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"I discovered Yin," she adds, "and it was beautiful balance between the two."
Freeing the Body from Within
On a physical level, the emphasis of Yin Yoga poses is not on stretching the muscles but on stressing the ligaments and opening the joints, pressing underneath the musculature of the body. It's a subtle but very powerful change of focus. During practice, the muscles remain relatively inactive in order to focus on the myofascia, the body's underlying system of connective tissue, just below and intertwined with the muscular system.
The myofascia, sometimes simply called the fascia, is a system of collagen, elastin, and reticular fibers holding the body together anatomically, connecting our various tissues to bone, joints, muscles, and internal organs, and holding our blood vessels and nerves in place, in a kind of mesh-like net. "Think of shrink wrapping," explains LeBlanc. The fascia is not something we can necessarily feel directly, but as we naturally go about our daily lives executing repetitive movements—walking, sitting, driving, or even sleeping—the fascia tightens and holds the body in habitual patterns. When the body experiences the stress of even a minor injury, the fascia holds onto this stress as well. This fascial tightening can have a wide range of effects on our physical wellbeing, causing stiffness and pain in the joints and muscles, disturbing our sleep, and even affecting our mental and emotional health.
Classic Yin poses such as Dragon (a long, low lunge with the back knee on the floor) or Butterfly (a forward fold over legs held in a diamond shape with the soles of the feet together) gently release the fascia that's holding our inner body in place. Yin Yoga can also be very effective at releasing pain in the joints and keeping them supple and healthy. Saddle pose (sitting on the knees and then gently reclining backwards) can help renew the synovial fluids that lubricate the knee joints, while Toe Squat (sitting on the knees with the toes pointing forward and then gently shifting the body's weight backward) loosens and releases the joints and ligaments in the feet. (Note that Yin Yoga uses English names for the poses, rather than the Sanskrit monikers that many other forms prefer.)
"The trick of Yin Yoga practice is finding the right balance between effort and surrender," explains Danika Hendrickson, who teaches Yin classes throughout the Hudson Valley. "For a Yin class to be effective, students have to find a way to let go of muscular effort and striving, and focus more on just being." With regular practice, the body can let go of old physical habits that aren't helping, and very often are harming, our health. Simply put, releasing the fascia literally frees the body from a microcellular level.
This process of release has tremendous benefits for the sympathetic nervous system as well. The sympathetic nervous system, which controls our "fight or flight" response to stimuli, is given a third option through the practice of Yin. "There is a realm of spiritual detachment and disembodiment in yoga and other alternative practices," explains LeBlanc. "Yin is the opposite of that." Rather than having the goal of feeling "good" or detaching from pain, the focus of Yin, on both a physical and spiritual level, is to change our relationship with discomfort. (Detaching from pain, however, doesn't mean ignoring it, which can lead to further injury on both a physical and psychological level.)
With Yin, "poses are an open framework that lead to a body-based meditation," explains LeBlanc. True to the Yin philosophy underlying his practice, no two of LeBlanc's classes are the same. Rather, LeBlanc uses his own personal daily Yin practice as a point of departure, then lets classes unfold naturally from that place. The class then evolves and adapts as he observes the attending students' needs. Through this process, "the visceral experience of the body becomes the meditation": Students have an opportunity to review their relationship with any discomfort and investigate what that discomfort is communicating, ultimately establishing a different relationship with both emotional and physical pain.