November is a time of transition. Here in New England, we witness the rapidly changing landscape as the trees shed their leaves, and the chill of wind moves through, drying the earth, the air, and our bodies. As we move toward shorter, darker days, the expansive, yang energy of summer is consumed by the contractive, introspective yin energy of autumn. Observing and honoring the downward, inward energy of this time of year and learning to live in harmony with the spirit of the season can contribute to our overall health and wellbeing. Taking a cue from nature, as it slows down and rests for a bit, we too may benefit from sleeping a little longer, eating warm, nourishing foods, and paying closer attention to our inner world.
This month’s Yin Yoga Sequence is aptly titled “Low and Slow”, inviting an earthy, grounded energy, and physically, targeting the lower body, including the feet and ankles. As always, I take into consideration my runners and athletes, who are currently coming off race season or getting ready for the last big races, and this sequence is perfect for either phase of training.
Yin Yoga is a still and passive practice that focuses on exercising the denser connective tissues of the body. By coming into poses that keep the muscles relatively inactive, gravity and time are skillfully used to place stress on the plastic-like tissue within the joint capsules, the dense connective tissue, and bones. Working the body in this way greatly benefits the health of the joints by reducing fixation, maintaining functional mobility, preventing degeneration, and increasing hydration.
In addition to the physical benefits, Yin Yoga opens the body’s meridian system to influence the movement and quality of Qi (chi), enhancing our overall health and state of being and is an opportunity to settle into our experience and observe whatever may arise in the body and mind.
There are three main principles of Yin Yoga. First, we come into a shape and go to the first point of resistance, and from that mild “edge” of sensation, observe what is being felt. The sensation should be no more than a mild, dull ache, and not gravitate toward anything sharp, stabbing, or burning.
The second principle is to remain still. With the muscles relatively relaxed, the stress will transfer to the denser connective tissues. Keep in mind, you are not fixed in a single spot for the duration of the pose. Do be sure to change the angle of the pose to accommodate for any release, or to back away from a sensation that becomes too intense.
Lastly, yin postures are held for longer periods of time. Postures can be held anywhere from three to even 20 minutes, but start with a time frame that makes sense for you, honoring the foregoing tenets.
Practice the postures sequentially as listed, allowing for 3-6 minutes in each pose. You may choose to link some of the poses together, for instance, the dragons can be done in a series, and each variation practiced for a little less time. Get creative with how you sequence, and be sure to give yourself at least 1-2 minutes between postures to rest in a prone or supine savasana, observing the effects. It is normal to feel some fragility as you exit a posture, and that sensation may stay present for a minute or two
1. Neck Release. Sit with a neutral pelvis and tall spine and allow the right ear to fall to the right shoulder. Slip the left hand behind the back and catch hold of the inner right arm. Repeat another side.
2. Toes Pose. Tuck the toes under and sit on the heels. Decrease the sensation by elevating hips with a bolster, or bearing weight into the hands. A block or bolster under the knees may also minimize the intensity.
3. Child’s Pose. Fold the upper body over the thighs with the hips settled toward the heels. Extend the arms forward.
4. Frog Pose. Take the knees wider than the hips and draw the hips forward of the heels to target the inner lines of the legs. Play with the angling of the feet (turned out or neutral), and rest on the forearms, or as shown in 4(a) bring the chest to the floor.
5. Squat. Draw the hips toward the heels and let the upper body relax. Use whatever support you need under the heels or hips to prevent knee/hip pain. Remember – squatting is the new standing, so do this functional movement every day!
6. Dangle. Directly after squat, raise the hips and allow the body to fold over the legs. Keep any amount of bend in the knees and let the upper body be completely relaxed.
7. Wandering Dragon. Step the right foot forward, planting the hands inside the foot on the floor or on blocks to target the hip flexor of the back leg. Pause for a few moments here before walking the hands to the left to target the side body and inner line of the front leg.
8. Runner’s Dragon. From Wandering Dragon, walk the hands to frame the front foot and incline the hips back. Allow the back thigh to be vertical, reducing the sensation in the back leg, and targeting the backline of the front leg.
9. Overstepping Dragon. From Runner’s Dragon, rebend the front leg and pull the foot in closer, laying the torso over the thigh. Allow the heel to rise slightly, inviting sensation to the ankle and Achilles tendon.
10. Screaming Pigeon. What makes a pigeon scream, you might ask? It’s the placement of the block toward the knee, allowing the glute to move toward the floor. This shift in angle and alternate relationship to gravity can create a different experience in many bodies, which may become stronger. (please note, the “screaming” is taken lightly, and please do honor the tenets of the practice by holding poses to a mild edge). Targeting the outer hip, take the right knee forward, allowing for an external rotation of the thigh. Place a block or blanket under the thigh, closer to the knee and experiment with taking the lower leg more parallel to the front edge of the mat. Fold forward to whatever degree you can. Repeat on the left side.
11. 1/2 Shoelace. This can be paired with Screaming Pigeon, by swinging the back leg forward, and crossing the right leg over the left thigh as shown. Allow the body to round forward and sit on whatever height is necessary to prevent the hips from rolling back.
12. Sphinx. Place the elbows under the shoulders, keeping the legs relaxed. The Head may be kept in a neutral position, fall forward, or the forehead can rest on a block.
13. Seal. Transitioning from Sphinx, fully extend the arms, moving the hands toward the body any amount that allows for an appropriate amount of sensation to the lumbar spine. Hands may turn in our out.
14. Saddle. Sitting on the hips, or on a block as shown, lean the upper body back, resting the elbows on a bolster to target the front line of the body, and extend the spine. Taking the pose further back will work for some bodies, either with a prop (as shown in 14a) or without a prop. Play with taking the thighs wider, and be sure to avoid this pose if any pain is felt in the knees.
15. Dragonfly. Take the legs wide and fold forward, resting the palms, forearms, or torso on the floor. The sensation may be felt along the inner lines of the legs or along the backline of the body.
16. Easy Twist. Lie on your right side, with the knees pulled up toward the hips. Lift the left arm to peel open the upper body, allowing for an easy spinal twist. Arrange the arms however it feels best.
I hope you can take the time to incorporate some, if not all the postures within this sequence. Please do let me know if you have any questions or comments! Enjoy!
Photos by Cindy Giovagnoli
Disclaimer: Not all yoga poses are suitable for all persons. Always consult your health care provider and obtain full medical clearance before practicing yoga or any other exercise program. The information provided in this blog is strictly for reference only and is not in any manner a substitute for the medical advice or direct guidance of a qualified yoga instructor.