A student recently asked if my hatha yoga practice is the same now as when I was in my 20s. A bit defensively I answered, “Yes, of course.” As I pondered the question later, I realized a more honest answer is, “In my 60-something body I practice many of the same postures. I just do them differently.” I’ve come to name this “doing” a Yin Approach to warming up well and stretching while in the asana. Particularly important for those of us in mid-life, it is also an effective approach for beginners and for students returning to practice after a lapse.
Let me explain the Yin Approach (not to be confused with Yin Yoga, in which poses are held for several minutes).
Let me explain the Yin Approach (not to be confused with Yin Yoga, in which poses are held for several minutes). The concept of yin and yang comes from the Taoist tradition. If something is yin, it can be described as cool, calm, inward, and focused—like the way we approach a stretching posture. Yang is moving, heated, excited, and intense—like a strengthening posture. Like a new piece added to a puzzle, I enjoy a Yin Approach, balanced with yang strength, in almost all postures. A Yin Approach to warming up my mid-age muscles and soft tissue makes me feel safer, more comfortable, and complete while in the posture.
In our late 20s, both muscle and layers of connective tissue begin to lose resiliency, and continue to change and contract every 7 to 10 years thereafter. Life’s stress, wear-and-tear injuries, and inactivity all leave their mark within the layers of the body. It is no wonder that the older we get, the more “creaky” we can feel. The good news is that no matter what your age, size, or shape, you can maintain or return to a graceful, fluid suppleness and strength by using the Yin Approach.
The Yin Approach is cool, calm, and focused, with occasional flashes of heat. It is knowing that asanas affect connective tissue as well as muscles. Muscles respond beautifully to pumping actions such as the dynamic moves pictured in the Standing Forward Bend (page 93). But connective tissue—tendons, ligaments, fascia—is different than muscle and needs to be treated differently. Connective tissue is fibrous, dryer, stiffer, and has less blood supply than muscle. When you move into your asana routine too quickly, too deeply, and without warming up enough, it is easy to irritate connective tissue, especially the fascia. Fascia covers your entire inner body like a saran-like bag, surrounding every muscle, gland, and organ. When fascia is irritated it contracts and takes a long time to heal. The underlying muscles are also affected.
Fascia covers your entire inner body like a saran-like bag, surrounding every muscle, gland, and organ. When fascia is irritated it contracts and takes a long time to heal. The underlying muscles are also affected.
For a sometimes dramatic and easily done demonstration of how warming up and working one small body part can affect the functioning of the whole, start at the soles of your feet, which consist of thick fascia layers. Like the soles of your shoes, they protect your feet. Massaging the fascia aids in releasing it. As you will see, this helps release tissue throughout the legs and back.
Sometimes I use other forms of self-massage as a warm-up such as tapping or thumping the hamstring or shoulder muscle with a cupped hand or gently closed fist. Tapping muscle fibers helps them to release their tightness. Try this and see for yourself.
Rolling around on the floor is another form of warming up. I ask students to mindfully roll on the floor or on a ball, using their body weight as an overall massage to purposefully soften the body’s connective tissue, specifically the fascia.
The following playful rolling moves will enhance flexibility, release restrictions of soft tissue, and increase all-over body circulation. Use your own body weight to give connective tissue a massage. This “rolling pin series” is nurturing. It makes me smile and often brings a laugh to the class.
These are a few warm-up suggestions, but there are no absolute rules for yin warm-up time. You are assisting muscle and fascia to release in creative, pain-free, non-aggressive ways that are cool and focused, with occasional flashes of heat. Be
creative! Tapping, massaging the fascia, rolling the body like a rolling pin, and using the “three Rs” are all part of a yin warm- up.
The three Rs—Resist, Relax, Restretch—are a proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) technique that involves alternating isometric muscle contraction and passive stretching.
The three Rs—Resist, Relax, Restretch—are a proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation (PNF) technique that involves alternating isometric muscle contraction and passive stretching. Before stretching a muscle, you tighten it and push against a fixed object—a partner, your own hand, a belt, the floor, or a wall. The subsequent stretch becomes longer, deeper, and far more comfortable than holding the limb in a static stretch. The three Rs are a creative way to listen to your body and to gently increase your range of motion. This is a safe, simple technique that helps to lovingly “trick” muscle fibers and connecting tissue to soften, lengthen, and release painlessly. I love seeing students’ amazement at the improvement in their own flexibility when they use the three Rs.
Warming up creatively and using the three Rs will keep your practice fresh and always interesting. Try 10 minutes of warm-ups to start your day or to begin your yoga practice. You can also do 3 minutes of well-thought-out warm-ups to prepare your body for a particular asana.
The following warm-ups are designed to enhance strength and flexibility, increase circulation, safely soften connective tissue, and release tension. They are also designed to warm you up for the Triangle Pose and to demonstrate how beautifully the three Rs work in this particular pose.
Warming up well before starting our practice makes sense not only for the mid-age body, but for everyone—especially beginners or those who haven’t practiced for a while. At the end of your warm-up, you should feel more alert, coordinated, physically warm, and comfortable in your skin. Your breathing will have deepened and eye sight should sharpen. And best of all, you will not feel tired.
Benefits: Adding big sweeping movements to postures warms up the big muscles of the body quickly and enjoyably. Begin with simple forward bends. Fold and unfold the body, breath and body flowing together again and again. These bends lengthen the entire back body and make space between the vertebrae of your upper neck. I like these poses because, as you will soon see, they are very versatile. Gravity helps free the cervical spine and allows the neck muscles to relax, improving overall circulation and having a calming effect on the body and mind.
Caution: Be careful with all forward bends if you have disc problems. If you have any questions, check with your doctor or health professional.
Yin tip: If leg and back tightness makes this position really uncomfortable, practice with your elbows or hands on a chair seat or other support.
Benefits: Warms up the legs and hips for standing poses.
Close your eyes, allowing time to observe how your legs feel.
Benefits: This is an excellent warm-up for all standing poses, especially the Triangle. A comfortable yet powerful hamstring stretch, this is different than simply bending forward. After a few times, my students experience significantly improved flexibility in their hamstrings, and comfort within the Triangle.
– Start gentle Resistance by trying to lift your chest away from your thigh, yet keeping tight contact between them. Your head lifts, and your back stays long. Hold for 3 breaths.
– Relax…breathe in.
– Exhale…go deeper into the pose, Restretching the leg without losing chest/thigh contact. Hold for 3 breaths. Observe how your leg has released painlessly.
– Come out of the pose carefully and with awareness.
– Repeat on the opposite leg.
Yin tip: As you progress, begin to very slowly straighten the forward leg without sacrificing the body/thigh closed position.
Benefits: Stretches the back and the backs of the legs, and lengthens deep
tissue connections in the hips. Stretches the muscles between the ribs, thus improving breathing capacity.
Step One: Now let’s move into Triangle to the right.
Step Two: To make step one more comfortable, do the three Rs from Hug a Tree.
- Resist by folding the chest to the thigh, gently trying to pull away as the ribs keep contact with the leg. Your head lifts, the neck is relaxed, the back is long. Hold this gentle steady resistance for 3 breaths.
- Relax. Breathe in.
- Restretch by lifting the chest a few inches off your thigh. Exhaling, lengthen the muscles of your right leg very slowly. Hold for 3 comfortable breaths.
Step Three: Move slowly again into Triangle with all of your awareness.
Caution: More is not always better when it comes to the three Rs. Never force your body into any position. To avoid overstretching, do the three Rs in the Triangle only twice a week. Remember to go slowly and consciously as you enter and exit the final pose.
Adapted from Lilias! Yoga Gets Better with Age, by Lilias Folan. Printed with permission from Rodale, copyright © 2005 by Lilias Folan.
For more information on Lilias Folan’s upcoming workshops and appearances visit www.liliasyoga.com.
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