Like meditation, yin yoga tends to be viewed as something that is supposed to help us relax. But is that what always happens when we practise? And if not, does that mean we are doing something wrong? I’m going to explain why yin yoga can be both a form of relaxation as well as anything but relaxing at times.
When we slow down and pay attention to our senses, physical sensations, observe thoughts and feelings coming and going, if we are in a situation where we are safe, chances are that most of us will feel relaxed by doing a meditation practice or yin yoga. Some of this relaxation will be how our minds feel and some of it will be how our bodies feel as the muscles are allowed to take a break when we give them a chance to unclench. But there are also many situations in which these practices may not lead to relaxation.
If we are practising these skills at a time when things are really not okay for us, it can still be very valuable to do in order to make use of our higher level thinking skills (e.g. our ability to plan, problem solve and inhibit unhelpful responses) as these are more difficult to access at the peak of stressful moments when our threat system is sending off strong danger signals to our whole body. And these higher level skills can help us see which problems we might stand a chance of influencing and to try to work on those whilst parking some of the other problems that we are facing that we may not be able to do anything about. Yes, there may also be some problems that our minds have creatively predicted before they have even happened and learning to notice and move on from those can be helpful but the reality is that a lot of people do have very real problems in their lives so the suggestion that we should use mindfulness and other yogic practices just to allow those problems to float away is incredibly problematic and sets up a false expectation which leads to people giving up and feeling as though they have failed.
I have worked with a lot of people who have told me that they have tried yoga or meditation and that it just doesn’t “work”. I treat that comment with curiosity and explore expectations of what it means for something to work or not. We discuss the intention to be present and notice whatever may be arising, whether that be pleasant or unpleasant to us, as a sign that we are doing it. So this means that during yin yoga, if you notice that your mind is very busy and distracted, there is still that mindful part of you that noticed the distraction. That is awareness. You are doing it. Yes, we want to practise bringing back our attention sooner when we can but it all counts and, like any practice, we cannot expect to be good at it straight away. We also can’t expect that we can be good at it every day even when we have been practising for a long time because life is complicated and our brains are tricky.
Whilst bringing our attention back to the present moment is an important skill, I sometimes hear suggestions of just to distract ourselves by counting when we encounter difficult thoughts. We might need that on occasion as a break but I do not believe that it is helpful to encourage total avoidance of difficult thoughts and feelings. That doesn’t fit with what yoga is and many people who come to yoga are already using many distraction based coping strategies to an unhelpful degree. I talk about the benefits of focusing on the physical sensations of poses as a helpful anchor as well as to raise awareness of what the pose is doing so that we are still in the target area as well as increasing our connection with our bodies but sometimes that can end up being used as a distraction tool too. The context and the extent to which we use each technique matter. If we are living our lives ignoring all of our problems and/or completely avoiding our own thoughts and feelings so that we can continue to please others, we may actually get more benefit from paying more attention to what we are thinking and feeling. We may need to listen to our own wisdom that has been there all along, which may need to be practised in small doses in a place that we feel safe. We may need to allow the accompanying emotions to arise and be validated. If horrible things have happened to you or others, of course you are allowed to feel angry but society doesn’t encourage us to feel that and much of western yoga teaching is all “love and light” and “positive vibes only” which is also incredibly problematic. The way yoga is marketed (and sometimes the way it is taught too) makes me angry. Yin yoga allows me to feel my anger.
If you are someone who never lets yourself feel angry and jumps straight to defending other people, as is very common for highly sensitive people, I don’t want your yin yoga or meditation practices to always be relaxing. They might be sometimes but I also want you to make room for these practices to be a space where you allow anger to be there. Maybe sadness too, and disappointment, and anxiety and maybe even apathy. I want you to let yourself be human. And if sometimes there is joy or relaxation in your practice, wonderful! But perhaps allow yourself to plan another activity for regular relaxation alongside your yin yoga practice so that you get the full benefits of both. And if what you are needing is a really deep, restful relaxation yoga practice, I would actually recommend restorative yoga, not yin. I explain that in a bit more detail in one of my previous posts about whether yin yoga counts as exercise.
If you are ready to explore the difficult stuff within a yin yoga practice, you really do need to feel safe and be in control of your own practice. Finding a teacher you can trust is really important. For some people, going to a class to do this intense work, knowing that tears may be likely as we soften around our tension, is not manageable or desirable. The possibility of being touched by a teacher to change our positioning can also feel a huge risk. This is why I focus my teaching online aiming at helping people to build up their own home practice in a way that can flexibility fit around busy schedules once you have the tools. If you feel this would be a good way for you to begin or continue your self compassion journey, signing up to my newsletter is the best way to stay informed of new offerings when they are available and further information can be found on the classes section of my website.