I want to give you a clear understanding of the first of Four Principles of Yin Yoga: “Coming into a Posture and Playing the Edge.” In discussing this principle, I’ll be exploring these key concepts: The Target Areas of a posture, the appropriate and inappropriate sensations in a Yin Yoga posture, the difference between Yin Yoga and restorative yoga, and why I de-emphasize stillness in teaching Yin Yoga postures. Let’s get started.
Coming to a Posture, Playing the Edge
The first thing that we do in Yin Yoga is come to an “edge” in a posture where we start to feel mild, moderate amounts of stress in the area of the body that we are intending to target. The general Yin Yoga community refers to this area of the body as the target area.
The Target Area/Areas
The “target area” is the region of the body that we are intending to positively stress and influence by the practice and execution of our Yin Yoga posture. Building on the understanding of functional alignment, one of the interesting things about building our postures around the intention to stimulate a target area is that several people/students might be targeting the same area but how they do that might look quite different. And this is the inversion of the more conventional approach to postures where everyone is encouraged to look a particular way (this is called aesthetic alignment), but, in fact, might be affecting very different target areas.
So the first principle of coming into a posture in Yin Yoga is to align the body around the intention of where you as the practitioner are intending to stress the body.
Now, where it might get confusing is in the realization that most postures have multiple potential target areas. And depending of the phase of the posture, some target areas are emphasized more than others. Also, depending on individual variations in body type, some people will have access to only certain target areas, and others not as much access, while still others might be feeling sensation in all the potential target areas.
I often hear students express confusion when they aren’t able to feel sensation in one of the potential target areas. So let me be as clear as possible: Each posture will have multiple potential target areas. In practice, you might access significant sensation in one or multiple target areas in any given pose. But just because a posture has multiple potential target areas doesn’t meant that you MUST feel all those potential target areas in your posture. You might just feel one target area at a time. Or you might feel multiple target areas at a time. Or, if you’ve been working at a posture for a while, you might not experience significant sensation in any of the target areas.
Once you have orchestrated your body in a posture to emphasize mild and moderate stress in a particular target area, then it is important to identify what kinds of sensations are appropriate and what kinds of sensations are inappropriate.
Sensations: Appropriate and Inappropriate
One of the very challenging things about practicing and teaching Yin Yoga is developing an appreciation for the practice-specific sensations that are encouraged in Yin Yoga (see the lesson on Bitter Practice/Sweet Result). In general, with Yin Yoga, we are intending to feel non-neutral sensations that might be characterized by the following terms: Mild or moderate achiness, dull bitter sensation, broad diffuse, and slightly unpleasant. These qualities of sensation are often new to students when they come to Yin Yoga. They are not used to being told to encourage these sensations, let alone “soak” into these sensations for several minutes. So as a Yin Yoga instructor, it is of vital importance to educate students about these appropriate sensations.
For some students, descriptive terms – like achiness, dull bitterness, diffuse pressure – is most helpful. Other students benefit from evaluating their experience against a sensation scale, where 0 is no sensation, 10 is unbearable pain. In this kind of format, I suggest sensation somewhere between a 2-5 being within the range that we seek out in Yin Yoga. Granted, each person will experience sensation in accordance to their own unique subjective threshold, so the use of this sensation scale is meant to be held lightly.
Another barometer for appropriate sensation is one’s experience of the breath. If a student requires a full, deep directed breath to sustain their ability to stay in the pose, I suggest that this might indicate that the edge they are at is too intense. In other words, I recommend that the student should be able to breathe in a normal and relaxed way. Whether they choose to breath normally is another issue, and something the student may or may not choose to do. But they should at least have the option to do so. If aggressively “breathing through” the intense sensation is the only option, then I feel this indicates the student is at an edge that is too difficult for the capacity and they should do the wise thing and back out of the posture, settling into a milder edge.
Yin Yoga vs. Restorative Yoga
Additionally, seeking out this Yin-specific type of sensation is what distinguishes Yin Yoga from the general approach to restorative yoga. In Yin Yoga we are intending to place appropriate levels of stress on the tissues. In restorative yoga, however, the intention is to avoid significant stress and sensation, but rather to open and support the body with props as a way to calm, relax, and nourish the system. Confusion crops up when two people might be in the same exact posture. From an outsider’s perspective, these two students are in the same exact posture. But internally, their experience might be entirely different. One student might feel a Yin-characteristic sensation of dull achiness in one or many target areas. The other student might feel only the slightest hint of extremely mild sensation. The first student is practicing Yin Yoga. The second student is practicing restorative yoga – even though they may look identical. Once again, what the student looks like in a pose is the least reliable factor in evaluating what the student is experiencing. Teachers must engage in a dialogue with their students to facilitate the student to make the best decisions for themselves in their practice.
Avoiding Pain and Numbness
So once students have been educated as to what sensations are appropriate and meant to be encouraged, students also need to be made aware of what sensations are to be avoided. These include:
- Pain. Pain in any shape or form is to be avoided, ALWAYS. There is a difference between mild and appropriate stress and the kinds of intense painful stress that leads to injury. Let pain be the signal that the experience is moving towards injury and to back out immediately. In the category of pain might be sensations such as: Intense burning, stabbing, electrical sensation, or throbbing. Or concomitant mental experiences of extreme agitatation or overwhelming anxiety. When pain is present, the student has two sensible options: Back off a bit to a more mild edge, if possible. Or exit the pose entirely and wait until the next posture. Staying at a threshold that produces pain will result in injury and I make it clear that the student must take responsiblity for their own experience. If they override the signal of pain and bear the pose too long with an attitude of stoic fortitude, they will injure themselves.
- Numbness. Generally, numbness indicates that the orientation and alignment of the body is causing a nerve entrapment which is creating the experience of numbness. Less commonly, the numbness may be caused by vascular constriction. Either way, though, numbness is also to be avoided. Often small readjustments or a reorientation of the limbs – particularly at the pelvis and shoulder girdle – can mitigate numbness. But if modifications of alignment fail to mitigate the numbness, once again, the student should exit the pose and either select a different pose or wait out the remaining time in rest.
Why I De-emphasize Being Still
There is a reason why I don’t emphasize being still as the most important facet of practicing Yin Yoga. If a teacher overemphasizes stillness in the way that they articulate the practice to students, it becomes all too easy for students to internalize an ideal of stillness into the way they practice. The result of this internalized ideal of stillness is that the students may feel like they are not practicing “correctly” if they move a little during the prescribed period of time in the posture. And this can easily lead to a situation where the student is staying in a pose past their appropriate tolerance for stress. Again, this can set the stage for injury.
Because of this, I recommend and encourage an emphasis of “playing one’s edge.” There are two main components:
- Backing out. In the event that the sensations of a posture simmer above the tolerable level of moderate to mild achiness, it becomes imperative that the student back out to a gentler edge. Here the student would shift and move to a more appropriate range of motion or alignment where the sensations were in a range of moderate to mild. This is an example of “making progress by retreating.” In the case where a student is not able to find an edge where the sensations are moderate and mild, it’s important that the student come out of the pose entirely and either seek help from the teacher to find a different posture, or rest in a neutral posture for the remainder of the time.
- Going deeper. Half of playing one’s edge is knowing when to back off or come out of a posture entirely. The other half is knowing when to safely and appropriately go deeper into a posture. In this case, if you settle into a posture for a minute or two and find that the intensity of sensation diminishes dramatically, it is then helpful to consider going more “deeply” into the posture. As the muscles and deeper connective tissues start to relax and give way to the stresses being placed upon them, one needs to adjust in order to now maintain the mild and modest stress being placed upon them. This is a natural response to the way the body begins to adapt to the pose. In this case, going further in the posture is part of the natural unfolding of the experience and not driven by egotistical grasping where the student might be trying to look better.
A caveat on this last point: Sometimes the strong sensations of a posture will fade and it simply won’t be possible to find a deeper edge that generates more sensation. In this case, the student will likely have maxed out on their normal range of motion, and the intention of their practice should shift to that of a maintenance intention.
In the next segment, I want to look at some of the science behind Yin Yoga – and why it’s so good for the body.