What is Yin Yoga?
Life is all about balance, right? Of course you've heard of yin and yang- this concept of complimentary duality that is ever-present in our lives. You can't have light without darkness, or good without some bad. There are times for high-energy, and times for low.
I think some people are first turned off from yoga because they try a fast-paced, vinyasa class and find it to be too much. Too much movement, too many poses and new words, and not enough relaxation as they worry about if they're doing the poses right. Oh yeah, and if the person behind them is staring at the puddle of sweat forming around their mat.
Vinyasa is a yang practice, but there are also slower types of yoga for everyone out there.
If you have been turned off from yoga because it was too much for you in some way, I strongly encourage you to try a yin or restorative yoga class!
If I'm being completely honest, I had no idea that these slower forms of yoga existed, even several years into my practice. In the west, we have come to associate yoga with the vinyasa style, where we connect our breath with movement, work up a sweat, and get the cardiovascular system working. This is what makes vinyasa a yang practice.
And this is why I was attracted to yoga in the first place- the physically challenging aspect of it. When I first tried yin yoga, I wasn't exactly a fan. I would get bored with it, my mind would constantly go somewhere else, and I would crave some kind of movement.
I was coming into the practice with a yang mentality, without a good understanding of what yin is all about.
Our mind has yang properties- meaning it craves activity and is constantly on the go. Our minds never cease to produce thoughts, and it seems as though it doesn't shut up. This is what makes meditation so difficult when you're first starting out.
Yin yoga can bring balance to the yang that consumes our lives. You may find it challenging at first (I know I did!), but I promise that it will be truly rewarding with some practice.
In this post about yin yoga, we will look at:
the benefits of practicing yin
what yin is and how to practice it
connective tissue and meridians
the principles in yin to observe
and the difference between yin and restorative yoga.
I have included a yin video at the end of the post for you to try it out yourselves! Now, let's come to understand a little better exactly what yin yoga is.
(Disclaimer: You should always consult your doctor before engaging in new forms of exercise and diet. Listen to your body. Sensation is good. Pain is not. Always back off if you feel any kind of sharp or stabbing pain.)
Benefits of Yin Yoga
balances the flow of energy throughout the body
rejuvenates connective tissue
helps improve concentration and quiets the mind
increases joint and muscle flexibility
helps to reduce anxiety and stress
helps relax the mind and body
leaves you in a meditative state
I think we could all stand to glean some of the benefits of this practice. Now let's look at how to do it.
What is Yin and How to Practice It
Yin yoga looks a little something like this: we hold a position (usually seated, prone or supine) anywhere from 2-5 minutes, sometimes even longer. The practitioner can use props (blocks, pillows, straps) to help make these poses more accessible.
The focal point of a yin practice is very different than in vinyasa. In vinyasa, we are often instructed to connect breath with movement, examine the internal landscape, and focus on our body alignment. In yin, we are instructed to use the sensations that the poses bring into our bodies as our barometer.
At first, there may seem to be a lot less going on in yin. But once you begin practicing, you'll find there's actually a great deal happening when we hold these poses for extended periods of time.
I'm sure you've heard of fascia or connective tissue before. Perhaps in a distant biology or human anatomy class? This connective tissue covers our entire body and literally connects and supports all of our internal bodily structures.
As we get older, our connective tissue becomes dehydrated due to our lifestyles, diets, and naturally through the aging process. You know that stiff feeling you have throughout your body after sitting down for a long period of time? That's your connective tissue screaming at you that it needs some loving.
Yin yoga can help. When we hold yin poses for a long period of time, we allow the connective tissue to open up. The gentle compression created then sends new nutrients to the target areas of the pose. This can help reduce pain and inflammation by replenishing the connective tissue with fresh new fluids, leaving you with that "juicy" feeling in the target area once you release the pose.
There's a lot more scientifically that goes into it, but for the purposes of this post, we'll keep it nice and simple.
The practice of yin yoga evolved from Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). So in addition to focusing on connective tissue, meridians play a big role in yin yoga.
You may have heard of meridians before in terms of acupuncture or acupressure. Meridians are invisible highways or channels in our bodies that transfer energy. When our meridians are unobstructed, we experience peace and health. When they are blocked, we can experience pain and imbalance in our lives.
Our different organs are associated with specific meridians, and our organs are also associated with the elements of earth, metal, water, wood, and fire. These elements correspond with different seasons according to TCM.
Yin sequencing takes these into account and works closely with the meridians in the body to bring a greater deal of balance into our lives.
Steps of Yin Yoga
1. Engage in a pose
Begin by coming in to the pose. Perhaps taking a variation if you have any kind of pain. Sensation is the goal. Stabbing or sharp pain is never good. Listen to your body!
Imagine measuring this sensation from a scale of 1-10, 1 being no sensation and 10 being consumed by sensation or pain.
Our goal area of sensation resides from a 3-5. This may seem low. But take into consideration that we hold these poses for minutes at a time. This gives our bodies plenty of time to ease deeper into the poses, allowing the connective tissue to open up.
There's no need to engage in any kind of cultivated breath. Just let your breath do it's natural thing. You can use your breath as a focal point in this practice along with sensation, but there is no need to manipulate it in any way.
2. Relax the target area
Each yin pose has a target area in the body. Take Child's pose for example. The target area is the hips, and outer and inner thighs. We feel the most sensation in this area when performing this pose.
Identify the target area, and then begin to relax the muscles in that area. Imagine letting go of any muscular effort in the target area. Continue to monitor the sensations you're feeling, shooting for that goal range of 3-5.
In some poses, like Dragon (low lunge), it is impossible to relax all the muscles in your body, so focusing on relaxing the target area is the priority. The target area for Dragon is the hip flexors, the outer hips, and inner and outer legs.
3. Find stillness
Try to remain as still as possible for the length of time in the pose. If you find that you are fidgeting, acknowledge it, and then try quiet the body. If you find your mind is wandering to places far off your mat, simply acknowledge it, and then bring the mind back to the bodily sensation or breath.
Now, if you find the pose gets to be too intense, or your sensation level becomes higher than a 5, back off and rearrange yourself. It's a different kind of strength to listen to what your body needs.
This comes back to yin and yang mentality. Try not to practice yin yoga with a yang mentality. I know how tempting it is to want to do more, push more, feel more. Yin yoga is all about us doing less, and letting gravity do the work.
If you have any type of hip or knee pain caused by injuries or surgeries, be sure to modify poses that perpetuate this pain. Be sure to inform your instructor of any injuries prior to class, so that they can better assist you with modifications.
Remember, you should never experience any kind of pain! Back out of the pose if you do. Child's pose and Savasana (Corpse pose) are always available to you at any point in your practice.
4. Observe the echo of the pose
This is the step of yin yoga where you reap all of its benefits. After each pose, slowly bring yourself into a position such as tabletop or a gentle seated position, and observe the reverberation of sensation left over from the pose.
Really become an observer of it. Perhaps you can even allow the sensation to observe itself.
Be sure not to transition from pose to pose too fast. The transition is the most crucial part in yin, and keen observation of it can take you to new levels of relaxation. Allow yourself to sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.
Yin vs. Restorative
You might have heard of Restorative yoga, another slower paced, gentle yoga practice. It's similar to yin yoga in a lot of ways: long hold times of poses, gentle use of props, observation of your thoughts and body.
It differs from yin in one important way- the ideal level of sensation to reach. In yin, we find our edge in the poses. Restorative, we're shooting for complete comfort.
Both practices get deep into the connective tissue, but yin does this a little more intensely than restorative. Both practices can be very therapeutic.
Of course, any yin class could become more restorative if you choose to back off on the sensation levels you're feeling.
As stated above, I've only just started to truly love these slower-paced practices. As my mentality continues to evolve with my practice, I understand better than ever the importance of slowing down.
Our yang brain is constantly telling us to go, go, go. We're also bombarded by ideals such as "No pain, no gain," which diminishes the fact that these gentle practices can be equally as transformative as hardcore vinyasa, albeit in different ways.
I'd love to know your thoughts on this! Do you complement yin to your yang workouts? Do you find yin yoga to be challenging? If so, what do you find difficult about it?
Be sure to check out my yin video on YouTube, and stay tuned for next weeks blog post.