A Mild Introduction to Yin Practices

by Natalia Vásquez

Often, when the term yoga is mentioned, people say “I can’t do that, I’m not flexible enough” or “Yes, I love the workout.” This is in response to what many people in the west define as yoga equaling a rigorous and challenging physical practice- one that involves contorting the body and focuses mainly on a material, corporeal, tangible experience. The booming business of yoga plays a major role in this, as it is safer to disconnect the asana (postures) from the spiritual path. This encourages clients (practitioners), who often come from varying cultural and religious backgrounds to feel comfortable participating, without the possibility of it interfering with their belief systems.

The asana and transitions, especially in a vinyasa (flow) style class, now serve as a way to meet the expectations of creating intense, sweaty exercise in the span of a short time. This is very popular within a hot yoga setting, countering what is otherwise a primarily sedentary, yet hectic lifestyle with a fun way to move in community. Action-based classes are considered a yang way of practicing and are celebrated for all the do-ing that comes with them because culturally, we have been trained to achieve and see results. There are many positives to practicing the physical yoga postures including noticeable progress, strength building, discipline, speeding up the metabolism, and balance, which are all important for our physical health.

There is an entirely different way of practicing the physical component of yoga that may seem contradictory to all of this, but is also extremely beneficial to the state of the world we’re in. With so many people suffering from trauma, anxiety and stress-related illnesses, envision instead, a way where stillness, nothingness, and deep rest are encouraged during the session, all with a heightened sense of awareness and presence. Picture the opportunity to gain clarity and create a sense of calm where there otherwise may be internal chaos, by learning about who you are as you listen to your inner world, while a posture is held in stillness. This is considered a yin way to practice. Results may not be immediately visible to the external eye, but the nervous system calms down, the breath elongates, thoughts can be reprogrammed, trapped emotions arise for processing, and toxic internal patterns begin to release. In turn, rest sets in as there is no longer the need to hold it all down. All of these benefits are important for our mental and emotional health.

If we imagine the Chinese yin yang symbol and its meaning, we can visualize a circle comprised of two crescent-like shapes. One is black and one is white. Within the black there is a small white circle and within the white there is a small black circle. This symbol reminds us of the fundamental laws of the universe stating that everything is made of energy -light and dark- and that one does not exist without the other.

Yoga is an energy-based practice. Beyond a concrete definition, the terms yin and yang represent certain qualities. Yin refers to feminine energies: intuition, darkness, the moon, cold, rest, and death. Yang symbolizes masculine energies: intellect, light, the sun, heat, action, (re)birth. The yin yang symbol represents the need for creating balance and equanimity. Similarly described in yogic philosophy as ida (yin) and pingala (yang) these qualities lead us to holistic health as we create harmony among them.

An immediately noticeable difference between a yin and yang style of practice is physical stillness. With nothing to do on the physical level, tuning into thoughts and emotions becomes an integral part of the practice. This stillness leads us to explore beyond the physical and into the emotional, mental, and spiritual realms of our experience within each posture. With one of the translations of yoga being union it is important to remember that before we can create union among us, externally, it is necessary to know your Self internally and integrate shadow aspects of your experience with the light. From the external eye, stillness may seem boring, useless, or too easy for some, while seeming extremely frustrating and unattainable for others- and it all depends on what each person carries internally. What does it mean to explore the emotional, mental, and spiritual realms, especially when we’ve been programmed to believe that emotions should be suppressed, that intellect is reserved for the privileged few, and that spirituality is outdated and interferes with cultural and religious beliefs? Or, even more damaging still, the new age perspective of “blessings, love, and light” that can be so demeaning of the experiences of anyone who has suffered difficult life situations.

The beauty of yoga is that it is welcoming of all at its essence. Since it is a study of the Self, it does not discriminate. On the mat, it is you facing you. The nature of yin practices reveals, through physical stillness, where we are internally generating excess activity and also where there are deficiencies. It heightens our awareness of our subtle bodies created of energy, with major centers called chakras, also known as wheels, traversing the physical body in areas along the spine and other key parts. In stillness, taking the need to do physically out of the equation, we are able to listen to our inner worlds and discern our own thoughts and emotions. Through this process we learn to see clearly what we are working with from the inside out. As we face all aspects of who we are, without judgment, acceptance reveals our undeniable inner truths. As we surpass barriers of limiting thoughts and emotions, and reconnect to our spiritual essence, we eventually tap into a deep sense of be-ing.

Let’s talk about four yoga practices in which the asana is slowed down or completely minimized, allowing space for internal observation. These practices are: yin, restorative, nidra, and meditation. So what are they and how do they differ?

We’ll start with the similarities.

All of these practices slow us down. They ask for a posture to be held for extended periods of time, starting at around 3-5 minutes in yin or restorative, and often much longer, for advanced practitioners. They all require a deep sense of responsibility from the practitioner to listen to the subtle sensations of their own body to establish a feeling of harmony within. They encourage a release of tension, layer by layer, on all levels- physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. The main focus of each is the breath, which becomes slow, long, rhythmic, and maintains a sense of grounding and presence. They reveal what consciously or subconsciously resides internally and bring it to our awareness for transmutation. They allow time to process, thus creating space for deep rest. They are enhanced by a sankalpa, or intention, with this being the foundation within the nidra practice. They guide us to inner clarity as physical stillness prevents us from escaping what occurs within through physical movement. They empower us to become aware of internal patterns and energetic blockages and transform in a way that honors the essence of who we are, as opposed to who others expect us to be. They tune into the parasympathetic nervous system, generating a soothing, calming response. They remind us that we are enough. They evolve us from within. They guide us back home to the love within our hearts.

With all these similarities, there are also vast differences in the experience within each practice.

Now, let’s break it down practice by practice.

Yin: Poses are held for extended periods of time starting at around 3 minutes and longer as the practice develops. The practitioner is asked to determine the edge of their comfort zone in each particular asana and push ever so slightly beyond it. Although this creates discomfort, there should never be any actual pain. Every person has a different threshold for pain, so it is highly encouraged for each person to truly learn to listen to their body.

In the space of slight discomfort, the work begins to happen. The ujjayi breath comes in to internally guide each person through their own inner experience, any stubborn areas of physical gripping or tension are brought into clear awareness, and the observation of thoughts and emotions that arise becomes key within the practice. Gravity, patience, and a slight, yet constant internal tweaking allows the body to stretch and open. It shows us where there is holding on and highlights any self-criticism and expectation for our body to be any way other than as it is in the moment. The way our thoughts and emotions affect our inner state and interact with our physical experience while on the mat, actually correlates to the way our external lives develop- and that becomes astoundingly evident as we practice.

Restorative: Sinking deeper…the experience in a restorative practice is very different from yin. In a restorative session, the use of props fills in any gaps between the body and the mat. The props serve the very specific purpose of creating support and comfort on both physical and emotional levels. Instead of entering a space slightly beyond their comfort zone, each practitioner is asked to pause at the very first layer of sensation. The props then come in to support, and in this gentle space, the inner work begins.

Through focused breath and an active softening of the muscles in the posture at hand, the body begins to open organically. Poses are also held for a minimum of 3 minutes and can be extended with less risk of injury than in yin because of the use of props. Transitions between postures are also smooth and slow, intended to gracefully set up the next posture with minimal interruption of the calm internal space already in creation. There is no work in this practice, except the sometimes seemingly daunting task of letting go, and playfulness is encouraged as the breath deepens and becomes rhythmic. Some questions that may be beneficial when considering this practice are: What is your relationship to the concept of support? Do you allow yourself to soften? Where do you experience resistance? What is the root of that resistance? Is it serving you to continue holding on?

Nidra: Yoga nidra, translated as yogic sleep, is a practice of deep, conscious rest and internal transformation through kind, disciplined stillness. Practiced in a supported savasana, it allows for even more detailed exploration of inner sensations, as the practitioner maintains a sharp focus on the path of their breath. Setting a sankalpa (intention) communicates to the subconscious who the practitioner is ready to be and through practice, anything out of alignment is faced as the choice to remain true to the highest intention is made with every breath. While practicing, the mind is trained to remain fully aware of inner world experiences, creating a sense of presence that extends beyond the material. Mindfully observing thought, emotional, and physical holding patterns reveals internal programming and provides the opportunity to process, release, and reset at a vibrational level. This, in turn, imparts a feeling of rest beyond imagination, as the mind clears any previously toxic thoughts and invalidated emotions are accepted and resolved. With this newly developed awareness, we gain inner evidence that we exist way beyond the physical/material realm and there is no doubt of the mind-body-spirit connection.

This practice fine tunes the limbs of Yama (ethical code), Niyama (self-observances), Pranayama (breath control), Pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), and Dharana (concentration). Since throughout the duration of the practice, the only task is to breathe, the practitioner can see and hear more clearly the nature of thoughts and feelings that govern their inner world, how they perceive themselves and others, where their sensory attention and concentration wavers, and how it all affects the flow of breath. It also becomes clear how family, society, education, language, race, religion, socio-economic background, political views, gender identity, sexuality, and more, create boundaries between us all, and even fragment our own selves.

As the intuitive powers of the mind’s eye maintain a sharp focus on the breath, we are given the chance to honor the light within even the darkest of our experiences, with every single inhale and exhale. Separateness essentially dissolves as we realize that when it comes to matters of the heart, we are all the same. Time pauses, as we recognize the moment is now. Health returns as we perceive the impermanence of it all. Beyond these states, it is possible to experience Dhyana (meditation) and even glimpse moments of Samadhi (enlightenment) in yoga nidra, as weight lifts off the practitioner energetically.

Self-discoveries from a steady yoga nidra practice inform the Asana (physical posture) practice and encourage the practitioner to explore movement in a way that respects and honors the wholeness of their entire being, not just the physical vessel.

Meditation: The term meditation is often misused in the business of spirituality, as it is generally promoted as bliss. Like navigating a wild, overgrown terrain leading to the sanctuary in the woods, it is important to not only carve out, but also maintain the path to the destination. In the study of yoga, the “destination” is the divine Self and the breath serves to clear the way by assisting in the dissolution of negative internal patterns and a return to love. First, we get to work through what is inside, while forgetting the destination altogether and learning to be fully present as we allow the path to unfold. This is no simple feat as the inner landscapes are vast and the terrain is complex, but it is invaluable in the journey back to the recognition of the Self.

Since the practice is generally performed in a seated lotus position, or an easy seat, many thoughts initially revolve around the discomfort of the physical body. When beginning a practice of sitting, the experience may also be that of a distracted, fluttering, overactive mind, unable to focus and remain present. Before entering a meditative state, it is essential to surpass the active, critical mind.

On the eight-limbed yogic path, meditation is the seventh step, dhyana. Before this step, there is an entire limb, dharana, dedicated to concentration on a fixed point. Generally, as in all styles of yin practices, often performed with closed eyes, the breath serves as this point as the mind’s eye remains glued within it. To calm and reprogram the mind, this fixed point, or drshti can also be enhanced by a mantra, affirmation, or object if eyes are open, among others. When focus is held, the mind begins to reveal itself. Negative thought patterns, judgments, and insecurities all come up for examination. Following the breath and elevating the perspective to a higher level of consciousness allows the practitioner to observe these varying internal states without criticism. Before meditation comes the practice of listening and observing without judgment, from the perspective of a witness, and eventually beyond. There are expanding layers of meditative states of calm and nothingness beyond the overbearing, active mind. Meditation can be experienced laying down extending through a nidra practice when the mind is trained into the expansive state of love and oneness. With a dedication to sitting and stilling the mind, a meditative state also begins to occur in motion throughout the performance of even the most mundane tasks. Practice shows us that there is, in fact, no destination. All the answers that we seek live within our heart.

An important note to mention about the body opening and softening in yin, restorative, and nidra practices is that it actually has very little to do with the body. Holding the postures for extended periods inevitably does stretch and open on a physical level, but it is the mental and emotional processing of previously unresolved situations that maintains that opening. The samskara (memory or imprint) of those situations was once lodged in the tight spaces of the body and the postures helped dislodge it so as to return to conscious awareness for processing. Since life situations are stored energetically within our tissues, the systematic release of tension begins to reveal what has been kept down in the shadows.

This may be extremely uncomfortable, especially if there is known or unknown trauma, and this is where these practices are challenging. For example, a flash of a difficult childhood experience may come up as there is a release in a certain part of the body. Maybe it was something we didn’t remember and all of a sudden, in a posture, in a class, we may be taken to another time, and it feels very real, as if occurring in the moment. Or maybe there is no memory, but as the heart opens, tears may start to flow without an obvious reason. This is where the breath comes in to keep us focused and present. These are basic examples, but it is important to allow the energetic release of emotions, instead of holding it back in –again-.

Although stillness sets in physically throughout all these practices, there is a constant state of energetic flow. There is always a sense of inner tweaking as the muscles soften, the nerves calm, and the skeleton realigns. As a practitioner becomes a disciplined, curious explorer of their internal landscapes, there is no question that layers of consciousness are stored along the spine, in different parts of the body. It becomes clear that different emotions affect the health of our organs and systems. This energy, once trapped within the subconscious, flows through, bringing with it information and lessons to be integrated into our lives.

People who have experienced trauma often dissociate/disconnect from their physical bodies and are seemingly able to withstand more pain, push themselves deeper, feel like they “can (and must) take it.” Unprocessed emotions sit within us like a stack of bricks and as awareness magnifies, we become the demolition crew, the clean up committee, the architects, engineers, and artists who clear and recreate our own inner worlds.

This release may be the start of a long healing journey, but consider all the effort it was consuming to push down those memories, those emotions, that energy. With this new found release and a strong support system, there is possibility for a life beyond shadow feelings of guilt, shame, fear, anger, jealousy, and the gamut of emotions that consume humanity.

For someone the work may be on the mental level. Maybe breathing in stillness reveals a consecutively negative train of thought about a person or situation. For another the experience may be purely emotional, as they begin to recognize an emotion that has been dominating their life, for example. Or maybe there is physical pain taking the forefront of awareness. When pain is in the body, it is of utmost importance to return to the emotional and mental realms, as that unresolved energy is now affecting the material plane.

When difficulty arises in any of these practices, and we all experience difficulty at one moment or another, anchor into your breath and repeat within your mind, “in this moment, I am safe” until a sense of presence is restored.

Through patience, persistence, trust, empathy, compassion, and surrender, it is the heart that expands and generates love, thus allowing release in the body and creating deep rest in the mind. With practice, once fragmented pieces of ourSelves release from the shadows to become reintegrated within our whole being.

In closing: When the inner world is faced with courage, honesty, and humility our shadows no longer have the chance to overpower our existence. It is integration that restores our spirit to its divine wisdom.

There is no way to practice that is better than the other and anyone alive can practice yoga. The most important is to listen to and honor yourSelf physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Remember: within your heart live all the answers that you need.

If it’s activity, enjoy it.

And if it’s deep rest, you have the right to settle into stillness, nourish your cells with your own breath, and be just as you are.

 

 

About Natalia 

Natalia Vásquez is a visual artist and yoga practitioner/guide focusing on the restorative, meditative, and energetic aspects of the practice, regularly using the chakra system as a map. She is the founder of Heart in Brain, a space where art and yoga unite. Natalia is RYT 200 certified and holds a third degree black belt in the Chung Hun system of Tae Kwon Do. Through her artwork and teachings, she aims to de-stigmatize society’s perception of mental and emotional ailments.

Natalia leads our Restorative Yin program at Miami Life Center teaching Tuesdays and Thursdays at 12:30pm and leading Yoga Nidra on Moondays. Check our schedule for updated dates and times.

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