Sunday, March 24, 2013

Yin Yoga FAQ Part 2

Last week, I listed Part 1 of the frequently asked questions about yin yoga that I have received over the years of teaching it. Here is second half of the list. Remember, on April 6-7, I will be leading a Yin Yoga Immersion at Breathe Los Gatos so you can learn more about this practice.

Do I Need to Be Flexible to Do Yin Yoga?

No. In fact, flexibility is only party due to the length of the muscles, contrary to what most people believe. CT provides about half of the flexibility of the joints, so exercising this tissue is key to improving flexibility.

Can Beginners Practice Yin Yoga?

In general, yes, but it really depends on the beginner. If a beginner steps into my ongoing class and has no background in mindfulness, has several physical limitations, and has rampant energy or mental challenges, than there will probably be some learning curve time. As long as the student understands that while the practice may be simple, it is not easy, and they maintain a willingness to keep observing, I encourage all to practice.

Can I practice Yin When I’m Pregnant?

Yes, but… During pregnancy, there are some different situations that occur that expecting mamas need to be aware of. First, there is a hormone that a pregnant woman’s body secretes to help make childbirth a little easier (spoiler alert: it’s not); that hormone improves the flexibility around the pelvis, so she must remain very cautious about going too deep into a stretch, and she might hold the poses for a shorter duration. Twists and prone postures (like Sphinx or Seal) will become uncomfortable/impossible at some point in her pregnancy, so she should find alternate poses for these. There are also terrific benefits to practicing yin yoga during pregnancy.

Can I practice Yin When I’m Injured?

Ah, this is the one I get the most. Here’s what happens: Suzie Student has been diligently going to her power yoga classes weekly, but then falls off her bike and sprains her wrist. Her power yoga teacher advises her to wait 6 weeks until the swelling is completely down and there is no more pain, but in the meantime, she can practice yin yoga. So, Suzie shows up, grumpy because her “real” yoga isn’t available to her right now and she’s having to explore this other, weird stuff. Yes, you can come to yin yoga, depending on your injury. If it’s somewhere that doesn’t require weight bearing (like Suzie’s wrist), I invite you to come as soon as possible. The poses, breathing and mindfulness will help your pain and recovery. However, if Suzie came to my class and informed me that she has a new diagnosis of bursitis in her hip, a joint that we are directly affecting in yin yoga, I will most likely ask her to modify or take restorative versions of the poses related to her hip. Ideally, we want the swelling from an injury to go down completely before we begin to stress the CT again. This will improve healing.

How Often Can I Practice Yin Yoga?

As often as you like! Do remember the image of yin-yang and be sure you are balancing both practices for optimum health.


Please see the Events page for more information about these upcoming special programs:

Next weekend: Sunday, March 31 (Easter): OM for Peace
Saturday, April 6 - Sunday April 7: Yin Yoga 14-Hour Immersion
Saturday, April 6 - Sunday April 7 AND Saturday, April 13 - Sunday April 14: Yin Yoga Teacher Training
Sunday, April 28: Yin Yoga 1-Day Workshop

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Yin Yoga FAQ Part 1

In April, I will be leading my first Yin Yoga Immersion, so I thought I'd take some time to answer some of the questions I've received over the years about this subtle, yet powerful practice. So as not to overwhelm anyone, I'll post the many questions over 2 weeks.

What is Yin Yoga? 

Whenever someone asks me to explain what yin yoga is, I always begin by taking a deep breath. It's not that easily defined, and the words we use to define it - surrender, stillness, flexibility, mindfulness, connective tissue (CT) - aren't all that "sexy" and appealing. The issue is that the term yin is a relative one. What's yin to one person maybe not be to another.

The term comes from Taoism, and the concept that we need a balance of yin and yang in order to be healthy. The symbol at the right illustrates that ebb and flow of yin and yang energies, including each in the other. So, depending on how much yin or yang you already have in your life, the yin component may change.

The characteristics of a yin practice may have similar qualities, however, and that's what we tend to describe when discussing yin yoga. A basic format would look like this:

Step 1: Take a shape that creates a medium-level sensation somewhere that allows you to sustain the position over time and surrender as much muscular tension as possible.
Step 2: Stay.
Step 3: Remain attentive to your sensations, breath and thoughts throughout the pose.

The practice tends to be quiet, reflective and mellow, which has a side effect of shift the nervous system from a stress response to a more healing state of being.

Why Relax the Muscles?

Muscular tissues like to be exercised in a yang way, extending and contracting over and over again, in order to stress and then, eventually, build the tissues. The connective tissues (CT) - scar tissue, ligaments, joint capsules, regular fascia, etc., respond differently and are best exercised through mild traction held for a period of time. You will never have a pose that is completely yang or completely yin, there will always be a little of the other included in each, just like the yin-yang symbol depicts. To keep the muscles from taking the load of the stress and bypassing the majority of the CT, we typically practice yin postures on the floor, where the weight is held by the ground or by props. It is much more challenging to practice weight-bearing poses with minimal muscle engagement, but not impossible. Practitioners must hold these poses with more awareness and less time, in order to affect the CT and avoid injury.

Is Yin the Same as Restorative Yoga?

No. While they both have a similar effect on the nervous system, the intention behind both practices is very different. Yin targets the CT running through the body, and the joints, specifically. Because of this, the joints are typically left unsupported - in traction, so that gravity can slowly untangle the fibers of the CT. In restorative yoga, the intention is to subtly tease the tension out of the body, while coaxing the nervous system towards the parasympathetic, the state where relaxation, digestion, elimination and healing can occur. To that end, the body is typically supported with lots of props - especially near the joints. Sensation is mild, stimulus as minimal as possible (Judith Lasater advocates quiet, dark and warm for this practice) and duration is long. be continued...


Please see the Events page for more information about these upcoming special programs:

Sunday, March 31 (Easter): OM for Peace
Saturday, April 6 - Sunday April 7: Yin Yoga 14-Hour Immersion
Saturday, April 6 - Sunday April 7 AND Saturday, April 13 - Sunday April 14: Yin Yoga Teacher Training
Sunday, April 28: Yin Yoga 1-Day Workshop

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Benefits of Chanting

I first became interested in chanting because of its very practical benefits, but then I became fascinated by how chanting affected my emotions, concentration, energy and spirituality. As Krishna Das, a U.S. vocalist known for his performances of Indian devotional music, says,
"Chanting is a way of getting in touch with yourself. It's an opening of the heart and letting go of the mind and thoughts. It deepens the channel of grace, and it's a way of being present in the moment."

I was just introduced to the art of Vinyasa yoga, where each breath is a different movement, but I found that for every one breath that the teacher cued, I was taking two or three. My capacity was very low during the asana portion of the class, but I noticed 

I could extend my breath during the chanting part of the class.

Curious about this, I began to practice chanting on my own. I was shy about the sound of my voice, so I practiced alone in my car, when I was commuting to and from work. I worked on vowel sounds, the different components of om, and even practiced more extensive chants.

It turns out the car was the perfect place for me to practice. On a typical work day, I would get angry about the traffic, stressed about being on time, and would generally arrive to my destination in a very bad mood. But 

when I was practicing chanting, I didn’t care as much about the things that triggered my temper. 

Slowly, I began to let go and accept the cars, the waiting, the situation, and just focus on my breath. This transformed my commute and, later, contributed to my overall transformation.

Here are some of the benefits of chanting, as observed in research studies:
  • Alfred Tomatis of the French Academy of Science and Medicine found that chanting sounds has a therapeutic effect on the body, soothing all our bodily systems and activating our body’s natural healing process. It also plays a part in reversing heart disease.
  • According to a research done at the Cleveland University, USA, the rhythmic tones involved in chanting create a melodious effect in the body called the Neuro-linguistic effect (NLE). When we know the meaning of the mantra we are reciting, it creates a Psycholinguistic effect (PLE) on the body. The NLE and the PLE effects are by-products of the production and spreading of curative chemicals in the brain. The research concludes that this is the real reason why chanting provokes curative effects in us.
  • Neuroscientist Dr. Marian Diamond from the University of California, Berkeley, found that chanting helps block the release of stress hormones and increases immune function.
  • A study by Dr. Alan Watkins (senior lecturer in neuroscience at Imperial College London) revealed that while chanting, our heart rate and blood pressure dip to its lowest in the day. Doctors say that even listening to chants normalizes adrenaline levels, brain wave pattern and lowers cholesterol levels.
  • Dr. Watkins says that when we chant, the vibration of the sound calms the nervous system and a profound sense of peace is obtained. It also de-stresses and facilitates better concentration and memory power.
  • According to Dr. Watkins, chanting promotes a sense of well-being and helps us bond better with people around us, especially when practiced in a group.

On March 31 (Easter Sunday), at 3:00pm, a group of us will gather at Breathe Los Gatos to chant the sound om together for one hour. This happens all across the world, at this same time: people gathering to lend their voices to make the sound om, as a meditation on peace. 

Peace inside, peace around, peace throughout. 

I hope to see you there, but if not, please feel free to use your car (or shower, or anywhere else) to raise your voice to your health and spiritual benefit.


Please see the Events page for more information about these upcoming special programs:

  • Sunday, March 31 (Easter): OM for Peace
  • Saturday, April 6 - Sunday April 7: Yin Yoga 14-Hour Immersion
  • Saturday, April 6 - Sunday April 7 AND Saturday, April 13 - Sunday April 14: Yin Yoga Teacher Training
  • Sunday, April 28: Yin Yoga 1-Day Workshop

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Goldilocks' Position (Bernie Clark)

Happy March, everyone!
I wanted to start off this month by posting a great article by one of my mentors-from-afar, Bernie Clark. His article is targeting the yin yoga practice, but this approach can be helpful for any practice, and the middle path is a concept the Buddhists use for living. I am posting this with his permission; please check out his website, for more great information by him.

The Goldilocks' Position by Bernie Clark

This is not a posture, but rather advice about how deep we should go in our poses to ensure we achieve optimal health. Note, we are not talking about optimal performance! That is the trade-off we have to understand. Whenever we practice yoga, we need to be clear about our intentions: are we striving for optimal health, or are we working toward some performance goals? Athletes, dancers, and gymnasts may well be trying to maximize their range of motion, but this does not mean that they are getting healthier. Quite the contrary: many athletes and dancers have significant joint issues in later life because they dangerously stressed their bodies to obtain maximum performance when they were younger.

The optimal position for health is the Goldilocks' position: not too much and not too little. This can be shown graphically: below you will see a classic n-shape curve that illustrates the danger of being outside the optimal bounds.

If we apply too little stress to our tissues, they atrophy. All living things require some stress to be healthy! If we apply too much stress, however, tissues degenerate. There have been many scientific studies verifying the n-shaped curve shown in the above graph [see "Lower Back Disorders" by McGill: page 32 for several references.]

Remember the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears? Goldilocks found the momma's bed too soft, and the papa's bed too hard but the baby's bed was just right. To obtain maximum health, we also need to find that place where the tension in our poses is "just right". Not too deep, which creates degeneration, and not too little, which creates atrophy.

As important as it is to find the right depth to any pose, we also have to consider how long to stay in the pose to get optimal health benefits. Every body is different, so we can only offer a generalization, but in general, every stress of tissue brings down the tolerance level of that tissue. This is what exercise is all about: we stress tissues to make them weaker, at least initially. Once we release the stress, the tissues recover and become stronger. If we apply too much stress, or hold for too long or do not allow enough rest, then we are in danger.

The graph below shows how these three variables work together. The red curve at the top of the graph shows the level of tolerance the tissue can take before becoming damaged. (These tissues could be muscle tissue, which we target in our normal Hatha (yang) practice or connective tissue such as our ligaments or deep fascia, which we target in our Yin Yoga practice.) The green curves show the degree of tension or stress being applied through either repetitive stresses or one prolonged steady stress. The horizontal axis represents time.

Notice how the amount of stress that our tissues can tolerate decreases with increased stress and increased time. Eventually, if we continue to stress the tissues to the point where the two curves cross, damage will occur. However, notice the next graph. Here we see the recuperative effect of rest.

If we stress and then rest the tissue, the tissue's tolerance level increases above what it was before. The key then is to not over stress the tissue either by having too much stress or holding the stress for too long, but rather allow the tissue enough time to recover and grow stronger.

Find the Goldilocks' position in all your poses, whether yin or yang. Don't go where it is too much (unless your objective is performance and not health.) Don't be where it is too little either. Remember, in Yin Yoga practice, time is the magic ingredient not intensity. To go deeper in Yin Yoga means to hold longer, not necessarily to move further into a pose. As long as you are feeling it, you are doing it.

Also remember, you can do too much of anything. Don't hold your Yin Yoga poses so long that you start to exceed your tissue's tolerance levels. Find the middle path!


Please see the Events page for more information about these upcoming special programs:

  • Sunday, March 31 (Easter): OM for Peace
  • Saturday, April 7 - Sunday April 8: Yin Yoga 14-Hour Immersion
  • Saturday, April 7 - Sunday April 8 AND Saturday, April 13 - Sunday April 14: Yin Yoga Teacher Training
  • Sunday, April 28: Yin Yoga 1-Day Workshop