The Yoga of Kindness
Yin yoga helps us experience acceptance and connection in a physical way
In the Taoist tradition, the body is flooded with energy that travels primarily through channels called meridians. When that energy, qi or chi (pronounced “chee”), flows freely, we feel great, and we’re capable of great things, such as kindness shown to ourselves and others. But when qi slows or gets stuck, we suffer both physically and emotionally. In the midst of our own suffering, we’re usually thwarted in our efforts to practice kindness.
Yin yoga is steeped in Taoism and meditation, explains Biff Mithoefer, creator of The Yin Yoga Kit (Healing Arts Press), $24.95. He says the poses, held for three to five minutes, stimulate the flow of qi through the meridians to help us slow down, connect with, and more lovingly care for ourselves and others. Mithoefer teaches at the Nosara Yoga Institute in Costa Rica and at workshops throughout the United States (visit www.biffmithoeferyoga.com). He says, “At the heart of all spiritual practice is a responsibility and a privilege to relieve suffering for all beings, including ourselves. The simple way I understand that is through the practice of kindness. The slowing down and mindfully seeing that we’re connected and related with all beings helps us with the practice of kindness.”
The Yin Yoga Kit focuses on poses done seated or lying on the floor, to best stimulate the meridians that pass through the hips and pelvis into the lower body. Affect one meridian, Taoist tradition explains, and you affect them all; thus, work in the lower body benefits the meridians of the upper body.
Each pose, with its long, quiet connection to mind and body, is very much a meditative experience. “It’s a two-for-one practice!” Mithoefer says of quietly following the breath for five minutes at a time. String together a half-dozen poses, and you deeply stimulate the meridians (good for your physical and emotional health) while garnering the benefits of meditation (good for all humanity).
Ultimately, yin yoga is about acceptance, Mithoefer says. He was always striving, always trying to change things, to make them better, he explains. Self-acceptance, and the end of striving—or at least the beginning of the end—has been yin yoga’s gift to him. “Yin nature is our more accepting nature. Accepting ourselves helps us accept others and leads us to see the connection between all people,” Mithoefer says. “Judgment and aversion are much more accepted in the world than acceptance and compassion. But as we do the physical yin practice, we begin to feel and learn these yin natures. These are lessons we can learn, and we can learn them at a deep, cellular level.” And the lessons of acceptance, compassion, and connection may be just the antidote for lives that are too often filled with instances of rush, race, and zoom.
- stimulates liver and kidney meridians
- stretches the back and opens hips
- encourages gentleness and kindness
Sit on your sit bones (the two bony points at the base of your spine) with the soles of your feet together, heels a comfortable distance from your groin. Stay there, or bend forward with a straight back as far as you easily can. Let your back relax into a gentle curve. You may want to sit on a cushion to prevent your sacrum from tilting backward. Cushions under your knees will relieve hip stress.
- stimulates the gallbladder, stomach, spleen, kidney, and urinary bladder meridians
- stretches hips, groin, and lumbar spine
- energizes the mind and body
On all fours, draw your left knee forward on the floor, and then extend your right leg behind you on the floor. Bring your left foot toward your right hand to ease any tension in your knee or groin. Let your torso move into a gentle back bend, supporting your weight on your extended arms. For less intensity in the spine, stretch your arms out in front of you and softly fold your torso forward into what’s called Sleeping Swan. Repeat on the other side. Use cushions or blankets for support as needed. Be aware of excess stress to the bent knee or the sacroiliac joint in the lower back and tailbone area. Be gentle with your neck.
- stimulates the gallbladder and torso meridians
- stretches the spine
- relaxes the mind and opens the heart
Begin on your back with your knees pulled toward your chest. Extend one leg along the floor, letting the other leg stay bent as you cross it over your extended leg. Or bend both knees and lower them to the floor on one side of your body, stacking them on top of each other. Repeat on the other side. Place a cushion under your knee or opposite shoulder if either lifts off the floor; muscles relax more easily when supported. Because the pose is so comfortable, your mind may wander. Gently bring your attention back to your body.
- encourages the flow of qi through all meridians
Lie on your back with your palms up and your arms and legs spread a comfortable width apart. Use a blanket and eyeshades to feel cozier; let your mind relax, but stay awake! In the quiet of this pose, observe energy moving in the body, notice thought patterns, and reap the benefits of the practice.
Guidelines for Practice
Slow and Steady
If yin yoga or meditation is new to you, begin with a 20- to 30-minute practice a few times a week. Mithoefer, who took up yin yoga several years ago, enjoys hour-long practices daily and says the poses have improved the health of his sacral area and lumbar spine, which tends to lose its natural curve with age. For your own health and well-being, try this 20-minute practice to stimulate a range of connective tissues and meridians.
Work at a bearable but challenging edge
You’ll probably feel some intensity, which is all right as long as it feels safe and your breathing remains smooth. Let your muscles relax without striving to go deeper into the pose, accepting where you are in your body at that moment.
Let your muscles relax and “melt” around your bones
Remain still and hold the pose for the determined time. You may go deeper into the pose as you hold it, but avoid striving to go deeper. If ever a pose feels injurious, ease out of it.
Between poses, take a minute to relax on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor hip-width apart. This can be a delicious moment in which you experience both the free flow of qi and the possibility of healing. Direct your focus to any place where you feel tension.
Jennifer Derryberry Mann is a freelance writer, editor, and yoga instructor in Minneapolis. She is the former editor of Science & Spirit magazine.