Yin Yoga and the Practice of Holding Tension

Yin Yoga and the Practice of Holding Tension

September 26, 2019 1 Comment

Laura Hicks Hardy

“Even though you’ll stay in one place, don’t be surprised if you’re more uncomfortable in the pose. Listen for what hurts; you may find sore spots, tightness, or injuries you didn’t know about.”

Our yoga class is smaller this week, but we spread our mats across the floor, giving each other space. The late winter light slants through the wide windows of the church’s open foyer, where we have been meeting for the last month. Each week, the light lasts a little longer as we wait for spring.

Last week’s practice progressed through the steady, constant movements we’re used to. This week, though, we move slow. Most of us have never practiced yin yoga, so our teacher explains that, as opposed to hatha or yang yoga, yin yoga focuses on holding one position for a long period of time, from thirty seconds to five minutes. Tonight, we will hold most poses for about two minutes.

This will be easy, I think. After mountain pose, we begin forward fold, nothing too strenuous. After 30 seconds my left hip pulls and tightens. I briefly remember an old injury from high school and wonder if it’s protesting across the years. Our instructor anticipates this.

“Your hips spend a lot of time trying to protect you. Remind them it’s okay to release; you’ll hold up.”

A minute in, I’m not sure I can hold this simple pose any longer. My body only moves with the slow, subtle pull of muscles; I’m getting antsy. When we finally change poses, my hips feel unsure and shaky, like after a long run.

Common wisdom holds that movement, particularly growth, is best measured by how far you are from where you began. We often think of this in physical terms—did you escape your hometown, your low-level job, your childhood religious traditions? Did you make it from point A to point B? But yoga, especially yin yoga, carries a different wisdom. In it, you end where you begin, and aside from the stray arm or toe, your body stays within a 24 x 68 inch rectangle. You can’t measure movement by the change of scenery, just the slow change of light angling across the floor. You can’t measure it in footsteps or heart rates or flights of stairs. In yin yoga, you make micro-movements, sometimes nearly imperceptible to the eye. You lay low, commit to the pose, stay with it long enough to listen.

This practice carries a radical wisdom in our movement-motivated culture: the wisdom of stillness, staying in one place until it hurts, angling into that hurt until it opens something that was locked tight. Sitting in its slow movements, I am struck by their odd familiarity. Five years into my marriage; five years into my job teaching composition; five years in the community that meets at this church; five years after moving back to my small hometown to stay for a while, not look so frantically for the next better place. Five years into all these, and I’m starting to know the painful, opening stretch of staying in one spot, beyond the whispered “I can’t hold this any longer.” Have I moved, progressed? What do I make of this experiment in commitments, this practice of holding on long enough to feel their comfort and uneasiness? I know the tension of striking a pose, holding it, listening for its wisdom. It’s become a discipline, one I trust to reveal its secrets only slowly.

 “You’re in a given place, with given people, at a given time—these can be great resources for deep rootedness if you let them,” our instructor says, as we strain toward the two-minute mark in seal pose. She gifts us little reminders that our bodies are connected to our spirits, their movements so often echoing and affirming each other.

Recently, I’ve felt the resources and tensions of holding my pose, my place, more acutely. A few months ago, I learned I was one in a group of faculty members slated to lose our jobs in the latest round of budget cuts. We heard the news a semester early and have lived in the tension of being in the community yet no longer a part of it. But, a different question stretches me these days: do my husband and I move, do I search for another academic job? Or do we stay, dig into the life we’ve created here, look for its resources? Something says: hold it; we aren’t done here yet. Is this fear of movement, or is it leaning into the tension?

I stretch my loosening body over the mat and hold—child’s pose, easy. I don’t notice much. At 15 seconds, I feel the comfortable release of the stretch, massaging my muscles as they open. At 45, unease creeps in, as my left hip sounds another pain. I inhale a belly breath, lean in.

I stretch my taut life around the streets of this small town, the uneven blue ridge of mountains above, around the daily micro-moves and mysteries of marriage and long friendships. I stretch until I feel the tension, and I hold. I listen for the truths it opens about my life. Where are the sore spots and scars, the unknown injuries, the surprising strengths? What refuses to open until I sit, for a long time, in the same spot?

This is difficult growth, born from stillness and tension, from what can look like inertia, even failure. It’s different from the growth I’ve often pursued, different from the visible, outer growth celebrated in national stories and headlines. It’s the difference between growing roots and branches. Leaning in, I embrace the downward growth of laying low, committing to the pose, digging for deep water.

I sink into savasana next, already attuned to the pull and tension each body part holds. After, I stand on shaky muscles, unsure if they will move me forward, pausing for a moment before I step off the mat.




Laura Hicks Hardy lives in the mountains of northeast Tennessee with her husband and their dog and cat. She holds an MA from the University of Tennessee and is pursuing her MDiv at Emmanuel Christian Seminary while adjuncting at local colleges. Her work has appeared in Perspectives and The Lookout, and she was a finalist for Ruminate’s 2017 nonfiction contest.


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Photo by rishikesh yogpeeth on Unsplash

1 Response

Geneva Sloan
Geneva Sloan

September 27, 2019

Great job, Laura.

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