“Our bodies are designed to heal themselves,” says Ana Poirier. This simple statement is part of the inspiration behind her work as a Yin Yoga and flow yoga teacher. As a yoga teacher with extensive background in nutrition and a classically trained dancer, Ana is adept at moving pain out of the body and instilling ease where there was once tightness and even pain. Whether to the ambitious triathlete or modest yoga beginner, she has something to offer in this core of all yoga disciplines, Yin yoga. Ana Poirier will co-lead Yin Yoga, Wisdom Zen: A Joyful Harvest with Kanzan David Zimmerman from Sunday, September 1, through Friday, September 6, at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.
Interview by Sachico Ohanks, SFZC Communications Coordinator
Sachico: Would you describe Yin Yoga?
Ana: Yin yoga is a practice that goes back to the root of yoga. If you look at the first yogic text that show images and descriptions of different postures (asanas) you can take and how to do them, it is in fact what the Yin yoga practice is now.
The Yin style tends to be floor postures: forward bends, half-ward back bends, twisting. These are all done passively, and you hold the posture for three minutes minimum and up to ten to fifteen minutes, although I am not teaching a long hold. In these postures you will get the sensation of stretching in the muscle tissue initially, but the longer you hold you begin to address the connective tissue, which stimulates the regrowth of new cells in the connective tissue. The Yin pose assists with bringing a little more blood flow in the connective tissue, but most importantly it stimulates the production of hyaluronic acid, a synovial fluid to lubricate the joints.
When people do this practice over time, and even to some degree after an initial session, they will feel like their bodies are more fluid and at ease. The joints feel easier. It’s a fabulous practice for pretty much anybody.
Yin yoga can be a wonderful way to prepare your body for meditation, because it does create this opening. On an energetic level you are addressing the meridians of the body. So you are opening up energy flow within the meridians, and there is a greater sense of ease in the body. People find that it helps them sit in meditation more comfortably. Yin yoga is like a meditation within a posture. So you are benefiting your body by opening up the energy pathways and moving energy through the meridians while you are also meditating within this posture.
Yin yoga is much more of an internal practice. I find that meditators who maybe don’t practice yoga find a benefit in it and yoga practitioners who want to meditate find a benefit in it. It works both ways because it creates a bridge between the two. Yin yoga is a wonderful compliment to any other form of yoga or any other activity in our life, because it does open up and mobilize the energy in some of these stagnant areas and potentially really dense areas that feel tighter and more restrictive.
I’ve had practitioners on retreat tell me that they can’t believe how much stronger they feel because of the Yin practice. Some of them are triathletes or very athletic. And yet, we are not doing anything that would be termed strengthening in the traditional sense.
Sachico: So you see Yin yoga directly complimenting Zen meditation.
Ana: Yes. A meditation practitioner will feel greater ease and will often be able to sit longer without discomfort. Yin yoga practice enables there to be a healthier seated posture. It helps the practitioner find that place where the body is well supported.
Sachico: You speak so articulately about the benefits to the body. I understand you have a nutritional background as well.
Ana: Yes, I do. I have been a nutrition and holistic health coach for a little bit longer than I have been a yoga teacher. So, those really walk hand in hand.
Sachico: The yoga practice you teach seems so fundamental and core to the body. Do you have students who say they have experienced a shift in their lives as a result of studying with you?
Ana: Yes. I had one woman who had problems in her knees which ran up into her hips and she really found relief and greater mobility in what she was able to do through doing the Yin practice. Now, if somebody has an injury, I want to be careful and I am always offering modifications to address particular issues. But she didn’t really have an injury; it was really more of a tightness in a particular area around the joint.
I have also seen that the practice can have an effect on balancing hormones in the body, in women and men, because a lot of energy that we are moving is around the lower half of our body. This is really anecdotal, but I have had several instances where women who were wanting to get pregnant and were trying for a while, get pregnant, once they begin practicing with me. I have also seen results like being able to relieve PMS.
Sachico: What do the men in your classes want to work on?
Ana: What commonly comes up for men in my class are lower back issues. Some may have an injury but most often that is not the case. Their lower backs will hurt them or go out when they are doing specific things. That becomes a wonderful opportunity for us to view certain Yin postures that are actually going to address the lower back tissues and start to open up the energy through that area. And then, we will do core strengthening, like yogic core strengthening, which is going to address not just their abdominals, but three-dimensionally around the core.
Men, often times, will appreciate a stronger practice, which is what I offer in my active flow style of yoga. I have had men who are very strong and athletic come into yoga class who will think the yoga looks really easy. Then they engage in it and they start shaking and sweating, as they use completely different muscles and energy flows than they might be used to when they work out at the gym or whatever exercise they habitually do.
Sachico: You speak very articulately about the benefits of Yin yoga, and are able to explain so well the science behind your instruction, as well as understand the experience of your student and the art of the practice. You seem to come at it from all angles. What inspires you to do this work in this way?
Ana: It has become very much a marriage of the different aspects of what I do and what I am passionate about. There are a couple of aspects that instill in me a real joy in being able to offer this. First off, I believe inherently that our bodies are designed to heal themselves. They really will heal when we can provide them with the tools. With yoga we are engaging our whole being to do this healing. We bring our presence, we engage our physical bodies, and we focus the mind. Through all of this, we are engaging a multi-layered approach to have a profound effect on the health of the body, to heal the body.
There is also an emotional component; an emotional balancing with yoga practice, that is a very keen interest of mine. I come from a background of depression; I had very severe depression many years ago when I was younger. I was a dancer and I also had an eating disorder. There was a lot of inner pain that I suffered from. It wasn’t until I started doing yoga that I began to move out of that pain. At this point, yoga is such a key part of who I am, and I feel it is why I don’t experience depression any more. There is a huge emotional component that is involved when we move our bodies to process emotions and allow them to flow through us.
I believe we need to feel the full spectrum of what life offers us. And, it’s about not getting stuck in the anger or getting stuck in emotions that can potentially turn toxic if they get stuck. That’s where, with the practice, you can actually move through this. I see people become happier, healthier individuals. Perhaps they even move more quickly to reach goals in their lives, because they are feeling more balanced, because there isn’t something weighing them down emotionally. That’s what inspires me. That’s what keeps me doing the practice.
Sachico: Is there anything you would like to add before we close?
Ana: This retreat is really going to be an experience that can meet you wherever you are. Practitioners of all levels can come to this retreat. When I was learning about the teaching aspect of yoga, I learned a lot about addressing multiple levels.
A couple of years ago at Tassajara, I taught a group in which there were a couple women who were yoga teachers themselves, and another woman who had taken about five yoga classes in her life. The class represented a broad spectrum of abilities, and I got some wonderful feedback from all of my students. They said they all felt challenged and taken care of. The woman who had only had five yoga classes before said she did not feel overwhelmed and that she could be at her level comfortably. The teachers, who were advanced, said they felt challenged. So I want to welcome everyone, and let each know that I can hold a space for where you are at.