The Three Tattvas of Yin Yoga Practice

A tattva is the reality of a thing, or its category or principal nature. Here are three very simple and very effective principles for the yin practice:

1.Come into the pose to an appropriate depth;

2.Resolve to be still;

3.Rest in the posture for some time.

(In Yin Yoga, you will not generate heat internally. Feel free to wear extra layers of clothes and socks: keep the room a little warmer than normal.)

We should practice yin yoga when our muscles are cool (so they don’t steal the stretch away from the deeper tissues).

The next questions, invariably, are: Why? Why should the muscles be cool? Why don’t we warm up before Yin Yoga? We are told to warm up before every other form of exercise! Good questions! We warm up before Yang exercises to allow the muscles to more easily stretch. When the muscles are cold, as everyone knows, we feel stiff and tight. Aggressive stretching of stiff, tight muscles could damage them. So it is a good idea, in a yang practice, to take time to warm up the body … but remember, yin is not yang. What works in one practice is not necessarily the best in the other practice.

When we apply a stress to our body the stress will show up as a stretch, to some degree, in the muscles and a stress on the ligaments and joint capsule. How much the muscles stretch depends on how warmed up it is. However the ligaments and joint capsules don’t (we hope!) actually stretch in response to the stress placed upon it.

The point of stressing the deep connective tissues in this way is not to stretch the tissues but to place tension on them so that the body responds by making the connective tissues stronger and thicker, and even longer, over time. We do not want the lengthening of the deep connective tissues to occur right away: it comes gradually.

1.Come into the pose to an appropriate depth

The first principle of Yin Yoga is – every time you come into a pose, go only to the point where you feel a significant resistance in the body. This advice applies to all styles of yoga, yin or yang. Don’t try to go as deep as you possibly can right away. Give your body a chance to open up and invite you to go deeper. After thirty seconds or a minute or so, usually the body releases and greater depth is possible. But not always. Listen to the body and respect its requests.

Consider your will and your body as two dancers. When you watch two dancers in a wonderful performance, they move in total unison. You cannot tell who is leading and who is following. The dance flows with an ease and grace that seems impossible given the effort that must be there somewhere; and yet it is effortless. Too many beginning (and, unfortunately, even experienced) yoga students make their yoga into a wrestling match, the mind contending with the body, trying to force it into postures that the body is resisting. Yoga is a dance, not a wrestling match.

The essence of yin is yielding. Yang is about changing the world; yin accepts the world for the way it is. Neither is better than the other. There are indeed times when it is appropriate and even necessary to change the world. As we have already observed, yang is a quality much admired and modeled in our culture. We are taught at an early age to make something of ourselves, to change the world and leave our mark on it. And that is perfectly normal, some of the time. However, we are rarely taught how to balance this quality with the quality of acceptance. We are not given the chance to learn how to not struggle and just allow things to unfold. Part of the yin practice is learning to yield.

This philosophy is reflected well in a prayer, which has uncertain roots. It has been circulating the world for perhaps one hundred years. It speaks to this very challenge of balancing yin and yang. The prayer is:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change
Grant me the courage to change the things I can change
And grant me the wisdom to know the difference

Accepting the things we cannot change is the serenity of yin. The courage to change what needs to be changed is yang. Harmony or balance in life comes from having the wisdom to know the difference. This wisdom cannot be given to you or taught to you. It must be earned and learned through your own experience. Our first tattva is the opportunity to gain this wisdom. Listen to your body, go to your first edge and when, and if, the body opens and invites you in deeper, then accept the invitation and go to the next edge. Once at this new edge, again pause and wait for the next opening.

In this manner we play our edges, each time awaiting a new invitation. We ride the edges with a gentle flowing breath, like a surfer riding the waves of the ocean. The surfer doesn’t fight against the ocean, they go with it. Fighting the ocean is a silly thing to do.

When you come into the pose, drop your expectations of how you should look or be in the pose. There is a destructive myth buried deep inside the Western yoga practice. This myth is that we should achieve a model shape in each pose. That is, we should look like some model on the cover of a yoga magazine. To this end we use our body to force ourselves into a required shape. To dislodge this myth we should adopt the following mantra:

2. We don’t use our body to get into a pose; we use the pose to get into our body.

Once we have reached an edge, pause; go inside and notice how this feels. You know the pose is doing its work if you can feel the body being stretched, squeezed, or twisted. Those are the three things we can do to ourselves in a pose: we are compressing tissues, stretching tissues, or twisting (shearing) tissues.

Another mantra to adopt in our practice is: If you are feeling it, you are doing it.

You do not need to go any further if you are already feeling a significant stretch, compression, or twist in the body. Going further is a sign of ego; it is not doing yoga. Staying where you are is embracing yin.

This is not an excuse to stay back and not go deep into the posture. When we play our edges we come to the point of significant resistance. This will entail some discomfort. Yin Yoga is not meant to be comfortable; Yin Yoga will take you well outside your comfort zone. Much of the benefit of the practice will come from staying in this zone of discomfort, despite the mind’s urgent pleas to leave, to move, to do anything but stay. This too is part of the practice.

As long as we are not experiencing pain, we remain. Pain is always a one-way ticket out of the pose. Pain is a signal that we are tearing the body, or close to tearing the body. Burning sensations, deep twisting or sharp electrical pains are definite signs to come out immediately. Dull, achy sorts of sensations are to be expected, however. But, no teacher can know what you are feeling; be your own guru at these times and develop your wisdom. Come out when you are struggling to stay at this edge. If you feel your muscles tensing, you are struggling!

Be aware that our edges are not only physical ones; we have emotional and mental edges too. You may find that you are unconsciously holding back from going deeper because if you went one millimeter further you would be flooded with painful memories, thoughts, or feelings. You may not be ready for these yet. Honour your edges wherever they appear. Honor them, but above all … notice them!

Playing the edges is not always a “go further … go further … go further” process. Often we go forward … pause … go … pause … maybe back up a little … wait … then go again or maybe just stop there. Our edges are always changing: yesterday they may have been quite different than today. Our bodies change. Some days we retain more water in our tissues than other days. Water retention affects our flexibility. We cannot expect that every day our edges will be in the same place. Accept these changes and just take what is offered.

Acceptance: that is the essence of yin.

3.Resolving to be still

The second tattva of the Yin Yoga practice is stillness. Once we have found the edge, we settle into the pose. We wait without moving. This is our resolution, our commitment. No matter what urges arise in the mind, no matter what sensations arise in the body, we remain still.

There are three exceptions to this advice. First, we move if we experience pain or if we are struggling to stay in the pose. The second exception is – we move if the body has opened and is inviting us to go deeper. The third exception is a natural urge to explore, adapt, adjust (coming from the body, ‘not’ the mind). Unless these three reasons arise, we remain still. This is not a time to fix our pedicure, to look around and check out what the other students are wearing. This is the time for stillness.

We seek three kinds of stillness:

1.Stillness of the body … like a majestic mountain

2.Stillness of the breath … like a calm mountain lake

3.Stillness of the mind … like the deep blue of the sky

Stillness of the body

The body becomes as still as a great mountain. A mountain is unaffected by the winds and dramas swirling around it. Clouds come and go, rains pelt and snows melt, but the mountain remains.

Stillness in the body means the muscles are inactive. Every time we move, we engage our muscles. The muscles naturally want to take any stretch in the body. One of the muscles’ jobs is to protect the joints. Only if we keep the muscles very quiet can we allow the effect of a deep stretch to sink into the joints. Fidgeting uses the muscles; fidgeting is a sign of a distracted mind.

When we move, we require energy. Energy is obtained by breathing. When we move, we affect the breath. Stillness of the body leads to stillness of the breath.

Stillness of the breath

Stillness here does not mean cessation. The breath becomes quiet, unlabored and gentle. Like the surface of a mountain lake, unruffled by wayward breezes, the breath is calm. A calm breath is regular and even, slow and deep, and natural, unforced.

Some students prefer a soft ujjayi breath during their yin practice. This is perfectly okay, as long as it is soft. The harsher ujjayi found in the yang practices may create waves on the surface of the lake. A soft rhythmic sound of the breath will assist with calming the mind.

The breath need not be shallow or short, but it must be regular and unforced. You may try to extend the breath to four seconds, or longer, on each inhalation and exhalation. There may arise natural pauses between the inhalations and exhalations. This is fine, as long as it is unforced and natural. The pauses between inhalation and exhalation provide the deepest stillness. Allowing the breath to be long, even, and deep is part of allowing this stillness of the breath to arise.

Once the breath has become quiet, the deepest stillness arises.

Stillness of the mind

The sky is always with us. Clouds may block our view, but we know with a certainty beyond faith that, behind the clouds, the deep blue sky is there. The sky is a metaphor for our true nature. We rarely see who or what we are, because there is so much drama in our lives, so many thoughts and distractions prevent us from seeing clearly what is really there. But on brief, wonderful occasions, the clouds momentarily part, and we get a glimpse of the blue sky behind the drama. As our practice deepens, the clouds open more frequently, and the gaps become larger. Eventually we see more and more of the sky for longer and longer periods.

This vision of our true nature is possible only when the clouds of thoughts have drifted away; stillness of the mind is required for this clarity. Stillness cannot be forced; the very act of trying to become still defeats itself. Stillness here must arise spontaneously of its own accord. We can, however, create the conditions for this arising.

To still the mind, the breath must be calm. To calm the breath, the body must be still. When these conditions have been met, deep awareness is possible. This state can be achieved only by commitment and dedication. Commit to stillness and allow whatever arises to be just what it is.

Holding for time

When we have arrived at our edge, once we have become still, all that is left to do is to stay. The yin tissues we are exercising are not elastic tissues. They do not respond well to constant movement. These tissues require long-held, reasonable amounts of traction to be stimulated properly.

Reasonable is a relative word. If you have ever worn braces for your teeth you know that the pressure is not comfortable, but neither is it the maximum you could bear. Your orthodontist knows that applying twice as much tension in the braces does not mean you can get away with wearing them for only half as long. Yin tissues don’t respond to maximum stresses for a short time.

Basketball players, who jump up and down, placing tremendous loads upon the ligaments of their feet, do not develop fallen arches. Their arches don’t fall because the extreme strain is very brief. They are more likely to break bones, or tear ligaments or tendons in their feet, than to develop fallen arches. However, a one-hundred-pound waitress, who is standing on her feet for eight hours a day, is a prime candidate for fallen arches. She is experiencing a gentle pressure for a long period of time. That is the condition for changing our yin tissues.

Yang postures may be held for as little as a few seconds, or as long as a couple of minutes, depending upon the style of yoga being practiced. All yang poses require muscular engagement to maintain the pose. Yang tissues require yang exercise. Yin postures are generally held for at least three minutes, and for some people as long as twenty minutes. Yin tissues require yin exercise. It is the long, gentle pressure that coaxes yin tissues into being strengthened.

It can be dangerous to mix up these forms of exercise. Yang tissues can be damaged by being stressed in a yin manner – statically held in one position for a long period of time. No physical trainer would suggest you try to build stronger biceps by holding a heavy barbell in a half-curled position for five minutes. Muscles need repetitive movement to grow stronger. Similarly, being stressed in a yang manner can damage yin tissues. Repetitively dropping back from standing into the wheel pose can overwork the ligaments in the lower back, eventually wearing them out. We must make sure we exercise yang tissues in a yang way and yin tissues in a yin way. The yin way is to hold a pose under a reasonable, non-maximum stress for long periods of time.

If you are practicing on your own, use a timer or a stopwatch to set a constant length of time for the postures – three to five minutes may work well for you. If you are just beginning Yin Yoga, you may want to start with one- or two-minute holds and work your way toward longer periods. You may find that some postures allow you to remain in the pose longer than others – this is all right. Our bodies are not uniformly open. It may be better to stay in a challenging pose for less time than in an easier pose. If you are struggling to remain in a pose, come out – regardless of whether the timer has sounded or not.

The yin practice is very portable – you can take it with you anywhere – you don’t need a yoga studio, you don’t even need a yoga mat. All you need is some space on the floor. That is to say – all you need is enough room to stretch out. You can do these poses while doing other activities. While this may not provide you with the deepest benefits – the meditation practice you get with a dedicated practice – you can still affect your tissues physically. Sitting in yin poses while reading or talking on the phone, while eating at your coffee table or watching television, will help open the tightest hips.

One last bit of advice: people love to do things that they love to do. Sounds obvious. Said another way, when you are in balance you will tend to keep doing things that keep you in balance. However, when you are out of balance, you will tend to continue to do things that keep you out of balance! Active people love to do active yoga. Calmer people (a nice way of saying less active people) love to do calming yoga. Don’t always practice what you love; practice what you need! Active people probably need Yin Yoga more than anyone else. Calm people probably need to do more yang practices more than anyone else.

When coming out of a pose there will be a natural sense of fragility – we have been deliberately pulling the body apart and holding it apart. The sense of relief is to be expected, and even enjoyed. Yes, despite some myths to the contrary, you are allowed to enjoy your practice! Smile when you come out of the pose! Laugh – cry even. Enjoy this moment.

One of the benefits of Yin Yoga is this experience of coming out of the asana. We learn what it will be like when we are ninety years old! We gain a new respect for our grandmother, and what she is going through, and we resolve to put off that inevitable day of decrepitude as long as possible. After a deep, long-held hip opener, it may feel like we will never be able to walk again – but be assured … the fragility will pass. Sometimes, however, a movement in the opposite direction will help. This is a counterpose, a balancing posture that brings us back to neutral.

Yin Yoga removes the blockages deep in our connective tissues, allowing the Chi or prana to flow unhindered.

In the yang styles of yoga, the teacher will allow a significant amount of time at the end of the class to cool the body down. Again, in the yin practice this is not necessary. We never warmed the body up, but we still want to find a way back to neutrality, to balance. The pose most often done is the reclining twist. This asana allows the body to fully relax and release. It is one of the most yin-like asanas of all.

Of course, twisting the spine can be done in many orientations. You can do it sitting up as well as lying down. And twisting the spine is not the only way to end your practice; but twisting does restore equilibrium to the nervous system and gets a lot of the residual kinks out of the system.

Transition to your next activity

When the practice is over, everyday life is waiting for you; don’t just jump right back into it – savour the quietness for a while. Whatever your next actions are, do them with mindfulness. Allow this heightened awareness to linger throughout the rest of your day. Notice the openness in your body as you move. Smile often, and pause frequently. Take time to return to awareness; after all, this is what you were practicing. Enjoy x