Many of my students have asked me about alignment in Yin Yoga.
They've been to classes where it is being taught and are confused by the instruction and the sensations they feel in their bodies.
The answer is NO, there is NO alignment in Yin Yoga. Alignment is taught with the assumption that all of us are exactly the same. We are NOT exactly the same. The structure of our joints not only differs from person to person but also in our own bodies from right to left. We must learn to position our limbs in each pose in such a way that it creates space in our bodies. How we do that will be different in each student. The importance of this cannot be overstated. If a student is practising aesthetically with alignment that is not suitable for the structure of their joints they are at risk of causing a repetiive injury to their cartilage, nerves, and/or soft tissue. The injury can develop over a short period of weeks or may not manifest for years.
Should it be our goal as teachers or students to try to achieve balance in our bodies by trying to create symmetry?
We are asymmetrical beings. From the weight and size of our right and left lungs to the asymmetry of our organ placement. The difference skeletally from our right and left side can be subtle or substantial. Hip socket (acetabulum) placement and depth can vary greatly from one side to the other; structure of our shoulder joint can also vary from left to right.
Balance does not require symmetry.
In the words of Gil Hedley...
"...so that our uneven anatomy, in it, we can achieve balance.
When we look for symmetry in ourselves or try to impose it on another as a practitioner we run the risk of adding layers of tension and idealization upon ourselves and our clients."
For most students and teachers there is an assumption that what stops us from going deeper in a pose or sometimes even doing the pose at all is that our muscles are tight. We are taught that if we keep practising.... don't worry, it will come. But what if that isn't true? What if, what stops us is not tension but compression? How can we tell the difference between tension and compression in our own bodies and in those of our students?
An aesthetic approach to yoga focuses on how a pose looks, or even worse, how we think a pose should look. When we practise or teach using a functional approach we first determine what is the target area or muscle group in the pose then adapt the pose to each unique individual. The pose becomes our canvas where we are free to explore all the colors and textures that make us uniique, that make us so beautifully different.
Accepting limitations in range of motion is as part of our yoga practice as is improving our range of motion. Understanding the difference between the two is vital in not only maintaining and improving proper function of the muscles and joints but also in preventing injury to them when practising or teaching. What stops us from being in a pose or doing the pose altogether? Is it something I can change or is it something I need to accept?
The question one must ask a student is "what is causing their back pain to begin with". Has there been trauma to the spine or is the pain the result of inactivity and lifestyle. 80% of our western population will experience lower back pain in their lives, not due to trauma but due to lifestyle. Tension can accumulate in the thoracolumbar fascia causing pain and overall discomfort. Lack of movement in the lumbar spine can also cause compression of the vertebrae and the shortening of the ligaments (contracture). When we practise poses like "snail" in Yin Yoga we must expect and not fear that our backs will feel worse before they feel better. We are putting the vertebrae in a state of traction and over time and practice we will stimulate growth and strengthening of the ligaments resulting in decompression of the discs, release of the soft tissues, stimulation of hyaluronic acid and synovial fluid and overall improvement of our range of motion. If you are new to Yin Yoga take it slow. Add depth and length of holds over time. One must not only analyze what we feel in the pose and directly after but also the long term affect the practise has on our bodies. Don't be fearful. Educate yourself and your fear will dissipate. Understand your body. It will free you.
We are incredibly complex and beautiful. Ultimately this (our brain) is the nucleus of our yoga practise. Through stillness and through meditation we are able to delve deeper into the essence of who we truly are. This is what I think of when I practise Yin Yoga. Although gaining and maintaining our range of motion is a goal for most who practise yin yoga, it is our capacity to tap into this stunning world of our inner self that leaves me mesmerized. That we are able to change and manipulate our brains and our energy (chi) through our practise leaves me awestruck.
Have you ever wondered why your backbends look they way they do? Most student think their backbends are limited due to tightness. Any tension you may have, that would limit your spinal extensions, would occur to the front of the body.What most students don't realize is that our ultimate limit to range of motion occurs in the joints themselves. The bones! The space between the spinus processes in your vertebrae is what will dictate how your backbends look. We are beautifully complex. We are made as nature intended... stunning curves and asymmetry that should be not only honoured but celebrated.