Recently I have developed a deep stretching practice on my mat. I have always, as a dancer, stretched a lot. It is well known in the dance world that in order to be strong and agile, one must also be flexible. There are many benefits to flexibility that are crucial to the longevity of the human body, and not simply for dancers and yoginis/yogis alone. Being more limber means that it takes less effort to move your body. Less tension allows more freedom of movement and ease of agility. And this all really means that when we keep up our flexibility throughout our life, we will be keeping a longer life.
Most people see stretching as a warm up or cool down that goes in tandem with their workout, maybe running or aerobics. You can lengthen your muscles easily by stretching for a few minutes, removing built up lactic acid and softening the tight muscles that you feel. Fortunately, if you practice yoga on a regular basis, you are taking part in a cardiovascular exercise which also lengthens your muscular tissues in many different ways throughout each asana you flow through on the mat.
Yin Yoga is a deep stretching flow. For the past three weeks, I have been taking a yin approach to my practice at least once a day. Rather than stretching simply at the end of my practice, I create a flow of long deep stretches. I remain in each pose for 3 to 5 minutes. Once I breathe and relax into the stretch, I am able to lengthen more than the muscles, the surface of my tissues. There is deep connective tissue, fascia, that needs to be released, stretched, and healed. When the fascia receives some attention, the body will start to respond and react, to shift and align into a more spacious position.
If you have attended a yoga class, you have probably heard an instructor say that our hips carry and store a lot of tension, both emotional and physical. A common pose that yoga teachers use to relieve and stretch the hips is pigeon or Eka Pada Rajakapotasana. There are many variations of pigeon or a similar hip opener like thread the needle (sucirandhrasana) or knee to ankle pose (agnistambhasana) that can also be used for a deep hip stretch. In most classes, such as vinyasa or power yoga style practices, you will stretch in pigeon for maybe 60 seconds, which will release some muscular tightness.
Bringing balance to your body is easy in a Yin Yoga practice. At least 3 minutes will be spent in pigeon, maybe then 3 more minutes in knee to ankle pose. Flowing slowly and taking time to sink into the pose allows the stretch to go from just the surface muscular tissue, down into the fascia, the connective tissue. Fasciae are a collagen based, fibrous and connective tissue. They surround the muscles, muscle groups, blood vessels and nerves. While fasciae bind some muscular groups together they also provide the ability for muscles to slide between and around one another, giving smoother motion to your body.
I know that lying in pigeon for three minutes will not only lengthen the muscles in my hips, a longer length of time will stretch the fascia in my hips. I can feel the difference as I breathe into the stretch; after one minute there is a light stretching in my hip and after 3 the tension that was deeply stored within my hip has slowly released, it has slowly begun to feel like a different placement, as if my sacrum, lower back, and hip has widened and taken up more space.
We have all heard the term Yin and Yang. Much of what we are exposed to in a yoga class can be identified as Yang yoga. It is a relatively fast flow of asanas which focuses on the strength of the muscles. Yin yoga can balance that practice by focusing on the flexibility and health of our deep connective tissue. After all, you cannot have one without the other. The healing can begin with the deep connective tissue, strengthening the body from the inside out. Yin yoga has developed my asana practice into something more than just physical alignment. I know now that as I create more space in my body, more ease of movement that I am also creating more space in my mind.
My practice this morning was meditative, slow, I was patient with myself, non-judgmental of where I was in each pose, and I was present. And I think that is the most important thing: I had more awareness during my yin practice this morning than I had during my hatha yoga class last night. And so I will create a more balanced practice on my mat every day. That is my vision: to develop a daily practice that stimulates my energy and also goes deep into the Self.
Breathe. Listen. And Be You.