Yin Yoga: A Stretch By Any Other Name…

By on March 20th, 2015 — Comments Off

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By Paul Grilley

Sometimes health professionals gnash their teeth when they hear a yogi say they are “stretching” their ligaments. They scream loudly that ligaments don’t stretch. We could quibble and say all biological tissues stretch but that would be avoiding their legitimate concern. Compared to muscles ligaments don’t stretch. But to keep ligaments healthy they must be subjected to stress by pulling on them. So what word might be better than stretch? A more appropriate word might be stress. We could say a yogi wants to regularly stress their ligaments to maintain their length and strength. This is similar to a body builder stressing his muscles to keep them strong.

In most yoga presentations I use the phrase “Yogis stretch their muscles but stress their ligaments.” This works well but it takes time and several examples to clearly discriminate the difference between stressing and stretching. For an engineer the word stress means physical forces acting to deform a tissue but to a naïve yoga student the word stress has the connotation of “nervous stress or tension”. The word stress also carries the connotation that it is a bad thing as in “Don’t get stressed.”

Other words to substitute for stretch might be “stimulate” or “exercise”. But neither of these words communicates the idea of pulling which is how we stress the ligaments. When students hear the words exercise or stimulate they usually think of contracting the muscles and making a forceful effort which is undesirable.

All in all I must admit that using the phrase “stretch your ligaments” is anatomically weak and perhaps perpetuates wrong ideas. But when writing a brief article it can be tedious and distracting to elaborate the difference between stress and stretch if the purpose of the presentation is to simply teach students to feel the difference between the two tissues or how to isolate them.

In future this writer will try to consistently use the word “stress” when describing exercise of the ligaments but if the occasion demands the more colloquial “stretch” than I hope he will be forgiven on the grounds that brevity is sometimes a virtue.

Why stress ligaments? Because of contracture.

Ligaments are dense connective tissues that wrap around and stabilize the joints. When joints are underused the ligaments are not stressed and so they go through a shortening process called contracture. Researchers can easily induce contracture in lab animals by immobilizing one of their joints with splints or sutures. In a matter of weeks the ligaments are contracted.

Human beings are also subject to ligament contracture whenever they are immobilized by habit (sitting at a desk), convalescence (post surgical) or lack of normal movement (arm in a sling).

Contracture is an active process that continually shortens the ligaments to prevent them from becoming lax. It presents many clinical problems to physicians who work in physical rehabilitation. Post surgical patients, burn victims and patients who are old or sedentary present physicians with a wide range of joint problems related to ligament contracture.

Why does over contracture occur?

The ligaments are unique among the body’s tissues in that they must be of the proper length to function. If a ligament is too long the joint is unstable. If the ligament is too short joint movement is painful and limited. Modern research has shown that ligaments grow and contract in response to the stresses placed on them.

Ligaments are subjected to micro traumas from everyday living. These traumas are minute tears and stretches to the ligaments. If the ligaments did not have a mechanism to contract and repair these micro tears then as we age the ligaments would gradually become so long that our joints would become overly loose and unstable. Obviously in real life the opposite is true. As we age we tend to use our joints less so the ligaments contract tighter and tighter. If this contracture is not countered by regularly stressing the joints they can become “frozen”. The most common example of over contracture is frozen shoulder syndrome (adhesive capsulitis). The typical frozen shoulder story goes something like this:

Grandma falls down and sprains her wrist.

Grandma’s wrist is put in a sling.

Six weeks later the wrist is better but grandma’s shoulder is frozen.

Being in a sling immobilizes grandma’s shoulder and prevents any elongating stress from countering the normal process of contracture. So grandma’s ligaments contract to the point the movement becomes painful if not impossible.

Conservative intervention for frozen shoulder includes gentle stretching of the joint ligaments during physical therapy. Aggressive intervention can include anesthetizing the patient and distracting (stretching) the joint ligaments while they are unconscious. Needless to say as a yogi I would recommend the conservative approach.

The shoulder is not the only joint to get frozen.

Frozen shoulder is an affliction of older people. When we are young our ligaments are moister and more resilient. For young people the everyday stresses of picking things up and swinging one’s arms while walking is enough to counter the ever present process of contracture. But as we age the ligaments become less resilient. This means our everyday activities eventually become inadequate to prevent over contracture and we must conscientiously exercise the shoulder. This is true of every joint in the body.

Consider the lower spine. Eighty percent of the Western world’s populace complains of severe lower back pain at one time or another. And the people most afflicted by bad backs are sedentary office workers. The reason for this is that sitting in a chair compresses the discs in the lower spine. This means the discs are flattened and the bones move closer together. If the bones move closer together the ligaments can contract to a shorter length. Shorter ligaments create less mobility and more compression. This means the discs degenerate further and the cycle goes on.

It cannot be emphasized enough ligament contracture is an active, sometimes aggressive phenomena. Even in a perfectly healthy spine the ligaments are so tight that even when lying horizontal there is pressure on the spinal discs. If you visit a retirement community it is virtually guaranteed you will find no one with a normal lumbar curve. The ligaments have contracted to the point that they are effectively pulling the spine into a fetal position. This gives older people the appearance of walking stooped over.

How to prevent contracture.

The natural therapeutic for ligament contracture is long, sustained traction. Ligaments are formed of overlapping slender filaments of collagen. In sustained traction ligaments respond by sliding their filaments past one another which results in a longer ligament. The matrix of cells around these filaments also becomes healthier and this results in stronger ligaments as well. This allows for greater range of motion and less chance of injury.

Whenever a ligament is being stressed the force must be gentle and sustained. If too much force is used the ligament will be strained or torn. If the stress is too brief the ligament will remain unaffected. The analogy is that of stretching taffy versus stretching a rubber band. Muscles are like rubber bands, they can be stretched easily. Ligaments are like taffy, if they are pulled too hard they tear. But if a modest stress is placed upon them and sustained then they gently elongate without tearing. Although these elongations are minute they are necessary to balance against contracture.

Some yoga poses can be done with the specific intention of beneficially stressing the joints. Doing poses with the intention of stressing a joint is called Yin yoga. Yin yoga postures are done while seated on the floor so the muscles can relax. When the muscles are relaxed the ligaments take the stress. Yin poses are done very gently for up to five minutes at a time or even longer.

Use it or lose it.

If we don’t play tennis our skills will atrophy. If we don’t stimulate our memory it will atrophy. If we don’t stress our muscles they will atrophy. If we don’t stress our joints they will atrophy. There is nothing odd or unusual about the need to stress joints. It is the simple extension of a universal principle. Modern peoples suffer debilitating joint problems due to lack of use.

Indians in the Amazon can climb branchless trees when they are sixty. On the beaches of India grandfathers can cast and haul heavy fishing nets. In Southeast Asia people stand with straight legs and rounded spines for hours as they plant and harvest rice. These are movements that would ruin modern office workers because their joints have degenerated from disuse. In fact the degeneration of the modern spine is so pronounced that something as simple as making ad bed can be debilitating.

Just as it is necessary to systematically stress the muscles to keep them strong it is also necessary to systematically stress the ligaments to maintain their length and strength. This is one of the reasons why yoga postures were invented.

 

To learn more about Paul Grilley, visit his website at www.paulgrilley.com and check out his DVD’s and online courses here at Pranamaya.

Paul Grilley:  A well-known master of yin yoga, Paul brings a thorough grounding in Hatha and Ashtanga yoga as well as anatomy and kinesiology to his teaching, which integrates the Taoist yoga of martial arts master Paulie Zink and the Chinese meridian and acupuncture theories of Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama. Paul’s book, Yin Yoga: Principles and Practice, explains how yin yoga can teach us to relax, be patient, be quiet, and focus on the skeleton and its joints—a necessary counterpoint to today’s more ubiquitous muscular yoga.

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10 Reasons to Immediately Book Your First (or Next) Yoga Retreat

By on February 11th, 2015 — Comments Off

 

 

 

 

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by Tracee Stanley

I have been leading international yoga retreats for over 10 years and each time I notice the same thing. People come together with a group of strangers- stressed, tired and needing a vacation. On day one as the deep breathing and yoga begins, the layers begin to peel away as everyone begins to leave behind thoughts of their daily lives, mundane tasks and stresses. Day by day I can sense their bodies and minds becoming more and more relaxed.  And by the end of the retreat a transformation has occurred for us all.

Here’s my list of why you should not hesitate to book your first (or next) yoga retreat:

1.You meet new people who share similar interests and love of yoga as much as you do. Communing with like-minded souls is said to sustain our spiritual life. In some traditions of yoga it is said that if we can do nothing else towards our practice we should cultivate sangha.

2.We let go of “doing”. We can drop the masks and responsibility of everyday life and reconnect with what is true for us in the moment.

3.You will have new experiences like hiking up volcano’s, eating local cuisine and exploring  new cultures. You will be outside of your “normal” and yo will feel alive!

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4.You begin to tap into the flow and pulse of life in an organic way and soon you are listening to our own inner teacher with the answers to life’s questions coming so much more easily.

5.You spontaneously wake up  to greet the day without 3 cups of coffee, feeling refreshed and energized. You may even find yourself getting up and meditating before sunrise.

6.By day three there usually is vibrance, a radiance that begins to emerge. I call it “the glow”. The glow comes from being in nature, eating fresh local food, being away from TV, media and our daily mudra of texting, emailing and posting our every move.  It also comes from the friction that comes from deep practice. We begin to let go, see more clearly and we begin to shine from the inside out.

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7.You shift towards becoming more in tune with yourself and with the people around you. You can sense who needs a hug and who wants to be left alone. And you take none of it personally.

8.Before long you are sharing with once strangers as you would with a sister or closest friend. You realize that we are more alike than different

9.Once you return home your friends notice your “glow” they see it in your smile, your skin and the light reflected in your eyes. You have gained a sense of ease. You inspire friends to practice self care or even take a yoga class.

10.You have connected deeply with yourself and others in a way that can only be felt in the heart. And you know that no matter what you want to return to that place. It doesn’t require you getting on plane though, just you getting on your mat. But sometimes we need to take a journey to remind us that all we need is already here.

 

For more information about retreats with Tracee click here

 

pictures courtesy of BaliWellness and Tracee Stanley

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Yin Yoga and Stretching the Spine

By on February 9th, 2015 — Comments Off

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By Paul Grilley

When working a joint the first thing a yogi or yogini must decide is whether she intends to work muscle or bone. She must decide if she wishes to strengthen the muscles that stabilize the joint or stretch the ligaments to increase range of motion. In this article we explore the second option: stretching the joints of the spine.

Two layers of the joints

A fundamental insight of Taoist analysis is to see the body as at least two layers. For different needs the body could be analyzed into many more layers than two but for a discussion of joint movement two is enough.

The two layers of a joint are Muscle and Bone. Muscle is the yang layer and includes muscle and tendon. Bone is the yin layer and includes the ligaments. Yogis should train themselves to feel the differences between the muscle and ligament sensations.

The Neck

The following neck stretches are an effective way to start this process. Once a yogi has learned to discriminate the sensations of muscle and ligament in the neck then it will be easier to feel these differences in the rest of the spine.

Drop your chin to your chest and relax. This is a passive or yin stretch for the muscles and ligaments of the back of the neck. The muscles of the neck are on the left and ride sides of the center line. The ligaments we are concerned with are on the centerline. A yogi can learn to feel the difference by comparing the sensations on each side of the spine with the sensations in the center.

Move the head to the right while it is still dropped forward. This movement stretches the muscles on the left side of the neck making it easier to discriminate them. Moving the head to the left stretches the muscles on the right side of the neck. Bringing the head back to the center the yogi should be able distinguish sensations that are neither left nor right but in the midline. These are the ligaments.

Muscular stretches feel sharper and are easily locatable. Ligament sensations are deeper, duller and more attached to the bones. This is why Taoists use the expression “Stretch you Bones” to describe ligament stretches.

This simple exercise should be repeated many times. The distinctions may not be noticeable the first few times but with time and experience they become clear. Remember that is possible to feel ligament stretches when the head is moved to the left and right. But by exaggerating the stretch on the muscles it is easier to feel the difference between the two tissues.

Yin Stresses

Once a yogi has learned to feel the difference between muscle and bone the next step is to determine how much leverage to use when stretching them. Passively dropping the chin to the chest is a gentle yin approach. The next most aggressive effort would be to contract the muscles of the neck to depress the chin deeper toward the chest. But the most aggressive stretch would be to use the hands to gently pull on the back of the head. This is the deepest possible stretch for the neck while seated.

Yang Stresses

All three of the above stretches are yin. The muscles of the front of the neck were used in second variation and the muscles of the arms were used in the third variation. But in each variation the muscles of the back of the neck were relaxed. This allowed the neck to round forward and stretch the joints. If while doing any of these exercises a yogi contracts the muscles of the back of the neck he is resisting the forward bend and preventing the stretch. This principle can be demonstrated as follows.

Gently drop the chin and place the hands on the back of the head as before. Now engage the muscles of the back of the neck and try to lift the head up. At the same time gently pull down on the head with the arms. The yogi is now in a tug-of-war with himself. His arms are trying to pull the head down but the neck muscles are trying to lift the head up.

 

To learn more about Paul Grilley, visit his website at paulgrilley.com  and check out his DVD’s and online courses here at Pranamaya.

Paul Grilley:  A well-known master of yin yoga, Paul brings a thorough grounding in Hatha and Ashtanga yoga as well as anatomy and kinesiology to his teaching, which integrates the Taoist yoga of martial arts master Paulie Zink and the Chinese meridian and acupuncture theories of Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama. Paul’s book, Yin Yoga: Principles and Practice, explains how yin yoga can teach us to relax, be patient, be quiet, and focus on the skeleton and its joints—a necessary counterpoint to today’s more ubiquitous muscular yoga.

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Yin Yoga and the Breath

By on February 1st, 2015 — Comments Off

By Sarah Powers

 

Using our natural intelligence to focus on our breath and mobilize the distribution of prana throughout our body is called pranayama, which is an enhancement discipline that involves three aspects: inhalation (puraka); exhalation (rechaka); and the gap between, or suspension of breath (kumbhaka). By varying our respiration and holding our breath, we enhance the quality and mortality of the prana within. When practiced skillfully, intentional breathing has physical, energetic, and mental benefits. Physically, it helps oxygenate the blood and strengthens our digestive, eliminative, circulatory, and respiratory systems. Energetically, a pranayama practice helps balance, concentrate, and harmonize the flow of prana within us. When our energy is imbalanced, our prana is dissipated and weak, often resulting in unpredictable and dissonant emotions that leak out in uncontrolled, chaotic ways. A yogi, on the other hand, is described as someone whose prana is contained within the center of her body. Her emotional life is rich and her mind is clear.

 

In pranayama, we attempt to reduce the amount of prana that leaks out and enliven the quality of energy existing within us. This is not possible without concentration. Our mind is closely linked to the quality of our prana, and our breath influences our pranic body. When we concentrate on using our breath to balance the subtle (or energy) body, there is a unifying effect on our overall state of being.

 

Through aligning our minds with our breath, we can experience relaxed alertness in the energy body and mind, a state that has extremely therapeutic effects on the body. The key ingredient is attention. As we watch our breath, we begin to tune in to our capacity for focus and concentration, qualities that arouse meditative awareness. Pranayama is therefore a wonderful practice to sequence before meditation, because it tethers the mind and prana within our body, amplifying our awareness in the present moment.

 

The breath can be thought of as the catalyst for inner circulation. When we engage in full use of our diaphragm in an unhurried and conscious way, we assist in enhancing the distribution of prana throughout our bodies. This style of breathing is called Ujjayi (“victorious”) breath and has a number of benefits. As we slow down the rhythm of each breath, it has a soothing effect on our nervous system. This in turn releases the tensions in our body, helping us to feel more relaxed. As we let go, we tune in to the sound of our breathing, helping to diminish the distractions of the mind and leading to more inner quietude. Focusing on the breath in this way helps increase our ability to concentrate in an effortless manner, preparing the body and mind for deeper integration.

 

Excerpt from: Insight Yoga by Sarah Powers.

 

To learn more about Sarah Powers, visit her website at www.sarahpowers.com, and check out her DVD’s and online courses here at Pranamaya.

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 SARAH POWERS

An internationally acclaimed master teacher, Sarah Powers weaves the insights and practices of yoga and Buddhist meditation in an integrated practice that seeks to enliven the body, heart, and mind. Her yoga style blends a yin sequence of long-held poses to enhance the meridian and organ systems, with a yang or flow practice influenced by Viniyoga, Ashtanga, and alignment-based vinyasa teachings. – Read more HERE.

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Why Does Yin Yoga Feel So Good? Exploring the Three Tissues of the Body by Paul Grilley

By on January 22nd, 2015 — Comments Off

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“Why does my body not move the way I want it to?”

To answer this question we will look at our joints. There are many tissues that form a joint: bone, muscle, tendon, ligament, synovial fluid, cartilage, fat, and sacks of fluid called bursae. Sufficient to our purpose we need only consider three of them: Muscle, Connective Tissue and Bone. Each of these tissues has different elastic qualities and each responds differently to the stresses placed upon them by Yoga postures. By learning to feel the differences between these three tissues Yogis can save themselves a great deal of frustration and possible injury.

We begin our analysis by classifying the three tissues according to quality. Muscle is soft; it is the most elastic, and mobile. So Muscle is the most Yang of the three. Bone is hard; it is the least elastic, the least pliable and is immobile. So Bone is the most Yin. Connective Tissue lies between the two extremes.

It is interesting to note that this classification of the Three Tissues remains the same when we examine them not by quality but by location. The muscles are the most external and exposed. They are Yang. The bones are the most internal, the least accessible. They are Yin. The connective tissue lies literally between the two.

Why bother with this analysis? Because Yang tissues should be exercised in a Yang way and Yin tissues should be exercised in Yin way. The characteristics of Yang exercise are rhythm and repetition. The characteristic of Yin exercise is prolonged stasis or stillness. We are all familiar with Yang exercises like running, swimming, and weight training. All of these activities are rhythmic. We alternate the contraction and relaxation of our muscles to run or swim or lift. It would be unproductive to just contract a muscle and hold it until it spasms. It would be equally unproductive to just let a muscle stay relaxed. Healthy muscle requires the rhythmic contraction and relaxation that Yang exercise provides. The rhythm is very important. Indeed, it could be said that it is rhythm that distinguishes exercise from simple manual labor.

Manual labor is rarely of the proper rhythm or of adequate repetition to make a person “feel good”. It is usually a haphazard mix of too much of some movements, not enough of others. This leaves us feeling sore and “kinked” at the end of our labors, not pleasantly perspired and relaxed. In cultures where long days of manual labor are unavoidable Human Beings have responded by making up “Work Songs” and soldiers have invented an endless variety of “Marching Songs”. The purpose of these songs is to create a rhythm to work to. Labor is still labor but it is made more palatable and less destructive by moving, singing and breathing with a rhythm.

Yang exercise is easy to define and identify. It is what we are all familiar with. By contrast Yin exercise seems a contradiction in terms. How can something that is gentle and static even be called “exercise”. One purpose of these articles is to expand our conception of exercise to be more inclusive. Yang exercise is not the only form of exercise.

The characteristic of Yin exercise is stasis or stillness for long periods of time. Yin exercise has a rhythm but it is a much, much longer rhythm than Yang activities like running. A common misinterpretation of Yin stillness is “passive” or “inactive”. But this misconception is due to our cultural bias to muscular, Yang activities. If nothing were happening in Yin exercise then it would indeed be a contradiction in terms. But tissues are being stressed in proper Yin exercise, particularly connective tissue.

The most common example of Yin exercise is traction. If someone’s leg were broken it would not be beneficial to rhythmically pull on the injured area. But gentle, steady, continuous traction might be absolutely necessary for healthy recovery.

An even more common and less dramatic example of the Yin principle of prolonged stasis is orthodontia; braces on our teeth. Teeth are bone anchored in more bone and yet even they respond to the practice of Yin Yoga which we call “braces”. Bone is the ultimate Yin tissue of the body. If we were to exercise our teeth in a Yang way it would be disastrous.

Imagine an enthusiastic body builder taking what she learned from the gym and applying it to her mouth. If she had decided she was going to straighten her crooked teeth by rhythmically wiggling them back and forth in multiple sets it would not be long before her teeth fell out. Yang tissues should be exercised in a Yang way and Yin tissues should be exercised in a Yin way.

We will finish this article with a reminder of the Taoist conceptions of Yin and Yang. When we analyze things we are comparing them to something else. There is no absolute Yin. There is no absolute Yang. If we recall the Tai Ji symbol of spiraling half circles of Black and White we must remember that there is a black dot within the white spiral and a white dot within the black. This is to remind us that when we use language such as “Yang is rhythmic but Yin is not.” that this is not absolutely true. Yin has a rhythm but it is much longer than Yang. Likewise it is not absolutely correct to say “Yang is active but Yin is not.” There is activity in Yin but it is of a different type. It can be tedious to be meticulously accurate in our speech. One of the great benefits of Yin/Yang terminology is that we can express ourselves in terse, memorable ways but always with the understanding that this is not the final word. Like poetry; a deeper analysis might be necessary for different purposes.

 

To learn more about Paul Grilley, visit his website at www.paulgrilley.com and check out his DVD’s and online courses here at Pranamaya.

Paul Grilley:  A well-known master of yin yoga, Paul brings a thorough grounding in Hatha and Ashtanga yoga as well as anatomy and kinesiology to his teaching, which integrates the Taoist yoga of martial arts master Paulie Zink and the Chinese meridian and acupuncture theories of Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama. Paul’s book, Yin Yoga: Principles and Practice, explains how yin yoga can teach us to relax, be patient, be quiet, and focus on the skeleton and its joints—a necessary counterpoint to today’s more ubiquitous muscular yoga.

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