Before discussing further how Yin Yoga functions to harmonize Qi, I want to quickly review what the phrase “harmonized Qi” suggests. When our being is endowed with strong, flowing Qi, we can expect to experience and find resonance with these four aspects of health:
1. Good digestion with vibrant energy towards meaningful work, as well as peaceful rest.
2. Emotional harmony marked by an embodied and relaxed aliveness.
3. Robust immunity towards environmental and psycho-emotional pathogens.
4. Warmth, literally and figuratively, of body, mind and heart.
From this general sense of what “harmonized Qi” involves, I’ll now continue to explore how the practice of Yin Yoga can support these experiences. In this installment of the series (see Part 1, and Part 2) I’ll focus on the most physical mechanism by which I believe Yin Yoga harmonizes Qi, namely how Yin Yoga impacts the state of energy in the joints. In future posts, I’ll explore subtler and subtler mechanisms for how this occurs; but
When I was introduced to Yin Yoga by Paul Grilley just over twenty years ago, Paul presented Yin Yoga as a complementary yoga practice to Yang (active) forms of yoga because Yin Yoga focused on the denser connective tissues (especially at the joints) as well as on the Yin capacities of being (reflectiveness and receptivity). The basic idea went something like this: Yang Yoga focused on the muscles and their fascia while Yin Yoga focused on the fascia called dense connective tissue that was primarily found at joint sites. Over the years, many people, including myself, have evolved this idea beyond this binary view. A more nuanced and accurate model now suggests how Yin and Yang Yoga both influence the various kinds of fascia in the body – an influence that is complementary but different. Yin Yoga brings a gentle and passive stimulation to the fascia whereas many forms of Yang Yoga involve muscular contraction which itself provides a different kind of stimulation.
It’s beyond the scope of this essay to delineate those differences (See Fascial Fitness, Robert Schleip), but relevant to the topic of harmonizing Qi, Paul described some of the ways in which Yin Yoga benefited the joints as 1) preventing joint contracture and 2) releasing joint fixation.
1. Contracture: When joints are immobilized, some research has found that the tissue at the joint site “shrink wraps” or “contracts” to its range of use. And because so many people are functionally immobilized during the day, Paul suggested that one antidote to this hazard of sedentary existence is to gently take these immobilized joints through their healthy ranges of motion, holding these ranges for a few minutes as a way to counteract the contracture. (Please note: this recommendation does not obviate more general suggestions to move regularly and engage with vigorous exercise from time to time).
2. Fixation: When the smooth articulating surfaces of bones are pressed together for a while (in a state of immobility), the surfaces might stick together as a vacuum seal can form in the space between the joint surfaces. This fixation can cause restrictions, pain and dysfunction. But Yin Yoga can help free up these fixations. Sometimes, upon exiting a Yin pose, people experience cracks and pops along the spine. These sounds could indicate many things, but one thing they suggest is a release of fixation. And these feel good to release.
But while the physical maintenance of joint health is wholeheartedly a good thing, another way to think about what Yin Yoga is accomplishing for the joints is to consider how this “joint exercise” benefits the circulation of Qi.
It turns out that the joints play a significant role in supporting the smooth circulation of Qi. Here’s how Giovanni Maciocia describes their role in his Foundations of Chinese Medicine:
“Channel pathology is, in fact, closely related to joint pathology. Joints in Chinese Medicine are more than just anatomical entities: they have an important function with regard to the circulation of Qi and Blood, with several implications in pathology. Joints are places where Qi and Blood concentrate or gather, and they are the places where Qi goes from the Interior [within the body] to the Exterior [outside the body] or vice versa. The joints are the places along the channels where Qi enters and exits. It is not by chance that many of the major Transporting points of the limbs below elbows and knees are situated on joints. As a consequence of this concentration of Qi, the joints are the places where a pathogenic factor easily settles.
When a pathogenic factor invades the joint, it alters the balance of Yin-Yang, it upsets the circulation of Qi in the channel and it causes Qi and Blood to stagnate: This causes pain and in the long run it gives rise to Painful Obstruction Syndrome.”
When the Chinese describe Painful Obstruction Syndrome they are describing the various ailments that occur in the joints, especially degeneration and osteoarthritis. I like to think of Yin Yoga – with its gentle and intentional stress on the joint – as a way to help clear these accumulations of Evil Qi, helping to remove or clear the Painful Obstruction. This is of immediate, local benefit to the joint, but this “clearing” also holds important implications for overall health.
As Maciocia says, “When a pathogenic factor invades the joint, it alters the balance of Yin-Yang.” This is an important theoretical concept. In Chinese Medicine, good health is the result of a harmonious balance of Yin and Yang energy. Or as it is described in another foundational text:
“The fundamental cause of disease is the disruption of the natural flux of Yin and Yang. Evils are triggers that can only affect the organism when weakness is present.” (Wiseman, Fundamentals of Chinese Medicine)
If Evil Qi settles in the joints and disrupts the holistic balance of Yin and Yang, it would make logical sense to implement some sort of “joint practice” to maintain and restore the flow of Qi through the joints. Qi Gong and all physical forms of yoga do this. But Yin Yoga homes in on this issue, explicitly; Yin-type stresses that target the major joints of the body – the spine, pelvis and knees – support an internal environment of strong, flowing, and harmonized Qi.
Yin Yoga enthusiasts are well aware of what this experience is like. Consider how during a Yin pose, the target area gradually develops a sensation profile that includes “moderate to mild, dull, slightly bitter and achy sensations.” These sensations all indicate Stagnant Qi – the very thing we seek to clear. And, not to worry, because that temporary Stagnation ultimately yields to a delicious development of flow once the posture is released. When we exit a Yin pose – and mindfully rest in a neutral “resonance” pose (what Paul calls The Rebound) – we can observe how those obvious, mildly unpleasant aches and tensions (of the pose) dissolve into a cloudlike coalescence of subtle wavelets of energy. In other words, the improved circulation of Qi becomes palpably obvious.
After a recent class, one student described how she felt as though she had taken an “inner bath.” This echoed something Sarah Powers said many years ago, describing the effects of Yin Yoga as “an inner Qi shower.”
To conclude: In Chinese Medicine, “joint health” is intimately connected to Qi flow. In subsequent posts, I’ll explore many other ways in which the practice of Yin Yoga supports the harmonization of Qi. In the meantime, I invite you to practice with me in any of the recorded or upcoming classes and workshops below.
Online Practice and Training: (recordings available)
- Weekly Classes with Josh and Terry (Yin/Qi Gong, Subtle Body Yin, Yang)
- Training Yin Yoga Teacher Training, TCM Module (50hr), Virtual Training Online | USA (9am-5:30pm EST) | July 22 – 25, 2021
- Training Yin Yoga Teacher Training, Mindfulness Module (50hr) Virtual Training Online | USA (9am-5:30pm EST) | Sept 23 – 26, 2021
Available for Purchase:
- Workshop (Recorded Live on 4/17/21 – purchase for lifetime access of this pre-recorded workshop: The Heart of Qi Cultivation – Principles and Practice
- Workshop (Recorded Live on 6/12/21 – purchase for lifetime access of this pre-recorded workshop): Circulating and Harmonizing the Qi with Yin Yoga: The Role of the Liver – Principles and Practice
- Workshop (Recorded Live on 7/10/21 – purchase for lifetime access of this pre-recorded workshop): Harmonizing Qi and Blood with Yin Yoga: The Role of the Heart – Principles and Practice