Every meditator knows the pain of stiff knees and an aching back.
By stretching the connective tissue, Yin Yoga can condition you to sit
longer—and more comfortably.
By Paul Grilley
Conventional yoga wisdom holds that nothing prepares your body for hours of seated meditation
as well as regular asana practice. But when I began to explore more
intensive meditation sessions, I discovered to my chagrin that years of
sweaty vinyasa and mastery of fairly advanced poses hadn't made me
immune to the creaky knees, sore back, and aching hips that can
accompany long hours of sitting practice.
Fortunately, by the time I got serious about meditation, I'd already
been introduced to the concepts of Taoist Yoga, which helped me
understand my difficulties in sitting.
I found that with some simple
additions to my yoga practice, I could sit in meditation with ease, free
from physical distractions. Taoist Yoga also helped me see that we can
combine Western scientific thought with ancient Indian and Chinese
energy maps of the body to gain deeper understanding of how and why yoga
The Tao of Yoga
Through deep meditation, the ancient spiritual adepts won insight
into the energy system of the body. In India, yogis called this energy prana and its pathways nadis; in China, the Taoists called it qi
(pronounced chee) and founded the science of acupuncture, which
describes the flow of qi through pathways called meridians. The
exercises of tai chi chuan and qi gong were developed to harmonize this
qi flow; the Indian yogis developed their system of bodily postures to
do the same.
Western medicine has been skeptical about the traditional energy maps
of acupuncture, tai chi, and yoga, since no one had ever found physical
evidence of nadis and meridians. But in recent years
researchers, led by Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama in Japan and Dr. James Oschman
in the United States, have explored the possibility that the connective
tissue running throughout the body provides pathways for the energy
flows described by the ancients.
Drawing on Motoyama's research, Taoist Yoga weds the insights gained
by thousands of years of acupuncture practice to the wisdom of yoga. To
understand this marriage—and to use it to help us
sit with more ease in meditation—we must familiarize ourselves with the
concepts of yin and yang. Opposing forces
in taoist thought, the terms yin and yang can describe any phenomenon.
Yin is the stable, unmoving, hidden aspect of things; yang is the
changing, moving, revealing aspect. Other yin-yang polarities include
cold-hot, down-up, calm-excited.
Yin and yang are relative terms, not absolutes; any phenomenon can
only be yin or yang by comparison with something else. We can't point to
the moon and say, "The moon is yin." Compared to the sun, the moon is
yin: It's cooler and less bright. But compared to the Earth (at least
from our perspective), the moon is yang: brighter, higher, and more
mobile. In addition to being relative, a yin-yang comparison of any two
objects depends on the trait being compared. For example, when
considering location, the heart is yin compared to the breastbone
because the heart is more hidden. But when considering substance, the
heart is yang compared to the breastbone because the heart is softer,
more mobile, more elastic.
Analyzing various yoga techniques from the perspective of yin and
yang, the most relevant aspect is the elasticity of the tissues
involved. Yang tissues like muscles are more fluid-filled, soft, and
elastic; yin tissues like connective tissue (ligaments, tendons, and
fascia) and bones are dryer, harder, and stiffer. By extension, exercise
that focuses on muscle tissue is yang; exercise that focuses on
connective tissue is yin.
It's certainly true that whenever we move and bend our joints in yoga
postures, both muscle and connective tissues are challenged. But from a
Taoist perspective, much of the yoga now practiced in the West is yang
practice—active practice that primarily focuses on movement and muscular
contraction. Many yoga students like to warm up with asanas that infuse
the muscles with blood, like standing poses, Sun Salutations, or
inversions. This strategy makes sense for stretching and strengthening
muscles; much like a sponge, the elasticity of a muscle varies
dramatically with its fluid content. If a sponge is dry, it may not
stretch at all without tearing, but if a sponge is wet, it can twist and
stretch a great deal. Similarly, once the muscles fill with blood, they
become much easier to stretch.
Yang yoga provides enormous benefits for physical and emotional
health, especially for those living a sedentary modern lifestyle.
Taoists would say yang practice removes qi stagnation as it
cleanses and strengthens our bodies and our minds. But the practice of
yang yoga, by itself, may not adequately prepare the body for a yin
activity such as seated meditation. Seated meditation is a yin activity,
not just because it is still but because it depends on the flexibility
of the connective tissue.
The Joint Stretch
The idea of stretching connective tissue around the joints seems at
odds with virtually all the rules of modern exercise. Whether we're
lifting weights, skiing, or doing aerobics or yoga, we're taught that
safety in movement primarily means to move so you don't strain your
joints. And this is sage counsel. If you stretch connective tissue back
and forth at the edge of its range of motion or if you suddenly apply a
lot of force, sooner or later you will hurt yourself.
So why would Yin Yoga advocate stretching connective tissue? Because
the principle of all exercise is to stress tissue so the body will
respond by strengthening it. Moderately stressing the joints does not
injure them any more than lifting a barbell injures muscles. Both forms
of training can be done recklessly, but neither one is innately wrong.
We must remember that connective tissue is different from muscle and
needs to be exercised differently. Instead of the rhythmiccontraction
and release that best stretches muscle, connective tissue responds best
to a slow, steady load. If you gently stretch connective tissue by
holding a yin pose for a long time, the body will respond by making them
a little longer and stronger—which is exactly what you want.
Although connective tissue is found in every bone, muscle, and organ,
it's most concentrated at the joints. In fact, if you don't use your
full range of joint flexibility, the connective tissue will slowly
shorten to the minimum length needed to accommodate your activities. If
you try to flex your knees or arch your back after years of underuse,
you'll discover that your joints have been "shrink-wrapped" by shortened
When most people are introduced to the ideas of Yin Yoga, they
shudder at the thought of stretching connective tissue. That's no
surprise: Most of us have been aware of our connective tissues only when
we've sprained an ankle, strained our lower backs, or blown out a knee.
But yin practice isn't a call to stretch all connective tissue or
strain vulnerable joints. Yin Yoga, for example, would never stretch the
knee side to side; it simply isn't designed to bend that way. Although
yin work with the knee would seek full flexion and extension (bending
and straightening), it would never aggressively stretch this extremely
vulnerable joint. In general, a yin approach works to promote
flexibility in areas often perceived as nonmalleable, especially the
hips, pelvis, and lower spine.
Of course, you can overdo yin practice, just as you can overdo any
exercise. Since yin practice is new to many yogis, the indications of
overwork may also be unfamiliar. Because yin practice isn't muscularly
strenuous, it seldom leads to sore muscles. If you've really pushed too
far, a joint may feel sensitive or even mildly sprained. More subtle
signals include muscular gripping or spasm or a sense of soreness or
misalignment—in chiropractic terms, being out of adjustment—especially
in your neck or sacroiliac joints. If a pose causes symptoms like these,
stop practicing it for a while. Or, at the very least, back way out of
your maximum stretch and focus on developing sensitivity to much more
subtle cues. Proceed cautiously, only gradually extending the depth of
poses and the length of time you spend in them.
The Yin Difference
There are two principles that differentiate yin practice from more
yang approaches to yoga: holding poses for at least several minutes and
stretching the connective tissue around a joint. To do the latter, the
overlying muscles must be relaxed. If the muscles are tense, the
connective tissue won't receive the proper stress. You can demonstrate
this by gently pulling on your right middle finger, first with your
right hand tensed and then with the hand relaxed. When the hand is
relaxed, you will feel a stretch in the joint where the finger joins the
palm; the connective tissue that knits the bones together is
stretching. When the hand is tensed, there will be little or no movement
across this joint, but you will feel the muscles straining against the
It's not necessary—or even possible—for all the muscles to be relaxed
when you're doing some Yin Yoga postures. In a seated forward bend, for
example, you can gently pull with your arms to increase the stretch on
the connective tissues of your spine. But in order for these connective
tissues to be affected, you must relax the muscles around the spine
itself. Because Yin Yoga requires that the muscles be relaxed around the
connective tissue you want to stretch, not all yoga poses can be done
effectively—or safely—as yin poses.
Standing poses, arm balances, and inversions—poses that require
muscular action to protect the structural integrity of the body—can't be
done as yin poses. Also, although many yin poses are based on classic
yoga asanas, the emphasis on releasing muscles rather than on
contracting them means that the shape of poses and the techniques
employed in them may be slightly different than you're accustomed to. To
help my students keep these distinctions in mind, I usually refer to
yin poses by different names than their more familiar yang cousins.
The One Seat
All seated meditation postures aim at one thing: holding the back
upright without strain or slouching so that energy can run freely up and
down the spine. The fundamental factor that affects this upright
posture is the tilt of the sacrum and pelvis. When you sink back in a
chair so that the lower spine rounds, the pelvis tilts back. When you
"sit up straight," you are bringing the pelvis to a vertical alignment
or a slight forward tilt. This alignment is what you want for seated
meditation. The placement of the upper body takes care of itself if the
pelvis is properly adjusted.
A basic yin practice to facilitate seated meditation should
incorporate forward bends, hip openers, backbends, and twists. Forward
bends include not just the basic two-legged seated forward bend but also
poses that combine forward bending and hip opening, like Butterfly (a
yin version of Baddha Konasana), Half Butterfly (a yin version of Janu Sirsasana), Half Frog Pose (a yin adaptation of Trianga Mukhaikapada Paschimottanasana), Dragonfly (a yin version of Upavistha Konasana), and Snail (a yin version of Halasana).
All of the forward bends stretch the ligaments along the back side of
the spine and help decompress the lower spinal discs. The
straight-legged forward bends stretch the fascia and muscles along the
backs of the legs.
This is the pathway of the bladder meridians in Chinese medicine, which Motoyama has identified with the ida and pingala
nadis so important in yogic anatomy. Snail Pose also
stretches the whole back body but places more emphasis on the upper
spine and neck. Poses like Butterfly, Half Butterfly, Half Frog, and
Dragonfly stretch not only the back of the spine but also the groins and
the fascia that crosses the ilio-sacral region. Shoelace Pose (a yin
forward bend in the Gomukhasana leg position) and Square Pose (a yin forward bend in the Sukhasana
leg position) stretch the tensor fascie latae, the thick bands of
connective tissue that run up the outer thighs, and Sleeping Swan (a yin
forward-bending version of Eka Pada Rajakapotasana) stretches all the tissues that can interfere with the external thigh rotation you need for cross-legged sitting postures.
To balance these forward bends, use poses like Seal (a yin Bhujangasana), Dragon (a yin Runner's Lunge), and Saddle (a yin variation of Supta Vajrasana or Supta Virasana).
Saddle Pose is the most effective way I know to realign the sacrum and
lower spine, re-establishing the natural lumbar curve that gets lost
through years of sitting in chairs. Seal also helps re-establish this
curve. Dragon, a somewhat more yang pose, stretches the ilio-psoas muscles of the front hip and thigh and helps prepare you to sit by establishing an easy forward tilt to the pelvis. Before Savasana
(Corpse Pose), it's good to round out your practice with a Cross-Legged
Reclining Spinal Twist, a yin version of Jathara Parivartanasana which
stretches the ligaments and muscles of the hips and lower spine and
provides an effective counterpose for both backbends and forward bends.
The Flow of Qi
Even if you only spend a few minutes a couple times a week practicing
several of these poses, you'll be pleasantly surprised at how different
you feel when you sit to meditate. But that
improved ease may not be the only or even the most important benefit of
Yin Yoga. If Hiroshi Motoyama and other researchers are right—if the
network of connective tissue does correspond
with the meridians of acupuncture and the nadis of yoga—strengthening
and stretching connective tissue may be critical for your long-term
Chinese medical practitioners and yogis have insisted that blocks to
the flow of vital energy throughout our body eventually manifest in
physical problems that would seem, on the surface, to have nothing to do
with weak knees or a stiff back. Much research is still needed to
explore the possibility that science can confirm the insights of yoga
and Traditional Chinese Medicine. But if yoga postures really do help us
reach down into the body and gently stimulate the flow of qi and prana
through the connective tissue, Yin Yoga serves as a unique tool for
helping you get the greatest possible benefit from yoga practice.
Paul Grilley is a Yin Yoga teacher.