By Niki Hitch, Certified Integrative Health Coach/Yoga Instructor
When most people think of exercise, they typically think of running, biking, strength training or something similar where the heart is pounding, sweat is dripping and the muscles are quivering until they fatigue. Although growing in popularity, many don’t even consider yoga (regardless of the style) to be “real” exercise. We live in a fast-paced world where it’s believed that bigger and faster is better. We have become quite accustomed to the “no pain, no gain” mentality. If you aren’t dripping, stinky and exhausted after exercise, then you didn’t really exercise.
So imagine the deer in headlights look I get when I tell people we need cold muscles for Yin Yoga. Yin Yoga comes from the Taoist (pronounced with a “d” sound), Paulie Zink. Yin energy is passive, slow energy that one can’t necessarily see, but they can feel. Yang (pronounced “yawng”) energy is explosive, active movement that can be seen and felt. Our Western culture is very yang and our western mentality has transformed yoga over time to be more yang…hard, hot and long. This is certainly not wrong; it’s just different. Yang exercise works the muscles. But, are any of us a skeletal system held together by just muscles? Hope not! We have connective tissues, too, such as ligaments, tendons and fascia.
Yin Yoga is designed to bring space to the joints by expanding these connective tissues. In order to effectively get into the connective tissues, though, the muscles need to be cold. If the muscles are warm during Yin Yoga, the muscles will stretch (not the goal, here) versus the connective tissues expanding (bingo!). Add to these cold muscles, long holds which are usually 3-5 minutes long. Anything less and the connective tissues, which are taffy-like in their texture, will not have time to expand. When these connective tissues expand, circulation improves at the joints (which is very healing), energy channels open (allowing energy to circulate to other parts of the body for healing) and the hunched-over positions our bodies experience most of the day long (driving, sitting, computer clicking, device playing) are counteracted.
Not only does Yin Yoga counteract the negative effects of our constant sitting and rounding forward postures as mentioned above, but it has tremendous benefits for our stress levels and hence, circulatory and mental health. Let’s look at two components of the autonomic nervous system:
- First, is the sympathetic nervous system responsible for the fight or flight response. In this state, multiple hormones, including cortisone are released. This, in turn, increases blood pressure, blood sugar and suppresses the immune system. This is intense and seriously designed for those rare moments when you are being chased by a lion (not for everyday life, people).
- Second, is the parasympathetic nervous system, known as the rest and digest response. This response is designed to return the body to homeostasis.
Even though our hard core cardio and strength exercises have their place and provide benefit to the human body, it’s just another part of the day where our fight or flight response is turned on. So we are now in this fight or flight response most of our awake hours as we add to the busy schedule of managing kids, work, deadlines and always-on technology and now…when we exercise, too.
So try instead, at least a few times a week, allowing your body to turn off that high-stress response of the sympathetic nervous system and turn on the chillin’ parasympathetic nervous system. A little Yin can go a long way in not only making space in your joints for more comfortable living, but also stress reduction and mood-boosting heart health. It just might be what the doctor ordered.