What Yin Yoga, Meditation and making Sauerkraut have in common
Have you ever wondered, while standing in front of the cool section at the grocery store, why organic fermented sauerkraut is so expensive? Try making it yourself, and you will understand why. Since there is only so much raw red cabbage that you can eat, I was looking for ways to get rid of the purple beast I had lying in my fridge (other than throwing it in the compost pile). A recipe from the Minimalist Baker offered the solution: to make sauerkraut you need a lot of cabbage…
The other night I set myself to the task. I cut the sauerkraut, put it in a large bowl with some salt, and started massaging it. Yes, you read that right: the recipe said to massage the cabbage. For 10 minutes! It was suggested that the cabbage would soften and release water. After 5 minutes I wondered if something ever was going to happen, but, sure enough, close to the 10-minute mark the cabbage suddenly released a lot of liquid. It changed from a ‘plastic’ state to a more ‘elastic’ one. If I hadn’t persisted in my massaging efforts, I would not have witnessed (nor believed) the cabbage changing in consistency this dramatically.
So what does this sauerkraut making experience have to do with Yin Yoga and meditation? Well, it suddenly came to me while I was teaching a class yesterday. Just like massaging red cabbage doesn’t yield the desired result when not done for long enough, the same is true for practicing yin yoga poses and meditation: if you are in a hurry the practice won’t have the same beneficial effect (and, in some cases, no effect at all). Let me explain.
In Yin Yoga (seated and supine) postures are held for several minutes at a time, instead of for five (or so) breaths. The aim of this practice is to lengthen and hydrate the connective tissue and the fascia that surrounds our joints and muscles, in order to enhance mobility, and the health of these tissues. Connective tissue and fascia (hereinafter collectively called: “tissue”) have different qualities than muscles. Whereas muscles (being elastic) respond well to dynamic movement, tissues (which are plastic) need to be handled with care: only gentle pulling or compression over longer periods of time will lead to the desired change. You could compare the tissues with a credit card: if you try to bend it, it won’t give. But if you continue to wiggle it, eventually it will loosen up (and may even break if you do it for too long).
The moment the tissues turn from stiff to loose(r) is called a ‘phase change’. If you’ve ever practiced Yin Yoga you may know this feeling of your body suddenly – literally – letting go. This phase change doesn’t occur after 5 or 10 breaths. Most often, it is not until after 3 minutes that the tissues suddenly release. This is the reason why Yin poses are generally held for at least 3 minutes. If you come out of the pose before the phase change has happened, you may have had a nice moment of relaxation but not much – if not nothing – will have happened at the deeper level of the tissues. Exactly the way red cabbage doesn’t become soft within 5 minutes of massaging it.
This concept also applies to the mind. I am not suggesting that phase changes happen in the brain, but something similar does occur. One of my teachers likened the mind to a pendulum. A pendulum keeps swinging as long as you push it regularly. However, once you stop the pushing it will take some time before the pendulum comes to a complete stop. The same is true for the mind. During the day our mind is constantly stimulated by everything that happens around us, the things we see, the people we talk to, etc. The more stimuli the more active our mind will be. When we sit down to meditate, and close our eyes to withdraw from outside stimulus, the mind will not be quiet right away (as you may have experienced). It takes some times for the mind to loose its momentum, just like the pendulum. It may take 15 minutes for the mind to become still. This is why meditating for only 5 minutes may not always lead to stillness in the mind, and people therefore often say that they “can’t meditate”. Sitting quietly for 5 minutes is definitely beneficial for our (mental) health; it just may not have the same effect as sitting for 15 minutes or longer.
I highly recommend making your own sauerkraut. Massage the cabbage mindfully to turn your food prep into a 10-minute meditation. With a quiet and focused mind any activity becomes more enjoyable. When you’re done, take 5 minutes to stretch in a Yin pose to enhance your joint health. Doing so will not only save you money at the grocery store, it will increase your overall well-being. And that is definitely worth the effort.
Marije Paternotte offers a 75-hour Yin Yoga Teacher Training at Samahita Retreat on October 24 – November 3, 2018. Read more here.