In August 0f 2009, I traveled to the Land of Medicine Buddha in California to spend two weeks studying the anatomical and philosophical foundations of Yin Yoga with Paul and Suzee Grilley, leading teachers of Yin Yoga. The Land of Medicine Buddha is a magical place with red prayer wheels set amidst the tall trunks of redwood trees, stone buddhas gazing serenely from small herb gardens, and a gracious staff that seems to perform every task as an offering.
But what made the experience so memorable was the wisdom, generosity, and humor of Paul and Suzee as they led 30 of us through an exploration of the philosophy and practice of Yin Yoga. Yin Yoga targets the connective tissues such as the ligaments, bones, and joints of the body. To do this safely, postures are held for a long time.
Often, people are a bit confused by Yin Yoga. Some say, “I thought it was bad to stress my joints?” Or “Don’t I keep my muscles engaged so that I avoid stressing my joints?” Yin Yoga teaches that this view is half right. It is dangerous to stress ligaments and joints in the same way that you would stress muscles. Muscles are much more elastic and fluid so they can be safely targeted with rhythmic and repetitive movements. These stresses keep them strong and flexible. But, in order for our bodies to enjoy a full range of motion as we age, we also need strong bones and mobility in our joints. To target these tissues safely, we cannot use rhythmic repetitive movements. Instead, we spend a long time in each posture, allowing the muscles to relax so that we can create space and strength in the joints.
As a longtime athlete, a practitioner of active and flowing styles of yoga, and a student of dance and martial arts, my path to Yin Yoga was definitely not direct! Like many, I was initially drawn to the most dynamic and complex asana sequences, the most challenging arm balances and inversions, that feeling of exhaustion after multiple chaturangas. If a teacher put me in a pose and then went to adjust another student and left me there in a long hold, I grew resentful. I struggled to sit through meditation and fidgeted in Savasana. But, after several years of practice, things started to change. I noticed that I was no longer drawn to the most ambitious poses. Instead, I found I liked to explore the simpler poses in greater detail. And, to my surprise, I found there was a lot going on in a seated forward fold. As the simplest of postures started to come alive for me, I found I wanted to spend more time in each one. Now I resented it when I “only” got 5 breaths in something and had to move on. I still enjoyed flowing through postures but I wanted a slower flow. And then I realized that while I still wanted to practice more dynamic styles of yoga, I also wanted to explore a quieter practice. Enter Paul and Suzee.
As I learned about Yin Yoga, it seemed to offer something that I was seeking. At first, I found it really challenging to hold postures for 3-5 minutes at a time. Even if my body was relaxed, my mind was restless. But, I’m stubborn so I decided to persevere. And, again, I was surprised by the results. After a while, I didn’t really experience the Yin postures as static. Yes, you hold them for long periods of time but during that time, your body and mind are alive with sensation and experience. And, if you focus, you can actually begin to notice even the subtlest shifts. Paul and Suzee teach a very inquisitive approach to yoga, inviting you to make a study of your own body and to experiment with variations that can change the poses in subtle and bold ways.
Interestingly, when we practice more active or Yang styles of yoga, we often feel really energized and alive as we practice but then later we may feel sore and stiff. In Yin Yoga, it’s the opposite! Holding postures for a long time and staying calm and relaxed as different sensations arise can be very difficult at first. During the practice and immediately after you release a pose, you can feel very fragile and vulnerable. But, later, you begin to feel a sense of lightness and ease. You feel less “sticky”. Currents of energy seem to flow through you. It’s like you’ve tapped into this source of power you didn’t realize was there.
Because you hold the postures for longer periods of time, each posture can become a meditation. You have the opportunity to observe the physical sensations that arise and the way that your mind responds to those sensations. You get to explore what happens if instead of immediately backing away from a deep sensation, you stay present with it. Sometimes you find that your physical resistance and your state of mind are closely linked. So, if you can stay present with the sensation but keep your mind calm, your body will follow suit and a “deeper dive” into the posture is waiting for you.
Yin yoga is meant to complement and not replace a Yang yoga practice. While studying with Paul and Suzee at the Land of Medicine Buddha, our daily practice included both an active or Yang practice and a Yin practice. My personal practice also included long hikes in the redwood forests during our breaks!
Like any practice, you get out of what you put in. There are challenges and set backs, as well as triumphs. But, I experience the benefits of Yin Yoga in both body and mind. I have struggled with chronic back pain for most of my adult life. Yin Yoga, with it’s particular emphasis on the hips, pelvis, and lower spine has helped me to understand the root causes of the pain and how to manage it in a way that no other yoga practice or visits to chiropractors or physical therapists has been able to accomplish. Yin Yoga has also led me, after years of frustration, to a deep and transformative meditation practice. Like any discipline, meditation can be difficult. Some days I am able to sense and move energy in my body at will. Some days it is all I can do to close my eyes and sit still. But, the physical, mental, and emotional discipline of holding postures for a long time allows me to approach meditation with less anxiety and with more patience.