You may have heard that yin yoga helps us to become more flexible but is that really the case? Maybe you’ve tried it and have been disappointed that you didn’t experience as much change as you were hoping for. Or perhaps you pushed yourself really far in a class and are now wondering how you ended up with an injury. Alternatively, you might have been put off trying any type of yoga because the images you see of people doing yoga are full of acrobatic type movements. Let’s explore each of those concerns.
If you have very set routines with your body that involve little change in your body’s position throughout the day, e.g. sitting or standing for most of the day, or do very repetitive movements, e.g. lifting weights, running or cycling, as your only form of exercise, it is likely you will be able to access a lot more flexibility in your body over time by trying some lower intensity movements, such as various forms of yoga or pilates. But if you have been doing these gentle types of classes for a while and are wondering why you are not “progressing” as promised: it’s not you; it’s the false promise of unlimited flexibility that is to blame.
It makes me really sad to think of the number of people out there who are made to feel as though they are not committed enough to their practice or are somehow flawed just because their body doesn’t make the same shape as someone else’s. The reality is that we all have unique bone structures and body shapes and sizes, which is a normal variation in humans. Much of the yoga world, even when well meaning, seems to do a lot of harm by continually telling us to push harder or ignore pain, when that may actually be an indication of doing harm. Sure, some discomfort is to be expected but sharp pain brought on by the movement is not usually a good sign. So sometimes when we come to yin yoga and are starting to learn to notice more about how the poses feel rather than how they look, this can seem wrong as it goes against a lot of what we have been taught elsewhere. But the beauty of continuing to practise is that you can learn to trust yourself again; learn to listen to your body’s needs and to respect its limitations, not as something that needs to be fixed, but as something that just is, a bit like your eye colour. And beyond our individual limits that we can safely practise in, we will also have natural variation day to day. Some days (and times of day, for that matter), we will be stiffer and not move far in yoga, especially in yin, but other days when our body is not holding much tension due to the previous day’s activities or stressors, we will much more easily go further, all within our unique range of motion. It is not about progressing with physical flexibility; it is about progressing with psychological flexibility. Developing an attitude of curiosity about experience, an acceptance of your body as it is in that moment and a willingness to be still with the discomfort that arises when your mind tells you you’re not doing a good enough job or that you “should” push further.
Some people worry that yin yoga can be dangerous or lead to injury. It can be but so can every form of movement. We have to respect it as something that is a tool for fascial release and understand that you can have too much of a good thing, including water. That doesn’t mean it is always easy to avoid injury as sometimes that is part of the learning process about what does and doesn’t work for us. Yin has taught me about some of the adaptations I need to make for the left side of my body and that has partly come from minor injuries in holding poses that I can technically do in terms of flexibility but that don’t quite feel right in the hip bones, which tells me there is some compression happening there (bones pushing together, which has nothing to do with muscle tension). So I adapt and work around this, including avoiding certain forms of poses.
If you are yet to try yin yoga or any forms of yoga because of the types of bodies and level of flexibility displayed in common yoga images that we see in the western world, I want you to know that there is no such thing as a yoga body, and that’s not even touching on how making shapes with our bodies is only one of many parts of what counts as yoga. Whilst it’s great that we are now seeing a wider range of body sizes in yoga imagery, I still worry that what is being celebrated remains the same level of flexibility, which some people in large and small bodies have within their range of motion, but many other people in large and small bodies don’t have and never will be able to attain without injury. So please do give it a go if it is something you are curious about because the benefits of yoga go far beyond how photogenic the shape you make might be. And one of the many wonderful things about yin yoga is that it is very hard to look at what anyone else is doing whilst in one of the poses so it really invites you to just be and find a way of practising noticing, holding back, making intentional movements and allowing time to do the work.