Josh Summers Interview

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Josh Summers headshotI interview Josh Summers, Yin Yoga teacher, acupuncturist, co-founder of mindfulness based strategy firm The MetaMind Institute, and author of Buddha's Playbook: Strategies for Mindful Living.Whew! He's up to a lot of stuff. In this interview he helps us to unpack what treasures Yin Yoga has in store for your body, and discusses how it relates to fascia and to Chinese Medicine,. So give it a watch and/or scroll down to check out the transcript for skimming.

1:20 [me] What makes Yin Yoga different from other forms of yoga? [Josh] Yin and Yang are complementary oppositional terms. Yang is dynamic, bright, active, flowing. Yin is cooler, stiller, denser. Most forms of contemporary yoga practice are yang forms of practice- you’re moving your body with rhythm and repetition. It’s very advantageous to muscle or myofascial tissue, but what doesn’t get activated is the tissue around your joints. And in fact you are strongly discouraged from affecting the joint tissues in a yang context because it can be destabilizing.

2:35 So Yin Yoga is has been revived as a way of addressing the denser tissue around the joints or emphasizing that tissue so that it stays healthy as well. The way of doing that is to come into a shape where you feel a modest, mild amount of stimulation and once there you relax your muscles and it shifts the emphasis to the denser joint tissues. Then you stay still anywhere from 2 to 10 or even 15 minutes. It’s really the twin action of muscular relaxation plus time.

3:39 I always want to say it’s not a stand alone practice. It’s a complement to the other practices.

4:02 [me] So why do you say it’s not a stand alone practice? What are the things it might be best paired with?

4:06 It’s really only emphasizing that [joint] tissue, and as you know all tissues need to be used. It’s a use it or lose it thing in the body, and you have all these other forms of tissue. Some people will pair it with yang yoga, others will pair it with something like Crossfit.

4:56 It’s a very individual thing. People always ask me what’s the recipe or the formula and I say well really you want t evaluate what are the yin and yang factors in your life and what is going to bring you personally into balance? Some people need only a little bit of yin, others need more. But I find people are doing so much yang activity these days that the body is hungry for a yin type practice.

5:35 [me] We live in a very yang culture [Josh] Everything in our culture gets reinforced on the yang side. There’s little reward for chilling out.

5:48 [me] Talk about the connection with the meridians of chinese medicine with yin

6:05 Modern meridian theory, and it is generating evidence to support it, that the subtle energetic body, which we find in Chinese medicine and yoga, these energy tributaries are located or housed in planes of connective tissue. Specifically water rich fascia.

6:48 At UVM there is Helen Langevin- she presents at the fascial conferences- she’s been mapping where acupuncture meridians line up and the relationship to intermuscular fascia. In the upper body she’s found an 80% correspondence. So the idea is that by pulling, stressing, and compressing these tissues we are able to increase the conductivity of information through them.

7:40 Connective tissue in general has 3 functions- it binds, supports, and protects other tissue- but more and more evidence coming out suggests that it’s a communicative tissue. The basic idea in Yin Yoga is that if you’re interested you can study where these meridians are, and investigate which poses affect which meridians, so the yin practice can be a very therapeutic training on many levels: physical, mental, and emotional.

9:04 I’ve actually had students who are regular consumers of acupuncture and they’re told they have a liver imbalance and, without telling their acupuncturist, they’ll do Yin poses to affect that and when they go back to see their acupuncturist they are told the imbalance has cleared up and the acupuncturist will ask them what they’re doing.

9:28 So some people who do workshops in Yin call it needle-less acupuncture

10:06 One of the things I like about looking at the fascial and meridian systems is that it kind of demystifies it. It becomes tangible for people and makes sense. in the Yin practice you get a real sense of it when you come out of a pose and you have generated the piezoelectric effect.

10:32 The piezoelectric effect is a mild current of electricity that gets generated from pressure. The connective tissue responds to that and generates these tiny electrical signals that travel. so when you practice you can feel these tiny warming sensations or cooling sensations.

11:05 [me] How did you initially get into Yin yoga? [Josh] The short answer is through misery. Suffering is what brings us to the table. I used to do a lot of Iyengar Yoga. I was an Iyengar fundamentalist. One winter a friend of mine was going on a meditation retreat- it was 9 days of intensive meditation- and I thought “yeah I’ve been doing a lot of yoga, I’m gonna crush this!” [mentions the hilarious sickest Buddhist video]. But one of the things I felt was a little betrayed. I don’t want to denigrate Iyengar Yoga, but I found my body was in intense amounts of pain sitting still. So a friend had come back from a Yin workshop and I wasn’t impressed initially because through an Iyengar lens the poses looked lazy or sloppy or even indulgent. So I decided to try it for a year and it was like night and day. My body was much more open on a deeper level.

14:52 [me] Is there any trend of benefits that you typically see in your students? [Josh] my favorite one to quote is not a student of mine. I have a student who is a squash fanatic and he’s gone on to teach at his racquet club. There was a master’s championship and so he got a chance to play some of these top players in the world. He met one of the top players-  a guy who was at #1 and 38 years old, which is quite old for a sport like that- and it turns out that he’s a Yin practitioner. He credits the longevity of his career to his Yin practice.

16:18 A lot of students will talk about the benefits- they feel softer or their back pain gets better. The interest in the training points to demand I think. There is now more demand than I can meet.

17:25 Paul Grilley, the guy who I see as having revived Yin Yoga, he predicted this a number of years back because things have to come back to balance.

18:18 [me] Are there any people who benefit most from Yin?  [Josh] I think all generations benefit from it, but I used to teach an older demographic and they really seem to benefit from it. The local chiropractor used to come because he found that those coming to the class were easier to adjust because they weren’t as fixated in their joints. In general I would say anyone who is sitting in a chair for hours a day, a lot of the work we do in Yin to bring the low back into a gentle lordotic curve is very helpful.

20:16 There’s this common cultural orthodoxy in the yoga scene about these alignment principles that just get repeated and reinforced through repetition and people then forget to question them. There is a lot of stuff that doesn't’ actually hold up. One of the things I like about Yin is that it’s pace allows you to address themes that can’t come up in a faster paced class, and one of those themes is that there is skeletal variation from person to person, and within yourself ,and learning how to feel when you’re up against skeletal limitation vs. soft tissue limitation is so important. We talk a lot about that. This idea that there's one pose that if you practice it long enough you’ll get to an idealized version of that pose is pure mythology.

22:16 And liberating yourself from self judgement that you’re a terrible, incompetent yoga practitioner if you can’t do something.