“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.” ~~ Lao Tzu
Photo courtesy of Taichido.com
This weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a Yin Yoga workshop that will be applied towards my 500-hour yoga teacher training. This was one of the trainings I’ve been waiting for, as I first began practicing the Yin style of yoga on a more regular basis over this past year. It’s been very therapeutic in helping me with the chronic pain I’ve been suffering in my muscles and joints due to having Lyme Disease. Over this past year, I’ve asked my teachers lots of questions, I’ve done a lot of research online, and I’ve purchased quite a few books on the subject. If you know me well, then you know that this is simply what I do with everything…I research everything to the fullest extent, because I am always asking “Why, why, why???” until I get all my questions answered.
For those of you who don’t know what Yin Yoga is, it is considered to be a very therapeutic form of yoga that is particularly helpful with stretching the connective tissues around the joints. To do this, you follow three basic principles:
- Come into the pose to an appropriate depth. Think about finding your “edge”…that point where you feel like you’ve reached a degree of stretch that is in balance: intensity without pain, use without abuse, strenuousness without strain.
- Resolve to remain still. The idea behind this is that anytime the body moves, the muscles engage, as they naturally want to take over any stretch for the body in order to protect the joints. So, if we remain still, the muscles are able to be “quiet” and allow the effect of a deep stretch to sink into the joints, and the connective tissue surrounding them.
- Hold the pose for a long time (typically anywhere from 3-5 minutes, though I’ve heard stories from others who have been asked to stay in a pose for 10-20 minutes…yikes!). The reason we need to hold poses for a long time in this style of yoga is because the connective tissue is much denser than muscle, so it takes time to “dig in” and stretch it out properly.
If you look on the schedules of many yoga studios and fitness studios where yoga is offered, you’ll very rarely see a class labeled as “Yin Yoga”, because most of us in the western world are always on the go and cannot fathom the thought of having to “stay still” for long periods of time. But if you see classes labeled as “Deep Stretch”, or “Long, Slow, Deep”, then you can bet that you’ll be getting a good bit of Yin thrown in, and the benefits can be amazing!
Until this weekend, I’ve always thought the Yin style of yoga was very rigid in format (refer to principle #2 above). It’s the way I’ve always practiced, for the most part, in the classes I’ve attended. My teacher this weekend has a very diverse background in yoga, massage therapy, meditation and Chinese medicine. And because of this diversity, she emphasized that in her way of teaching Yin, there isn’t necessarily a “one size fits all” approach. It depends on the body and the issues its experiencing. So on the first day of the training, we did most things in the traditional Yin style, holding to the three principles above.
But on the second day of the training, she showed us how we can explore the five (5) elements of traditional Chinese medicine in our poses. It is believed that the mind, body and spirit are all endowed with the five elements, which are: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. Traditional Yin Yoga utilizes mainly the Earth element. However, it is believed by many that practicing Yin Yoga utilizing all the elements can perhaps more effectively provide improved health, greater vitality, heightened awareness, and freedom of movement and ease with the body.
All I have to say is, the practice we did on the second day made me say, “Wow! This is what I’ve been looking for!” As we went through the poses, we did almost every one in different ways, incorporating each element, so we could explore and pick the best variation for our own bodies. I quickly discovered that I love the water element in my poses, as it’s very fluid and it really did wonders for easing pain and stress in my body. The earth element was a close second, as it’s very grounding, and allowed me to settle in when I really needed to.
Even though I traditionally teach a Power Yoga format, we always have a good 15-20 minutes at the end of each class where we practice deep stretching. So this week, I will be using this last portion of my classes to introduce this way of moving your body in various ways, in an attempt to help you find which element resonates with you the most. You may find that different body parts respond to the elements quite differently. You can refer to http://www.taichido.com/chi/taoist/five.htm for an easy-to-understand explanation of the five (5) elements, but here is some basic information you may find helpful:
Wood is associated with the season of Spring, and is thought to help us with the capacity to look forward, plan and make decisions.
Wood energy is rising, expanding, and is the force of growth and flexibility. When you move your body in a “wood” way, it’s like the sensation of drawing an arrow back on a bow, just before you shoot it at your target. In other words, your body is very taught. So if you’re in Dancer Pose in a “wood” way, for example, it should feel as if you let go of your foot, you’d feel the same sort of “snap” release as if a bow had just shot an arrow.
Fire is the element of heat, and is associated with the season of Summer, and it symbolizes warmth in human relationships. Its motion is upward.
When you move your body in a “fire” way, it’s very active and dynamic. Those of you who practice more active styles of yoga, like Power Yoga or Vinyasa Yoga, are moving with this element predominantly. Some breath work, like the Breath of Fire, utilizes this element as well.
Earth is the element associated with the season of Autumn. This element is also regarded as central to balance and the place where energy becomes downward in movement. It is the symbol of stability and being properly anchored.
When you move your body in an “earth” way, it should feel very grounding and stabilizing. The traditional way of doing Yin Yoga, for example, is done utilizing the earth element, where you just let go of all muscle energy and sink into the pose. For example, if you do a Seated Forward Fold in an “earth” way, you would turn off all the muscle energy in your legs and in your spine, and just let gravity pull you into wherever your body needs to be. It then becomes less of a hamstring stretch, and more of a stretch on the backs of the knees.
This category includes the Western idea of the air element and is not associated with any specific season. Metal energy is consolidating and with inward movement.
When you move your body in a “metal” way, it is very straight and strong. Very linear, so to speak. For example, if you’re in a Seated Forward Fold in a “metal way”, you would hinge from the hips, extending the spine long, with your arms long and straight by your ears, keeping your legs straight and strong. There would be no curves…your body would be more like a sword, so to speak.
Water is associated with the season of Winter, and its motion is downward.
When you move your body in a “water” way, it is very fluid and flowing. Think of it as being very organic…any movement that feels like what your body needs is totally acceptable. Neck rolls, shoulder rolls, hip circles…all of these could be considered “water” movements.