Last month I took a yin yoga teacher training course, despite the fact that I am an unlikely candidate for yoga training. After all, I own only one pair of yoga pants, I can barely touch my toes and for most of my life stretching has been low on the priority list. Yet there I was, for two weekends, immersed in learning everything I could about the philosophy, physiology and structure of yin yoga.
In Taoist philosophy, the yin yang symbol embraces the complementary forces of light and shadow, action and inaction, moving outward and inward. It is a symbol that reminds us of the balance that is needed in our lives. To embrace both of these forces is to recognize the changing (rather than static) and cyclical experience that is life. In keeping with its name, yin yoga is a slower style of yoga where poses, or shapes, are held for an extended period of time (from three to six minutes). This style of yoga works the body at a variety of levels—physical, energetic, mental and emotional—using static and passive stretches as a vehicle for connection. For the first decade, or so, my sporadic yoga practice focused almost exclusively on the faster yang forms of yoga (like Ashtanga) because I was attracted to working out and getting strong. It wasn’t until the past few years, while recovering from adrenal fatigue, that I learned about the incredible benefits of yin yoga.
The practice of yin yoga offers us an opportunity to slow down and really settle into our body, connecting to a point of stillness that is so rare in today’s world. In this place, our parasympathetic nervous system (which is paramount to our body’s ability to effectively relax and recover) is activated, and the fight or flight response (the culprit that had exhausted my adrenal glands for so long) is disengaged. Our awareness of our internal world increases (interoception) and our body is stimulated at the physical, energetic and emotional level.
Living our lives a short distance from our bodies.
So often in the business of our day-to-day life, many of us are like Mr. Duffy in James Joyce’s story. We live a “short distance from our body,” lost in an incessant cycle of thinking about the past and the future. The result? A “yang” overdose of sorts. The present moment becomes less and less available to us, and we become more and more disengaged from our body. After all, how often do we just push through when our bodies are telling us that we need a break?
There is little doubt that I have spent the majority of my life living more than a short distance from my own body. I have ignored it when it was injured, sick or tired, and I have tried to quiet it when it has told me something I didn’t want to hear. It was not until adrenal fatigue stopped me in my tracks that I slowly started to understand the powerful lessons my body was trying to teach me. As Bo Forbes says in Mindfulness in the Body, many of our illnesses—anxiety, depression, gut disorders, eating disorders and more—are really diseases of disembodiment. The connection between our health and well-being and our ability to be present in our own bodies is a powerful one.
Finding our way back.
In yin yoga, we are invited to be in our bodies, to take up residence in the here and now and notice what is happening in the moment. We learn to sit with discomfort without running away from it, and we learn to be present with whatever arises for us. When we tap into this place, when we are present in our body and accept where it is at the moment, we become better acquainted with and sensitive to the landscape of our own interior and the flow of information our body is always sharing with us. This is where healing and a sense of well-being flow from.
It has been said that the hardest journey we will make in our lifetime is the journey from our head to our heart. Based on my own experience, I couldn’t agree more. Taking the yin yoga teacher training was not only to aid in my own (and continuous) journey back to my heart, but also to deepen my understanding of the role that yoga (or any body-based, somatic work) can play in developing our sense of presence, or mindfulness, in an embodied way. As an Integral Coach, I focus on the whole human being and embodiment is a pivotal component to this work. This means that my clients and I stretch beyond the intellectual desire they may have to be better, or feel better. After all, we as human are designed to live IN our bodies, and not just “a short distance” from them.