For many years I’ve been hearing people refer to Ashtanga as a “yang” practice. Or I hear practitioners say that they’ve taken up “yin yoga” to complement their Ashtanga practice. But what does that mean? Is Ashtanga a yang practice? In this article I’ll continue my series taking apart rules and myths as they’ve been applied to the practice of Ashtanga yoga. In this article we’ll take a look at where the ideas of yin and yang and Ashtanga intersect, and where they don’t.
What are yin and yang?
Yin and yang are qualities that can be used to describe the essence of something. They are used to describe aspects or qualities of everything from food to the human body. Yin is considered to have qualities of: receptivity, dark, and stillness, for example. Examples of yang qualities include: initiation, light, and motion.
How do yin and yang apply to yoga?
Already by talking about yin and yang and yoga, we’re mixing concepts of understanding. The ideas of yin and yang belong to the world of Taoist philosophy and Chinese medicine. And let me be completely transparent and say that this is not my main area of study and I definitely do not consider myself an expert on the subject. Having said that, I have read a decent amount of Taoist philosophy and came to yoga practice through Tai Chi Chuan. The concepts of yoga and Ayurveda (sister practices of Yoga) have similarities to those of Chinese medicine, but they are not the same. So when someone refers to “yin yoga” things start to get a little murky.
One idea that the two schools have in common is that of holding opposing energies in balance: sun and moon; yin and yang; and dark and light. But what often gets lost when we use those words is an understanding that yin and yang only exist in relationship to each other. Without yin there is no yang. Without yang there is no yin. So we might say something is yin as compared to something else.
Ultimately these two philosophies are about creating balance and maintaining it. To be clear, I’m all for that. This ties back into the concepts of duality — neither pushing too hard nor being lazy for instance. We look for the middle ground and believe that to be the healthiest place to operate in and from.
So back to yin and yang and yoga. There are a couple ways these words get used in conjunction with yoga. One is the idea of “yin yoga” classes. Classes that market themselves as yin yoga often do long holds using supportive bolsters, blankets, and other props. They might play soft music intended to be relaxing. But, is that “yin”? Maybe it’s related to yin. My understanding of yin is that it is more subtle than that. Yin is not just a word that’s synonymous with relaxing. That’s a big over-simplification. Remember we said that yin has the qualities of receptivity and stillness. So that’s more than simply relaxing.
One idea that I’ve heard about “yin yoga” is that you’re stretching different tissues, or different parts of the tissues, than you are in a vinyasa style class. Sometimes, anatomy is used to take this concept further stating that the belly of the muscle (where fascia lives) is yin and the tendons are yang. Through the lens of a simplified version of yin and yang, I wouldn’t argue with this. Sometimes it gets even more nuanced.
Examples of that idea have popped up in articles from Yoga Journal, like this quote: “Yang tissues like muscles are more fluid-filled, soft, and elastic; yin tissues like connective tissue (ligaments, tendons, and fascia) and bones are dryer, harder, and stiffer. By extension, exercise that focuses on muscle tissue is yang; exercise that focuses on connective tissue is yin.” And again I’ve seen examples of this in Yoga International, like this: “Yin postures are primarily passive in nature and held anywhere from one minute to well over five minutes in order to target the body’s connective tissues, rather than muscle groups.”
The interwoven reality of myofascia
From an anatomy perspective, the quotes above don’t make sense. Muscles are a type of connective tissue, just as ligaments and tendons are. Fascia is a specific type of connective tissue that is interwoven within muscle tissue at every layer of development all the way down to the muscle cell level. That makes it essentially impossible to stretch fascia without stretching muscle tissue. This is why muscles are more accurately and academically referred to as myofascia.
What is a muscle?
Essentially, a muscle is a row of two different proteins, actin and myosin. What keeps these proteins in a row? A layer of connective tissue. A simplified view might be that our muscle cells are in a straw or tube of connective tissue which are bundled and wrapped with another layer of connective tissue. When stimulated by the nervous system, the proteins inside those layers of connective tissue become attracted to one another.
What are we stretching?
When I put my anatomy hat on, the idea that we can stretch fascia without stretching muscle tissue is something I really question. Even if I agree that a more active practice can be classified as yang and a more passive practice as yin, there is a leap made in the quotes above that I cannot agree with. The leap made in the quotes above is that “By extension, exercise that focuses on muscle tissue is yang; exercise that focuses on connective tissue is yin.” Names, parts, and pieces of the body are nothing more than a human, mental construct. NOTHING is separated in the body. We have to separate it mentally or with a scalpel.
In searching academic research, I have not found any study that suggests a reason that you would be stretching different tissues or parts of the tissue with long holds in a yoga pose, as compared to shorter holds. You might have the sensation that you are stretching “more” or “deeper” when you stay in a position longer. But, understand that those are words describing your felt sense, not an objective anatomical reality. Additionally, none of the statements above even begin to touch on the nervous system’s relationship to these tissues, much less our bodily constitution and how it might respond to different types of activities or stretching of the myofascia.
Myth: Ashtanga yoga is a “yang” practice
Another idea that gets passed around is that Ashtanga is a “yang” practice. So, is that true? No, but it could be if you want it to be. Ashtanga yoga is a bit like tofu. It takes on the flavors you give it. Ashtanga yoga is not a yang practice. It’s not a yin practice either. Ashtanga yoga is Ashtanga yoga, it’s neutral. We can do our practice in a way that it has more qualities of yang or we can emphasize yin qualities. Or we can move between qualities of both. Remember, we talked about seeking balance earlier.
With Ashtanga yoga, you have a choice. You can choose to do a high energy, dynamic practice. And you can also choose to do a slow, focused, receptive, intuitive practice. And all of those qualities don’t prevent the others from occurring. You may experience all of the above in the same practice. You may also choose to emphasize one suite of qualities over others based on your needs on a particular day. That is skilled practice. The awareness to know how we are feeling and then what it is we need is hopefully something we are cultivating in our yoga practice. Understanding the Ashtanga yoga practice as a set of tools that we can use to support those needs is the next step.
How do we emphasize certain qualities in our practice?
Like many subtle aspects of Ashtanga, one of the ways to steer the qualities of our practice is with the breath. Consider that if you are feeling a bit frazzled, then leaning more in the yin direction could be beneficial. You could explore that by slowing down the pace of the breath. Try paying special attention to keeping the pace of the inhale and exhale even or with a slightly longer exhale. Breathing in that way is soothing to the nervous system. And when our nervous system is balanced we feel more available for those yin concepts of receptivity and stillness.
In contrast, if you’re feeling tired, heavy, or stuck, consider picking up the pace of the breath and working more lightly with the postures. Focus on keeping a steady, but not too fast, breathing pace, and don’t go so deeply into the postures. This can help pick the energy up and leave you feeling more energized for your day if that’s what you need.