Yin yoga is amazing. It slowly releases the tightness in our bodies through its focused stretches and soothes our nervous systems with its meditative quality. It’s used to stimulate the meridian lines of Traditional Chinese Medicine, it mildly stresses joints (in a good way!), (1) and it adds a tensile load to connective tissue (through its long holds). This applied and targeted tensile load “triggers a complex cellular process that results in an adaptation.” (2) In yin, we’re ultimately trying to repattern fascial matrices and healthily stress connective tissues in order to strengthen them and make them more adaptable to change and the pressures of everyday life.
From our current understanding, yin does a lot of good for the body. And so does moving the body in different ways. Actually, “Optimal variability in human movement is a characteristic of healthy functioning.” (3) So, why not bring some benefits of variable movement into our yin practice?
The following is an outside-the-box yin yoga sequence. Drawing from the primary 18 to 26 asanas of the practice, this sequence encourages you to move so as to healthily stress joints, connective tissue, and fascial lines beyond those normally targeted in a yin class—and to stress them in ways that are less than typical.
For this practice, you will need a blanket, a strap, and a bolster or pillow. You may also wish to have a block (or stack of books).
This shape differs from the traditional child’s pose by creating more length in the sides of your body and gently stressing your shoulders.
Begin in a neutral child’s pose. Find a variation that feels comfortable for you. You can have your knees as wide as your mat or closer together. You may wish to roll up your blanket and place it under your ankles or between your knees. You can also place your pillow or bolster between your seat and your heels.
Stretch your arms out in front of you and rest your forehead on the ground, a block, or a bolster. Let your torso give itself over to the force of gravity. Close your eyes and draw your awareness inside. Begin to tune in to the rhythm of your breath.
After a few moments of centering in your practice, with both your body and your breath, thread your right arm under your left with your palm facing up, turning your head so that your right cheek is resting on your prop or mat. Come up onto your left fingertips and walk them toward the top of your mat in order to create length from your waistline all the way up to your fingertips. Then relax your arm completely and anchor your seat toward the floor. Either stay as you are or walk your left fingertips toward the right side of your mat to create even more length on the left side of your body.
Hold for two to four minutes, switch sides, and then slowly return to a neutral child’s pose and pause for a moment. When you’re ready, roll up to sit and move your body organically for a minute before coming onto your hands and knees.
This shape differs from traditional squat pose because it adds a mild stress to the shoulder girdle as well as the wrists.
From hands and knees, step your right foot to the outside of your right wrist and step your left foot to the outside of your left wrist. Lift your hips high and release your torso over your legs for a moment in a wide-legged forward fold. Rest your hands wherever is comfortable and bend your knees as much as you’d like.
From here, bend your knees deeply and squat as low as you can. You may wish to turn your feet out slightly in order to create deeper external rotation in your thighs. If your heels don’t touch the floor, you can widen your stance, sit on a block (or stack of blocks), or roll up your blanket or mat to support your heels. You can also simply keep your heels lifted (although this will make the long hold of this shape more challenging).
Once you’ve found a comfortable squat, elongate your spine. Reach your tailbone toward the floor and the crown of your head toward the sky. Take your right arm behind you, bend your elbow, and rest the back of your hand against your waist. Round your right shoulder forward and down and slide your right elbow in front of your right knee while keeping your hand against the back of your waist. Round your spine and, if it’s comfortable for your neck, relax your chin toward your chest and release the weight of your head toward the floor. Rest your left arm wherever it feels comfortable.
Hold for about three to four minutes, release your right arm, and lift your hips to the sky as you fold forward. You can either keep your feet as they are or adjust them to bring them parallel. Pause for a few deep breaths before switching sides. When you’ve finished, make your way onto hands and knees and flow through three rounds of cat-cow.
Slightly different from traditional shoelace, this variation also lengthens the side body and adds a subtle twist in the torso to bring some extra attention to the spine and outer hips.
After cat-cow, return to a neutral tabletop. Slide your right knee toward the center of your mat and cross your left knee behind your right. Draw your feet toward the outer edges of your mat and lower your seat between your feet. You can sit on a block, bolster or blanket, or directly on the floor. Find what feels best for you.
If this shape bothers your left knee, stretch your left leg straight forward in front of you, keeping your right leg crossed over your left. If shoelace bothers your right knee, do the pose on your back: Hug your knees to your chest, cross your right knee in front of your left, and spread your feet toward the outer edges of your mat. Either loop a strap around the outer edges of your feet or hold onto your feet with your hands
If you’re seated, place your left hand on your right knee and tent your right fingertips behind your right hip. Inhale and elongate your spine. Exhale and twist to your right. Keep the twist in your torso and stretch your right arm up to the sky. Side bend to the left toward your right knee. Bend your right elbow and hold the back of your head with your right hand. You may wish to rest your left elbow on your right thigh. (You could even rest your left cheek on your left hand for support as well). Maintain the rotation in your torso by twisting the left side of your rib cage toward the right side of your mat. Lengthen your right side body, all the way from your outer right hip to your right elbow.
If you’re on your back, slowly draw both knees toward your left shoulder and simultaneously counter this by releasing your sacrum toward the floor.
Wherever you are, hold for about two to five minutes before gradually unwinding and switching sides. After you’ve practiced both sides, move your body organically for about two minutes to counter. When you’re ready, find a comfortable cross-legged seat, perhaps elevating your hips by sitting on a prop.
Although quite similar to traditional square pose, this shape provides the added benefit of stretching the tissues of your feet and toes.
From your seated position, slide your right ankle under your left calf and your left ankle under your right calf. You may wish to stay here.
If you’d prefer, you can bring your shins closer to parallel to the top of your mat with your right shin on the floor in front of your left. You may wish to stay here.
Or you can place your left shin directly on top of your right shin with your left ankle just outside your right knee and both shins parallel to the top of your mat. Activate your feet: Flex your ankles, reach out through the balls of your feet, and spread your toes apart from each other.
From here, weave the fingers of your right hand through your left toes and do the same on the opposite side. Slide your fingers as close to the base of your toes as you comfortably can. Then relax your feet. (If you have any knee issues, you may find it beneficial to keep your feet active here.)
Either stay as you are or fold your torso over your legs. Round your back and release the weight of your head. You may wish to use props to support your torso and/or head. Hold for about two to four minutes.
When you’re finished, slowly release your toes from your fingers (rather than fingers from toes—to create some new movement patterns) and switch sides. After you’ve practiced both sides, move your body for about two minutes in any way it’s craving.
Traditional sleeping swan offers so many benefits for the hips and spine, and this variation adds to those benefits by targeting the fronts of the thighs as well.
Make the widest loop possible in your strap and keep it within arm’s reach.
Come onto hands and knees, tuck your toes underneath, and slide your right knee to the outside of your right wrist. Draw your right ankle as close to your left wrist as your body comfortably allows. Then lift your left knee and inch it toward the back of your mat until you can release your pelvis onto props or the floor.
If this position causes discomfort in your front knee, come into a supine figure four stretch, creating a similar shape with your legs while on your back. Bend your left knee and place your foot on the floor. Stay as you are, place your left foot on a block, stack of books or a bolster, or lift your foot off the floor and interlace your fingers behind your left thigh. You won’t get the same quad stretch, but your body will still thank you.
In swan pose, energetically hug your knees toward each other, squaring your hips with the top of your mat. Bend your left knee and reach back to loop your strap around the ball of your left foot and then also loop it around your left shoulder. Slowly fold your torso over your front leg. Use any props that you would like to support yourself comfortably. Draw your left foot toward your seat and tighten your strap as much as necessary in order that it holds your left leg in place.
After three to five minutes, carefully lift your torso up and remove your strap. Move to the next pose before switching sides.
Traditional sphinx is a gentle heart opener that mildly stresses the lower back and shoulders. This twisted variation adds a subtle rotation in the torso and hips for some bonus stresses to the pelvic girdle.
From swan pose, remove any props you may have been using under your seat. Shift your weight onto your right hip and stretch your right leg straight out to the left side of your mat, so it’s roughly perpendicular to your left leg. You can bend your right knee if you like. Redistribute your weight as evenly as possible between your hips, and lower your forearms to the floor. Align your elbows either slightly in front of or directly under your shoulders with your forearms parallel to each other.
Open your chest and then release the weight of your head and neck toward the floor. You may wish to support your torso and/or head with props.
Hold for about two to five minutes. When you’re ready to release, thread your right arm under your left, twist your torso to the left, and roll your left shoulder to the floor to lie down on your back. Bring your right leg to meet your left and either rest in or move your body in any way that it wants to for about a minute. When you’re ready, return to tabletop and practice sleeping swan and twisted sphinx on the opposite side.
You might think of traditional savasana as something of a sacred pose, offering myriad benefits for the body and mind. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t vary it to experience new or different benefits. This front-lying variation adds a very mild stress to the lower back and ankles, as well as a change in perspective.
From twisted sphinx on the left side, gently press into your palms and lift your torso away from the floor. Swing your left leg behind you and lie down on your belly. Make a pillow with your hands on which to rest your forehead or a cheek. Gently bend your knees and sway your shins from side to side a few times.
When you’re ready, release your legs to the floor. If it feels good, you may wish to slide a bolster or blanket under your ankles. Either keep your hands as they are or release them by your sides and relax your forehead or a cheek to the floor. Soften your whole body into the mat. Close your eyes and settle into this final resting pose. Stay here for at least five minutes to fully absorb the effects of your practice.
Variable movements are not only interesting to practice, they’re also incredibly nourishing for our bodies and our minds. (4) Exploring new movement patterns in yoga can be extremely beneficial to our overall health and well-being.
Personally, adding variation to my yin practice has positively affected my range of motion. But perhaps more importantly, it has encouraged me to think outside the box when it comes to my yoga practice and invite in elements that are not necessarily “traditional” but that still positively affect the body and mind.
How can you bring “outside the box” thinking to your own yoga practice, finding new and exciting ways to move your body that result in overall health, adaptability, and functionality? (5)
1. Developing Antifragility in Practice: The Necessary Side of Stress by Bernie Clark
2. Creep and Recovery Yoga Biomechanics by Jules Mitchell
3. Movement Variability and the Use of Nonlinear Tools: Principles to Guide Physical Therapist Practice by Regina T. Harbourne and Nicholas Stergiou
4. Optimal Movement Variability: A New Theoretical Perspective for Neurologic Physical Therapy by Nicholas Stergiou, Regina Harbourne, and James Cavanaugh
5. Is movement variability important for sports biomechanists? by Roger Bartlett, Jon Wheat, and Matthew Robins
Photography: Andrea Killam