Updated: Apr 8
When I ask students why they choose to practice yin yoga they tell me; being still is tricky in the modern world so yin is a great way to hon the quality of patience. Yes it is. They tell me Yin is an immediate reducer of stress for them. Yes it is. They say they love the way in which yin can help them relax their muscles, relieving muscle tension. I agree - I love yin as it is a practice where I give myself permission to relax my muscles and nourish my nervous system through stillness.
But there is so much more to a yin practice than initially meets the eye and the more I understand about the anatomy of a yin practice, the more important a role it has played for me in my weekly routine and recovery.
Increasing flexibility and range of motion in the body is something that many of us, less ‘flexible’ yogis, continue to work towards. But what really fascinates me is the effect that a yin practice has on the body's fascial tissue. If you haven't come across the fascia before, the fascia is one of the body's main connective tissues. It is a large continuous interconnected system that covers the whole body from head to toe and sits just underneath the skin. One way to think of it is like a bodysuit - holding all different parts of the body together.
Another way you can think of the fascia is like a scaffolding of sorts. A framework that sits arounds the muscles, holding the muscles in place. If there was no fascia the muscles would not easily stay in place and move the way they do. Not only does the fascia hold the muscles in place by wrapping around them but it also penetrates into and through the muscle fibers transmitting force that is applied to the muscles and keeping the bones upright.
But, in my opinion, by far the cleverest aspect of the fascia is the role that it plays in our communication. The fascia houses over 250 million sensory nerves - some of which communicate with the skin by blending with the dermis providing a passageway for nerves and blood vessels to flow. Other facial sensory nerves terminate in the fascia which means it communicates with itself - feeding our motor output. So clever!
There are six times more sensory neurons in the fascia than there are in any other part of the body (except the skin). So, the fascia - as our secondary sense organ - is a great information highway! It senses messages that come from pressure put on the body, shearing or light touch and any mechanical stimulation too. It can affect how our DNA replicates and it can stimulate the formation of more connective tissues to heal and repair tissues that are damaged. So useful.
But what has all this got to do with a yin yoga practice I hear you ask? And how does this support our health?
In a Yin practice we are passively stretching, the muscles are relaxed - so there is little or no muscle contraction at all. So what we are stretching is the connective tissues. The fascia, like all connective tissues (bones, tendons, ligaments) is a tissue that responds to demand, and stressing it is essential to keep it healthy. Because the fascia is tough and strong (containing a lot of collagen) it responds to stress that is gentle and held. In Yin Yoga we stress the fascial fibers in one of three ways, either by lengthening, compressing or applying a shearing/twisting force. When we stress the fibres in one of these three ways we stimulate the rearrangement of collagen crosslinks and elastin within the tissue. You can feel that stress of the fibers like a gentle tug underneath the skin when you are holding a yin pose.
Applying gentle stress to the fascia over time increases the pliability of the tissue making it more flexible and increasing our passive range of motion. The gentle stress also encourages hydration in the tissue. The more hydration there is, the less friction between the crosslinks of collagen fibers helping them glide over each other easily. If the fascia isn’t hydrated and gliding easily our biomechanical messengers don’t function properly impairing tissue healing and we are unable to resist compression, which can have an effect on our joints, our nerve transmission may become impared, blood flow might be restricted, joints may become inflamed.
Wow - so many reasons to practice yin! I particularly enjoy a Yin practi