The Earth Element & Summer/Fall Transition Season in Yin Yoga

One of the things I love most about Yin Yoga is its connection to the elements of nature. This comes from the special influence of Chinese Medicine upon Yin Yoga, and it helps practitioners bring nature, the environment, natural forces, and seasonal cycles into our practice.

In Chinese Medicine, energy is deliberately stimulated along the meridian lines that run throughout the body. In Yin Yoga, the theory is that we stretch the body along these same meridian lines, which produces something like a self-acupressure effect. Each of the main organ meridian pairs is connected with one of the 5 Elements: Water, Wood, Fire, Earth, and Metal. In turn, each of the 5 Elements relates to one of the 5 Seasons…yes, 5 seasons!

In this system, the Earth Element has its own season outside of the four we traditionally recognize in Western culture. The giantbuddhaLate Summer/Early Fall transition is the time of Earth Element, which coincides with the peak of the harvest. You can recognize attributes of Earth Element in your environment at any time, but we bring them into greater focus during this short season of the year. These qualities include hardness and solidity; Earth Element gives structure and support. In traditional Buddhist meditations on the Elements, one would contemplate the hardness of the bones, the structure of the skeleton, the mineral quality of the teeth, etc. to experience the Earth aspects of the human body – the same Earth qualities we observe in mountains, rocks, and geological structures that shape the planet itself.

In nature, the Earth Season is a time of abundance. For us, it is a signal to slow down and take in the fruits of our labors – the results of our efforts in Spring and Summer. If you’ve read earlier posts about Spring/Wood Element and Summer/Fire Element, you know that these times of year are actively involved with initiating change and bringing plans to fruition (analogous to planting seeds and growing crops). Grounded in the strong foundation of that work, we now enjoy greater equanimity and begin to sense more self-acceptance, integration, gratitude, and contentment as we arrive at the harvest.

cattail3, croppedThe organ meridians involved with Earth Season are the Spleen (Yin) and Stomach (Yang) Meridian pair, which are related to digestion and both the physical and emotional sense of satisfaction and “enoughness.” The Spleen is also part of the immune system, and along with the Stomach, it affects how we accept or reject food and germs, as well as how we process information and emotional energy from others.

HalfKneeToChest_onBlockIn your Yin Yoga and meditation practice, you can highlight Earth Element in a variety of ways. The solidity and stability of props like blocks, bolsters, and blankets can be seen as an expression of Earth Element – the weight of sandbags can be especially grounding. In your Yin (and Yang) sessions, you can choose poses that affect the Spleen/Stomach Meridians (quadriceps, inner leg, abdomen), such as Cat Tail Pose shown above or Half Knee to Chest on a Block shown on the right, with a sandbag on the extended thigh (if appropriate for you). Grounding through the feet and legs in your standing poses, or massaging the feet can also be great ways to heighten the connection to the Earth they stand on.

I particularly like Standing Meditation and Walking Meditation for emphasizing Earth Element. As you stand (as in Mountain Pose), or move in slow walk, you can sense into your bony structure to feel Earth Element manifested in your own form. You can also soak in the calming, grounding effects of your feet touching the Earth. Check this earlier post on Earth Element for further instructions on Walking Meditation. Enjoy!

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Bo Forbes: “Rethink Working with Connective Tissue”

This is an interesting (and quick) video with Bo Forbes on the Yoga International website touching on some of the latest findings about how fascia works.

If you haven’t run across Bo Forbes before, she is a clinical psychologist, yoga teacher, and integrative yoga therapist whose background includes training in biopsychology, behavioral medicine, sleep disorders, and stress management. She is definitely someone to have on your radar if you are interested in integrating scientific/medical knowledge, as well as mindfulness meditation, with yoga.

A few of the most intriguing statements are these: “Much of the injury we think is muscular really comes from overstretching fascia that’s not hydrated.”

and

“The work that’s now integrating into the yoga systems and bodywork is really looking at how do we teach people to work with their own connective tissue matrix in a way that’s not just sort of diving in to loosen things up, but in a way that really listens to a very, very visceral and subtle dialogue between the connective tissue and the nervous system and works in a way that the work can be integrated.”

boforbesvideo

mesh-internetWe Yin Yoga practitioners love to geek out about fascia and talk about how our practice targets and benefits the connective tissues in particular. So, it’s important that we stay up-to-date on the incredible amount of research that’s coming out about our internal interwebs, our amazing matrix, our fascinating fascia.

Here are a few tips for incorporating this knowledge into your Yin Yoga practice:

Movement tends to hydrate the tissues more than long-held poses, which is why I like to include a few minutes of gentle one-breath-one-movement poses before diving into the meditative Yin practice. This is not so much to generate heat (warm up), but to hydrate the fascia and help establish embodied awareness, which most people connect with more easily in movement than in stillness.

Increasingly, I’ve been exploring how self-massage complements yoga (both Yin and “Yang” forms). This is another way to hydrate the fascia and release places where the web is holding on too tightly. I know this is not a scientific way to describe it, but experientially, when you feel a tender spot or a knot let go in massage, a feeling of greater freedom and integration comes along with it. I sense less of a harsh pull around those spots when I stretch them after working with massage balls. Those spots feel like they’re ready to play nice with the surrounding tissues. And, like movement, massage is an excellent way to heighten awareness of sensation in the body so that we go into our postural practice mindfully plugged in.  The Yoga Tune Up therapy balls are great for this, and by the way, I am loving Jill Miller’s new book, The Roll Model, which also includes a section on fascia anatomy.

Also, as Bo mentions, props like blocks, blankets, and bolsters help provide some stability in the pose, which signals the nervous system that it’s OK to relax, thus avoiding a “backlash” of resistance in the tissues. The more we learn about how fascia works, the more we understand the huge role that the nervous system plays. The bottom line when it comes to stretching is: less is more! Dial back that intensity. Use prop support when you need it. Enjoy your practice, but don’t overstretch. Gradual, gentle change is more Yin-like anyway.

Important food for thought for Yin Yogis…enjoy!