The most important lessons you will learn in yoga are about yourself. You will make many discoveries about your body and mind through your practice; you may uncover pain and discomfort in your physical being about which you were completely unaware. The natural reaction to pain is to “back off” and avoid the positions that cause discomfort.
Finding your edge, the limit of your physical ability to stretch, open, twist, or release in a position, is an important aspect of honoring your body in your yoga practice, but avoiding discomfort altogether reinforces the fear, judgment, and other negative emotions manifested in the body. Your yoga practice is both an opportunity to discover your potential and to let go of the aspects of yourself that no longer serve you. That edge is exactly where you should “hang out” in your poses. Keep in mind that “pain” is a sensation; “painful” is a judgment. If you allow yourself to sit with the sensation, energy will flow and it will begin to change.
The most valuable tool in this process is the breath. In yoga, the ability to control the breath is not only manifested in the muscles and tissues of the lungs and chest, but also in the mind. With visualization techniques, patience, and practice, you can send the breath to the areas of your body that need energy and release.
The body often responds to an unfamiliar sensation or situation by sending the mind the message that it is in pain. The tension and sensitivity you may feel in a new asana or intense stretch is the body’s fear of the unknown. By staying at that edge, by being present and using the breath, you give the body time to let go of its fear.
The body is trying to protect itself from potential harm. You must balance the desire to progress in your practice with a respect for where you are at any given time. Toughing out all pain is unwise; pain is often an indication that you are out of alignment or are pushing beyond your edge. Hang out with the sensation; don’t force your way through it.
When developing your flexibility and encouraging your body to release, it is best to use passive asanas that utilize gravity and body position to move energy. Asanas that require muscle energy and concentration to maintain alignment can shift your awareness away from the areas that need your focus and increase your risk of injury.
Iyengar, Astanga, and Power Yoga students may not be aware of how to translate their active practice into one of release and relaxation. Yin Yoga, developed by Paul Grilley, is an excellent and accessible practice designed to stretch the connective tissues and increase qi (energy) flow. Poses are held for extended periods of time, allowing one’s awareness and breath to be directed to a particular part of the body.
The beauty of a yin, or passive, yoga practice, which counterbalances the yang, or active aspects of yoga, is in its simplicity and style. The approximately three-dozen asanas and counter poses require minimal alignment; stretching is achieved by using the body’s own weight in various positions to deepen the sensation of a fold, twist, or bend. The body is still, the mind is calmed, and the breath is free to move energy throughout the body.
These asanas have familiar active counterparts in other schools of yoga, though the creator has chosen names for the poses that are unfamiliar to most students. On the Yin Yoga website, each pose is related to a classical asana for reference. Check it out!