Tuesday, February 15, 2011
"Connective Tissue" As The Locus For Active Restorative-Yin Yoga
Illustration 455, “The Superficial Muscles of the Back” and Illustration 456, “The Intermediate Muscles of the Back” in J.C. Boileau Grant, An Atlas of Anatomy, Fourth Edition, Baltimore: The Williams and Wilkins Company, 1956
THE IMPORTANCE OF the role of connective tissue in the body is underemphasized and its very nature may be misunderstood. Activity is primarily associated with muscles and, secondarily, with bones. Connective tissue, especially in the form of sheets that encase the spine and cover the back and abdomen, are popularly imagined to be far less than they are in size, and rather fixed and unchanging, and even nearly inorganic or “plastic.” Connective tissue is located throughout the body and ranges from large sheet-like layers in both the front and the back of the lower torso and a wrapped spinal column to tendons, cushions in joints, as well as fibers supporting organs and even micro fibers joining cells.
While not an exact comparison, “connective tissue” might be metaphorically compared to the tissues that support teeth. In straightening teeth, this tissue is slowly manipulated across time by adjusting braces. To correct the “balance” of the teeth, connective tissue is manipulated, not muscle. And over time, connective tissue responds to intervention. Again, while not an exact comparison, connective tissue might also be positively described as being “plastic.” The positive association with connective tissue-as-plastic stresses the need to exercise connective tissue differently than muscle tissue. Connective tissue cannot be stretched and recoiled quickly like muscle tissue. However, connective tissue can be stretched and strengthened. Unlike muscle tissue, once gradually lengthened, connective tissue can remain lengthened. And so, yoga that engages muscles in rather quick stretches does not really engage connective tissue. Muscular process is impeded by degraded connective tissue. Also, from both Western medical an Asian perspective, improvements in vascular, lymphatic, nervous, and energy in connective tissue need to be addressed.
Thus, the emergence of the “quiet practice” of yin yoga: While connective tissue permeates the body down to the microscopic “in-between” of the muscles, the primary yin focus is on the gross anatomy of the lower back [the lumbar region], the connective tissue and interior muscles of the pelvis [the iliopsoas muscle group—psoas and iliacus muscles—that connect the spine, pelvis and legs], and the hip sockets. The large sheets of connective tissue in the lumbar region as well as secondary layers are illustrated above. Going deeper, the spinal column is wrapped with several layers of connective tissue, and the spine is held to the pelvis by ligament and sheets of connective tissue.
This is a key observation of yin yoga: Especially with age, an individual may be muscularly strong, but may be limited and even debilitated by connective tissue difficulty. With age, the connective tissue around the spine shrinks and, in general, the connective tissue loses its range of mobility. With age, both the lumbar curve in the lower back and the cervical spinal curve in the neck decrease or “straighten” as this connective tissue shrinks. The more sedentary we are, the more this process increases. Across time, yin yoga can strengthen and elongate connective tissue to be more supportive. The curves of the spine are crucial. Because its spinal column is very straight at birth, baby must do movements in its early development to be able to stand. To stand, an infant modifies its straight spine at birth through it gyrations that define cervical and lumbar curves that support the weight of the upper body and facilitate walking. A series of yoga poses termed an “Infant Series” aspires to replicate this process.
Restorative-Yin Yoga involves a sequence of poses that alternate between a pose that turns the spine one way that is then followed by its counterpart. A sequence of restorative postures as a complete practice may involve working the spine forward and backward, from side-to-side, and twisting.
Restorative-yin yoga poses are generally “easy.” They typically involve floor postures rather than standing postures that require balance or seated, supine, inverted or standing poses that require flexibility and muscular strength. While yin yoga may incorporate props for support if poses are too difficult, restorative-yin yoga encourages props for support in almost all poses. The degree of arc or twist of the spine or rotation of the hip may be increased across time with repeated practice, but the overall orientation of the restorative practice is on relaxation in poses—on “being in heaven rather than in hell.”
In restorative yoga, yin aspects can be added with varying degrees of intensity. “Intensity” might be increased by raising a prop such as a block in a supported bridge pose or by putting the soles of the feet on the wall in a legs-on-wall pose. Intensity is decreased, for examples, by using a prop such as blocks under both knees in a reclining bound angle pose or by the use of a block (or decreased even further with the use of a blanket) under the pelvis in a supported bridge pose.
“Intensity” can also be gained by lengthening poses. While the physical edge of restorative poses may be less that typical poses, restorative and Yin poses are held longer. Poses might be held from 3 to 10 minutes, with some poses held for 20-30 minutes. The ligaments and fascia are not that responsive to shorter-held poses. The “gentle edge” of restorative-yin poses very gradually—over a lengthy time of practice—restore the strength and flexibility of these regions, and surprisingly, may open the flow within the lattice structure of these tissues as well as open blockages in the flow of body fluids and electrical processes in damaged, compressed or atrophied tissue.