Navigating Sensations in Yin Yoga

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Nancy Nelson

I remember while taking a Yin Yoga YTT with Bernie Clark a few years back, one of his token phrases during the practice sessions was “If you feel it, you’re doing it.” I found this little insight super helpful in terms of knowing that the yin was “working” its way into my tissues and energy body. It sparked some serious curiosity within me about the sensations of the practice. Today, I’m sharing a little bit of detail into what you might feel within the practice and what you should be on the lookout for in terms of preventing injury and getting to know your pain sensors.

In one of Bernie’s famous blog posts he discusses the concept of antifragility. He discusses that without enough stress (healthy pressure), our bodies become fragile – prone to injury and pain. If our tissues could be robust, they would unchanged by stress. Because our tissues need stress to remain healthy, when we apply this pressure consistently – our tissues are strong, resilient and less likely to get injured. Essentially, the goal is to get our body’s tissues to a point where they are characterized by this concept of antifragility. The point here is that the pressure we apply to the body on the mat is good for us! So let’s get curious about this goodness. What does this stress FEEL like? What descriptors help you understand what’s happening in the body? And beyond preventing injury, why should we care about sensation?

What does healthy stress FEEL like?

First, let’s discuss what sensations might indicate healthy pressure on the tissues of the body. Depending on if you are experiencing tensile stress (from your tissues meeting their level of flexibility) or compression (when the body prevents you from going further because of how it’s formed) – your sensations will differ. Healthy stress though, can be described in a variety of ways but overall it is not alarming or overwhelming. I recommend approaching postures in gradual stages. Uncovering sensations layer by layer. This helps us pay close attention to subtle sensations so we can better understand more pronounced ones as we deepen into the posture. Slowing down is a great way to avoid injuring the tissues as well. If you feel too much and you cannot breathe through the sensation or slow your thoughts enough to apply descriptors (see below) with clarity – back out of the pose to a more manageable position. Healthy stress is a way to honor our body’s needs!

How would you DESCRIBE the sensations you’re feeling?

Below are some helpful terms as you begin to learn to explore applying descriptors to what you feel on the mat. This is information obtained from Bernie Clark’s book “Your Body, Your Yoga” which you can purchase here. The benefits of describing your sensation is it helps you deepen your connection to the experience. Consider this a part of your inner dialogue during practice or an anchor for wandering thoughts. You understand better how your body is transforming, moving energy, etc. It’s an amazing gift you can give yourself.

Deep / SuperficialBroadLightHardConstantCoolStickyVague
Spread outFlatHeavyMediumThrobbingWarmStuckSharp
Concentrated or LocalizedRopyCrushingMildIntermittentHotLeatheryDull
Moving up or downLinearPullingPiercing
Dotted LineTuggingRadiating
Dashed LineStretchingActivity Related

As a general rule of thumb, what we want to avoid are sensations like tingling, stabbing, sharp, burning or pinching. The “other” category’s sensations listed here may indicate pain.

All descriptors listed in italics may indicate compression as the cause for sensation.

Why should we CARE about sensation?

Beyond preventing injury, why does all of this matter? Below are a few reasons to consider.

– Get to know yourself on a new level. As mentioned above – this is a way for us to connect with what’s happening within our bodies beyond simply noticing that you “feel” it. Cheers to knowing yourself better!

– Get more out of your practice! Because our minds and bodies are so interconnected, when we think about what is happening within, we stimulate deeper body, mind, spirit results.

Practice in mindfulness. Essentially, this practice helps us to

– Makes the experience more meditative. It’s a practice into mindfulness! This helps us to really put “stop and smell the roses” into action. We learn how to actually enjoy and understand things on a new level. The benefit here is that this habit follows us off the mat and into our lives.

Here’s my challenge for you – at your next yin practice, take some mental (or physical!) notes to explore a bit deeper. The more we practice it, it’s like muscle memory! Enjoy the journey, friend.


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2 Responses

  1. I love the idea of encouraging Yin students (actually everyone) to be articulate about sensation. So many people never get beyond “hurts” or “OK”, and don’t have an intimate understanding of their own body. Similarly, I’ve had people say they feel “open”, without being able to say what “open” feels like.

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Titles for Website (38)
Nancy Nelson
Nancy Nelson
Nancy is the fearless leader here at Nancy Nelson Yoga! She has been instructing yoga since 2012 and is certified as a Registered Yoga Teacher (E-RYT 500, YACEP) with Yoga Alliance. She loves guiding yoga classes in all forms – from sweaty vinyasa flows, to slow mindful movement - but her favorite style to practice and teach is yin yoga. She attended a formal 50-hour Yin Yoga training with Bernie Clark and Diana Batts in the fall of 2018 and it truly propelled her into developing her yin focused website, webinars and trainings.

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