Yoga for athletes: Yin Yoga

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This month I’m keen to tell you about a style of yoga you may not have heard of. It’s called yin yoga. You won’t find too many yin yoga classes around Waikato (yet) but it’s so good that it’s only a matter of time before it starts to take a hold. Yin yoga is amazing at releasing tightness and tension throughout the body in a way that other styles of yoga just don’t – but there is a lot more to it than that.

Yin yoga’s name is based on the Taoist concept of yin and yang, which acknowledges opposites such as dark and light, hot and cold, hard and soft. Yin is not a fast-paced, strength-based, hot, fancy or sweaty style of yoga – such as the popular flow, iyengar, ashtanga, power yoga classes and so on. These are ‘yang’ styles of yoga, characterised by movement, repetition and contraction of muscles to create ‘active’ stretches.

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How yin works

Yin yoga features long, soft poses, done without contracting the muscles, in seated, kneeling or lying down positions. Poses are typically held for five minutes, but it can be anywhere from three minutes to ten, or more.

It’s the opposite to yang yoga as it is slow, soft and quiet, and works on the ‘yin’ elements of the body. The yin elements are predominantly the connective tissues (fascia networks) such as the tendons and ligaments that literally hold us together and keep the joints stable, and the myofascia that runs through and around all our muscles.

One basic way to visualise fascia is to think of a sausage – your muscles are the ‘meat’ of the sausage, and the fascia is the ‘casing’ that wraps all around it and links it to the next ‘sausage’ (muscle). Sometimes, no matter how much you work on ‘stretching’ your muscles, if the fascia wrapping around it is tense and tight, your muscles will be limited in how much they can actually stretch and release.

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Your fascia is woven together and linked into continuous series that run through your entire body (that’s why it’s known as ‘connective’ tissue). What happens to the fascia in one local area can affect other areas both ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ of any point – just like if you snag a thread of a knitted jersey, you might catch a thread near the base of the jersey and it can create a pull that travels right up to the neckline. There are numerous different ‘lines’ (sometimes described as ‘trains’) of fascia throughout your body.

The long soft holds of yin yoga allow tension in the fascia to gradually let go, and to realign meshed-up fibres, creating a feeling of release through the whole body.

In my experience, the effects of only one or two yin sessions can be quite extraordinary. Suddenly whole lines of the body are free of tension and there is an enhanced feeling of lightness and freedom of movement. A key physical benefit of yin yoga is that it is excellent for joint maintenance. Yin poses create gentle traction around your joints, keeping them mobile, lubricated and balanced. Yin especially focuses around the hips and spine, and it works deep into the muscles as well.

But wait, there’s more ….

On the surface, yin yoga looks ‘easy’. You simply come into a soft pose – you don’t need to work hard – and you just stay there for several minutes. However there is a lot more to yin that meets the eye, and it deserves respect as a very challenging style of yoga.

Yin requires stillness. It requires concentration. And observation. From a very active, competitive and driven athlete’s perspective, this complete ‘change of gear’ can be really difficult to simply be with. If you try it and at first find you can’t connect with it, I urge you to persevere. Sooner or later it will start to feel easier to bear, and you’ll notice the results.

If you need another reason to bring some yin into your yoga practice, let it be for balance. Any balanced training programme will involve high intensity, powerful workouts (like a power yoga class), as well as vital periods of rest and recovery. Think of yin yoga like the recovery aspects of your overall training. Yin and yang together will create balance.

Next month I will continue exploring the more challenging and subtle aspects of yin yoga. Meanwhile, if you are keen to try the experience for yourself, come and see us at the Balance Yoga studio in Cambridge.

Sarah MacDonald is a professional yoga teacher and New Zealand’s only officially certified Yoga for Athletes instructor. She recently opened Balance Yoga Studio in Cambridge where she is committed to helping people of all ages discover the benefits of yoga. She specialises in working with athletes of all levels from any sport, and can tailor yoga sessions to complement any athlete’s training regime. www.balanceyoga.co.nz

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