Practicing Yin Yoga poses offers the opportunity to find profound release of tension in the deeper lying tissues of the body, and significantly increase range of motion. Because the nature of this practice is one of passive ‘stretching’*, students often think they need to ‘warm up’ their muscles with movement first, or that a Yin practice is best done in late afternoon and evening. This is, however, not true. On the contrary, a Yin Yoga practice is – on a physical level – most effective when done with ‘cold’ muscles and makes, therefore, for a perfect start of the day.
In my blog Yin is In I describe how Yin Yoga can reach the deeper layers of the body. These layers are fascia and connective tissue. Simply put, our muscles are embedded in, and interwoven with, fascia. Connective tissue is a type of fascia that holds specific parts of our body together. Where the connective tissue holds our bones together we call it ligaments. Ligaments are inelastic, as opposed to muscles that are elastic. They cannot stretch, yet by gently pulling on the ligaments – as we do when we hold Yin Yoga poses – they will lengthen and so allow a greater range of motion in the joint.
In order to keep our joints safe, they need to be stable before putting any significant stress on them. For example, when you bend your knees they need to point straight over your second and third toe – instead of moving toward the inner or outer foot – to avoid strain on the delicate ligaments on the medial and lateral side of the knee. By engaging the surrounding muscles the joint will ‘close’ and thus stabilize. You can check this with your own finger:
Spread the fingers of your right hand wide while elongating your fingers. With your left fingers, gently pull on your right middle finger. Do you feel any movement in the little joints in your finger?
You probably noticed that there was no movement possible in the little joints of your finger when it was taut.
But in Yin Yoga, as described above, we actually want to create a tiny movement in the joint. So how do we accomplish this? You can check this again with your own finger:
Relax your right hand and let the fingers hang. Again, with your left fingers, gently pull on your right middle finger. Do you feel any movement in the little joints in your finger now?
You now probably noticed there actually was a little bit of wiggle room around the small joints.
In other words: when our muscles are slackened the joints are open. When a joint is open the ligaments that bind the bones in the joint together are pulled tight, and when we then gently pull on these ligaments we are able to create the desired space that wouldn’t happen otherwise.
Since muscles and fascia are not separate – as a matter of fact, thirty percent of our muscles is made up of fascia – and it is the fascia that merges our muscles with our bones through the tendons, it makes sense why practicing Yin Yoga with ‘cold’ muscles has more effect than when holding the poses after the muscles are ‘warm’. Cold muscles are short, warm muscles are long(er). Even though you relax the muscles in Yin Yoga, the fact that they are short (when cold) will still give a stronger pull on the ligaments then after you have ‘warmed up’.
Of course, Yin Yoga has many other benefits of which calming the mind is not the least important one. So if you are looking for a yoga practice that ‘slows you down‘, doing some Yin poses at the end of the day is great stress reliever. Also, Yin poses after a more dynamic practice are a nice way to balance your body and mind. However, if you are looking for a significant increase of your range of motion – which will give you a far greater sense of agility than muscular flexibility, and is a very important aspect of keeping your body healthy – do your Yin Yoga practice in the morning. Your joints will thank you.
* Technically: pulling or compressing tissues, as connective tissue doesn’t stretch like muscles.