Human.Kind’s Tessa Leon explains what all the fuss is about.
Socked feet shuffle through the studio door, hands full of cushions and cups of tea. Ambient classical music plays in the background as people loll about on their mats pre-class. At home, some are setting up to livestream this session from bed.
They’ve all paid to lie on the floor for an hour and stay still. Not talking to anyone. Not touching their phone. Is this the equivalent of ‘quiet time’ at kindy, but for adults?
People are flocking in droves to Yin Yoga classes in studios everywhere.
The practice involves mellow floor based postures. Supported with bolsters (fancy name for a thick yoga pillow) and held for many minutes at a time. Sometimes incorporating gentle breathwork, meditation, myofascial release or subtle energetics from Chinese medicine traditions.
The teacher enters the room and nestles into their place up front. Music fades and the class hushes. Soon after setting everyone up in an initial pose, (limp bodies flopped over bolsters with heads propped on blocks) the teacher coos, “we’ll now stay here for 5 minutes. And stay still. And relax.”
Some soften their shoulders and settle in. Some gaze at the ceiling and make mental shopping lists. Some panic.
Why are we so earnestly seeking these yin-style practices?
Over the past few years, during the reign of The-Virus-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named, swathes of western society realised: it’s hard for us to slow down.
There was that brief (or not so brief, for some) phase in lockdown when, set adrift from the buzz of busy offices, many faced their productivity guilt head on. A couple years later, life has returned to a guise of its usual growth-driven hustle.
Has this helped us realise that our cultural pendulum has swung waaaay into the yang side of life? And become stuck there?
The concept of yin and yang comes from ancient Taoist wisdom. They believed that all of life, or nature, flows between opposites. Light and dark, joy and sorrow, bitter and sweet. Each extreme contains the other, because one cannot exist without the other. Therefore everything moves on a spectrum, and can only be measured relative to its opposite. Eg. light becomes more obvious in contrast to darkness.
The Tao says humans are a part of nature, and we flow between yin and yang as well.
Yang is fast moving, buzzing, busy doing.
Yin is slow, soft, receptive, undoing.
Hence the namesake of Yin Yoga.
The lights go down. The room falls silent. Fingers unclench and fall to the floor. Tight upper shoulders unravel. The teacher whispers, “let your entire body surrender into the ground beneath you”.
So what happens to us on the inside of a yin yoga class? And why do we feel so damn good afterwards?
The insidiousness of consumer capitalism culture is that we internalise it until its momentum itches at us from the inside out. The thrill to do more and get more and be more stops us from spending long spaces in the quiet, ordinary simplicity of what is. What we already have. What is right here.
One of the most common complaints people experience in Yin Yoga is, ‘my mind won’t stay still’. If you’re nodding in agreement right now, you’re not alone. If you have a human brain, it’s likely you share this experience.
Quick science lesson
Our minds are designed to think. Synapses fire electrical impulses through mushy grey matter between our ears which ensures we are alive and functioning. This is not a feature you should wish to stop. The problem is, our minds time travel. Rehashing something that happened in the past, or rehearsing things coming up in the future. Your mind is busy solving the problems that it feels are important to you.
Apparently we have up to 80,000 thoughts per day. The funny/terrifying thing is, most of them are repeats. Our brains re-run important moments, practising to make sure we’ll get it right next time. When we recycle a thought this way, psychologists call it ‘rumination’. If this particular thought is stressful or anxiety provoking, the body will respond accordingly.
This is why ‘being present’ is not an easy task.
It’s also why, when you lay down in a yin yoga pose, you may still feel very ‘yang’ on the inside. Your mind gets busy making sure everything is in order; planning, organising, interpreting all the events of the day to alleviate any perceived ‘threat’. (‘Threat’ meaning any risk of not being liked, getting it wrong, not being good enough.)
This is why your mind feels like it’s constantly vigilant. Humans have evolved this way. In a society that tells us we perpetually need more more-ness, we are relentlessly triggered into the stress response. There is nothing wrong with you. It’s not your fault.
Let’s have that again. It’s. Not. Your. Fault.
So what are we meant to do with these frenzied little minds of ours?
The traditions of yoga date back thousands of years. However in the beginning it was not about poses or physicality. It was about mind training. And even before that, it was about spiritual connection.
However sitting in meditation is a big leap for most people caught in the tide of daily hustle.
Yin yoga is the gateway drug.
Without realising it, you are practising mindfulness (mind training) and tuning back into what is really important to you (spiritual connection). You locate some peace amidst the chaos.
Over time, the practices of yoga evolved to include movements and postures as tools. For us today, using the body is key.
Research has shown that somatic experiencing, (learning to feel your feelings in your body) is a portal to present moment awareness. However, modern sedentary humans may have an unfamiliar relationship to embodied experience. As James Joyce wrote, “Mr Duffy lived a short distance from his body”.
But here’s the magic spell. Our bodies always exist in the present moment. Our breath can’t time travel. The heart beats in real time. The sensations you feel, albeit influenced by your mental state, are always felt right here inside your skin. Nothing that happens to you can ever be experienced outside of this fleshy vessel that you inhabit for a fleeting number of seemingly accelerating decades.
We are familiar with the myriad of contemporary postural yoga practices that swing towards the yang end of the spectrum: Vinyasa Yoga, Power Yoga, Ashtanga Yoga, Bikram Yoga.
The rise of Yin Yoga, a relatively recent phenomenon in a millennia old tradition, is a swing in the opposite direction. As people crave a way to slow down, to unwrap their minds from the tight grip of constant vigilance, yin yoga attendance gains on the rest.
The teacher’s voice is soft and slow as the class creeps along. Deep sighs fill the air and by the hour’s end, some soft snoring. People blink slowly as they roll up their mats and give each other sleepy smiles on the way out. Jaws have unclenched. Shoulders have dropped. There is a visceral softness in the space. The people at home on the livestream roll over and tuck in to sleep.
Students describe how Yin Yoga makes them feel not only more relaxed, but more able to be present with their feelings, observe their mind more gently, and relate to their own experiences with a little less anxiety.
They come back two, sometimes three times a week for a dose of this medicine. Savouring the delicious contrast of softness, slowness and presence. These flavours soak through, eventually into all aspects of life.
In a society that teaches us non-stop hustle, perhaps practising the art of stillness is a radical act.
Tessa Leon is Creative Director and Lead Facilitator at Human.Kind.
One of Australia’s leading yoga communities.
Their 50hr Yin Yoga training, ‘The Art of Stillness’ runs 21 – 25 September.
Join them in the Adelaide Studio or online via livestream.