Quite a few aspiring yogis ask me about how to start a practice usually assuming that yoga is about building physical strength and flexibility in order to achieve dope handstands and pretzel folds – no thanks to social media. Sure, those are pretty decent perks that may come with a consistent practice but not really the point of yogic philosophy. I was first introduced to yoga online through the style of Ashtanga. Like some others, this is a very physically demanding style of yoga; one still close to my heart, that has been very helpful to me in some ways. Yet, for the longest I could not figure out why I kept hitting a peak in my practice. It wasn’t until attending teacher training that I realized, for me, this style of yoga was only addressing part of what I came to understand as hatha yoga.
Basically, our energies are comprised of a combination of both yin and yang qualities. Yang describing the masculine and penetrative forces within us that encourage assertive action. Yin describing the feminine and receptive forces that lean toward more nurturing or restorative action. It is a simple yet complex interconnectedness that lives within and all around us in nature in a delicate balance. When there is too much or not enough of either quality, imbalance occurs which shows up as disorder and dis-ease. Hatha describes a practice that acknowledges both types of energy – in the physical, mental, and spiritual realms – in order to keep or restore balance.
Now, imagine only engaging in a routine that is primarily yang promoting – pulling, lifting, pushing, squeezing, forcing. Testing strength and perspective with inversions. Bending and extending with fluid motion. Connecting and building movement on top of movement. Sounds pretty cool, right? However, when I think about the B.K.S. Iyengar quote, “The pose starts when you want to leave it,” it hit differently when I considered how challenging it is for some us to just be still with ourselves for extended periods of time. Society in Western culture has a history of conditioning it’s citizens to embrace “grind culture” as a means to an easier life somewhere down the road, training us to drive ourselves beyond our pains and emotional woes with attempts to bury them with external gratification. Yet, by the time many of us “arrive” – if we ever do – we’re often too burnt out to even remember how to relax and enjoy life. Being in the body becomes a struggle, one equipped with a variety of psychosomatic and spiritual baggage.
Yin yoga, however, is about sitting with the Self. It requires the practitioner to learn which positions are challenging for the mind-body to relax into. Then, learn to approach that Self with the compassion necessary to keep sitting until it grants permission to release those holding patterns in the muscles and fascia tissues. It is primarily designed to build and balance the “chi” or electric energy that flows through the organs and associated channels mapped throughout our bodies, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine. This is not to take anything away from other styles of yoga as they all have an important place in the yoga world. Yoga is about balance after all. Some are similar and others quite different from one another with what they address and how. However, let’s get in to a few poses one could begin a yin practice with:
(Variation 1 & 2)
The pose stretches the toes and stimulates six of the energy meridians that start or end in the feet. These are the kidney, urinary bladder, liver, spleen, stomach and gallbladder meridians. Do not sit all the way back on the heels if it strains the knees (variation 2). If there the stretch feels very intense due to tightness in the toes or ankles, do not stay in the pose long. After adding this pose to my regular practice, I’ve noticed my feet feel stronger and I am generally more in control of my body while walking or moving around on my feet. And, naturally, the more often I do it, the longer I am able to stay in the pose.
(With and without props)
This pose can help improve hip rotation! It can, also, bring relief for pregnant mothers (until the 3rd trimester) and folks who live with high blood pressure and asthma. Be careful not to strain the knees in this position. Option to bring the foot of the front leg closer to the groin or use props to bolster the knee for support. Whether my day-to-day has me sitting or standing on my feet for long periods, this pose has acted as a great release or activation for the parts of my legs that I sometimes forget.
(Variations 1, 2, & 3)
This is pose is great for opening up the chest, top of the thighs and even the ankles somewhat. The perfect counter-position for a commonly hunched back. Whether the hands are supporting the low back, resting on the back of the ankles or planted on the foundation behind you, the ideal is to send the hips forward and the chest upward. If taking the option that allows the head to fall back, it can stretch the platysma muscle in the front of the neck as well. However, if you experience any neck issues, you may want to keep the chin towards the chest. It, also, serves to be careful if you have any back injuries or mobility limitations. Practicing this pose regularly has drawn my attention to how much I slouch in my posture and has activated me to seek release through backbend postures more often.
(Variations 1 & 2 with props)
Just as it sounds, the yogi is to curve herself in the shape of a banana. This pose opens up the entire side body, including the obliques around the stomach and the intercostals between the ribs. Option to go as deep into the stretch as the yogi desires. Arms can be raised overhead for a high stretch up the side of the body. Additional support may be needed for that variation such as a bolster or blanket under the arms. The legs may be crossed as well for an added lower stretch down the hip. Be mindful of any joint pain or tingling in the body.
(Without props, with blanket, with bolster)
This is one of my favorite poses! Its benefits range from a gentle spine stretch and massaging of the digestive organs to being psychologically therapeutic for those, like myself, who live with anxiety or deal with heavy stress. It’s a simple pose that can be done with or without the extra support of props such as a blanket under the knees or a bolster to straddle. I include this pose in almost every practice as a break within a flow or as a staple restorative posture. I’d, also, like to note that some bodies are built so that the hips may not come down as low as usually seen. So long as the knees are drawn into the chest and the hips are sitting back towards the heels, you are properly in the pose!
Yoga is truly for everybody. Anyone can start a practice as soon as right now. Simply make the time and create the space. Do not worry about the props you may not have. Just work with what you’ve got and all you really need is you! Have fun exploring these postures and which variations feel good or needed for your body. Feel free to comment on any of my platforms your experiences with these poses. For videos on a guided practice, please tune in and subscribe to the Brittney Shawnee’ YouTube channel.
Until next time. Namaste.