It’s theory time!
We all practice and move our bodies for different reasons and have different motivations. And depending on your objectives (health, range of motion, strength, emotional release, a spiritual journey), understanding the different effects that Yin and Yang yoga practices (and different temperatures) can have on your tissues can help you maintain health... and importantly avoid injury.
We all make decisions on how we want our bodies to move. If we lift weights and do no yoga, we will be strong but stiff. If we only do Yin yoga, we will be weak but bendy. For most, health is between these extremes.
How much Yang is too much Yang?
I am always asked about how to practice Yin & Yang (how much and when)... And the answer is.... there is no simple answer! All movement changes our bodies (and that's fabulous), specifically our tissues. We are mainly made of connective tissue (ligaments, tendons and fascia), muscle & skin. You may already know that your muscles get longer while we hold long stretches or perform big hip openers. But you should know, pure muscle tissue only makes up about 50% of your flexibility (and your strength). The rest is connective tissue.
With continued practice, even connective tissues can be lengthened (and that can be good or bad, you have to decide). Do you want more range of motion... or less?
To better understand how heat, stress and time affect our tissues, it’s useful to use the technical terms stress,strain, and viscoelasticity.
Stress is defined as the force or stimulus applied to our muscles or tissues.
Strain is the amount of lengthening or elongation that the tissue experiences after the stress is applied.
Viscoelasticity refers to how our tissues slowly return to their original length once the stress is removed. Tissues are also more pliable when temperatures are higher (so we need to properly warm-up before exercise, which is going to impose a lot of stress).
Any material lengthens (technically called creep) under its own weight or a stretch. Our tissues in our body do as well. Added to this temperature, intensity and time all lengthen tissues in different ways.
NOW! Different yoga styles (and exercise disciplines) create creep in tissue in different ways because of how they apply heat, stress and time to muscle and connective tissue. A fast run for the bus is not the same as a long walk in the mountains. An express Bikram yoga class is not the same as a 2hr cold Iyengar yoga practice at room temperature. A spring Yin class in Helsinki is not the same as a summer one in Hong Kong.
Obviously, colder tissues don't creep as much as warmer tissues. If a reasonable stress is applied quickly to our viscoelastic tissues, not much strain is produced. The longer a stress is applied to a tissue, the more creep and elongation you get. Is that what you want?
Harnessing heat, stress and time in different ways manifests in the different styles of yoga. Applying static stress for longer periods of time as in Yin Yoga will create more strain and more creep in tissue compared to the repetitive and short stresses of Vinyasa yoga for example. Vinyasa could create more strength, but it also could create powerful stress which could be injurious.
Because of this, care must be taken after Yin yoga as pose stress and strain have lengthened our tissues. Our range of motion may be bigger than we are used to (or want). Conversely, greater care must be taken in Vinyasa yoga to warm up before we start so that the large stresses we are about to do don't compromise viscoelasticity and we pull something.
Chill out in your Yin... or make it hot
There are several ways of staying safe (among many):
This can reduce the time it takes for tissues toviscoelastically recover. Moving the body in the opposite direction (e.g. engaging in mild spinal extension after a long period of spinal flexion) can help the tissues regain their original stiffness.
2. Different Strokes
Working different parts of the body at different times in the same session. Doing this will mean nowhere gets too much strain and stress. For example, after completing a Yin practice focusing on the spine, Yang postures that follow should avoid the spine (or be very gentle).
3. Yin one day - Yang another
Another approach is to do all Yang postures one day and do all Yin another. The Yang day will focus more on stress (strength) and minimise strain, while the Yin day will create creep (and healthy range of motion).
Neither is better than the other. Strength will not cure all (tho to many they think it will), and range of motion can be bad if you are too aggressive.
Successful balancing of the stresses that Yin and Yang yoga styles generate in the body is key in making yoga (and sport) work for you and preventing injury. The above strategies are just a few suggestions! BUT... always keep in mind that for most of us, most health will be found in simple poses... you don't have to do the big showboat stuff to find health... in fact, stay away from these most of the time (if you can :-).
In the end, there really is no one-size-fits-all approach. All of us must decide where we want to be on the strength-flexibility spectrum. The best way forward is to use the knowledge of heat, stress and time in your approach in achieving the ideal mix of Yin and Yang stresses on your body.
Love and health,
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