09 December 2016

Getting My Yin On

A busy avenue on the East side of town. Outside, the main rail artery out of town is busy. Warning gates drop and sirens sound every few minutes. Rush hour is winding down but there is still plenty of traffic on the four lane street. At regular intervals, the express bus from downtown stops, drops off, picks up, and moves on.

Inside the tiny yoga studio, it is semi-dark. Room temperature. Parts of the plastered walls are gone, revealing ancient brick beneath. There is a whiff of incense in the air. It is a peaceful place where students learn to block out the background, open their hearts as well as their bodies, and learn to accept what is.

Welcome to Yin yoga.

A few weeks before my Bikram studio closed, one of the instructors saw me continually struggling in the hot room. She also teaches Yin, and suggested I try it. She explained it as follows:

"Bikram yoga is a very Yang type of yoga. Hot. Lots of movement and exertion. It is very masculine. Yin is the opposite. Feminine. Quiet. Cool. Holding poses for minutes at a time. Letting your body slowly open itself. You will feel the effects for days."

So I did a little investigating, found the hole in the wall studio, and signed up. 

The instructor owns the studio with her husband, and together they teach Hatha, Vinyasa, and Yin classes, with a few different classes here and there. When I told her I was a Bikram devotee, she nodded and said her yoga journey began with Bikram as well. She said this would be completely different and that I would love it. So I unrolled my little rubber mat and waited. I have to admit I felt like a stranger in a strange land... no heat, no mirror to fight, no carpet on the floor. I watch as 4-5 regulars walk in, greet each other, and get set up.  The instructor takes her place on her mat, welcomes me, and explains that this class will concentrate on the liver and gallbladder "meridians" -- channels that conduct energy throughout the body. With that, away we went.

The biggest differences:

1) Obviously, the first difference is the lack of heat. I joked that I might need a sweater, but in reality it did not seem to bother me. Recall, Yin is cool and quiet as opposed to Yang which is hot and "busy" or more dynamic. In fact, the instructor believes the heat gives the body a false sense of being truly open and loose. Remember: this person started her journey in Bikram yoga and has taught in hot environments, so she has far more insight than I do.

2) Breathing: In Bikram one of the main mantras is, "Suck your stomach in. Hold it in.", even in Pranayama. Well in Yin (and in the Vinyasa class I took this week) that does not hold. Took a while to get used to pushing the belly out on the inhale, THEN sucking back in on the exhale. Still crosses me up.

3) Postures: I am acquainted with Downward Dog or Half Pigeon, but Cat/Cow? Dolphin? Sphinx?  Frog? I seem to learn a new pose in every class. Sometimes I catch myself trying to find a comparable Bikram pose (usually Cobra) and fall into it instead.

4) Props: Bolsters, blankets, and blocks, oh my! Along with straps and sandbags, no less. Foreign objects to someone who usually only has a water bottle and towel when practicing. Yin is about slowly opening the body and creating new space in both body and mind. The props help the body to relax itself long enough to open. If I recall correctly, she said it takes the body a minute or so to "get used to the idea" and relax the muscles and other tissues. She is right. Time after time we would go into a pose and my body would tense or cramp (almost always on the side OPPOSITE the side that was stretching) but after coming back up, taking a breath, and breathing back into the pose, everything would relax. Now, I did not by any stretch go deeply into a pose, but I did get in.

5) Accoutrements: Sometimes there is soft music. Sometimes it the chimes of Tibetan Singing Bowls (search on YouTube -- I sometimes put them on to sleep to). There might be incense. Last week it was a gong bath -- feeling the sound waves move through you is strangely relaxing. Almost always, she chants in Sanskrit (this lady knows 12 languages!) during Savasana. All add to the novelty... each class in different in its own way.

My takeaways:

First, while I love Bikram and am dearly missing the heat (if you missed the previous post, my Bikram studio was forced to close several weeks ago), this is a wonderful form to practice. Bikram is said to be a "moving meditation", but it can be difficult to meditate when you are sucking air and your heart is pounding after Triangle Pose and, yes, that is one of the goals of the practice. In Yin, there is none of that and I find it to be more meditative. I still fight the thoughts racing through my brain, but it is easier to quiet my mind.

Second, by holding poses for two, three, five minutes or more, my body is more open and I think my progress in postures is quicker.

Third, Yin can be just as intense as any Bikram or hot yoga class. I have walked out of that studio with legs shaking every bit as hard as any hot class I've taken. Look up "Half Saddle Pose" and add a twist to it... Yeah.  Also, it is true... you do feel the effects for days.

Finally, I am far weaker than I thought. Especially in my core. While she does not teach any standing poses, there are times we are asked to lift our legs off of the floor; sometimes even to the vertical. That is really difficult for me to do even with my hands holding my hips. Combine that with my gut preventing much of anything in the way of a forward fold, and I have plenty of work to do.

I have been taking these Yin classes once or twice a week now for about six or eight weeks. I am convinced they are greatness. I love the studio and the souls I practice with. It is a tiny place and I've never seen more than ten people in a class and the intimacy of the space is relaxing. Even as I search for a warmer yoga to practice, I continue to be drawn to this little oasis of calm. I hope you look up a Yin class near you and try one soon!

Next time: the yoga tour continues as I try a Vinyasa class, I try yoga at home from an app, and the trouble with December.


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