by Vaishali Iyer
This is the third and final in my series of posts on yin yoga. In this last post, I want to talk about how yin yoga helps us access the body’s natural healing capabilities. We have already seen how yin yoga is a way of consciously re-entering the natural cycles of life; bringing us back into harmony and balance within the framework of yin-yang. The healing power that yin yoga unlocks is an extension of this idea, and hinges on our ability to come into the body through the practice. Yin is a way of returning to the somatic awareness that is natural to human beings – a state of being that is grounded in the body, open, present and aware.
Through yin yoga, we are invited to connect with the body as a living, breathing and intelligent entity. This invitation is in stark contrast to the way we usually think of the body, which is largely in terms of our ideas and beliefs – what it should or does look like, what we think it is or isn’t. These concepts create an image of the body as a kind of dead weight that we carry around and feed and which supposedly has little bearing on our personality or who we are. Through yin practice, we begin to realize that all of these ideas are very different from our actual, living experience of the body – our embodiment. Yin brings us strongly in and down, out of our heads, encouraging us to actually feel our body and start to listen to what it is telling us. Then, the more closely we sense the body, the more we can start to distinguish information and messages that are more subtle and profound: ranging from feelings, emotions and stored memories to refined physical and internal adjustments.
Why is this important? Firstly, being in the body in the feeling, sensing way that yin yoga opens is in itself healing to our whole being. When we’re in the body, our mind can relax and open, and our whole organism (including muscles, bones, organs and even cells) is given permission to slow down, unwind and de-stress. In this context, healing and transformation can begin from the ground of the body, in the deep, subconscious layers of our being, and move up into the more conscious levels of our being. When we come in to the body, we are consciously inviting the body to move through the healing processes that it is always trying to complete. In physiological terms, coming into the body helps activate the parasympathetic – or “rest-and-digest” – nervous system, which is in charge of regeneration and assimilation. Like yin practice in general, the parasympathetic mode has a cooling, soothing quality, as it slows the heart rate, allows for deep digestion and integration, and stimulates the vagus nerve for deep relaxation and peacefulness.
Secondly, being in the body also helps heal emotional wounds and recover from psychological stress. Because yin yoga is a gentle, nonaggressive and somatically grounded practice, we can move through our anxiety and worries and give space to long-buried sadness, fear and anger in a safe way. It’s not unusual to feel like sighing, crying or just to feel a release of emotional energy – all of which is fine as long as we can stay with the body. Another part of yin practice that helps us release safely is the way that we deliberately tend to stay close to the earth. Most yin postures are done in a supine, prone or seated position, with a relatively large surface area of the physical body in contact with the earth (or props that simulate the earth). We are consciously deepening and enhancing the body’s connection, both physical and energetic, with the healing, life-giving power of the earth. Not only does this help us feel supported and anchored, it also makes it easier for our organism to receive whatever nourishment it needs directly from the earth.
Finally, being in the body also provides us with a lot of information – some unexpected or even contrary to what we believe – that can help us understand what is actually going on from the body’s own internal perspective. For example, we may think that we’ve recovered from last week’s flu, but when we actually lie down and practice, we realize that there’s still some discomfort and achiness in our bones, or heaviness behind our eyes, or a feeling of something stuck in our throat. This information can help us adjust our habits, preferences and attitudes so they are more allied with what the body wants and needs, accelerating our healing process. One of the beautiful “side effects” of yin practice is it encourages us to give up all of our ideas and preconceived notions and come into the way of not-knowing. It can happen quite naturally and even spontaneously, as we become more and more open to receiving the body’s intelligence. At some point we just realize that we don’t really know – we don’t know exactly what’s happening inside, or why we feel the way we do, or why certain poses move us in particular ways. And we don’t always need to know either. Our need to control and manage things, especially ourselves and our bodies, and our hungry impatience to know the how and why of everything – it all just drops away. This is the beginning of living in the mystery of the practice.