our internal landscape and become more aware of our bodies and minds. We can witness its’ subtleties, its’ sensations, the thoughts that flood in, the emotions that arise and if we allow and listen it will tell us how it is feeling and what it needs.
Read more about Yin Yoga or try a class on a Wednesday morning at 9.30 am using the link below. If you are already a yin fan or would like to delve more into it I am running a 2 hour workshop on Sunday, 27 February at 3 pm.