Whilst the impact of trauma and psychological tension is now widely recognised, the role of social conditioning remains largely taboo. (No doubt due to its implied critique of our culture). Yet, of the three factors, this would seem the most significant
I'm a Yoga Teacher and last year I took advanced training in Yin Yoga with leading practitioner, Norman Blair.
Slow and meditative with mostly floor-based postures that are held for several minutes, Yin is the quiet, contrary one of the Yoga family. You say strong, Yin says soft. You say tense, Yin says tender. You say energy, Yin says ease. You say rise, Yin says rest.
One of the reasons I felt drawn to Yin was its focus on ‘Letting Go’, and yet I wasn't sure what this phrase meant. The training was a chance to dive deep, so here's what I came up with.
In the context of Yin Yoga, letting go can be physical (bodily tension), and mental (tension & attachment to thoughts). Indeed, Yin gives us the opportunity to explore the interface between the mind and the body, and in true Yogic style, to unite them.
Paying attention to tension
Tension is something we tend to associate with headaches and PMT, although it’s not a bad thing per se. On the contrary, tension facilitates movement, through our muscles, which contract and relax countless times a day.
Tension also occurs when we feel threatened or fearful, as tight muscles make the body more resilient to attack. This is what’s known as a stress (or ‘fight or flight’) response. And it can save our lives.
When stress responses happen infrequently, the body is able to recover fairly quickly from the powerful physiological, psychological, and emotional changes they elicit. When they happen habitually, however, this causes problems. The body can become hyper-stimulated (as stress hormones are stimulants), with muscles remaining taught, resulting in pain, stiffness, and a condition called chronic muscle tension.
And we can be entirely unconscious of this process, as Douglas J. Tataryn explains in his research paper ‘Emotions, Muscles and the Cortex: A Physiological Basis for Repression’:
“… muscle tensing is self reinforcing and does not need a person's conscious participation for it to occur. The fact that anxiety producing thoughts are very easily cued, causes the conditioned response of muscle tension to be activated an incredible number of times in a given period. Eventually, the muscles themselves become chronically tense, losing their ability to relax properly”.
Tataryn identifies three main causal factors for chronic muscle tension:
1) Social conditioning. Defined as “the direct or subtle forces and rules of the outside or social world which restrict the natural behaviours and expressions of a person”. Starting in childhood and reinforced throughout the rest of our lives by parents, friends, teachers, and society at large. British culture is, of course, famously repressed, as exemplified by the phrase “stiff upper lip”. If you think about it, our language is littered with sayings that reference tension, like “clenched fists’, “gritted teeth”, “uptight”, and “highly-strung”. We learn to stifle tears and sadness, especially boys. Girls, meanwhile, learn to suppress anger.
2) Trauma. Ranging from “anything as common as a spanking, to extreme violence witnessed or experienced by a person. In any situation of trauma, there is a muscular response, similar to that of social conditioning, which helps the person deal with the situation”. When traumatic experiences aren’t recognized and processed, we become accustomed to living with chronic fear and stress, resulting in chronic tension in muscles and connective tissue (fascia).
3) Psychological tension. “Needless and excessive muscular tension, due largely to psychological stress”. The type of tension we can most relate to - referring to the anxiety, frustration and anger that can develop say in a traffic jam, when we suddenly notice how tightly we are gripping the steering wheel; or, after a particularly hard day at work, when our neck and shoulders feel stiff and sore.
Whilst the impact of trauma and psychological tension is now widely recognised, the role of social conditioning remains largely taboo. (No doubt due to its implied critique of our culture). Yet, of the three factors, this would seem the most significant, since it compels us to check and inhibit our natural impulses from a very early age. Effectively turning us into someone we are not.
We can then develop unconscious holding patterns with physical consequences. As the habit of holding can interfere with bodily functions, such as breathing, digestion, and circulation, and in the longer term, may be precursors for the development of illness, and serious health conditions. And in the case of heart attacks and strokes, even death.
So, with its emphasis on letting go, Yin Yoga can be radical act of self-reclamation and empowerment. Clearly it’s not a panacea, and it’s unrealistic to expect Yin to undo decades of conditioning. But it is a start: a place to explore to what extent we are clinging, gripping, and holding on. A place to get reacquainted with our bodies … and our minds.
As we linger in each pose, Yin helps us let go of mind chatter. In the early stages of a Yin practice, it can feel as if we are constantly being bombarded with intrusive thoughts - which is, in fact, a feature of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Another layer of socially conditioned chronic tension, I’d suggest, reflecting the coercive culture we live in.
Fortunately, Yin gives us the means to re-condition our minds - not by eliminating these thoughts, but by mentally waving to them as they float past, without engaging any further. In not attaching, we can turn down the volume, and reduce their power to distract us.
Trying too hard
When ‘letting go’, it’s as important to relax the mind, as it is the body. If we try too hard, or strain to pay attention, we’re likely to activate our nervous system and inadvertently create more tension.
“To alter this pattern”, argues Chris McKenna in his article Taking Tension Out of Attention, “we need to decouple strain from attention”
“Stabilizing attention” he adds, “needs to be married to a soft, open and deeply relaxed body, and mind”.
There‘s an art to letting go. And it’s not passive as you might assume. Rather, it’s a complex mind-body feedback loop that requires tender tweaking, and constant maintenance. “We’re going for subtle re-calibrations here”, McKenna reminds us. “Awareness and attention are our primary tools”.
Incidentally these are the same tools that we use for listening. For letting go invites us to become more receptive: to our senses, to our intuition, and to the signals transmitted by our bodies. Only then can we identify and release what no longer serves us.