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What is Yin Yoga?

Updated: Nov 18, 2023

After I trained as a Yin Yoga teacher, I didn't want to teach Yin for over a year. It felt like a very personal practice, something I cherished doing on a Friday evening to wind down from a busy week. It was my little treat to myself. But eventually there came the point when I felt ready to share and teach this very special style of yoga. Not that Yin is 'better' or 'more acomplished'; it's simply different. Yin has different benefits, a differenct intention, a different energy and therefore complements perfectly other styles of yoga.

What is Yin Yoga?

Yin Yoga is a slow, quiet practice, in which poses (typically floor-based) are held for several minutes. We allow the body to soften and relax while we are tuning into the internal aspects of each pose – bodily sensations, breath, thoughts, emotions. Yin yoga is not meant to replace other styles of yoga but was designed to complement other, more dynamic forms of yoga. Thus, Yin Yoga provides a welcome ‘counter practice’ within the Hatha Yoga traditions.

Why Yin Yoga?

‘Yin’ and ‘Yang’ are terms originating in traditional Chinese philosophy. They describe the duality of qualities within everything that exists: Seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary and interdependent aspects of the whole. Yin is the stable, unmoving, hidden aspect of an object, while Yang is the changing, moving, revealing aspect. Therefore, with Yin Yoga we are practicing skills such as stillness, patience, mindfulness, introspection, and surrender.

You have to try Yin Yoga to really experience what it is like – just as you have to eat an apple to know how it tastes. As one of the creators of Yin Yoga pointed out, Yin Yoga is an art form not an exact science. There is no "right" or "perfect" way of practicing the poses, it's all about your experience and discovering what serves you best at any given moment in time. What matters is your individual approach to each pose. It’s about looking within rather than searching outside. This can be a difficult skill to learn if you are used to looking for certainties and accomplishing goals. But once you’ve got the hang of letting go, you’ll find out how wonderful it can be to connect with yourself, and to let the body decide how to get the most out of each pose.

Benefits of Yin Yoga

Yin Yoga can have many benefits: On a physical level, Yin Yoga helps increase flexibility. It also helps stretch the muscles and the various layers of fascia. You’ll feel stretched, relaxed and loose. Yin poses also gently stress the joints, ligaments, tendons, and bones – which is necessary to keep them healthy. On a mental level, we may find that our mind becomes calm and detaches for a while from the daily onslaught of tasks and worries. Emotionally, we may release anxieties and other distressing emotions. Spiritually, it is a welcome opportunity to spend time with yourself, to come home. Overall, Yin Yoga is often accompanied by a satisfying sense of wellness and contentment.

A short history of Yin Yoga

Yin Yoga may seem the new kid on the yoga block, but it has his roots in ancient yoga practice. In the late 1970’s Paulie Zink, a martial arts champion and Daoist yoga teacher in the United States, created ‘Yin and Yang’ yoga classes. These combinded asanas and movements from Hatha Yoga, Daoist yoga and martial arts. The way we practice Yin Yoga today though, was developed by one of Zink's students, Paul Grilley. He emphasised the extensive holds and braught in his knowledge of anatomy and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Sarah Powers, a student of Grilley’s, evolved Yin Yoga further, weaving in the meditative, explorative aspects.

Yin poses vs Yang poses

We can practice many poses both in a muscular, directive ‘Yang style’ as well as a relaxed, permissive ‘Yin style’. To emphasize this difference, no Sanskrit names are used in Yin Yoga.

For example, the traditional Yang-style Bound Angle Pose baddha konasana involves taking the feet close to the body, lengthening the spine, and engaging the muscles of the legs and the abdomen to take the knees down towards the floor and the torso towards the legs. There is effort involved. The focus is on the inner thighs, and the gaze is forward-looking. We develop core strength, muscle tone, stamina, and balance. The immediate effect is energising.

In the similar Yin-style Butterfly Pose, we keep the feet further away from the body, the muscles are relaxed, and the spine naturally rounds so that the head moves towards the feet. Openness in the hips develops solely with the aid of gravity. Both gaze and mental focus are inward. We promote growth, free flow of energy, relaxation, and contentment. The immediate effect of the pose is calming and soothing.

Principles of Yin Yoga

To get the most out of a Yin class or practice, keep the following principles in mind:

  • Be mindful: Go into the pose with care. Find a position where you feel steady, and where there is a balance between too little and too much sensation.

  • Move slowly: No rushing during Yin. Move slowly and gently as you place yourself into a position and later when you come out of the pose.

  • Be still: Once you have chosen your position, remain still. Avoid the temptation to use muscular strength to ‘go deeper’. Rather, observe how your body and mind are reacting to the pose, adapt as necessary, then become still again.

  • Soften: Allow your muscles to relax. Allow a sense of ease develop throughout. Allow your breath to flow naturally, following your own rhythm.

  • Surrender: Surrender to gravity, let go of muscular effort. There is no fixed end-result, it’s all about exploring your unique way of being in the moment.

  • Accept yourself: Refrain from comparing and judging yourself. Commit to your practice fully, but always on the basis of self-compassion, kindness and love.

Relieving stress with Yin Yoga

While a Yin Yoga practice on its own cannot solve any stress-related problems, it is fantastic for alleviating the symptoms of stress, such as tensions, restlessness, and anxiety. As our muscles relax and our nervous system calms down, we feel more peaceful, more connected with ourselves, and more aware of our inner strength. Here's an example of Yin Yoga for Lower Back Relief.

For more Yin, join me on Youtube.

“Yin yoga is an art form not an exact science. The purpose of Yin yoga is to take us out of the systems of social convention, indoctrination, and mechanistic ways of thinking, not to reinforce them by demanding conformity to rigid, limited paradigms. The real power to authorize truth is contained within each and every one of us.” (Master Paulie Zink)

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