Yoga for athletes: Find balance with Yin

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In last month’s column I introduced the concept of Yin Yoga. This month we’re taking a look at how athletes (of any level) can use both Yin and Yang yoga to help create balance in their bodies and in their training programmes.

As suggested by the names, Yin and Yang yoga can be thought of as opposites. If yoga is being used to complement a sports training programme, then employing a combination of both yin and yang forms of yoga is a smart idea.

Exactly how to do this will depend on what your overall training programme consists of, and your goals. To be of real value to an athlete, yoga should be applied in a way that complements and supports the overall training programme.

Below is a basic guide to highlight the key differences between yin and yang forms of yoga.

Yang yoga
– Characterised by repetitive, sometimes rhythmic, movements
– Contracts muscles, which stabilises joints and allows for safe stretching of muscles
– Draws bones closer together as muscles contract
– Poses typically held 30-60 seconds
– Develops strength
– Encourages greater flexibility by stretching muscles
– Places emphasis on correct alignment

Yin yoga
– Characterised by soft, long held poses
– Muscles are relaxed, not contracted
– Gently creates space in the joints (bones move apart)
– Targets the fascia (connective tissue), not focused on stretching muscles
– Flexibility/range of motion is increased by releasing tension in the fascia
– Poses typically held for 3-5 minutes, or longer
– Relaxed about alignment, priority is on the sensations arising in each pose

Both yin and yang yoga can find a valid place in a training programme, and deliver great benefits. Neither should be considered ‘better than’ or superior to the other. Nor should you consider yin as the ‘easy’ option because it calls for soft, gentle poses without working muscles and strength. Bringing the polarities of the two forms together in an intelligent combination creates harmony and balance in a yoga practice. It’s quite practical to include both yin and yang poses in one yoga session.

I’ve written of the benefits of yang yoga a fair amount in previous columns, so we’ll take a closer look at some of the challenges and subtleties of yin.

Yin is not about the stretch
You may have heard that it is not a good idea to ‘stretch your joints’ as connective tissue is not designed to stretch and doing so can lead to unstable joints; or that athletes should not aspire to loosen their joints that are required to be strong and stable.

The art of yin yoga lies in the way we approach the poses; the correct approach will not overstretch joints or create instability. In any activity, the wrong approach can be detrimental – yin yoga practised with a yang attitude may lead to injury, likewise yang yoga practised with a yin approach may also lead to injury.

With this in mind, in yin yoga it’s important to acknowledge a key principle: Yin yoga is not about the stretch, it’s about stimulation. Your connective tissues need stimulation.

Any tissues that are not stimulated will deteriorate and degenerate. It’s well appreciated how this applies to muscle tissue (more stress/training leads to stronger muscles). Likewise for our joints – stimulating our fascia promotes cell regeneration and stimulates the production of hyaluronic acid, which lubricates our joints.

This is one reason why it’s so good for joint maintenance.

Yin creates healthy fascia
Yin yoga is also wonderful for maintaining healthy fascia. Remember, fascia is a fine layer of connective tissue that encases every muscles, and runs literally all through our body on various levels.

Fascia is a ‘shape-shifter’ in our bodies, and it literally changes its molecular structure depending on how it is stimulated, or not. Without stimulation fascia becomes more crystallised, its fibres are more ‘matted up’ and it does not allow us easy, gliding movement or as much range.

Well stimulated, hydrated fascia has a gel-like consistency allows for much freer movement. If your body wakes up feeling stiff and tight in the morning, you may be feeling your fascia that has become more crystallised overnight and started to make adhesions, restricting free movement.

By tuning in softly to yin poses and remaining in them for a length of time (five minutes ideally to affect a change) you can literally feel the fascia changing its structure, and tension in your body melting away.

Healthy fascia allows athletes freer movement and healthy joints.

Yin encourages mental quiet and discipline
The slow, soft nature of yin yoga brings its own mental challenges for athletes.

In a yang yoga practise, with much faster flowing movements from one pose to another, there is constantly plenty for the mind to pay attention to – and the focus keeps changing. Yin yoga, where a single pose may be held for five minutes, can be a great tool to encourage mental focus and self-observance. Distractions are stripped away and you are required to tune into your body on increasingly subtle levels.

Some people find this gives rise to unexpected physical or emotional responses. This will differ for each individual. Yin presents the opportunity to hone mental discipline, and to focus and quieten a busy mind.

Given the indisputable role mental focus and discipline play in sport, and in our pursuit of peace and happiness in our everyday lives, this is another great opportunity that yin yoga offers anyone.

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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