Do you see any relations from yin yoga and meditation have to do with handstand? I have never thought of these three things are related, until I experienced it myself.
One day after teaching a yoga class, a student came up to me and asked who my teacher is. I thought for a while and the only teachers that came into my mind were my spiritual teachers Thich Nhat Hanh and Frank Jude Boccio and my anatomy teacher Paul Grilley, but I could not come up with one yoga asana teacher. And then I answered him, “I don’t have an asana teacher, my practice and my body have been my teacher. However, since I started to meditate regularly, my asana practice has advanced a lot.”
Whenever I mentioned to students about meditation helping my physical asana practice, they all looked at me with disbelief written all over their faces. If I was not having this personal experience, I would also find it difficult to relate the two together.
What is meditation?
I think it would be helpful to first understand what meditation is all about. Depending on the school, there are many different methods of meditation, but it all comes down to two kinds of practices: concentration (samatha in Sanskrit) and active awareness (vipassana).
Samatha is a practice where we cultivate single-pointed focus on one chosen object, it could be our breath, a word, a tangka drawing, a candle flame etc. We would like to focus on one object exclusively in order to develop our concentration. This kind of practice would lead us to a sense of peace, calmness and lightness given time, and one can see this as a self-absorption practice. However, the sense of peace will slowly fade away as the meditation practice comes to an end. My teacher Frank mentions in his book Mindfulness Yoga that samatha is similar to a spot light, shining on one particular object, with the other objects in the dark; we pay no attention to anything except for the chosen object. Concentration is to apply effort to focus on one particular object, and this practice can be applied by force. When one gains the one-pointed concentration, it does have some strong favor.
Vipassana is the opposite of concentration practice, though a certain degree of concentration practice is needed in order to support the vipassana meditation. Directly translated, the word insight would be the closest meaning to vipassana. Vipassana is also an open awareness practice, or some others call this active awareness. Unlike samatha where one just focus exclusively on one thing, vipassana is to open one’s awareness to everything that is happening, without discrimination. Vipassana can be considered as a flood light, lighting up a large area, as compared to a spot light, lighting up just one particular object. In order for one to develop insight, one needs to cultivate the seed of mindfulness. To be mindful means to be aware what’s within in the present moment without discrimination. Like Thich Nhat Hanh says, we cannot just be mindful, in order to be mindful, we need an object; we need to be mindful of something: our breath, our mental formations, our speech, our actions, etc. Mindfulness is to be aware of all the neutral, positive, and negative that is happening on the realm of the body, feelings, mind, and the inter-connectedness within us.
Samatha and vipassana are seen as a pair of wings; we need both and one nourishes the other. Mindfulness is the sensitive one, it notices things. Concentration gives it power. Mindfulness picks up the object of observation (e.g. we are aware that our mind wanders, and we need to move our attention back to our breathing, which is our object of observation), or remind us that we have side-tracked and to come back, and then concentration allows us to have the ability to lock our focus on the chosen object, which is the breathing in this case. Some meditation schools say that one has to first master samatha in order to move into vipassana practice, some schools say that we can first practice vipassana if one finds it easier, and some says we can practice both at once. No matter what, we need both, and the stronger our concentration is, the easier it is for us to strengthen mindfulness, and vice versa.
So what is the importance of meditation that many spiritual texts put such so much emphasis on this ancient practice? Well, when we have more concentration, our minds do not drift from our tasks on hand, so our efforts become more effective and efficient. Because the work is more efficient, we do not need as much energy in finishing the tasks. When our minds are present in the very moment, our minds would not be carried away by worrying about the future and it would not be imprisoned by the regrets about the past. We would be able to direct all our efforts to the right place, which always happen in the present, and with the right effort, we will be able to do our very best without worries of the future. The result is often very surprising.
I remember my first yoga class, holding poses for three to five minutes, not really knowing what to do there, lying on the floor, holding my feet, looking at the ceiling, I thought that was the most boring thing you could ever do. However, once I started to practice more (somehow I convinced myself to go to yin classes, again and again), I began to see my patience starting to develop.
Unlike any form of a yang asana practice (e.g. hatha, power, hot) where it stretches or tones the muscles – yin yoga stimulates the connective tissues more than the muscles. Here, the word connective tissues refer to ligaments (connecting bones to bones), tendons (connecting bones and muscles), and fascia. Fascia is a very thin transparent/white layer of tissue surrounding a strip of muscle tissue all the way to the end of the muscle, forming a tendon. There is a fascia wrapping around each piece of muscle, and the end of the fascia where it attaches to bone becomes tendons; the fascia that makes the tendons continue to connect one bone to another which is called ligaments. I don’t want to go into too much details about the technicalities of the connective tissues, but the message I want to bring out is that muscles and connective tissues (ligaments, tendons, and fascia) respond very differently. When we engage our muscles, the muscles protect our connective tissues (that is why when you have knee issues, you have to strengthen your quadriceps muscle); but when we relax our muscles, the connective tissues will be stretched.
As mentioned above, because all muscles are wrapped by the fascia, our flexibility is actually heavily dictated by the length of the connective tissues. So if you notice you are lacking flexibility in your yang practices, balancing your yoga practice with one or two yin classes per week would be a wonderful strategy.
Another wonderful aspect of a yin practice is that the length of hold in each pose gives us a time to turn inward, like a mini-meditation session. We are able to see the craziness of our minds (we all have one, so you are not crazier than anybody), notice the way we react when we face discomforts, and recognize our emotions and learn how to take care of it as they arise.
Most of our everyday life circles around seeing life with our own filters, believing our own filtered-perceptions (many times they are wrong), reacting according to our own perceptions, suffering from the emotions that we set up for ourselves (we think it is the other person who created the suffering), and then further strengthen our filters from our experience.
If we were able to recognize this cycle in our yin practice, we slowly learn to stop, breathe, and then decide our response to the situation instead of reacting automatically and regret later. So the yin practice gives us a space to see who we really are, because what shows up in your practice is just a mirror of your everyday life.
So how does the two practices help my handstand?
Think about it, what goes through in your head when the teacher asks you to do a free handstand in the middle of the room? “Oh my God! What if I fall?” “What if my neighbor falls on me?” “I am not ready!” “Shoulders above of my wrists.” “Where should I look?” Many thoughts start to emerge, so many thoughts that we do not have room to remember to breathe! And because of this, we end up jumping crazily without evening knowing what we were doing, just crossing our fingers, hoping we will not fall on our face, and the teacher calls it an end.
However, if we learn from our meditation and yin practice, we will be able to always go back to our breathing (one of the main aspect in meditation and yin), set up our foundation, then then jump without thinking of anything (because we trust our body that it knows how to respond when situation happens), we continue to observe how we jump, and be able to feedback ourselves: did I jump too hard? Too soft? Where did I look? How was my breathing? Where were my shoulders? Were they above of my wrists? How was my center of gravity? What was my hips doing?
Please note that we are not thinking of all these things, but we are able to have the mindfulness (active awareness of everything that happens in the present moment) in our practice, and it is mindfulness that allows us to fine tune our pose. It is mindfulness that allows us to remember our intention of practice, which is the breathing) whether we fall or we finally able to balance (a lot of time when we first get to balance, we start to be overwhelmed with joy and then we forget to breathe). And even if we fall, thanks to mindfulness, the process of falling feels so slow that we are able to respond with the best knowledge to protect ourselves. Without this full awareness of the present, the practice becomes an achievement rather than a dance with reality. Only when we are able to dance with reality, will we truly able to find our own balance, and this is something that you need to find out for yourself, no teacher can tell you how you can balance; they can give you some ideas, but it is you that need to find out.
Take another look at the softer practice
Here I invite you to reconsider the possibility to pick up yin practice, if not meditation. Especially those who find these two practices boring, probably these two practices put you in a situation where you have to face your true self. It is not the easiest practices, but you will get so much out of it if you stick to them long enough.
Of course, all these is going to take time to unfold, and we will come across many challenges, just like all seasoned meditators. However, all the efforts will not be wasting, and in time, you look back and you will definitely see some positive changes in the way you relate to your life, if not your yoga practice. The more I learned about the theory behind yin yoga, the more I enjoy practicing it.
Here I wish you joy in your practice.