Yin and Yang Yoga

“What I dream of is an art of balance.” ~Henri Matisse

Even in our yoga, Americans have managed to Americanize things to the point of absurdity. The most popular styles of hatha yoga in the US involve borderline obsession with the physical form.

I acknowledge the value of Iyengar yoga, and B.K.S. Iyengar’s wonderful teachings, but I get pretttty agitated when an instructor instructs her class to outwardly rotate our shins while inwardly rotating our thighs and spreading our toes and lifting our pelvic floors. Similarly, K. Pattabhi Jois’ ashtanga is a powerful practice but many “power” yogis push themselves too far too soon as they attempt to attain a pose before their bodies are ready. Contorting into a prescribed sequence of poses for the sake of the poses themselves is gymnastics, not yoga.

Hot yoga is a fantastic workout, but it made me hate myself, the teacher, and every other sweaty soul in the steamy studio. It took everything I had not to bolt out of the room. I thought this unrepentant hate meant that I should try, try again. I’ve never stopped despising it. Seriously, what is the draw? The intensity? The sweat? Weight loss? To me, it seems counter to yoga philosophy.

I attended the “world’s largest yoga class,” taught by Bikram Choudhury himself, at the Bikram Yoga Expo in Los Angeles in 2003. He stood on a platform, ranting and raving, wearing a tiny loin cloth and a wireless microphone headset. There was no savasana.

All too often, the spiritual aspects of yoga (the meditation, the deepening of Awareness-with-a-capital-A) fall by the wayside. Bastardized branches of hatha yoga, when combined with arrogance, almost certainly lead to stunted spiritual growth. Yet, physically powerful yoga practices can be spiritual.

You have to quit comparing your body to others’ bodies. You have to accept the differences, side to side, day to day, moment to moment. Then, “yang” yoga is wonderful. We practice it; we love it. It improves strength, balance and flexibility, both physically and mentally. The good news? Whether or not your yoga is a spiritual practice, a moving meditation, it  leads to better circulation, killer abs and glowing skin.

Obviously, more active styles of yoga bolster our Western tendency to go-go-go. Get faster, better, more dynamic. Change your life. Connect your body and soul. And buy a pricey yoga mat and cute Lululemon outfits. Yang yoga thrives, because people want to look good naked and maybe even be more spiritual.  People want routine. They want to be told what to do. They want to know the drill. You can’t overthink things when you’re trying to perfect a handstand. It’s tough to brood when balancing on one arm and leg.

A fabulous complement to this active style of yoga is the less common practice of yin yoga.

Yin yoga is the antithesis to our yang world—the Internet, the myth of multitasking, the slavery to our monkey minds. Yin yoga is sitting, bending forward, reclining, twisting ever so gently—just being there. Holding poses for  two, three, five or ten minutes, depending on the pose and time of day and the body practicing. Letting go of all muscular tension. Letting the spine round. Releasing the jaw, the face, shoulders and neck. Allowing gravity to do its thing.

While all this is delicious for the body, it’s not easy on the mind. Staying with a pose for so long, not jumping back and executing a vinyasa, the mind is free to wander. And wander it will, into the past, down memory lane. What your life could have been, if only… And, of course, into the future. What’s happening next, tomorrow, this weekend, in ten years? You’ll experience itchy impatience (how much longer are we going to hold this god-forsaken pigeon?) and fiery judgment (my body is not as pliable as it used to be; I can’t believe how much I suck!).

Like seated meditation, yin yoga gives us the opportunity to bask in nothingness. This is excruciatingly difficult at first. Things come up, rapid fire. Items you absolutely must write on your to do list immediately. The perfect name for your second born child, even if you’re unmarried and happy about it. How badly you need a pedicure. Worries about a troubled friend or aging parent.

We store misplaced emotional baggage in our bodies. Yin yoga allows us to unpack.

As a yoga instructor and mindfulness advocate, people often confide to me that they can’t meditate because their minds are too active. That’s like saying you’re not flexible so you can’t do yoga. Or you’re not strong, so you can’t lift weights. Start where you are. The goal of meditation is not a blank slate mind.

The mind will try anything and everything to get you off the mat, out of the pose, away from the present moment. That’s its job. And your job, as a yogi, is to notice all thoughts, memories, sensations and ideas with equanimity and balance. Say, “thanks but no thanks, ego,” return to your center, your breath, your yin and yang, and your connectedness to all beings. Savor the silence.

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