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Dr. Karina Smith

Yin Yoga & Chinese Medicine: How are they related? (Pt. 2)

This is a follow up article to Part 1 where I discuss the trickiness of trying to make connections between Yin Yoga sequences and Chinese Medicine theory in a Yin Yoga class.

I'd like to talk about my understanding of how Yin Yoga is related to Chinese Medicine, namely acupuncture, and what might actually be happening in the body during a Yin Yoga class with regard to meridians, Qi, fascia and channel theory.

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Firstly we need to acknowledge that Yin Yoga is a physical practice.

We are exploring, moving, stressing and targeting the physical tissues of the body. We are not utilising herbal medicine or acupuncture needles as a Chinese Medicine practitioner would be if you went to them for a treatment.

In Yin Yoga the main interventions being offered to the body are mechanical stress: tensile and compressive, as we stretch and squeeze the myo-fascia of the body, and also the movement of our breath. So in order for us to speak therapeutically in our classes, it makes sense that we focus that attention on what is happening to the body.

Tissues of the body need to be pushed and pulled, stretched, twisted and squeezed for optimal health.

As Bernie Clark talks about often, the goldilocks rule applies to all of this, as both too much or too little of something can have a negative impact on the body.

It is my understanding from listening to very clever people like Tom Myers, that the pushing and pulling of tissues during exercise is what hydrates the tissues. He says that after a yoga class the tissues of the body will be more hydrated than they were beforehand.

This makes me think about times that I have gone for a deep tissue massage and come out feeling really thirsty. All of that moving and manipulating of my tissues has been moving the fluids deeper into my tissues and my body then needs me to add more water.

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We are told often that our bodies are over 80% of water, but where is this water?

It is contained and chemically bound to proteins within the connective tissue network, as well as forming part of other fluids such as lymph, blood and organ tissue. David Lesondak says that there is a good 7.5 litres of water held in our superficial connective tissue.

When tissues of the body do not receive adequate "stress" they change. We have all sorts of examples of this: astronauts losing bone mineral density in space, broken arms in plaster casts becoming skinny, and connective tissue becoming stiff, dry and sticky without adequate movement or hydration.

Think about all the amazing ranges of motion that are possible in our bodies from the design of our joints, and then ask yourself if you move and stretch into all of your physical potential on a regular basis?

The meridians of Chinese Medicine (probably also what the ancient Indians called the Nadis), are said to flow through the superficial connective tissue of the body (the space beneath the skin and adipose tissue and muscle layers) otherwise known as the superficial fascia.

There are lots of different systems of channels in Chinese Medicine; you have the sinew, luo, divergent, eight extraordinary, and the primary channels.

Just like any other system, the more you explore, the more complexity is revealed. The sinew and primary channels are said to run through the superficial connective tissue. We have the amazing work of Dr. Hiroshi Motoyama to thank for helping to quantify this connection.

His commendable work, studying the BP current flowing from one acupuncture point to another through the water-rich dermal layer of the skin, has been invaluable in helping us to bring the esoteric theory of Qi flow into the tangible realm of physiology.

What are meridians?

Pericardium meridian channels.

From a technical perspective, they are lines of low resistance in the superficial fascia that the Qi of the body flows through.

What does that mean?

Well it turns out that there are lines or seams between panels of fascia (kind of like the seams between pieces of fabric you might cut sew together if you were making a dress), that incidentally have been identified by Tom Myers and reframed as "trains" in the body. Areas of low resistance create pathways where more energy/current can freely flow.

It is a bit like currents in the ocean.

For example, the east Australia current that many animals migrate along each year because it makes the journey easy.

When we were first learning Acupuncture point location at school, we were given a device, a bit like a ballpoint pen, to press onto the skin to help us find the exact location of an acupuncture point. The device made a consistent beeping sound, and when it got closer to the acupuncture point the frequency of the beeping would increase. It was responding to areas of low resistance in the tissue.

The acupuncture points themselves, as well as the meridian lines are places in the body where energy can move more easily. When a point is needled, it can affect a bigger change depending on its function.

It is said that the points and the channels were mapped out over many many years through a practice of detailed recording of the points, the feedback of the patient, and the repeatability of the outcomes.

One of the fundamental principles of Qi is that it governs all movement.

This includes the movement of fluids, blood, breath, electricity, basically anything that moves, is moved by Qi. In Yin yoga, we are able to have a strong influence on the movement of fluid in the superficial connective tissue, and because all movement is governed by Qi, we are incidentally influencing the Qi flow through our tissues as well.

Have you heard your Yin teacher talk about the moment of "melt" during the Yin posture?

The "melt" moment is when fluids in tissues undergoing a phase change (the same thing happens when pressure and force is applied to tissues of the body in massage), the fluid changes its state. The water in the body is sometimes more of a jelly like substance than a liquid substance, and influential factors such as heat and pressure can create a "melt" moment in local areas of connective tissue.

During the rebound when that tissue region is no longer under the load of the yin posture, water molecules are drawn back to their GAG's and essentially pulled in to "rehydrate" the superficial fascia. Qi governs that movement of fluid.

One of the differences here would be that Yin Yoga and TCM are dealing with slightly different "treasures" of the body. In Yin yoga we are mostly dealing with the realm of Yin and Qi.

A TCM practitioner is also considering the state of a person's blood, jing, shen and yang in order to offer them well-rounded holistic care.

In Yin Yoga we are essentially influencing the fluid or the Yin in the tissues, but because Qi governs all movement, it is the Qi of the body pulling that fluid back in. Some might say that the "buzzing" or "vibrating" sensation you can feel in the target areas during a rebound is that Qi and fluid movement through the connective tissue web. When I trained with Paul and Suzee Grilley, I remember them saying one afternoon that they were on the fence at to whether Yin Yoga was more of a physical practice or an energetic practice for this very reason.

If the stress placed on tissues followed by the rebounding of those tissues is influencing fluid and qi moving through that targeted connective tissue, it is also incidentally influencing Qi and fluid movement within the meridians that flow through the connective tissue. We can therefore say that the yin practice is helping to unblock and increase the flow of Qi through the body.

Acupuncture also serves to unblock and increase the flow of qi through the body. It is a much more complicated system, with points that connect into other channels, and points that have their own specific functions such as nourishing blood, draining damp, clearing heat etc. Yin Yoga is a much more broad spectrum application of Acupressure to the meridian networks.

There can be lots of root causes as to why there might be Qi stagnation in the first place, that acupressure will not be able to affect much change to.

One of the sensory connection I made between Yin Yoga and acupuncture was the feeling of a "dull ache" spreading through the tissue in either of these modalities. At school we were told that explaining to our patients that feeling a dull ache was a great sign that we had de-Qi on the needle (which would hopefully help them to be more receptive of what would otherwise be an unpleasant feeling to experience). I often feel the same kind of dull ache in different target areas in my body during yin yoga postures.

Qi is very often stagnant in the body for reasons of deficiency. If there is not enough water in the river bed, simply trying to move the puddles of water that are in there, may not alleviate the symptoms that person is feeling at all. They need the river topped up for that Qi to flow with more ease. A good example of this is when somebody is blood deficient. In Chinese medicine we understand that blood is extremely important to nourish the tendons and sinews, as well as the eyes, nails, womb, and organs.

If a person is very blood deficient, it might be that they have very low iron or have iron absorption issues. Qi moves blood (as it moves all fluids), and if there is not enough blood to be moved, then this can create qi stagnation from the root cause of deficiency. Perhaps this person is not eating enough blood nourishing foods (which is something I happen to see a lot of with women in the yoga community who go vegetarian/vegan).

A common sign of this sort of blood deficiency is repeated injuries that take a long time to heal. Other signs and symptoms can include pale complexion, dizziness, heart palpitations and difficulty falling asleep. And if this person is rolling out their yoga mat for a vigorous practice 4-5 times a week, they may not have the blood to sustain that level of activity.

The point I am trying to make here, is that if we equate yin yoga sequences in a cause and effect way with the functions of the organ that the sequence is crafted around, with language that suggests certain signs and symptoms will be alleviated with the practice of the sequence alone, there is so much holistic information we might be missing.

We might be able to help move the Qi in the body with the yin yoga postures, but we need to be really careful in what we pitch as the healing outcomes of that sequence. My advice, keep it broad and general. And ask open-ended mindful questions, instead of prescriptive cause and effect language.

A woman with stage 4 endometriosis who has extremely painful periods, may not get much (if any) relief from regular liver channel Yin Yoga practices, and we need to be really honest about what it is that Yin Yoga has to offer.

Qi stagnation can also be a sign that a person is under chronic emotional stress, in which case the quietness and slowness of a yin yoga class might be brilliant at helping them rebalance their nervous system from a jacked up Sympathetic state to a more Parasympathetic state.

At this point in time we don't have a lot of studies on yin yoga and its effects on people's health. I used to always wish I could feel people's pulses before class and then again at the end of Savasana and see what might have changed. I think one of the most therapeutic aspects of the practice is its ability to help people relax! That alone, is a marvellous benefit to a person's health.

To summarise, in Yin Yoga we have the capacity to influence the movement of fluid in the tissues of the target areas of the postures practices, which will also be having an influence on the movement of Qi through the meridians within that tissue. By the use of our breath we can also have a huge influence on calming and balancing the nervous system.

We need to mindful not to prescribe health outcomes from practicing sequences that travel along the meridian of a particular organ network. Even though people may report back that practicing yin yoga did in fact improve their health dramatically. This is fantastic and I'm sure right now as you read this article you will be thinking about ways in which your own life and health has been improved by this practice. We just cant make absolute statements for groups of people about what they should expect from practicing particular Liver or Heart sequences for example, because it will not be the same for all of them and may come across as misleading and irresponsible.

Stay tuned for Part 3 where I share some of themes and concepts I have used over the years to incorporate TCM theory into my yin yoga classes in a broad and inclusive way.

Karina x

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Photography: Tim Samuel (Pexels), Robbie Smith


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