So you’ve come across the term “highly sensitive person” or HSP and feel this may help to understand your needs. You’ve noticed that you are emotionally sensitive on the inside, yet present as calm in all situations. You’ve noticed how easy it is to feel physically and emotionally dysregulated with sounds and smells that don’t seem to bother other people nearly so much and you do your best to put up with it at work. You’re physically drained despite thinking you’ve not done much but more than one cup of coffee has you all jittery so you keep powering through. You get praised for your attention to detail and the standards you achieve in many areas of your life but you’re not sure how you’re ever going to get through everything on your to-do list. There is a different way. A way that respects your needs as a HSP, whilst allowing you to choose where you spend your limited energy based on your values, i.e. what matters most to you.
Some HSP needs that you may be ignoring
In the above description, if you identified with the parts about putting up with things and powering through, those are examples of times you may be ignoring your own needs. The need for sufficient quiet time, regular breaks between periods of high stimulation, the nutrition and hydration levels that make your body feel good, and even the need for fun and exercise which often get removed from our daily schedules as a way of coping with the exhaustion levels faced by overly busy days.
The physical and emotional impact of ignoring these needs
In the short term, we can often feel we are getting away with these coping styles. However, we are often in a prolonged state of stress and threat, which makes it very challenging to problem solve effectively and to be tuned in to what truly matters to us because it will all seem urgent and necessary. And an added issue is, HSPs are likely to go over an above what other people might do as well as looking out for other people’s needs, which can further add to feeling overwhelmed. In the long term, we may burn out, be more susceptible to all kinds of illnesses and struggle to recover from illness when this does occur. We are likely to feel low, anxious and guilty about not being able to continue performing at our best, especially if, like many highly sensitive people, you work in the helping professions and/or provide a lot of unpaid care for loved ones. What we are often not noticing, is what is happening in the lead up to these tipping points. When we are pushing through, we may be holding our breath or breathing in a very shallow way without realising. We may be clenching our jaws and fists, frowning, tensing in the pelvic area, hunching our shoulders. All of these behaviours are incredibly common and can interfere with healthy digestive function, contribute to pain and headaches, and these symptoms can further add to our sense of stress. That is not to say that all pain, headaches or digestive issues are cause by our behaviours alone but our behaviours are the area of our live that we can work towards changing if this helps us live a life that is better for us.
What has any of this got to do with yin yoga?
Yin yoga is one of a range of ways in which you can start practising releasing tension that you might not even realise you are holding. Whilst other forms of yoga can be great for this too, there is often a tendency from the way it is taught and/or our approach to practising it that leads to more striving than is helpful. This can lead it to become yet another “doing” activity rather than something that lets us just be. A mindful meditation practice can also be another great way of practising letting go, but when we are overwhelmed and consumed with to-do lists, the very things that might help us most can sometimes feel too much. Yin yoga can be incredibly meditative whilst allowing us to feel we are still doing something. However, in this from of doing, we are taught to relax into the pose, using stillness and time to ease the muscles into a more rested state whilst adding gentle stress to the fascia, our deeper connective tissues and joints in our body that do not usually get as much of our attention.
Okay, it can teach us to relax the muscles, now what?
Once our muscles start to relax, we can feel a sense of a weight being lifted off our shoulders. It sends a clear message to the brain that we are not in an emergency and allows our breathing to return to a more soothing rhythm even without us trying. This in turn helps us enter our “rest and digest” state, which, exactly as it sounds, allows the digestive system to do its thing more effectively. But yin yoga is definitely not just about relaxation; it’s also very challenging in ways that you might not expect.
As yin yoga poses are held for 2-5 minutes in a class, up to 10 minutes if you are more experienced, the time spent in stillness with stress on fascia can lead to an intensifying of sensation. Our habitual reaction to these changes can be to want to move and “fix” it but each time we do move, we are re-engaging our muscles and undoing some of the good work. So part of the practice is learning when to be still, when it is worth moving, and the power of very small, intentional movements. In those moments we choose to be still and ride out the wave of discomfort, we are sending a message to our brain that we are safe and we can learn to get curious about what is happening in our body. And the more we do this in yin yoga or other forms of meditation, the more we can get curious about our bodily sensations at other times. The more we can gather evidence that a moment of discomfort does not necessarily mean we will remain in discomfort. The more we can gather evidence that forcing ourselves to push through when we are in pain isn’t worth it. And that brings us to the topic of boundaries.
One of the myths about yin yoga and yoga in general is that if we keep practising, we will become infinitely more flexible and look like a gymnast, yet those “yoga” images we see on Instagram, are often from people who are or were gymnasts and dancers. Some of them will just have the bones to allow this safely, whilst others will technically be able to get themselves into these positions but may have hypermobility or bone shapes and angles that will lead to injury with this kind of activity. What you often won’t hear is that injuries are common with yoga, including for teachers who may feel a sense of shame in not being able to get into a certain pose but it has nothing to do with not trying hard enough or not being dedicated to the practice; it is usually an issue of DNA. So whilst we are likely to gain some flexibility through taking up yoga if we don’t usually stretch much, there is only a certain point to which this is healthy and that is different for each person. This means in yin yoga we each need to take a degree of personal responsibility of learning when to do more, how quickly to do more, and when to hold back, slightly ease back from a pose, or stop altogether. We are always looking for our “edge” or “sweet spot” in yin yoga. The point at which we are feeling it but not in so much discomfort that we can’t rest in that spot, and definitely not so much that we are in pain. And we factor in how long we are aiming to stay in the pose for so that we can sustain it. Unfortunately, we sometimes only learn that lesson once we have injured ourselves but we can still see that as an opportunity to ease back and reassess what works for us and what doesn’t in our physical practices. I really believe we need to apply the same degree of self awareness to other behaviours in our life, and the more we can acknowledge and embrace the wonderful differences we have as human beings, the more able we will be to work towards sustainable lifestyles. Because what is a sustainable lifestyle for you, may not be for me.
UK only, if you found this article helpful and would like to work with me 1:1 to learn yin yoga in a way that can support you to consider your needs in various life areas, I currently have some easy booking private yin yoga slots available on Mondays and Fridays at 17:30 and can be contacted to arrange alternative time slots on those days.